How the Manson Family Murders Worked


The Manson Aftermath
Charles Manson, seen here in two California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation photos, and his murder spree still captivate the world. CDCR

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].

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