How the Manson Family Murders Worked

Who Was Charles Manson?

Manson murders Charles Manson
Charles Manson is sullen as he is led back into the courtroom after being found guilty with this three female followers for the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

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].