By Margalit Fox
Charles Manson, one of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century, who was very likely the most culturally persistent and perhaps also the most inscrutable, died on Sunday in Kern County, California. He was 83 and had been behind bars for most of his life.
He died of natural causes in a hospital, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a news release.
Manson was a semiliterate habitual criminal and failed musician before he came to irrevocable attention in the late 1960s as the wild-eyed leader of the Manson family, a murderous band of young drifters in California. Convicted of nine murders in all, Manson was known in particular for the seven brutal killings collectively called the Tate-LaBianca murders, committed by his followers on two consecutive August nights in 1969.
The most famous of the victims was Sharon Tate, an actress who was married to the film director Roman Polanski. Eight and a half months pregnant, she was killed with four other people at her Benedict Canyon home.
The Tate-LaBianca killings and the seven-month trial that followed were the subjects of fevered news coverage. To a frightened, mesmerized public, the murders, with their undercurrents of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and Satanism, seemed the depraved logical extension of the anti-establishment, do-your-own-thing ethos that helped define the ‘60s.
Since then, the Manson family has occupied a dark, persistent place in American culture – and American commerce. It has inspired, among other things, pop songs, an opera, films, a host of internet fan sites, T-shirts, children’s wear and half the stage name of the rock musician Marilyn Manson.
It has also been the subject of many nonfiction books, most famously “Helter Skelter” (1974), by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Bugliosi was the lead prosecutor at the Tate-LaBianca trial.
The Manson family came to renewed attention in 2008, when officials in California, responding to long speculation that there were victims still unaccounted for, searched a stretch of desert in Death Valley. There, in a derelict place known as the Barker Ranch, Manson and his followers had lived for a time in the late ‘60s. The search turned up no human remains.
It was a measure of Manson’s hold over his followers, mostly young women who had fled middle-class homes, that he was not physically present at the precise moment that any of the Tate-LaBianca victims was killed. Yet his family swiftly murdered them on his orders, which, according to many later accounts, were meant to incite an apocalyptic race war that Manson called Helter Skelter. He took the name from the title of a Beatles song.
Throughout the decades since, Manson has remained an enigma. Was he a paranoid schizophrenic, as some observers have suggested? Was he a sociopath, devoid of human feeling? Was he a charismatic guru, as his followers once believed and his fans seemingly still do?
Or was he simply flotsam, a man whose life, The New York Times wrote in 1970, “stands as a monument to parental neglect and the failure of the public correctional system”?
No Name Maddox, as Manson was officially first known, was born on Nov. 12, 1934, to a 16-year-old unwed mother in Cincinnati. (Many accounts give the date erroneously as Nov. 11.) His mother, Kathleen Maddox, was often described as having been a prostitute. What is certain, according to Bugliosi’s book and other accounts, is that she was a heavy drinker who lived on the margins of society with a series of men.
Manson apparently never knew his biological father. His mother briefly married another man, William Manson, and gave her young son the name Charles Milles Manson.
Kathleen often disappeared for long periods – when Charles was 5, for instance, she was sent to prison for robbing a gas station – leaving him to bounce among relatives in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. She was paroled when Charles was 8 and took him back, but kept him for only a few years.
From the age of 12 on, Charles was placed in a string of reform schools. At one institution, he held a razor to a boy’s throat and raped him.
Escaping often, he committed burglaries, auto thefts and armed robberies, landing in between in juvenile detention centers and eventually federal reformatories. He was paroled from the last one at 19, in May 1954.
Starting in the mid-1950s, Manson, living mostly in Southern California, was variously a busboy, parking-lot attendant, car thief, check forger and pimp. During this period, he was in and out of prison.
He was married twice: in 1955 to Rosalie Jean Willis, a teenage waitress, and a few years later to a young prostitute named Leona. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Manson was believed to have fathered at least two children over the years: at least one with one of his wives, and at least one more with one of his followers. The precise number, names and whereabouts of his children – a subject around which rumor and urban legend have long coalesced – could not be confirmed.
By March 1967, when Manson, then 32, was paroled from his latest prison stay, he had spent more than half his life in correctional facilities. On his release, he moved to the Bay Area and eventually settled in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the nerve center of hippiedom, just in time for the Summer of Love.
There, espousing a philosophy that was an idiosyncratic mix of Scientology, hippie anti-authoritarianism, Beatles lyrics, the Book of Revelation and the writings of Hitler, he began to draw into his orbit the rootless young adherents who would become known as the Manson family.
Manson had learned to play the guitar in prison and hoped to make it as a singer-songwriter. His voice was once compared to that of the young Frankie Laine, a crooner who first came to prominence in the 1930s.
Manson’s lyrics, by contrast, were often about sex and death, but in the ‘60s, that did not stand out very much. (Songs he wrote were later recorded by Guns N’ Roses). Once he was famous, Manson himself released several albums, including “LIE,” issued in 1970, and “Live at San Quentin,” issued in 2006.
With his followers – a loose, shifting band of a dozen or more – Manson left San Francisco for Los Angeles. They stayed awhile in the home of Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer. Manson hoped the association would help him land a recording contract, but none materialized. (The Beach Boys did later record a song, “Never Learn Not to Love,” that was based on one written by Manson, although Wilson, who sang it, gave it new lyrics and a new title – Manson had called it “Cease to Exist” – and took credit for writing it.)
The Manson family next moved to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a mock Old West town north of Los Angeles that was once a film set but had since fallen to ruins. The group later moved to Death Valley, eventually settling at the Barker Ranch.
The desert location would protect the family, Manson apparently thought, in the clash of the races that he believed was inevitable. He openly professed his hatred of black people, and he believed that when Helter Skelter came, blacks would annihilate whites. Then, unable to govern themselves, the blacks would turn for leadership to the Manson family, who would have ridden out the conflict in deep underground holes in the desert.
At some point, Manson seems to have decided to help Helter Skelter along. Late at night on Aug. 8, 1969, he dispatched four family members – Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles Watson and Linda Kasabian – to the Tate home in the Hollywood hills. Manson knew the house: Terry Melcher, a well-known record producer with whom he had dealt fruitlessly, had once lived there.
Shortly after midnight on Aug. 9, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Watson entered the house while Kasabian waited outside. Through a frenzied combination of shooting, stabbing, beating and hanging, they murdered Tate and four others in the house and on the grounds: Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairdresser; Abigail Folger, an heiress to the Folger coffee fortune; Voytek (also spelled Wojciech) Frykowski, Folger’s boyfriend; and Steven Parent, an 18-year-old visitor. Tate’s husband, Polanski, was in London at the time.
Before leaving, Atkins scrawled the word “pig” in blood on the front door of the house; in Manson’s peculiar logic, the killings were supposed to look like the work of black militants.
The next night, Aug. 10, Manson and a half-dozen followers drove to a Los Angeles house he appeared to have selected at random. Inside, Manson tied up the residents – a wealthy grocer named Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary – before leaving. After he was gone, several family members stabbed the couple to death.
The phrases “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter,” misspelled, were scrawled in blood at the scene.
The seven murders went unsolved for months. Then, in the autumn of 1969, the police closed in on the Manson family after Atkins, in jail on an unrelated murder charge, bragged to cellmates about the killings.
On June 15, 1970, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and a fourth family member, Leslie Van Houten, went on trial for murder. Kasabian, who had been present on both nights but said she had not participated in the killings, became the prosecution’s star witness and was given immunity. Watson, who had fled to Texas, was tried and convicted separately.
During the trial, the bizarre became routine. On one occasion, Manson lunged at the judge with a pencil. On another, he punched his lawyer in open court. At one point, Manson appeared in court with an “X” carved into his forehead; his co-defendants quickly followed suit. (Manson later carved the X into a swastika, which remained flagrantly visible ever after.)
Outside the courthouse, a small flock of chanting family members kept vigil. One of them, Lynette Fromme, nicknamed Squeaky, would make headlines herself in 1975 when she tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford.
On Jan. 25, 1971, after nine days’ deliberation, the jury found Manson, Atkins and Krenwinkel guilty of seven counts of murder each. Van Houten, who had been present only at the LaBianca murders, was found guilty of two counts. All four were also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.
On March 29, the jury voted to give all four defendants the death penalty. In 1972, after capital punishment was temporarily outlawed in California, their sentences were reduced to life in prison.
Manson was convicted separately of two other murders: those of Gary Hinman, a musician killed by Manson family members in late July 1969, and Donald Shea, a Barker Ranch stuntman killed late that August. Altogether, Manson and seven family members were eventually convicted of one to nine murders apiece.
Incarcerated in a series of prisons over the years, Manson passed the time by playing the guitar, doing menial chores and making scorpions and spiders out of thread from his socks. His notoriety made him a target: In 1984, he was treated for second- and third-degree burns after being doused with paint thinner by a fellow inmate and set ablaze.
Manson was turned down for parole a dozen times, most recently in 2012. Most of the other convicted family members remain in prison. Atkins died in prison in 2009, at 61, of natural causes.
The Manson family was an inspiration for the television series “Aquarius,” broadcast on NBC in 2015 and 2016. A period drama set in the late ‘60s, it starred David Duchovny as a Los Angeles police detective who comes up against Manson (played by the British actor Gethin Anthony) in the course of investigating a teenage girl’s disappearance.
To the end of his life, Manson denied having ordered the Tate-LaBianca murders. Nor, as he replied to a question he was often asked, did he feel remorse, in any case.
He said as much in 1986 in a prison interview with the television journalist Charlie Rose.
“So you didn’t care?” Rose asked, invoking Tate and her unborn child.
“Care?” Manson replied.
He added, “What the hell does that mean, ‘care’?”