The 1960s did not fade gradually into the 1970s in America. A decade of turmoil, anger and revolutionary idealism ended with a single bleeding exclamation point — the brutal murders of Hollywood star Sharon Tate and several of her friends, and the equally gruesome killings of a couple who owned a grocery store. From the carnage rose a lone, dark figure who has haunted America ever since: Charles Manson.
To place them in historical perspective, consider that the first moon landing happened on July 20, 1969. The Manson murders occurred about two weeks later, and a week after the murders was the legendary Woodstock festival. The facts of the case and the identities of the killers became public knowledge later in the fall of 1969, something that has been interpreted again and again as the symbolic ending to the era of "peace and love."
But Manson himself may have never actually killed anyone, and he wasn't even present at the scenes of the most notorious massacres. He stood not much taller than 5 feet (1.5 meters), yet he commanded bizarre and relentless loyalty among his "family," mostly young women. His ambitions of musical stardom failed completely, yet nearly every American knows his name and can recognize him on sight.
Why did Charlie Manson cast such a long shadow across American culture? To find an answer, we'll look at the murders themselves, the cult that developed around him and the ways he remained in the public eye long after he was sent to prison for life.
The Manson Murders
"I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business."
That's how Charles "Tex" Watson announced himself when he entered the home of actor Sharon Tate at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills, California [source: Sandford]. A young teen named Steve Parent was already dead in his car outside in the driveway, slashed and shot to death by Watson as he tried to leave [source: King]. Watson was accompanied by Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, two members of Manson's "family" of followers, while a third, Linda Kasabian, waited outside at the driveway gate.
Watson made his intimidating pronouncement about the devil to Wojtek Frykowski, who Atkins and Krenwinkel quickly tied up. Frykowski was the boyfriend of coffee heiress Abigail Folger. The three Manson followers found Folger reading in bed while they prowled through the house. Next, Watson, Atkins and Krenwinkel located Sharon Tate and her friend Jay Sebring in another room. Tate was eight months pregnant and her husband, director Roman Polanski, was away in London working on a film.
The details of the murders that happened that night are horrific; they were meant to be horrific, committed specifically to spark outrage and terror. Manson told Watson earlier that night, "Totally destroy everyone in that house, as gruesome as you can" [source: King]. The killers followed orders and were merciless and cold, ignoring the pleas of the victims and mutilating the bodies with additional stab wounds afterward — even writing the word "pig" on the door in one of the victims' blood. But these weren't the first murders committed by Manson's followers, and they weren't the last either.
Just two nights later, Manson urged his followers to go out and murder again. The plan was to commit two separate killings on the same night. After scouting several possible victims, Manson picked a house next door to one where he and his followers had stayed and partied in the past. He broke in and tied up the couple inside, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson left, and Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten stabbed them multiple times, killing them. "Death to pigs," "rise" and "healter skelter" [sic] were scrawled on the walls in blood.
While the LaBiancas were being killed, Manson ordered another trio of his followers to murder actor Saladin Nader. Manson again fled after issuing the command, leaving his family to his dirty work. However, Kasabian (who stood watch outside at the Tate murders) grew reluctant to take part in the murders, and intentionally knocked on the wrong apartment door, giving her and the other two followers an excuse to abandon Manson's second murder plans [source: People v. Watson, Cal.1970].
However, the other two sets of killings still shocked the entire nation. Before they were tied to the Manson family, they were labeled by many as the Tate-LaBianca murders, and they're still referred by that name. Though because of Manson's lasting notoriety, they're more commonly known simply as the Manson murders.
But the Manson murders weren't the only ones committed by the Manson family. In fact, they committed several crimes before the Tate-LaBianca murders. First, in late June 1969, Watson double-crossed a drug dealer named Bernard Crowe, resulting in bad blood between Crowe and the Manson family. Manson shot Crowe on July 1, 1969, thinking he'd killed him. But Crowe survived, and the shooting incident only amplified Manson's growing paranoia and played a part in his possible motives for future killings [source: Sanders].
Just a few weeks later on July 25, 1969, several Manson followers, including Bobby Beausoleil, tied up a man named Gary Hinman, while trying to take his car and money. Eventually, Beausoleil stabbed Hinman to death, though some versions of the story say Manson killed Hinman, or at least took part in torturing and stabbing him [source: Felton and Dalton]. Just days before the Tate-LaBianca murders, Beausoleil was arrested while driving Hinman's car. This killing also plays into Manson's possible motivations for ordering the more well-known massacres.
How did this happen? How could one small man convince an entire group of people — his "family" — to commit brutal murders on his say-so? To figure that out, let's look at where Charles Manson came from.
Who Was Charles Manson?
Most of what is known about Manson's youth came from his own accounts, and although some of it is corroborated by institutional records, Manson's varying stories and self-mythologizing make it hard to take all of it at face value. He was born Charles Maddox in 1934 to a teenage mother and a father who left before Charles was 3. He took the name Manson from his stepfather, who was married to his mother for only a short while.
There were periods of abandonment, culminating when Manson's mother was jailed for five years and he lived with relatives. He has described his reunion with her when she got out of jail as one of the few truly joyful moments in his life [sources: Koopmans, King].
After Manson's mother was released from jail, she was far from an ideal parent. She was an alcoholic (Manson's story that she once sold him to a stranger for a pitcher of beer is likely apocryphal), possibly a prostitute and didn't send Manson to school. She eventually decided she couldn't properly care for him and turned him over to the state. He spent time in various institutions and got involved in criminal activities, leading to more time in institutions, some of which he escaped periodically — at one point returning to his mother, who sent him back. A string of escapes, burglaries, car thefts and armed robberies caught up to Manson who was eventually sent to federal prison. When he was released in March 1967, Manson was 32 years old.
Including prison time and the childhood years he spent in reformatories and homes for orphans, he'd spent more than half of his life in institutions [sources: Felton and Dalton].
When Manson re-entered the world in 1967, he found the '60s in full swing, and the counterculture hard at work experimenting with drugs, music and sex. At Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, Manson encountered hordes of young people keen to reject mainstream society, but unsure of what to do with their lives. He sensed vulnerability and opportunity.
What were Manson's goals when he got out of prison? While there he had learned to play the guitar and developed an obsession with The Beatles; fellow prisoners reported that he talked about the band and discussed their lyrics frequently [source: Grow]. Manson wanted to become a star, sign a music deal and make hit records. All of his efforts were devoted either to this goal or simply exploiting people for sex, drugs or money [sources: Felton and Dalton].
Creating the Manson Family
The Manson Family started very simply: Charles found a girlfriend in 1967. He met Mary Brunner, a college-educated library worker, near Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and moved into her apartment. She was taken by the way he seemed to offer an alternative to her everyday mainstream life. Manson represented to her a life of freedom and opportunity.
Manson added a second girlfriend, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and they lived as a trio despite Brunner's hesitation [source: King]. They traveled the West Coast, adding new followers along the way — mostly young women. At the time, Manson was primarily motivated by sex, but men like Bobby Beausoleil, Danny Decarlo and Tex Watson also joined the family. Manson was an expert at manipulating people, offering alienated young women answers in the form of his stream-of-consciousness hippie philosophizing while offering the men access to the women [sources: Felton and Dalton; Sanders].
Manson did make some headway in his quest to become a music star, but mostly through sheer luck. In 1969, co-founder of the Beach Boys Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhikers and took them to his home on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The hitchhikers turned out to be members of Manson's family, Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel. Wilson, a successful recording artist in his own right, left the women at his house when he went to the studio that night; when he returned, he was frightened to find Manson and a large contingent of the family occupying his house [source: King].
The family ended up staying with Wilson for months, wrecking his car and taking many of his possessions. At some point during this stay, Manson met Terry Melcher, a music producer. They came to some sort of agreement that Melcher would help Manson record some of his songs. Melcher even visited Spahn Ranch where the family later lived, but nothing concrete ever came from it [source: Grow]. Manson knew where Melcher lived, a rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive near Beverly Hills. But by August of 1969, Melcher had moved out and Sharon Tate had moved in.
Manson and his family left Wilson's house in 1968, ending up at Spahn Ranch, a massive, dusty ranch with a Western town set that had been used in movies and TV shows (today, the ranch is a state park). The family did maintenance work there in return for being allowed to stay. Eventually, Manson would have followers scattered between the ranch, camps in Death Valley, and apartments and houses around Los Angeles [source: Sanders]. During this period, they frequently committed burglaries to obtain money and other items for the family's use — they called these nocturnal crime sprees "creepy crawls."
Manson held the family together through a blend of charisma, manipulation and control of access to the things his followers wanted: primarily sex and drugs. While he didn't restrict the movements of his followers, he often used violence or the threat of violence, primarily inflicted on the women, to keep everyone in line.
During most of 1968, Manson seemed to be biding his time until a big recording contract made him a star. Over time, his racist ideas, rejection of authority and mainstream life, and his failure to progress in his music career made Manson paranoid. When The Beatles' "White Album" was released in November 1968, Manson became completely obsessed, deconstructing its lyrics for his followers and explaining how the words related to them. In fact, he strongly believed the album was a message specifically for him and the family [source: Grow].
Manson's ravings, often delivered at nightly bonfires accompanied by heavy drug use, began to revolve around a prophetic apocalyptic vision he called "Helter Skelter," after one of the Beatles' songs. (We'll explore Helter Skelter in more detail later.) At some point Manson decided that the apocalypse needed a nudge, and his family would provide it. The shocking Tate-LaBianca murders were intended to incite a war between black people and white people. That never happened, but the resulting investigation and trial made Manson a household name just the same.
Manson Murders Investigation and Trial
The Manson murders presented the Los Angeles Police Department and sheriff's department with an incredibly complicated investigation: multiple crime scenes with multiple victims, plus multiple — and different — perpetrators at each scene. Initially, separate teams were investigating the Tate and LaBianca murders, and the idea that they were connected was ignored [source: Sanders]. If not for a bit of luck and the fact that the family had committed numerous other crimes, Manson and his followers may have evaded capture much longer.
A week after the murders, police raided Spahn Ranch, but not because of those heinous crimes. Manson and most of the family were arrested instead for stealing cars. But they were released on a technicality and fled to Death Valley. There, they were arrested again in multiple waves of police raids between Oct. 10 and 12, 1969. In addition to a series of thefts and generally terrorizing the locals, Manson had set fire to some heavy equipment owned by Death Valley National Monument rangers, which was what really brought the cops down on the family [source: Sanders].
Manson still wasn't connected to the Tate-LaBianca murders until family member Susan Atkins, who'd confessed to being connected to the Hinman murder, told other women in jail that she was involved in the two massacres. Suddenly, the evidence started to make more sense. All of the family members who'd participated in the murders were already in jail — it was simply a matter of building the case against them.
Atkins agreed to testify against Manson in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Her grand jury testimony led to Manson being arraigned for the murders on Dec. 11, 1969. Atkins later recanted her testimony, and her deal was revoked by the prosecutors [source: Steffens and Staples]. Linda Kasabian, who hadn't entered any of the houses or committed any murders, was granted immunity and testified for the prosecution during the trial.
The Manson trial was chaotic and bizarre. Manson sought to represent himself, but was denied by Judge William Keene. After initially granting in propria persona rights to Manson, Judge Keene later forced Manson to work with a lawyer when he grew tired of Manson's theatrics and delay tactics, including a request that the prosecuting attorneys be imprisoned like he was to level the legal playing field [source: New York Times]. One of Manson's successful requests? He had Judge Keene replaced. Judge Charles Older oversaw the trial in his place.
Some of the more notable antics performed by Manson and his followers during the trial:
- Crumpling up and throwing a copy of the Constitution into a garbage can
- Turning his back on the judge
- Cursing and shouting at the judge
- Screaming at Kasabian to intimidate her
- Carving an X into the middle of his forehead and claiming he was "Xed out of this world." (He later had it altered to become a swastika).
- Family members arriving in court with their foreheads Xed the next day
- Manson and his family members shaving their heads
- Manson lunging toward Judge Older with a pencil while screaming threats
- Manson speaking directly to spectators in the court
- Manson's followers chanting, singing and mimicking his words
The most potentially disruptive action came not from Manson but from President Richard Nixon, who in August 1970, while the trial was underway, said, "Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason." The declaration of guilt from the U.S. president could have influenced the jury and caused a mistrial, but the trial was allowed to continue [source: Loeb].
What was Manson's defense? And how did the trial end? We'll talk about that next.
Helter Skelter and the Verdict
Understanding Manson's strange defense forces us to delve into his Helter Skelter theory. Manson believed that there would be a race war between black and white people, and that both sides would basically destroy each other. Meanwhile, he and his followers would be hiding out in a bottomless pit somewhere in the desert — this is why they were roaming around Death Valley after the murders. After the war, they would emerge and Manson would literally rule the world.
There is ample evidence that this is what Manson believed and what he told his followers. The murders were meant to be blamed on black people, angering whites whose reprisals would in turn make the blacks rise up and start the war. The bloody writings at the crime scenes evoked anti-establishment messages sometimes used by groups such as the Black Panthers, referring to white people as pigs. Manson even tried to leave one of the victims' wallets in a black neighborhood [source: King].
Manson's earlier shooting of Bernard Crowe may have accelerated his Helter Skelter plans, because Manson thought Crowe might have been a Black Panther. And the presence of black guests going horseback riding at Spahn Ranch made him paranoid that the Panthers were planning an attack [source: Sanders].
The court testimonies of Manson followers like Tex Watson and Linda Kasabian strongly support the idea that Manson ordered the murders to help fulfill his Helter Skelter theory [sources: Felton and Dalton; Grow]. For example, here is an excerpt from Kasabian's testimony under questioning by Los Angeles County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi:
Bugliosi: "Did he [Manson] tell you why he wanted you to throw the wallet out of the car?"
Kasabian: "Yeah, because he wanted black people to get it so that the police and the authorities would think that it was like an organized black group that did these killings" [source: People v. Watson, Cal.1970].
The main defense offered by Manson and his followers was two-fold (and not entirely clear, since it wasn't very organized or well-planned). First, they insisted that Manson never killed anyone, and that his followers had simply misinterpreted his talks about "the death of the ego," became overzealous and committed murders when he never intended them to literally kill people.
Second, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were fully prepared to take the blame for the killings (and pin some of the blame on Watson). They also concocted a story related to the killing of Bobby Hinman and Bobby Beausoleil's arrest for it. The idea was that the women wanted to help their friend Beausoleil by committing murders similar to the one he was accused of. Since Beausoleil was in jail at the time of the Tate-LaBianca killings, this would prove he was innocent of the Hinman murder as well.
The defense lawyers, however, didn't even present a theory defending Manson in court because they knew the Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten were going to intentionally incriminate themselves. This infuriated Manson and his followers, although they were eventually allowed to make statements [source: Steffens and Staples].
In January 1971, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were each convicted of all counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder (Watson was tried and convicted separately). Each received the death sentence, but their sentences were all commuted to life in prison in 1972 when California ended the death penalty. Atkins died in prison of brain cancer in 2009. Van Houten was recommended for parole in September 2017 by a two-member state panel. The ruling still must be approved by the California State Parole Board and Gov. Jerry Brown. Watson and Krenwinkel have all repeatedly been denied parole and remain in prison as of November 2017.
Manson was denied parole nine times and wasn't eligible again until April 2027. He died of natural causes at age 83 on Nov. 19, 2017.
But the trial — and even prison or his death — is certainly not the end of Manson's story.
The Manson Aftermath
The repercussions of the Manson murders and trial are messy and weird, like everything else about the case. The Manson family extended far beyond those who committed and were convicted of the murders, and his followers remained devoted for years, visiting him in jail and defending him in public. They intimidated witnesses and others Manson felt had wronged him, usually on his orders [source: Hedegaard].
There are several troubling deaths related to Manson, including defense attorney Ron Hughes, Spahn Ranch worker Donald "Shorty" Shea (several family members were actually convicted of Shea's murder) and Joel Pugh, who was married to Manson family member, Sandra Good [sources: Steffens and Staples; Sanders]. Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme even attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford on Sept. 5, 1975, and was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The idea that Manson represented the death of hippie culture sprung up immediately, before the trial was even finished. Whether Manson was a hippie or a parasite on hippie culture, he and his followers had all the trappings that mainstream Americans associated with hippies: long hair, beards, drug use, multiple sex partners, communal living arrangements and a general rejection of society. The latent distrust of the hippie movement seemed fully justified when it was revealed that a nomadic band of hippies had committed brutal murders. Mainstream media played into this idea, while the counterculture tabloids like Rolling Stone reflected on it [source: Felton and Dalton].
At the same time, Manson kept using his charisma to further his goals: media notoriety and aggrandizement. His act began in the courtroom and continued during the TV interviews he gave in the first decade he was in jail, before prison administrators stopped allowing them.
America was morbidly fascinated by his crimes and the fears they represented, including the semi-random nature of his victim selection and his corruption of "normal" Americans into murderous cultists. His blazing eyes and wild swings between quiet charm and lunatic threats captivated the world, and media outlets played right into his hands by giving him a platform. He became the implicit threat of what might happen when people reject mainstream American culture. The Manson murders were a disrupting element, along with other dark events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal, that created a sense of unease and distrust in the American public.
It's risky to psychoanalyze people at a distance, but Manson's long-winded statements and interviews give us some clues into his true motivations. He saw himself as a reject from society, unable to integrate into the world because of his time in prison. But he also felt that his outsider status gave him insight into the ways in which the world restricts our freedom. In his disorganized, rambling philosophy, he sometimes said things that resonate as true. His followers tended to pick up on the aspects they agreed with, which reinforced his strange natural charisma. Vulnerable, lost people elevated his status in their minds. Susan Atkins thought he might actually be Jesus [source: Sanders].
But everything Manson did was about satisfying his own ego. He was deeply insecure, partly because of his physical size, partly because of his feelings of rejection. It's clear that he craved power over people, and the formation of the family was the snowball effect of his influence taking in more and more people, and him pushing to see what he could get them to do for him.
In every interview he tried at some point to intimidate the interviewer, whether to overtly suggest he can have them killed, or in more subtle ways, like quickly reaching out to touch them on the nose [source: Hedegaard]. When he became frustrated, Manson got angry and shouted blatant threats, as he did during his trial. And his targets were not as random as they seem — the people he described as "pigs" were wealthy and successful, often those in the entertainment industry. Frustration about his failed music career was likely a strong motivating factor [sources: King, Grow].
Author's Note: How the Manson Family Murders Worked
I don't think there's much more to be said about Charles Manson. It's tragic that so many people died so horribly. It's deeply disquieting to be reminded how easily people can believe in the most ludicrous, terrible things and commit heinous acts in support of those beliefs.
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