Charles Manson (1934-2017)

When I think of Charles Manson, the word that comes to mind is “fascinating.”

I became aware of Charles Manson after viewing Helter Skelter as a kid, the 1976 made-for-television movie (based on the best-selling paperback) that frequently aired on late night television. The fictionalized version of “Charlie” in Helter Skelter was a caricature of the real Manson. In the film he was presented as guy with hypnotic powers over the members of his Family. In real life, he was just a criminal and a con man.

People my age (mid-40s) and younger grew up aware of Charles Manson, but were born after the Tate/La Bianca murders took place in 1969. Maybe that’s why Charles Manson and his followers seemed almost like characters to me. My knowledge of Manson and his Family came from books and documentaries and jailhouse interviews where journalists desperately took turns trying to get serious answers from a raving lunatic.

In my review of the book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson I said that I felt sorry for Charles Manson. His mother was an unwed fifteen-year-old alcoholic who (according to legend) once traded her son Charles for a bottle of booze. She went to prison for the first time when he was five. By the time Manson was thirteen he had been placed in a home for boys, where he claims to have been raped repeatedly; when he escaped and returned home to his mother’s house, she wouldn’t let him in. Due to a string of burglaries, automobile thefts, forged checks and other crimes, Manson had already spent half of his life behind bars by the age of 32. He was released from Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in 1967. The Tate/La Bianca murders took place two years after that. According to most accounts, he was involved in other murders during those two years.

The scariest thing about Charles Manson to me wasn’t the actual murders, but the fact that a bunch of drugged-out hippies could cause so much carnage and hysteria. By all accounts, neither Manson (who once scored 109 on an IQ test) nor any of his followers were criminal masterminds. A .22 revolver (one of the murder weapons) was found a mile and a half from the crime scene, next to the murderers’ bloody clothes. When police raided Spahn Ranch (where the Family was residing) on unrelated charges, Charles Manson infamously hid underneath the sink. (They found him.) Susan Atkins, one of the women present for the murders, blabbed about the crimes in detail to multiple cellmates on multiple occasions. The police weren’t exactly dealing with professional assassins here, and yet, by graphically slaughtering seven people over a period of two nights, Charles Manson and his followers brought terror to Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. It has been claimed that the murders single-handedly put an end to the Summer of Love and the “free love” movement.

Axl Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, used to frequently wear a Charles Manson t-shirt, and included a cover of Manson’s Look at Your Game, Girl on their 1993 album The Spaghetti Incident. Trent Reznor purchased the home at 10050 Cielo Drive (the site of the Tate murder) and recorded The Downward Spiral there along with the music video for “Gave Up.” As a kid I thought those things were pretty cool. I don’t think they’re very cool anymore.

Over the past 40 years, researches have poked significant holes in the story that Charles Manson and his followers were motivated by a Beatles record to start a race war; much more likely is that that the Family was trying to throw police off who were investigating the Family’s involvement in other murders and a stolen car ring. Without all the “Helter Skelter” mumbo jumbo, all we were left with was a bunch of sad people who ended almost a dozen people’s lives and ruined many more.

Yesterday, a bunch of new Charles Manson t-shirts went up for sale on eBay.

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2 comments to Charles Manson (1934-2017)

  • AArdvark

    It’d be interesting to hear from some of the guards at the prison, the ones who had daily contact with him. Find out what he was really like. He had this whole Hannibal Lecter mystique about him, if you believe the hype on the back of the books about him. I think he was just a loser in the wrong place at the right time.


  • lethargic

    RE: How he was in prison.

    In the Manson book they talked about even back during the trial that he was a model prisoner and the guards all liked him. I’m sure the same can be said up until the end. Manson was a carny. Everything was a con, it was all an act. He knew exactly what he was doing. When there’s no camera pointed his way he’ll just chill in his cell writing awful songs. When the spotlight is on he turns on the crazy and puts on a helluva show.

    I literally started looking for a Charles Manson shirt the night they said he was back in the hospital. LOL.

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