It’s been a half-century since Charles Manson and his loopy minions conspired to commit a series of murders that still fascinate and flabbergast the world.
Manson, who died in prison in 2017, would savor the attention he continues to attract, including in this summer’s Quentin Tarantino film (“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”) and several new books, including my own.
In March 1967, at age 32, Manson was a fresh federal parolee who stumbled into San Francisco as American ingenues in peasant dresses and bellbottoms—runaways, hitchhikers, and lost souls—were streaming in for the Summer of Love. His timing was impeccable. The patchouli-scented sexual revolution created a perfect petri dish for his predation.
Using prison-honed talents as a con man and middling skills as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, Manson soon began building a cult of as many as 35 young hippies, three-quarters of them women.
He would spin campfire lectures for his stoner clan featuring Psych 101 dogma about projection and reflection. He basted their brains in a mix of Jesus Freakiness, Dale Carnegie hucksterisms, Norman Vincent Peale’s sunny-sided platitudes (“You are perfect!”), and the buggy self-help triangulations and “dynamics” of his prison-library Scientology.
They believed he was a godly mystic.
The writer David Dalton nailed Manson in eight words: “if Christ came back as a con man.” Joe Mozingo of The Los Angeles Times said, “He was a scab mite who bit at the perfect time and place.”
Using the playbook of pimps and cult patriarchs, he isolated troubled young women from their past lives and controlled their bodies and minds. He was the Wizard of Oz for libertines, and he as much as told them so.
Susan Atkins, who became one of Manson’s most prolific killers, said Manson often mocked his own followers’ blind faith.
“He said, ‘I have tricked you into doing what I want you to…It’s like I’ve got a bunch of slaves around me,” she told a grand jury in December 1969, after her arrest.
The Enigma of Charles Manson
Manson was an enigma on many levels.
He was a racist and sexist imbued with the old-timey sensibilities of an Appalachian upbringing. He preached female subservience and racial segregation, and his young followers lapped it up in the midst of a flowering civil rights movement and on the cusp of modern women’s liberation.
Many were willing to kill for nothing more than Manson’s validation.
“You can convince anybody of anything if you just push it at them all of the time,” Manson once said, “…especially if they have no other information to draw their opinions from.”
Just 29 months after Manson began assembling his naifs into a communal Family, these “heartless, bloodthirsty robots…sent out from the fires of hell,” as a prosecutor would describe them, carried out a series of proving-ground murders in Los Angeles over four weeks in the summer of ‘69 that still has a place of prominence in America’s storied pantheon of crime spectacles.
The primary motive was money to allow the Family to finance a retreat to California’s Death Valley to ride out the race war that Manson predicted was coming.
The first victim, the Family’s good friend Gary Hinman, was Killed on July 27. Two weeks later, on Aug. 9 and 10, Manson followers killed the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and five others in acts of casual savagery that remain a peerless mashup of celebrity, sex, cult groupthink, and bloodlust.
“It had to be done,” one of the killers, Leslie Van Houten, explained after her arrest. “For the whole world’s karma to be completed, we had to do this.”
Writer Dalton, who covered Manson for Rolling Stone, called him “the perfect storm” for 1969.
“It was the conflation of mystical thinking, radical politics, drugs, and all these runaway kids fused together,” Dalton told me.
“The world seemed to be in death spiral of violence, and we thought the whole hippie riot was about to begin to save us all. We were going to take over and everything would be cool. In fact, the opposite was happening, embodied by Charlie Manson.”
The implausible Manson story cannot be separated from the context of its era, as some Americans were asking essential questions about what their country ought to be.
The half-decade of 1965 to 1970 saw ghetto riots, the emergence of a vibrant new psychedelic culture, shocking political murders, riveting space exploration, escalation of the war in Vietnam, and burgeoning protests of the same.
Two months alone in the summer of 1969 brought an extraordinary series of events. On June 28, a police morals-squad raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, touched off three days of rioting—and ignited the gay rights movement. On July 18, Ted Kennedy, surviving male heir to the American political tragi-dynasty, fled the scene of a fatal car wreck on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. On July 20, the world watched on TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their stiff, bouncing strolls through moondust.
Among the viewers was a small group of friends and kin gathered at the home of Sharon Tate. Twenty days later, on Aug. 9—50 years ago today—four members of the same group would be savagely murdered by Manson’s second kill team. A week after that, more than 400,000 people endured organizational bedlam to attend the Woodstock Festival, 100 miles north of New York City. That same weekend, Hurricane Camille pounded ashore on the Gulf Coast, east of New Orleans at Pass Christian, Miss., killing 256 people.
A ‘Child of the ’30s’
The Sixties created Manson, and his crimes were an exclamation point to a turbulent decade.
But as he liked to say, “I am a child of the ’30s, not the ’60s.”
He was born to a prostitute mother and drive-by father in 1934 and raised by relatives in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia coal country. He became a chronic juvenile delinquent who flailed his way through a Dickensian childhood. A tiny boy who grew into an elfin but sinewy man, he was locked up in reform school, jail or prison for all but a few years of his life from age 13 to the grave.
He spoke or wrote a million words about his life and crimes—in court, in letters, in media interviews. He bleated many excuses for his wasted life, almost always beginning with a lack of parenting and proper education.
Manson often played crazy, but that was a studied tactic. As Vincent Bugliosi, his prosecutor and biographer, told Time magazine before he died in 2015.
“His moral values were completely twisted and warped, but let’s not confuse that with insanity. He was crazy in the way that Hitler was crazy…So he’s not crazy. He’s an evil, sophisticated con man.”
Manson preached a homespun version of liberation theology—the freedom to be you. But a switch was flipped in the fall of 1968, when the Beatles released their White Album.
Manson convinced his followers that the world’s most famous band was sending him direct messages in the lyrics, including those of “Helter Skelter.” He imagined that Paul McCartney’s song presaged a race war that would induce the Family to retreat to a desert hideout, then emerge heroically and install Manson as a world leader and master breeder.
Manson recast his horny young stoners into a classic apocalyptic cult, prepping for end times. Growing impatient for the race war, Manson decided to “show blackie how to do it” by committing a series of murders and leaving clues meant to implicate the Black Panthers, that era’s subject of America’s ever-changing moral panic.
The starry-eyed plan was a failure on every level.
Before Manson “got on his “Helter Skelter” trip,” according to Paul Watkins, another follower, “it was all about fucking.”
Five former members of the Family, all senior citizens now, are still imprisoned, 50 years along: Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles Watson, Bobby Beausoleil, and Bruce Davis.
Many others have died, including Watkins and Susan Atkins.
Most renounced Manson long ago, although Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, an early acolyte who served 34 years in prison for a 1975 assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford, self-published an autobiography last year that was largely dedicated to minimizing Manson’s culpability.
Atkins, who once seemed to enjoy her public profile as an illustrious sexpot murderess, had a personal reckoning before her death from brain cancer in 2009.
“In hindsight,” Atkins wrote in her memoir, “I’ve come to believe the most prominent character trait Charles Manson displays is that of a manipulator. Not a guru, not a metaphysic, not a philosopher, not an environmentalist, not a sociologist or social activist, and not even a murderer.
“His long-term behavior is one predominantly of a practiced manipulator.”
She called him “a liar, a con artist, a physical abuser of women and children, a psychological and emotional abuser of human beings, a thief, a dope pusher, a kidnapper, a child stealer, a pimp, a rapist, and a child molester. I can attest to all of these things with my own eyes.
“And he was all of these things before he was a murderer.”
This essay is adapted from David J. Krajicek’s new book, Charles Manson: The Man Behind the Murders that Shook Hollywood (Arcturus).