true crime

The 'right-hand woman' behind the world's most infamous cult leader, Jim Jones.

Google Jim Jones and you’ll find he’s cited as being the most notorious cult leader in modern history.

Known to his followers as Father, Jones was the leader of the Peoples Temple cult, a church community of persecuted minorities to whom he preached a life free from consumerism and racism, where a happy socialist existence could be enjoyed.

Following media allegations of abuse in the United States, the cult leader moved his thousand or so followers to a self-made village known as Jonestown in Guyana, South America, deep in the dense, animal-infested jungle.

It was there on November 18, 1978, where the largest loss of American civilian life in modern history, with the exception of September 11, occurred. In total, 909 people died – 304 of them were minors – in a mass suicide-murder when Jones mixed cyanide with grape cordial and encouraged his congregation to consume it.

One of the people who died that day was a woman named Carolyn Layton.

In the beginning, Carolyn Layton (nee Moore) was Jones’ lover. By the time she died aged 33, alongside her fellow cult members, the former high school teacher from California was considered to be the cult leader’s ‘right-hand woman’.

As the Australian author of the Jonestown historical fiction novel Beautiful Revolutionary Laura Elizabeth Woollett puts it, Carolyn was Jones’ enabler.

So how did this woman become entangled in such a strange story?

carolyn layton
A photo of Carolyn Layton from the Jonestown website archives. Image: Jonestown archives.

Carolyn was the eldest daughter of a Methodist minister. Her upbringing consisted of activities that developed her social conscience - attending church, participating in protests, helping out in soup kitchens and "working hard to make the world a better place".

According to the recollections of one of Carolyn's college friends Katharine Sparrow, she can understand how her "bright, fun-loving" friend was attracted to Jones and the Peoples Temple.

"She was curious about life... Carolyn was definitely the most intellectual one of [their friendship group], always questioning and analysing. She was truly a person who was concerned about the social injustices of the world and, moreover, felt like she could change it," Katherine wrote for San Diego University's official Jonestown website, run by Carolyn's sister Rebecca Moore.

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While at college, Carolyn studied abroad in France, where her passion for different cultures and international relations grew. She would work for the United Nations, her friend recalled.

But instead of following her worldly passions, Carolyn married Larry Layton, a like-minded socialist who grew up with a Methodist upbringing, who she met at the University of California, the New York Times reports. In 1967, the couple moved to northern California where Carolyn got a teaching job and Larry would serve as a medical technician at Mendocino State Hospital - not far from Redwood Valley where Jones had established his Peoples Temple community.

Of her memories of speaking to Carolyn on the phone, Katherine said her friend was excited about her "new life" in the Peoples Temple.

"I remember her saying that she never thought that she would be part of an organised, spiritual community, but that the 'leader' was an incredible man with such visionary dreams."

According to several reports, it was the same 'incredible man' who forced Carolyn and Larry to divorce just two years into their marriage in 1969. From this point onwards, Carolyn become one of the cult leader's many mistresses - Jones was still married to his wife Marceline Jones at the time.

Casefile, one of Australia's leading true crime podcasts, released a three part series on Jonestown earlier this month. Here's why Jessie Stephens from Mamamia Out Loud recommended it. Post continues after audio.

Although we'll never know the intimate details of the Peoples Temple inner circle workings, Carolyn rose through the ranks, in part thanks to her sexual relationship with Jones, to become one of the cult leader's most senior advisors, a position she held up until her death. In 1975, she gave birth to Jones' child, Jim Jon (known as Kimo), who would sadly go on to die alongside his mother.

An anonymous person claiming to be a Jonestown survivor described Carolyn's life in the cult on the Jonestown website as "living in luxury".

“At least she got to enjoy living in luxury compared to the rest of us... and got to be with Kimo unlike other babies kept in the dorm. Life was hard but at least it was easier on her due to father's love for her."

Recovered memos written by Carolyn to Jones suggest Carolyn was so deeply embedded within the cult, she was heavily involved in planning the mass killings that claimed her own life.

One such memo read: "Perhaps planning is the answer... I guess I am so anal that I would like to have everything all organised before I die including what I would like people to come along and find out about you and the organisation after we are gone".

Little more is known about Carolyn, but in the few stories from the people who knew her, the same descriptors come up again and again.

Ambitious. Passionate. Intelligent.

Perhaps, this quote from Woollett's 2018 Guardian interview best summarises how such an intelligent woman could end up following and aiding the world's most notorious cult leader.

"I see ambition in her. The desire for certainty. It’s an appealing notion – to believe in something and be invested in something wholeheartedly. I think that gives her a sense of meaning.”

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