- Reuters/Calvin Hom
When cult leader Charles Manson and his “family” carried out their infamous nine-person killing spree in 1969 Los Angeles, the events sent shockwaves across America.
Born from the the hippie scene of late-60s California, Manson’s murders landed him a life sentence in prison. That sentence ended on Sunday, when the cult leader died at age 83 at a hospital in Bakersfield, California.
Here’s a rundown of his turbulent life, his violent crimes, and the aftermath of the Manson Family murders:
Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1934 to a 16-year-old mother who was an alcoholic with a criminal record. He lived a troubled childhood growing up in various boys’ schools, and likely never knew his biological father.
- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Manson bounced around from boarding schools to foster homes starting when he was five years old, soon after his mother was convicted of armed robbery and given a five-year prison sentence.
Manson displayed violent and manipulative tendencies even when he was very young. He was known to manipulate his classmates in the first grade into hurting kids he didn’t like. As a problem child in the foster care system, he soon fell into a life of petty crime, and starting in 1956, spent years in federal prison for a variety of offenses, including forging government checks.
- FCI Terminal Prison via Wikimedia Commons
Manson did his first stint in prison in 1951, and was in and out of jail throughout the ’50s and ’60s.
A probation report from this period says Manson displayed a “marked degree of rejection, instability and psychic trauma”, and was “constantly striving for status and securing some kind of love.” Such symptoms were likely the result his largely parent-less and tumultuous childhood.
His crimes during this period largely included stealing cars, pimping young prostitutes, and forgery.
After his release from prison in 1967, Manson initially arrived in California to pursue music, and became influenced by LSD, hippie culture, and The Beatles.
- Flickr/Mitch Hell
Having learned to play guitar in prison, Manson arrived in Los Angeles with hopes of securing a recording contract through some of the big names in the industry at the time.
While he did his best to wow artists like Neil Young and The Mamas and Papas, his idiosyncratic folk music failed to generate enthusiasm until he was introduced to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who saw talent in Manson’s playing.
Wilson allowed Manson and several of “his girls” – who had by now begun coalescing around him because they believed he was a guru with prophetic powers – to stay with him at his mansion in June 1968.
Wilson eventually kicked them out after they began causing trouble, but Manson later accused the Beach Boys of reworking one of his songs and including it on their 1969 album “20/20” without crediting him.
Manson created a cult around himself called the “Family” that he hoped to use to bring about Armageddon through a race war. He named this scenario “Helter Skelter,” after the 1968 Beatles song of the same name.
Manson believed that once African-Americans rose up against white people in an end-of-times race war, he and his Family, which consisted mostly of women, would be the only ones left standing at its conclusion.
The Family sought to quicken this apocalyptic timeline by carrying out prominent murders of celebrities and pinning them on African-Americans so that people would take notice.
Manson compelled his followers to believe him by exhibiting many qualities common to gurus and spiritual leaders around the world, and also used LSD to influence their thinking.
In August 1969, Manson commanded four of his most loyal followers to embark on a two-day massacre. Seven people were killed, five of whom on a single night at the home of Hollywood director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate.
The four members of the Family arrived at Polanski and Tate’s home after Tate and three of her Hollywood colleagues and friends came back from dinner.
During the bloody ordeal, Tate was stabbed to death along with her unborn child, despite her pleas that the child be spared.
Two of the victims – wealthy friend Voytek Frykowski and coffee heiress Abigail Folger – managed to escape the house, but were brutally stabbed in the front lawn.
Two other victims, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who owned a chain of LA grocery stores, were killed at their home the following night. The Family wrote “DEATH TO PIGS” in blood at the scene.
Manson targeted Polanski and Tate because they represented the rich show business elite that he felt had rejected him. Although Manson himself did not take part in the murders, he was among those ultimately held responsible.
- Evening Standard/Stringer via Getty Images
Manson and members of his Family were arrested in Death Valley not on suspicion they were involved in the murders, but because they were suspected of committing vandalism in the national park. Only once in custody did police identify them as the killers.
Throughout their trial, Manson and the women who were charged alongside him showed no remorse for their crimes, often giggling in the courtroom. They each carved X’s into their foreheads during the trial to mimic Manson, who had done the same.
Manson’s followers defied the charges and publicly supported his defense during the trial.
Manson released an album during his trial to support his defense, and captivated the American public, appearing on the cover of “Life” magazine in December 1969. He was eventually convicted of first degree murder in January 1971 along with one of his accomplices, Susan Atkins, for the murder of nine people.
Manson became an immediate cultural icon, LA county prosecutor Stephen Kay told People Magazine.
“Nobody made the connection with the public that Manson did,” Kay said. “I trace it back to the ‘Life Magazine’ photograph and all the publicity.
“Americans like to be scared and they go to horror movies and things like that, and here was a real-life monster. He looked wild and scary and that is what did it. People have that image of him in their minds.”
Throughout his life sentence in prison, Manson had captivated the dark sides of peoples’ imaginations, giving frequent interviews, cryptic statements, and predictions.
- Handout via Reuters
The dark impressions he left on people inspired musicians like Guns ‘N’ Roses, and led people to send him fan mail hoping to join the Family.
“He gets an average of four fan letters a day,” Kay told People Magazine. “People want to join the ‘family’ and want his autograph. I remember one of the parole hearings at San Quentin and the devil worshippers turned out. He had become the focal point of satanic worshippers. They view him as the devil.”
However, Debra Tate, Sharon Tate’s surviving sister, sees Manson and his Family in more realistic terms.
“They’re not supernatural, they’re not the devil, they’re nothing special, they’re just little creeps,” she said.