Serial Killer of the Week: Charles Manson

Early Life

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Young Charles Manson posing in suit and tie

Like many people who went on to be associated with murder, Manson’s upbringing was not a happy one. Born on November 12th 1934 to 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox, Manson never knew his father, a man only referred to in legal documents as ‘Colonel Scott’.

His youth was coloured by a succession of petty crimes and cons, with his mother teaching him how to get by on wits and loose morals alone, and using the proceeds to fuel her drinking habit.

Manson’s was a childhood without much affection, with his mother once attempting to sell him, as an infant, to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. This coldness did not dampen his affection for his mother. Manson would describe her hugging him after being released from a five-year stint in prison as his sole happy childhood memory.

Charles Manson at Fourteen Years Old
Young Charles Manson

After a succession of motels and relative’s houses (when Kathleen was incarcerated Charles would live with his aunt and uncle) Kathleen would attempt to place Manson in a foster home in 1947. When none was available, Manson was sent to Gibault School for Boys, in Terre Haute, Indiana. After 10 months, Manson escaped and reconnected with his mother. When she rejected him, he took to living on the streets and fending for himself.

Paying for his rented room with a string of burglaries and petty thefts, Manson was eventually arrested for stealing a bicycle. Thus began a cyclical career of crime, capture and incarceration that dominated most of Manson’s young life. After escaping Indianapolis Juvenile Centre in just one day, he was sent to Boy’s Town. After escaping with another boy, Manson committed two armed robberies and two break-ins before being caught and sent to the Indiana Boy’s School. If ever there was a place to breed monsters, this was it.

Manson described being beaten and raped relentlessly during the three years in which he attended the school. He escaped and was recaptured several times, and was finally sent to another institution following a breakout attempt that saw him stealing a car and heading west, supported by a string of gas station robberies.

Manson would later claim that the Indiana Boy’s School made him fearless, as nowhere he ended up could ever be as bad as that. It certainly contributed to his ruthlessness and lack of compassion. In another institution, Manson would be discovered raping another boy while holding a knife to his throat.


Parole

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Manson marries Rosalie Jean Willis

The early history of Manson revolves so heavily around his frequent return to incarceration that it is easier to organise by listing his significant releases than his imprisonments. In May 1954, Manson came up for parole. A year later he married a hospital waitress named Rosalie Jean Willis. Although their married life was short, Manson would go on to claim, it was genuine and very happy.

It wasn’t long before Manson was forced to leave behind his now-pregnant wife in order to serve time after crossing state lines in a stolen car. In fact, it was less than a year into their marriage.

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Manson serving time at Terminal Island

Manson’s first child, Charles Manson Jr., was born during his first year in Terminal Island penitentiary. Upon hearing that his wife was living with another man, Manson attempted to escape by stealing a car less than two weeks before his parole hearing. He was caught, denied parole and given five years’ probation.

Rosalie would divorce Manson in 1958, the same year in which he next came up for parole. Following his release, Manson became a pimp to a 16-year-old girl. When caught forging cheques, Manson avoided a jail term after a young woman named Leona made a tearful plea to the court, claiming that she was in love with him. On his release, the pair married and took off to Mexico with another young woman to pursue opportunities in sex work.

Manson would never make it over the border, instead he wound up back in jail, and he and Leona divorced. By the time he was released it was March 21st 1967 and Manson had spent more than half of his 32 years behind bars. Reportedly, he requested to be allowed to stay.


The Manson Family

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Members of the Manson Family

For a figure so synonymous with the darker side of 60’s counterculture, it’s odd to think that Manson missed most of its excesses, only leaving prison after the hippie era’s first bloom was over. Living through busking on the streets of San Francisco with a steel guitar, Manson got to know 23-year-old Mary Brunner and swiftly moved in with her. Thanks to his powers of persuasion, Brunner soon found herself sharing a flat with 18 other young women.

Expounding a mixture of cod-eastern philosophy and the scientology that he had briefly studied in prison, Manson set himself up as a guru in Haight Ashbury, centre of the hippie movement. Along with 8 or 9 of his most devoted acolytes, Manson climbed aboard a repurposed school bus and began touring the US, picking up new followers as he went.

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Members of the Manson Family

In the spring of 1968, two female Manson family members were hitchhiking when they were picked up by Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. He drove them back to his house only to find that Manson himself was already in the building, presumably having broken in. Manson assured Wilson that he meant him no harm, and began kissing his feet.

Inside the house 12 family members, mostly women, were ready to greet Wilson. There they stayed, growing in number and costing him somewhere in the region of $100,000 in food, drugs, hospital treatments for gonorrhoea and the destruction of his borrowed car.

Wilson also paid for studio time for Manson to record some of his songs. He introduced him to several of his entertainment industry friends, including Rudi Altobelli, whose house would later become a scene of terrifying bloodshed.


Spahn Ranch

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Spahn Movie Ranch, California

Eventually, Wilson’s manager would eject the family from Wilson’s home, and they would find themselves on the road again, settling for a time on a ranch. They paid for their accommodation by performing chores and basic maintenance, and through offering sexual favours to the ranch’s near-blind 80-year-old owner.

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Manson-follower Charles “Tex” Watson

At the ranch, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson joined the group. By now, wheels were turning towards the horrific events that Watson would later commit.


Helter Skelter

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The Beatles

In late 1968, Manson moved some of the family to a new HQ in Death Valley, occupying two disused ranches.

Back at Spahn Ranch, Manson and Watson visited an acquaintance who played them The Beatles’ White Album. The group soon became an obsession for the pair, despite the fact that Manson had completely missed their entire career to date due to his prison sentences. He described them to the family as ‘part of the hole in the infinite’.

It was around this time that Manson began to develop the theory of forthcoming racial apocalypse that he called ‘Helter Skelter’. He claimed that the White Album was a coded message, warning that a coming war between blacks and whites would soon destroy the world, and that the family, in their desert commune, would be one of the only groups to survive the devastation. They must prepare, he said, for the war and to lead the new world that would rise from its ashes.

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‘The Yellow Submarine’ House

In 1969, the group would move into a house they dubbed ‘The Yellow Submarine’ from which they could monitor racial unrest in LA. Manson outlined his vision to the family. In order to spark the race war, they would create an album with their own coded messages. Black people would then rise up to overthrow the social order, and the Manson family would emerge from ‘the Bottomless Pit’, a secret city underneath death valley, in order to rule them and lead the new world.

In the Yellow Submarine, the family members toiled to create vehicles for their desert escape, and Manson began writing songs.


The First Victim

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Members of the Manson Family

By June 1969, Manson had decided that the family must actively demonstrate how to begin “Helter Skelter”. When Manson tasked Watson with obtaining money supposedly intended to help the Family prepare for the conflict, Watson did so by ripping off a black drug dealer named Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe. Crowe threatened to wipe out everyone at Spahn Ranch in response. On July 1st, Manson shot Crowe in his Hollywood apartment.

When Manson saw a news report about the dumped body of a Black Panther in Los Angeles, he assumed that this was Crowe, and that he and his family would now be targets of the Black Panthers. Crowe was neither a member of the Black Panthers nor dead, but it must be stressed that Manson took a great deal of acid.

Manson’s spiralling paranoia saw Spahn Ranch turned into a military compound, with night patrols of armed guards.


The Hinman Murder

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Bobby Beausoleil

On July 25, 1969, Manson tasked Bobby Beausoleil, Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins to go to the house of acquaintance Gary Hinman, to persuade him to turn over money Manson thought he had inherited, or to recover money for paid for faulty drugs.

Hinman was held hostage for two days, during which Manson showed up with a sword to slash his ear. After that, Beausoleil stabbed Hinman to death, supposedly on Manson’s instruction. One of the family members used Hinman’s blood to write “Political Piggy” on the wall and to draw a panther paw, a Black Panther symbol.

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Gary Hinman

There is some dispute in the available accounts about whether this was a robbery gone wrong or a premeditated murder, but Mary Brunner claims that Manson had told her privately, two days earlier, that if she wanted to “do something important,” she should kill Hinman.


The Murders at 10050 Cielo Drive

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Beausoleil was arrested in august 1969 after driving Hinman’s stolen car, with the murder weapon stashed in the tire well. As far as Manson was concerned, this arrest meant that Helter Skelter was nigh.

On August 8, Manson charged Tate Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krewinkel to go to 10050 Cielo Drive and “totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can.” They would be lead in their task by Tex Watson.

Earlier in the year, Manson had begun to hang around, and enter without invitation, 10050 Cielo Drive, which he had known as producer Terry Melcher’s residence. It is likely that he associated the address with his failed recording career and harboured a resentment towards the media elites who owned these residences. This was now Rudi Altobelli’s property, and Melcher was no longer a tenant.

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10050 Cielo Drive

Manson had been spotted hanging around the property looking for Melcher on several occasions, and resident Sharon Tate had described him as “that creepy-looking guy” to Rudi.

Sharon Tate, 8-month pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, was the current occupant. On August 8, she was sharing her home with Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger.

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Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate

After Watson cut the phone line to the house, the party of murderers approached the entrance when they were surprised by the headlights of a car. Having caused the car to pull over, Tex Watson pointed a gun at the 18-year-old student driver, Steven Parent. He slashed at Parent with a knife, cutting his hand, and then shot him four times in the chest. Parent was the night’s first victim.

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Steve Parent

The group then broke into the house, with Watson slashing a screen door to let Atkins and Krenwinkel inside. Kasabian was ordered to keep lookout.

Frykowski awoke on the couch to the sounds of the group muttering. Watson kicked him in the head before telling him: “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”

The rest of the house’s occupants were rounded up and brought to the living room where they were bound with ropes tied to a roof beam. When Sebring protested the rough treatment of Sharon Tate, Watson shot and wounded him.

After demanding all of the money in Folger’s purse, which amounted to 70 dollars, Watson stabbed Sebring, still alive at this point, seven times.

Wojciech Frykowski (left), Jay Sebring (right)

Frykowski, who had been bound with a towel, attempted to escape, but was stabbed and beaten by Atkins and Watson. So ferocious was Watson’s attack that he broke the grip of his gun, finally shooting Frykowski twice.

Kasabian, drawn from her vigil by the sounds of violence, attempted to halt the massacre by falsely claiming that someone was coming.

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Abigail Folger

Folger made it further than Frykowski, and was halfway across the lawn before Krenwinkel and Watson ended her escape in a flurry of stab wounds. When the bodies were recovered, Folger had been stabbed 28 times, Frykowski 51.

Tate died inside the house, stabbed 16 times, despite pleading for her unborn child.

Famously, Manson had told the women to “leave a sign… something witchy”. Atkins daubed the word ‘Pig’ on the front door of the house in Tate’s blood.


The LaBianca Murders

Leslie Van Houten (left), Steve “Clem” Grogan (right)

The next night the gang went abroad again. This time they were joined by Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan. Displeased by the chaos of the previous night, Manson joined them, aiming to take charge.

Manson gave Kasabian directions that brought the group to 3301 Waverly Drive. This was the home of businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, a dress shop co-owner. Unfortunately for them, it was next door to a house at which Manson and some of his family members had attended a party the previous year. This fact, in the LSD-induced clarity of Charles Manson, marked the couple for death.

Testimony is divided over who first entered the property and subdued the sleeping couple, who were bound with lamp cords and had pillowcases pulled over their heads. Lacking the stomach himself, Manson then left, leaving instructions that they should be killed.

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Leno LaBianca (left), Rosemary LaBianca (right)

Watson, who had complained to Manson of the inadequacy of the previous night’s weapons, stabbed Leno LaBianca with a chrome-plated bayonet. He stabbed 12 times, carving the word ‘WAR’ into Leno’s chest.

Manson had left instructions that each of the women should take part in the slayings, making them all equally culpable (and, he presumably hoped, muddying the waters against his own conviction). This perhaps explains why Rosemary Labianca was found with 41 stab wounds on her body.

‘Rise’ and ‘death to pigs’ were daubed onto the walls by Krenwinkel, once again using the victim’s blood, along with ‘Healter Skelter(sic)’. She also stabbed Leno 7 times with a carving fork and left it stuck in his stomach, along with a steak knife stabbed into his throat.

Manson instructed that Rosemary’s wallet be left in a predominantly black area of the city, in the hope that a black person would attempt to use her credit cards and be mistaken for an anti-white hate criminal.


Trial of the Century

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It didn’t take long to find the Manson family, who were about as adept at covering up a homicide as you’d expect a gaggle of drug-addled hippies to be.

Manson was brought to trial and granted permission to act as his own attorney, until a series of outlandish and nonsensical pre-trial motions indicated that maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.

On the first day of testimony, Manson arrived with an ‘X’ carved into his forehead, claiming that ‘he was “considered inadequate and incompetent to speak or defend [him]self” — and had “X’d [him]self from [the establishment’s] world.” The female defendants and other family members would soon follow suit.

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Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins

Throughout the trial, family members, complete with X’s on their foreheads, loitered outside the court buildings, observed vigils for ‘Charlie’ and wore large hunting knives to intimidate passers-by.

There were threats to witnesses, with Paul Watkins injured in a suspicious van fire. In one remarkable incident, former family member Barbara Hoyt was given a hamburger spiked with LSD which saw her taken to hospital, but only strengthened her resolve to put Manson away.

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Manson Family supporters 

On October 5, after being denied the opportunity to cross-examine a witness personally, Manson leaped over the defence table and attempted to attack the judge. He was restrained and removed from the courtroom, along with the female defendants, who had begun chanting in Latin.

During the penalty phase, Manson shaved his head and trimmed his beard to a fork; he told the press, “I am the Devil, and the Devil always has a bald head.”


The End

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Charles Manson

Unimpressed by Manson’s courtroom antics and terrified by the prosecutor’s narrative of a sex and drug-crazed hippie mastermind who ‘brainwashed’ all-American college kids to commit murder, the jury sentenced Manson to death, which was eventually commuted to life in prison. Manson died of natural causes on 19 November 2017.

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