True Story, Issue #26

"Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure" by Shena McAuliffe

True Story, Issue #26

There isn’t much to see in tiny Richmond, Indiana, the birthplace and final resting place of Marceline Mae Baldwin, the mild-mannered nurse who became the wife of charismatic preacher Jim Jones. On a pilgrimage to Marceline’s gravesite, Shena McAuliffe considers the slippery slope from church to commune to cult and the freedoms we’re willing to trade for a sense of belonging.

From "Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure" by Shena McAuliffe

I would not have come across the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones by chance. I like walking in the older, hillier section of Earlham Cemetery, where the crumbling graves are sometimes topped with the rain-softened shape of a lamb or praying hands, and the old Quaker names are in cursive scripts or simple block letters: Eliza and Caleb and Levi and Alice. Marceline’s grave is in a newer section, an orderly corner far from the road, where the stones are organized like little villages, so their backs face each other and the heads of the dead rest together, sometimes arranged around the base of a tree. I looked up Marceline’s grave on, and then located it on the cemetery map. I have visited deliberately, driven by twin habits of walking and curiosity. I do not know exactly what I am looking for.

It is a hot day in early spring, and I have sweated through my shirt. I have not brought water. I stand before the headstone. I see no evidence that anyone else has been here recently—no flowers or plants, no folded scraps of paper or envelopes. I hear the banging of a construction site somewhere far beyond the row of slender trees that marks the back edge of the cemetery. A few birds chirp.

Marceline Mae Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. She was a Methodist, a daughter and sister. She was, by all accounts, a generous and mild woman all her life. According to her cousin Avelyn Chilcoate, Marceline longed for a life outside the small town; the two young women, both nurses, had plans to move elsewhere together, maybe to somewhere in Kentucky. But then, in 1948, Marceline met a strange young man named Jim Jones, an orderly at the hospital where she worked, and together they stepped into the stream of history.

BONUS! Listen to our "Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure" Spotify playlist while you read! Or, browse our other True Story playlists.