The leader of a bizarre, conspiracy-minded cult that committed several murders, Charles Manson (often known simply as “Charlie”) became a notorious figure in the late 1960s, and the center of a great deal of conspiracy-minded speculation about his true motives. To many, Manson’s actions constituted a conspiracy to bring about the end of civilized society and the dawn of a new age of terror.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1934, Manson spent his first term in reformatory school at the age of nine. By the time he drifted to San Francisco in 1967, Manson had spent most of his adult life in jail, mostly for such offenses as car theft and credit-card fraud.
He also worked some time as a pimp. He found himself in the midst of the new psychedelic drug culture in the 1960s, amidst the hippies of the Haight-Asbury district who took LSD, smoked pot, and called themselves flower children.
Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s was a mecca for the nation’s disenchanted young people and they came by the thousands to participate in what they saw as a great social experiment. No one cared that Manson had been a jailbird; on the contrary, it was regarded as being greatly to his credit.
For Manson, religion was a strong force that he used to manipulate the minds of his followers. At the age of thirty-four he decided he wanted a “family,” and consequently started to attract a group of followers, many of whom were young women with troubled lives, rebelling against their parents and society. All of Manson’s followers were weak willed, naïve, and easy to lead and in addition Manson used LSD and amphetamines to alter his followers’ personalities.
He assembled a destructive, doomsday cult around himself, which the media later called the Family. At one time, it numbered in excess of 100 individuals at the Spahn Ranch, some 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Manson was referred to both as “God” and “Satan” by his followers. As the Family’s guru, he claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
By 1968 Manson was prophesying an apocalyptic racial war in the United States. He became convinced that songs on the Beatles’ psychedelic White Album contained coded references to the coming apocalypse, notably the tracks “Helter Skelter” (Manson’s term for the race war that would lead to Armageddon) and “Revolution 9” (which he understood to be a veiled reference to the Book of Revelation, chapter 9, which describes four angels setting out to kill a third of mankind; Manson took these four angels to be the Beatles).
Manson was also associated with the Process Church of Final Judgement, one of whose key doctrines was reconciliation between Christ and Satan. According to Manson, his Family would survive the prophesied racial holocaust because they would be hiding in the desert safe from the chaos of the city. He took from Revelation the concept of a “bottomless pit,” the entrance to which he asserted was a cave underneath Death Valley that led down to a city of gold, and where Manson and his Family planned on waiting out the war.
His idea was that when the war was over the Manson Family would be one of the only white families left, leaving them to rule over the remaining victorious blacks. When Armageddon failed to come, Manson took matters into his own hands and began plotting a way to hasten the desired carnage. During the summer of 1969 Charles instructed some members of the Family to begin a series of mass murders.
The first, called the Tate homicides, occurred on 9 August 1969 at the home of Sharon Tate, wife of the film director Roman Polanski. Three victims were shot and/or stabbed multiple times on the grounds of the estate. These were Abigail Folger, Steven Parent, and Voiytek Frykowski. Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were murdered inside the house.
Tate, eight months pregnant at the time, died from numerous stab wounds; Sebring died of blood loss. Both had also been hanged over a rafter. The next homicides, the LaBianca murders, occurred two days later in the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. They were found stabbed to death with dozens of wounds.
The officials working on the two investigations were the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office (LASO) for the LaBianca case and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for the Tate murders. Lack of communication between the two law enforcement entities put both cases in jeopardy several times during the investigations.
In addition there were also several mistakes made in the preservation and collection of evidence. The police appear to have been stunned by the horrific details at the mass murder crime scenes, and they badly bungled the task of collecting evidence: for example, they were unable to find the clothing worn by the murderers (a television news crew was able to locate the clothing later).
A major break in the case happened when Family member Susan Atkins was arrested on a charge of prostitution. While in prison, she talked to her cellmate about having been involved in the Tate murders, and Manson and three of his followers (Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten) were charged with the Tate/LaBianca murders.
The trial was spectacular: Manson spent much of the time with his back to the judge and his actions were repeated by his codefendants and other followers. He shaved his head and carved a swastika on his forehead; his Family followed suit. All four were found guilty and sentenced to execution.
Manson, along with other Family members, also later received a death sentence for the Gary Hinman and Donald Shea killings, which were subsequently discovered to have been carried out by Manson’s cult. The death penalties were commuted to life imprisonment in the 1970s when California law was changed.
Many commentators wondered if Manson and his Family were connected to other conspiratorial forces, and this speculation was reignited when one of his followers, Lynette “Red” “Squeaky” Fromme, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford on 5 September 1975. Fromme was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for life in the same year. Her motive appears to have been to publicize Manson’s request for a retrial, and his concern about the environment.