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The women who helped make Jonestown

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With the premiere of Jonestown: The women behind the massacre Tuesday 9pm, we go behind the tragic event and look at the women that were caught up in the "Peoples Temple" cult.

The slaughter ofJonestown in November 1978, in which hundreds of devoted members of the Peoples Temple cult were coerced or forced into killing their own children before drinking fruit punch laced with cyanide, is usually blamed on just one person: Jim Jones. This charismatic preacher, who had promised his followers a new life of heavenly, post-racial bliss in the wilds of Guyana, is synonymous with the little pocket of hell that was created there.

But, like any major organisation, thePeoples Temple actually had a ruling committee of senior figures who called the shots. They were Jim Jones’ sub-lieutenants who helped spread the word and keep followers in check, and the most important of these were a group of women whose names have been overshadowed by the megalomaniac they served so faithfully.

One of them was Jim Jones’ wife, Marceline. Her story is perhaps the most tragic, because by all accounts she was a genuinely decent and compassionate person who fell completely under Jim’s spell. As her mother said, “Marceline was always for the underdog. When she received her first paycheck from the hospital, she gave some to a local widow with 10 children.” Marceline met Jim Jones when she was just 20, and she stood by him for decades as he pursued his “cause” with greater and greater zeal. She was certainly an evangelist for the Peoples Temple in her own right, giving sermons and scolding followers who stepped out of line.

That said, her son Stephan Jones – who narrowly avoided perishing in the murder-suicides of 1978 – has maintained that Marceline’s true loyalty was to her family rather than the cult itself. This is in stark contrast to the other great woman in Jim’s life: his long-term mistress Carolyn Layton. While Jim remained married to Marceline, he was openly infatuated with Carolyn, who repaid his passion with a stern, iron-clad commitment to the “cause”.

“Carolyn reminded me of the woman in the American Gothic painting by Grant Wood,” recalled fellow Jones follower Laura Johnston Kohl. “Some of the early members ofPeoples Temple had that same aura about them, that grim Pentecostal or hard-driven essence.”

A detached, unsmiling, severe presence, Carolyn was Jim’s advisor and enforcer. In the words of fellow Temple member Mike Cartmell, she was a “kind of grey eminence”, the Cardinal Richelieu to Jones’ Louis XIII. Carolyn’s importance to Jim’s lethal thought process is made clear by “Analysis of Future Prospects”, a memo she wrote providing her overview of the various options for Jonestown. In this, Carolyn describes a “final stand” and ponders how best to “insure the deaths of everyone”. This document is proof that Jones was absolutely prepared to wipe out his followers, and that Carolyn helped make it happen.

Just as culpable was Carolyn’s own sister, and Jim Jones’ personal nurse, Annie Moore. Witty, irreverent and rebellious, she was a product of the 70s counter-culture who saw Jim Jones as a force for social change. Her suicide note, found by her body amid the heaps of corpses in Jonestown, showed that her devotion was there right to the very end. “His hatred of racism, sexism, elitism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people – a paradise in the jungle,” she wrote. “The children loved it. So did everyone else.”

Some of the survivors from the day of massacre later described how Annie played an active part in dispensing the poisoned punch to her doomed fellow followers. In fact, like her sister Carolyn, she even wrote about an eventual day of death in a prior memo to Jim Jones. She was even more explicit than Carolyn, suggesting that “a select group would have to kill the majority of people secretly”, and pondering possible methods such as poisoning the water supply or gassing the people with exhaust fumes, all in the name of “revolutionary suicide”.

Yet another senior female figure who played a key role in Jones’ self-destructive plan was Maria Katsaris. One of the guru’s many starry-eyed acolytes, she fiercely defended Jonestown in a letter to her concerned father, describing the gruelling labour camp in glowing terms and warning him not to believe the media rumours (“a filthy bunch of lies”) about what was really going on down there.

Incredibly, evidence later surfaced that Jim Jones had planned to dispatch Maria on a 9/11-style suicide mission to hijack a commercial airliner and then deliberately crash it. Despite Maria obtaining a pilot’s license, the plan never came to fruition, and Maria met her end in Jonestown, at the behest of the man she had helped encourage every step of the way.