How the Manson Family Murders Worked

Creating the Manson Family

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten Manson family
Manson family members and murder suspects Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

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.