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Backtrack: Before Jonestown

The details of Jim Jones’s wedding to Marceline Baldwin belied the bizarre twists their life together would take.

Belying the sweetness of this photo, a future cult leader and mass murderer was one of the grooms pictured at the June 12, 1949, wedding. James W. Jones had just turned 18; his bride, Marceline Mae Baldwin, was 22. Her sister, Eloise Baldwin, and her own betrothed, Marion Dale Klingman, were the other couple pinning their hopes on a future that day.

In retrospect, the headline of the wedding announcement in the Richmond Palladium-Item one week earlier seems eerily prescient: “Double Nuptial Rite Planned by Sisters.” Not a “double wedding”—a planned rite. Those words seem to whisper at what would happen 29 years later in South America, when Rev. Jim Jones oversaw the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 followers.

How James and the wavy-haired, willowy Marceline first struck up a romance isn’t recorded, but she graduated from Richmond High School four years ahead of him, and went on to get her nursing degree at Reid Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, where he worked part-time.

Their wedding day was the very essence of fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness. White delphinium and baby’s breath adorned the altar and pews at Trinity Methodist Church in Richmond. The sisters wore nearly identical gowns and fingertip veils, and carried matching white Bibles. The ceremony began and ended with the traditional wedding marches; in between, singers performed the romantic “Stardust” and “Oh Promise Me.” Some 250 family and friends crowded into the church parlors for the reception, where a tiered cake awaited each couple. Finally, Marceline changed into a gray suit with an orchid corsage, and it was off to her new life as Mrs. James Jones.

The Joneses moved to Bloomington, and later to Indianapolis, where James attended Butler University. By 1957, according to a news clipping from the day, he was “pastor of the Peoples Temple church in Indianapolis.” Marceline continued her nursing career.

With the walls closing in, Jones put into place a carefully laid emergency plan, distributing cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid to the members of the Peoples Temple.

Their story’s ending is familiar to most: It unfolded in “Jonestown,” Guyana, where Jones’s by-then substantial church had followed him from California to a troubled compound. With the walls closing in, Jones put into place a carefully laid emergency plan, distributing cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid to the members of the Peoples Temple. According to one of the Jones’ adopted sons, Stephan, his mother tried to stop her husband and had to be restrained; after the last child died, she took the poison herself. Jim Jones died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

That photo taken on a June day so many years earlier seemed to presage a sunnier future.

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