Yesterday, Charles Manson died at the age of 83. The psychopathic cult leader who gained infamy after a series of grisly murders has remained in the public consciousness since his conviction in the 1970s. Furthermore, media portrayals and case studies have kept his image and legacy alive. If you’re not familiar with Charles Manson, strap in. Because you’re in for a wild ride.
Charles Manson: The Early Years
Charles Manson (given name Charles Maddox) was born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother, Kathleen Maddox, was just 15 years old when she gave birth to him. His biological father remains unknown. Throughout his life, Manson described his mother as an unstable alcoholic. He even went so far as to say that Kathleen once sold him for a pitcher of beer. He also said that she had been a teenaged prostitute.
Manson’s childhood was far from happy.
But in 2013, award-winning investigative journalist Jeff Guinn discovered that nearly every self-reported detail of Manson’s early years was a lie. In the groundbreaking biography Manson: The Life And Times of Charles Manson, Guinn published the truth about the future cult leader’s childhood, as detailed by his sister Nancy and cousin Jo Ann.
Nancy and Jo Ann, who had never before given interviews and only agreed to speak to Guinn on the condition of total privacy, revealed that Manson had always been a bad seed. In the book, they recounted that he had always been a liar.
According to Nancy and Jo Ann, Manson was pathologically manipulative from a disturbingly early age. When he was six years old, he convinced some girls in his class to beat up boys that he didn’t like. When his school principal confronted him, he said, “It wasn’t me; they were doing what they wanted. You can’t blame me for that.”
Oh, and Kathleen Maddox was never a prostitute, and she never sold her son for beer. Her only arrest had been for robbery. According to Nancy, she loved Manson and tried her best to help him. Throughout his late teens and early adulthood, Manson had run-ins with the law. When he was 20, he married a 15-year-old waitress. He was in jail when she gave birth to his son, and she subsequently divorced him.
The Manson Family
Let’s fast-forward to 1967.
Manson relocated to San Francisco and manipulated his way into 23-year-old Mary Brunner’s life and home. For those of you unfamiliar with the counterculture and social upheavals of the 1960s, San Franciso, particularly the Haight-Ashbury district, was the epicenter of the Summer of Love and was a hotbed of spiritual exploration.
Manson took advantage of the social and political climate, establishing himself as a guru and attracting a sizeable, predominantly female, following. He even presented himself as a Christ-like figure to further his authority as a spiritual leader.
The followers became known as The Manson Family. At the end of the Summer of Love, they piled into a refurbished school bus and traveled throughout the West Coast before settling in Los Angeles.
The period of 1968 to 1969 can only be described as chaos. In ’68, Manson started predicting a “race war” in the United States and subsequent apocalypse. He described it as “helter-skelter,” a term swiped from the Beatles’ song of the same name.
To instigate and further racial tensions, Manson killed a black drug dealer named Bernard Crowe and told his followers that the Black Panthers would be seeking revenge. Crowe was not associated with the Black Panthers in any way.
A month later, Manson instructed Brunner and two other followers, Susan Atkins and Bobby Beausoleil, to rob his acquaintance Gary Hinman. Brunner, Atkins and Beausoleil ended up holding Hinman hostage for two days before Manson arrived at the scene. Beausoleil killed Hinman. Before leaving the scene, the followers wrote “political piggy” and drew a Black Panther symbol on the wall in Hinman’s blood.
August 9, 1969, marked the most notable Manson Family crime. Manson instructed his followers Charles Watson, Atkins, Patricia Kenwinkel and Linda Kasabian to go to record producer Terry Melcher’s home and kill everyone there. Melcher was not there. Instead, the Family brutally murdered five people, including actress Sharon Tate. Tate was eight months pregnant with her husband Roman Polanski’s child.
The next night, Manson joined his Family in the double homicide of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
After a lengthy investigation and trial, a jury found Manson guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit murder and seven counts of first-degree murder.
Although the presiding judge originally sentenced him to death in 1971, the state of California eliminated the death penalty a year later. He then received a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Since 1971, he had lived in a few California prisons. In 1997, he was moved to a segregated housing unit in Pelican Bay State Prison after he was caught trafficking drugs into Corcoran State Prison. He had since been moved back to Corcoran State.
In 2014, the news broke that Manson was engaged to a 26-year-old by the name of Afton Elaine “Star” Burton. The two even had a marriage license. However, the engagement was called off when Burton’s motivation for marrying him was discovered. She planned to wait until he was dead and then use his corpse as a tourist attraction.
Final Hit: Charles Manson Dead At 83
Charles Manson’s period of activity was incredibly destructive, albeit relatively short. But because of the horrifying nature of his crimes, he gained a level of infamy that is on par with other figures, like Ted Bundy, Jim Jones and El Chapo.
In an interview with NPR, Jeff Guinn posited that if he had been executed as originally planned Manson would have been “mostly forgotten.” But he wasn’t. Instead, Manson survived until the age of 83. Until his death, he held a place in our culture as a sort of living, breathing boogeyman. He’s only been dead for a day. But it’s probably safe to say that, for better or for worse, his grim legacy will live on.