Manson, Charles Milles

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MANSON, Charles Milles

(b. 12 November 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio), musician, lifetime criminal, and charismatic leader of a group of hippies known as the Family, who, after a series of murders in 1969, became a symbol of the decade's dark side.

Manson was the illegitimate child of a promiscuous sixteen-year-old alcoholic girl—perhaps a prostitute—named Kathleen Maddox. In a 1937 child-support suit, the court of Boyd County, Kentucky, named Colonel Scott (no other name given) as his legal father. Maddox's brief marriage to an older man, William Manson, gave Manson his name. When Maddox was jailed in 1939 for robbing a service station, Manson went to stay with his religious aunt and uncle. After his mother's parole in 1942, he lived rootlessly with her and her alcoholic lovers. In 1947 Manson was sent to the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana; after ten months he ran away, beginning his own life of crime and incarceration.

Manson was inescapably shaped by years in penal institutions, beginning with a conviction for burglary at age twelve and progressing through auto theft, forgery, and pimping. Small and weak-looking, Manson learned to manipulate others. Between prison sentences, he married twice: to seventeen-year-old Rosalie Jean Willis in January 1955 (divorced 1958) and to a prostitute named Leona in late 1959 (divorced 10 April 1963). He had one child by each marriage. Manson was released from Terminal Island in Los Angeles County on 21 March 1967 into a world that had changed a great deal during his incarceration. With permission, he relocated to San Francisco, which was just entering the "Summer of Love," a supposed counterculture new dawn that brought the young and innocent to San Francisco from all over the world in the summer of 1967. Although he was already in his thirties and a career criminal, Manson was otherwise as naive as the teenagers to whom he gravitated. In prison an aging member of Ma Barker's gang of robbers and kidnappers, Alvin ("Creepy") Karpis, had taught Manson to play guitar. In the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, a hippie haven, Manson was stunned and delighted to find that playing the role of a gentle musician could bring him food, a place to stay, and all the sex he wanted.

With the methods of a pimp and the goals of a messiah, Manson developed a hodgepodge philosophy. Many values were clear: freedom, spirituality, self-expression, and a genuine if simplistic dedication to Earth's ecology. The details were vague enough to be applied as needed. Thus, Manson assembled what has been called "the Family." Playing guitar on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Manson met Mary Brunner and immediately moved in with her. Near Venice Beach, he picked up Lynnette Fromme, also known as "Squeaky." Manson received a suspended sentence for helping Ruth Ann Morehouse, then fourteen, leave her family.

Doubtless, Manson controlled those he attracted, but he also learned from them. For instance, the writer Ed Sanders mentions Manson's fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, a satirical science-fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Actually, Manson barely read at the seventh-grade level, though certainly he incorporated many ideas when he heard them. Manson also learned from religious groups throughout California, from Scientology to the Process Church. He was changed by taking LSD, and he learned to use the drug to influence others. Manson also maintained contact with fellow criminals. At the home of one, he met Patricia Krenwinkle, age eighteen, who soon quit her job to join Manson and "Charlie's girls," traveling throughout the Pacific Coast in a Volkswagen van. In September 1967, twenty-five-year-old Bruce Davis became Manson's first male follower.

If ever there was a true hippie movement, by this time it was considered to be dying, turned into a media shuck at precisely the time that Manson's group grew and took shape. They exchanged the van for a black school bus. Soon Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins (also known as Sadie Mae Glutz), Dianne ("the Snake") Lake, Sandra Good, Cathy ("Gypsy") Share, and others joined the traveling commune. Manson and his group also made wealthy and famous friends—though exactly who these friends were is often a matter of dispute and a subject of gossip. Certainly, he befriended both Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, a record producer and the son of Doris Day. Manson sought help for his music career, but the only concrete result was one song on the Beach Boys' album 20/20. The entire troupe stayed with Wilson for months in 1968, where they met and were joined by Charles ("Tex") Watson.

After travels in the school bus and various stopovers, in August 1968 the group settled at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California. The owner, George Spahn, elderly and mostly blind, was pacified by Squeaky Fromme as his private attendant. Life was both tough and idyllic: living in shacks, eating food from dumpsters, using stolen credit cards. The group also sang and made polymorphous perverse love every night. Some four children were born, at least one fathered by Manson. Manson and others spent time elsewhere—including Canoga Park and Death Valley—but were living at the Spahn ranch when they committed their infamous murders.

Just after midnight on 9 August 1969, Tex Watson drove a car, also containing Linda Kasabian, Patricia ("Katie") Krenwinkle, and Susan Atkins, to 10050 Cielo Drive. Manson knew the house from his friendship with Terry Melcher, though the inhabitants were new: Sharon Tate, an actress and the wife of the director Roman Polanski, and her friends, Abigail Folger, Wojtek Frykowski, and Jay Sebring. A visitor named Steve Parent also was killed, though the caretaker Bill Garretson, in another building, survived. The murders went beyond gruesome—a symphony of stabbings and shootings—the killers wrote "PIG" on the wall in blood.

The next night, the group attacked 3267 Waverly Drive, the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson himself joined Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkle, Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten, and Steven Grogan, also known as "Clem," though it is uncertain whether he actually participated in the violence. They used the LaBiancas' carving knife and left the carving fork stuck in Leno's abdomen. They also carved "WAR" in his stomach and again wrote on the wall in blood: "DEATH TO PIGS," "RISE," and "HEALTER SKELTER." (The last phrase was a misspelling of "Helter Skelter.") Afterward, they ate from the LaBiancas' refrigerator.

Commentators still debate the group's motivation. The prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi later convinced a jury that Manson planned to ignite a race war, after which the blacks would turn power over to Manson. His inspiration allegedly had come from the Beatles' eponymous 1968 release, best known as "the White Album," which contained such songs as "Helter Skelter," "Blackbird," "Piggies," and the frightening "Revolution 9." More practically, Bobby Beausoleil had just been arrested for killing Gary Hinman over a drug deal, and some of the women thought that other murders, blamed on blacks, could help Beausoleil seem innocent. Certainly, the murders were an ultimate expression of the group's togetherness and their hatred of Earthdestroying corporate America; they were also Manson's revenge on the world of celebrity that represented the success he hoped his own music would bring.

The trial—a media circus and the longest trial in California history at the time—dragged on for over nine months. Manson's shenanigans in the courtroom included holding up a newspaper with the headline "MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES" so that the jury could see it, thus very nearly bringing about a mistrial. On 25 January 1971 Manson was found guilty of first-degree murder. He and others received death sentences, commuted to life imprisonment when California law changed. Theoretically eligible for parole, Manson settled in for permanent incarceration. In 1985 a fellow inmate, Jan Holmstrom, doused Manson with paint thinner and set him ablaze, but Manson recovered. After transfer from San Quentin in 1989, Manson continued to write letters and give television interviews from Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California.

Many social critics see Manson's group as an inevitable dark outgrowth of counterculture life and goals. While Manson found a ready pool of followers among the runaways and the stoned revolutionaries of love, his actions were as determined by the lessons of prison life and basic human nature as they were by his times. Most important, the murders crystallized fears concerning class struggle and the revolt of the young, putting a leering face to the general discomfort among the middle class and wealthy and helping increase the cultural climate of division and fear between the classes and generations.

Nikolas Schreck, ed., The Manson File (1988), provides original writing and art by Manson, a useful (and opinionated) annotated bibliography, and information on Manson's life and impact since the murders. Manson himself has criticized Manson in His Own Words, as told to Nuel Emmons (1986), but its insights are invaluable. The two major books by others have their own agendas and complement each other: Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971), and Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974). Susan Atkins and Tex Watson each wrote an account of life with Manson as well as their conversion to Christianity in prison: respectively, Child of Satan, Child of God (1977) and Will You Die for Me? (1978).

Bernadette Lynn Bosky