Peace, love, and rock & roll were defining characteristics of the 1960s. It’s difficult to believe, with this backdrop, a man convinced people to kill complete strangers on his behalf. Not only was Charles Manson’s family full of religiously dedicated followers, but he was glamorized by the public.
Born as Charles Miles Maddox in 1934, Charles Manson had a challenging upbringing. Raised by an alcoholic, teenage, single mother; he spent a large amount of time in and out of reformatory schools and juvenile detention centers. 17 of his first 32 years were behind bars. While incarcerated, he learned to play guitar and aspired to become a famous musician.
Manson moved to San Francisco, at the height of the Haight-Ashbury era and immediately attracted attention. He stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall and disarmed those around him easily. Charlie sang about peace and the personal injustices he’d experienced, which resonated with the San Francisco crowd. Because of his message and his music, he began to grow a following. He nicknamed them, “The Family,” and they eventually moved to southern California. The Family grew and shrank in numbers over the years, at times having over 100 members. Members of the group lived the hippie lifestyle. They dumpster dived for food and supplies, hitchhiked for transportation, had intense drug trips, participated in orgies; but above anything else, they did whatever Charlie said.
One of the major beliefs of the family was an impending race war, that Manson had named “Helter Skelter.” Charlie convinced his followers that the black community would revolt against the whites and successfully overthrow them. However, he didn’t believe black individuals could handle their newfound power. They would inevitably turn to him, a white man, for guidance.
Throughout Charlie’s trial, he and his followers constantly warned others about Helter Skelter. They planned to retreat into the desert to wait out the initial violence.
The connection to The Beatles tune by the same name wasn’t a coincidence. The rock group was Charlie’s obsession. He believed that they spoke directly to him through their music. Charlie felt they had a personal connection, regardless of the fact that they never met.
Spahn Movie Ranch
During the late 1960s, The Family called Spahn Ranch, a 55-acre abandoned movie set outside of Death Valley, home. Owned by 81-year-old George Spahn, the family stayed there rent free. The ranch was the backdrop for many western TV shows and movies. Danny DeCarlo (a biker that conducted business at the ranch before the family moved in) claims Mason instructed Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme to look after George. This entailed cooking, cleaning, sex, anything the near-blind ranch owner wanted. In exchange, the family had a place to live. In September of 1970, Spahn Movie Ranch burned down in a wildfire that destroyed miles of northern Los Angeles County.
Manson’s Music Career
After the move to southern California, Manson befriended Beach Boy’s drummer Dennis Wilson. Wilson visited the ranch often and listened to Manson’s demos. He liked spending time with the girls at the ranch, and had even lived with Manson for a period of time. Wilson introduced Manson to record producer Terry Melcher. On multiple occasions, Charles Manson attempted to get Melcher to produce his music. Yet, Wilson and Melcher didn’t think he’d have much success. Manson showed up uninvited to Melcher’s house several times, insisting that he listen to his demos. At the time, Melcher lived at 10500 Cielo Drive.
On August 8, 1969, young Hollywood star Sharon Tate was 8-months-pregnant, and getting together with some friends at her Beverly Hills home. In attendance was Jay Sebring, Tate’s hairstylist, Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger’s coffee fortune, and Wojciech Frykowski, Folger’s boyfriend. The get-together went on till the early hours of the morning. The property had an additional guest house in the backyard where the caretaker, William Garretson, lived. That night Garretson’s friend, Steven Parent, was visiting.
Just after midnight on the 9th, Parent was leaving Garretson’s house when he encountered Tex Watson in the driveway. Watson shot the 18-year-old four times. Steven Parent was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it proved fatal.
After the first murder, Watson, along with Susan Atkins (Sadie Mae Glutz or “Crazy Sadie”) and Patricia Krenwinkel entered the main residence, while Linda Kasbian stood watch at the gate. Tex announced, “I am the Devil, and I am here to do the Devil’s business.” First, they tied Tate and Sebring together by their necks, and proceeded to shoot and stab Sebring. Folger and Frykowski tried to flee the house but were gunned down in the front yard. While Tate begged for her life, and the life of her unborn baby, Watson (and possibly Atkins), stabbed her to death. Atkins then proceeded to write the word “PIG” on the front door in Sharon’s blood.
The word “PIG” holds significance in identifying a motive for the killings. Charlie had decided to speed up the arrival of Helter Skelter and was trying to frame the murders on black perpetrators.
The following night, Charlie decided to keep the momentum going. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca had recently returned from vacationing at Lake Isabella. Rosemary’s children, Frank and Suzanne Struthers, along with Suzanne’s boyfriend, Joe Dorgan, began to worry for the couple. They hadn’t heard from them since their return and decided to check on them. Nothing could’ve prepared them for the grizzly scene they were met with.
Rosemary was found in her bedroom and had been stabbed 41 times. Leno was found in the living room, also stabbed, but his hands and feet were bound. A fork and knife were still stuck in Leno’s torso and throat. The word “WAR” had been carved into his stomach. The phrases, “Death to pigs,” “Rise,” and “HELTER SKELTER” were written on the walls and appliances in blood.
Furthermore, Charlie had randomly selected their house. He never met them. He had been to the house next door to attend parties. On the night of the murders, he went with Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel to the LaBianca’s house. Charlie and Tex entered and bound the couple, robbing them while Van Houten and Krenwinkel waited outside. After the two men robbed the LaBiancas, they went outside, as Charlie instructed the three family members to kill the couple while he drove off.
After leaving the scene, Charles Manson planted the stolen wallet of a black man in a trashcan. This, along with the writing in blood, were further attempts at starting Helter Skelter. The police never recovered the wallet.
The first person to fall victim to the family was Gary Hinman. He was a music teacher that had befriended Charlie. At the scene of the crime, Hinman’s blood spelled out “POLITICAL PIGGY.” Hinman was murdered by his roommate Bobby Beausoleil when he began associating with Manson.
Additonally, Sadie Mae Glutz was imprisoned for Hinman’s murder, but wasn’t convicted. While she was awaiting trial, she told her cellmate “They had wanted to take out the eyes of the people, and squash them against the walls, and cut off their fingers. We were going to mutilate them, but we didn’t have the chance to.” Sadie liked to brag about her crimes. Eventually, her cellmate informed law enforcement that she claimed to have been involved in the Tate murders. This tip ultimately helped connect the dots. While discussing the Tate murders she also said, “You have to have a real love in your heart to do this for people.” Out of all the killers, she seemed the proudest of the murders.
Donald “Shorty” Shea was killed by the Manson family shortly after the Tate-LaBianca murders. He worked as a ranch hand at Spahn Ranch and discovered stolen vehicles on the property. He tipped off police and they raided the ranch. They arrested Manson and several other family members. The raid occurred about a week after the Tate-LaBianca murders. There were newspaper articles about the mysterious murders and the raid on the same day, with no connection to each other. Steve “Clem” Grogan was convicted of his murder. He’s the only convicted killer from the Manson family to be granted parole.
John Philip Haught, AKA Christopher Jesus, AKA Zero, was a family member that is believed to be a victim as well. The story goes, in a game of Russian Roulette, (with four other Manson followers) Zero lost. While investigating gunshots, officers discovered the gun in question was fully loaded. Additionally, it had been wiped clean of prints. Zero had a reputation of having “loose lips” so it’s likely that Charlie felt he was a liability for the family.
Attorney Ronald Hughes also fell victim to the family. A public defender, he was assigned to Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten’s case. Because Leslie hadn’t participated in the murders, (but had been present) his strategy was to distance her from the other defendants. The girls constantly fired their attorneys and requested new ones over the course of their trial. Hughes was determined to get Leslie a plea deal if she would testify against Charles Manson and the others.
Hughes went on a camping trip with a few buddies, but they were rained out. His friends went home early but he stayed in forest for a few more days. Several days later Hughes was reported missing. Rescue teams found his body severely decomposed months later. Cause of death was never determined. Several Manson family members took credit for his death, to send a message to the court. They wanted them to know that they could still make things happen while their leader was behind bars.
Trial and Sentencing
The Manson trial is among the most widely publicized in U.S. history. At one point, President Richard Nixon publicly declared that Manson was “guilty, directly, or indirectly, of eight murders. Yet here is a man, who, as far as the coverage is concerned, appeared to be a glamorous figure.” The next day, media outlets ran with the story, “Nixon Declares Charlie Guilty!” It was such a sensational story, there were even individuals, outside of the family, that protested for the release of Manson.
As a result of relentless television coverage, the jurors spent the duration of the trial secluded. The courts placed the in a hotel with limited access to their loved ones. Cut off from the rest of the world, they were unable to return home. Allowed supervised phone calls and limited visits from spouses, jurors became anxious.
Disruptions were common throughout the trial. Manson and his followers would constantly dismiss their representation, and cause chaos in the court room. During one such incident on October 5th, 1970, Manson leaped over the defense table and attempted to attack Judge Older.
In the end, Charlie, Sadie, Lulu, and Patricia were all sentenced to death. Tex Watson received the death penalty in 1971; however, it was later reduced to life in prison. There were several parole hearings for each family member. Each time they were denied. Patricia Krenwinkel is still at the Institution for Women in California. Leslie Van Houten also remains in prison to this day. Susan Atkins died on September 24th, 2009, of natural causes. Charles Manson died in prison, of a heart attack, on November 9th, 2017.
Bugliosi, Vincent, and Curt Gentry. Helter Skelter, The True Story of the Manson Murders. W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.
“Defendants.” CharlesManson.com, 28 July 2018, https://www.charlesmanson.com/defendants/.