Mark Twain once said something about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated. The same could recently be said for 1960s cult leader Charles Manson. Why has this notorious figure been back in the news, decades after his incarceration? Find out in this week’s True Crime Corner.
Rumors swirled on the Internet in recent weeks when 82-year-old Charles Manson was moved to a hospital from the prison where he is serving a life sentence. He was reportedly in need of surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding, but was deemed too frail for the procedure and subsequently was returned to prison. I read that he was dying, near death, and dead. Apparently he is still alive.
Before the health crisis, he was in the news because he was supposedly going to marry one of his young followers inside the prison walls. The lady bears a resemblance to his former female disciples. A marriage license was secured, but the nuptials didn’t happen before the license expired, leaving Manson a bachelor once again. Some believe the bride-to-be had an unusual motivation for marrying the former guru, who is more than 50 years her senior. It’s rumored that if she were his widow she wanted to put his corpse on display after his death. It seems the status of both his health and relationship are subject to debate.
Charles Milles Manson was born to a teenage prostitute on November 12, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The man purported to be his father wanted nothing to do with him, including paying the paltry five dollars a month he had been ordered to pay for his son’s support. Manson’s mother had little interest in her child, and left him for periods of time with relatives and neighbors when she wasn’t in prison. Young Manson was bounced from one reform school to another, then had one brush with the law after the other. However, it was his manipulation and leadership of the group who would be known as the Manson Family that would give him the most infamy.
Charles Manson found himself in California in the 1960s. He became a charismatic cult leader, assembling a ragtag bunch of misguided young people, mostly women. They became known as the Manson Family, binging on sex and drugs, all the while believing in their manipulative leader. The group traveled, but made one of their home bases Spahn Ranch, a desert location formerly used for filming movies.
Manson was a musician with illusions of grandeur. He became obsessed with the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter” which he believed was about a race war, something Manson hoped to start. In reality, Helter Skelter is a carnival ride.
The family enjoyed their lifestyle, but Manson often spoke about Helter Skelter, the race war he insisted would happen. He planned to keep his family safe underground until the war was over, when they would surface unscathed and triumphant.
Under the spell of their hypnotic leader, the family was only too eager to follow his orders. He orchestrated some of the most brutal murders of the time. In August of 1969, under the direction of the cult leader, Manson followers ambushed the home of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant actress-wife Sharon Tate. Tate and her unborn baby were viciously murdered, along with four other people found in the home. Polanski was away at the time of the attack.
The next night, more cult members entered the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, killing them as well. The Tate-LaBianca murders were horrific and shocking, the family taking their depravity to another level by scrawling messages using the blood of their victims. The perpetrators would eventually have their day in court. Members of the Manson Family were arrested for crimes unrelated to the murders. While in jail, Susan Atkins bragged about the murder of Sharon Tate, and her claims made their way to the authorities.
While the family may be the most known for the Tate-LaBianca slayings, they also had a hand in the murders of Gary Hinman and Donald Shea, who worked in the music and movie industries respectively.
Arrested and tried for the crimes were Manson, Charles “Tex” Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins. All were eventually convicted for their roles in the killings. Those who received death sentences saw them commuted to life in prison when California temporarily abolished the death penalty in 1972. None of these family members have been granted parole, and some have been turned down several times. All remain behind bars with the exception of Susan Atkins, who died in 2009 from brain cancer.
There are several books available on Charles Manson, the most well-known being Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. Two other books I have on my shelf but haven’t yet read are Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson and Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of the Most Dangerous Man Alive by Charles Manson and Nuel Emmons.
For anyone who might find Bugliosi’s book daunting at over 600 pages, there’s a 1976 movie of the same name starring Steve Railsback as Manson. However, it’s also lengthy at over three hours long. Manson has also been the subject of many documentaries and podcasts.