Charles Manson: Cult leader behind notorious ‘Tate murders’
The so-called Manson Family had LA panicked after brutal killing spree in 1969
Charles Manson after his arrest in 1969, left, and in a photo released in 2009 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
The American criminal Charles Manson, who has died aged 83, was responsible for one of the most infamous mass murders of the 20th century, yet the head of the notorious “Family” cult was never convicted of killing anyone personally.
It was partly this, and the bloody nature of the slaughter in Los Angeles on successive nights in the summer of 1969, that led to his name achieving a wider standing – though he had a following of only a dozen pseudo-hippies at the time of the murders. Nearly 50 years after the horrific events, he retains a morbid fascination for many.
Prisoner No B-33920 was originally sentenced to death for the murders of the actor Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski and eight months pregnant at the time; the coffee heiress Abigail Folger; Polanski’s friend Wojciech Frykowski ; Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairdresser; and Steven Parent, who had the misfortune to pass through the grounds of the Polanski mansion in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, on August 9th, 1969.
The night after what became known as “the Tate murders”, the deaths of a wealthy couple, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, were added to the Family’s toll. A month before, the body of an LA drug dealer and musician, Gary Hinman, had been discovered. LA panicked.
The killings, and the wall scrawlings in blood of “Death to pigs”, and the misspelled “Healter Skealter” – Manson’s song title borrowed from the Beatles in which he described the apocalyptic racial war he wanted to create – produced lurid headlines. Guns sold out in Beverly Hills and security firms trebled their business.
The Manson murders occurred in a late 1960s atmosphere of social upheaval, and stirred up moral panic. Neil Armstrong may have landed on the moon, but on Earth the then US president, Richard Nixon, saw the period as one in which “drugs, crime, campus revolution, racial discord and draft resistance” challenged the very basis of “civilisation’s continuity”.
Although at the time of Manson’s trial, hippy culture and its attendant drugs were blamed, Manson’s failed musical career seemed to be one key to the killings. In California in the early 1960s he had befriended Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, and the group had retitled a song by Manson, Cease to Exist, as Never Learn Not to Love on their album 20/20. But Manson, who had been living on Wilson’s ranch until the musician threw him out, had received no recognition for the song.
He had also been rejected in 1968 by a record producer who had originally occupied the Benedict Canyon house. Manson either did not know or did not care who lived there by August the following year.
Three months after the killings Manson was arrested with his cult: five middle-class young women and two men. Although it was these followers who had committed the brutalities, Manson had ordered the killings, and, at the LaBianca home, had tied up the couple before leaving his followers to their butchery.
The ensuing long trial was equally bizarre. Manson and the women carved Xs on their foreheads and, sitting with their backs to the bench, insulted the judge. Manson, who converted his sign to a swastika, at one point lunged at the bench. One of the defending lawyers, Ronald Hughes, disappeared mid-trial during a 10-day court recess and his body was found on the day the women were due to be sentenced. The prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi , made a fortune with his bestselling book on the case, Helter Skelter (1974). Newspaper articles continued for decades.
In a further trial, Family members were also found guilty of the murders of Hinman and Donald Shea, a stuntman and hired hand at the Family ranch who was killed at the end of August 1969 but whose body was not recovered for another eight years.
Manson and the group were sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment when California’s supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972. Three years later one of Manson’s followers, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, was given a life sentence following an assassination attempt on the then president, Gerald Ford. She was released in 2009.
Although some found Manson charismatic, others saw little to impress. His rambling conversation, bizarre references and nonsequiturs revealed his inauspicious beginnings. Born to Kathleen Maddox when she was 16 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was initially called “no name Maddox”, but after a few weeks was named Charles Milles.
Kathleen married William Manson, a labourer, and Charles took his surname. His biological father was Col Walker Scott, against whom Kathleen won a paternity suit in 1937, but Charles never knew him. Brought up by foster parents and institutions, Charles was soon involved in crime – as a conman, pimp, forger and thief. At 13 he was convicted of armed robbery, and at 17 of raping a fellow inmate . By the time he was 32, he had spent 17 years behind bars and would later say: “Policemen raised me, convicts raised me, administrators raised me.”
In 1967 he travelled to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, then in its early days as a hippy haven. There he smoked cannabis, ingested LSD and began to seek a female following, particularly among middle-class young women seeking rebellion against their “bourgeois” backgrounds. He also gathered a succession of minor film actors, Texan drifters and outlaw bikers and moved his Family to an abandoned holding north of Los Angeles, where they would collect and sort supermarket rubbish, then to a dusty ranch on the edge of Death Valley. The scene was set for the slaughters in LA.
Very dangerous man
After almost a lifetime in prisons, including 11 years in solitary, Manson had only a tenuous grip on reality, and spent his time plucking his guitar at his final institution, Corcoran state prison, 170 miles north of Los Angeles.
In 2012 Manson’s final request for parole was denied. Manson did not appear at the hearing but was quoted as having said to one of his prison psychologists: “I’m special. I’m not like the average inmate. I have spent my life in prison. I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man.”
His son Charles Manson jnr, by his first wife, Rosalie (nee Willis), killed himself in 1993. Manson’s brief second marriage, to Leona “Candy” Stevens, produced a son, Charles Luther, and he had another son, Valentine, by Mary Brunner, the first member of the Family. In November 2015 Manson applied for a licence to marry Afton Elaine Burton, a 26-year-old follower, but the marriage did not take place.