5 Frightening Facts About Charles Manson And The Manson Family

The Manson Family, Charles Manson's homicidal group of hippie cult followers, first shocked the nation with two nights of brutal slaughter in 1969.

Charles Manson [Associated Press]

Charles Manson [Associated Press]

By: Mike McPadden

The name "Charles Manson" alone invokes fear, dread, and images of pure evil. So too does that of the Manson Family, Charles' homicidal cabal of hippie cult followers that first shocked the nation with two nights of brutal slaughter in 1969, and who then continued to cause bewilderment and dread for years with their bizarre antics and outbursts both in and out of courtrooms and prisons.

A full half-century after the infamous “Helter Skelter” murders, Manson and his so-called Family still fascinate and frighten the public with unique and terrible power. Here’s a look back at the madman himself and the murders he oversaw.

Who was Charles Manson and where did he come from?

The man who would become Charles Manson was born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His birth certificate lists him as “No Name Maddox.” The baby’s mother, Kathleen Maddox, was a 16-year-old petty criminal and rumored prostitute. His father’s identity remains unknown. In time, he became known as Charles and later took the surname of a man his mother married, William Manson.

When Manson was 5, his mother was arrested for burglary and was sentenced to three years in prison. An aunt and uncle in West Virginia took in the boy and, in short order, found him to be a troublesome youth.

Early on young Charlie was reportedly charismatic enough to recruit bigger kids to beat up classmates he didn’t like and, if caught, would claim to have nothing to do with the incidents.

By age 12 Manson was such a hellraiser that his mother turned him over to social services, which placed him in the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana. Multiple accounts report that Gibault was a hellhole overrun with violence, intimidation, and rape. The short, slight Manson later said he survived there by learning to act “crazy.”

In 1951, Manson escaped from the Gibault School, but was later captured in Utah. From there, he spent the next few years in and out of different correctional facilities before getting relocated to the West Coast. He ran prostitutes as a pimp for a while before getting busted in 1960 and sent to a federal penitentiary in Washington State.

During this stretch Manson reportedly dedicated himself to perfecting his powers of persuasion. To hone his abilities he is said to have closely studied the popular How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, incorporated some Scientology techniques, and borrowed ideas about God and Satan existing as a single being from the psychedelic cult The Process Church of the Final Judgment.

In addition, the world-changing mega-success and global fame of the Beatles convinced Manson that rock music could be a powerful tool for exerting his influence on the world, which led to him writing and singing songs.

Charles Manson got out of prison on March 21, 1967, just in time for the hippie counterculture’s “Summer of Love” that captivated America’s youth.

Manson headed to San Francisco and found a multitude of potential devotees among the thousands upon thousands of young people who had flocked there to attempt enlightenment through sex, drugs, and rock-‘n’-roll.

Charlie assembles the Manson Family

In April 1967, the 32-year-old Manson met and moved in with 23-year-old Mary Brunner in Berkeley. He then reportedly convinced Brunner to let other women move in with them very quickly - eighteen in total. These women are regarded to be the first members of the Manson Family. From there, the Family kept expanding.

Before the end of the Summer of Love, Manson and his acolytes relocated to the Los Angeles area, ultimately settling on the Spahn Movie Ranch in Death Valley, an unused collection of Western film sets owned by George Spahn, who was 80 years old and blind. Family members did maintenance work on the grounds and, in the case of follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, provided Spahn with sex.

Charles “Tex” Watson joined the Family at the Spahn Ranch in 1968 and became a favorite of Charlie’s. In addition, Manson used the HQ’s close proximity to L.A. to further his ambition of becoming a rock star. He befriended Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and music producer Terry Melcher, the son of Hollywood star Doris Day.

By 1969 Manson also formalized his theory of a “Helter Skelter,” which was inspired by the song from the Beatles’ “White Album.” In fact, Manson told his disciples that each song on that double-LP was a message directly to them.

Manson predicted that a race war was coming to America and that black citizens would ultimately defeat whites, but since blacks had not been in power, they would need someone else to run society. Manson said the victors would then put the Family in charge. With that in mind, he instructed his followers to commit “Helter Skelter” - a series of murders of prominent whites for which he said black killers would be blamed, thereby igniting the apocalyptic conflict from which the Manson Family would emerge in charge of the entire world.

After a series of “creepy crawls,” in which Family members simply walked through upscale L.A. residences, Manson ordered “Helter Skelter” to be enacted and said, “If you're going to do something, do it well. And leave a sign—something witchy.”

On August 8, 1969, Charles Manson dispatched a squadron of his followers to 10050 Cielo Drive, a residence that had previously been occupied by Terry Melcher, the music industry bigwig. Manson allegedly blamed Melcher for his failure to secure a record contract.

Melcher, however, had since departed and the home had been rented by eight-and-a-half months pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate while her husband, filmmaker Roman Polanski, was away making a movie.

Tex Watson, 23, led his fellow Manson Family members Susan Atkins, 19; Linda Kasabian, 19; and Patricia Krenwinkel, 22, onto the property where he reportedly came upon 18-year-old high school student Steven Parent and promptly murdered him on the spot.

From there, the hit squad stormed the living room and slaughtered Tate along with her visitors, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; coffee heiress Abigail Folger, 26; and Wojciech Frykowski, 33, a Polish-born friend of Polanski’s who was dating Folger.

According to court documents, Atkins and Krenwinkel forced Tate, Sebring, and Folger into the front room, where Watson used a towel to bind Frykowski by the wrists. He threw a rope around Tate and Sebring, prompting the hairdresser to shout that they should go easy on the pregnant woman. Watson responded by shooting Sebring with a .22-caliber pistol. When Frykowski managed to get free of his constraints he dashed for the front porch. Watkins tackled him and then shot, stabbed, and pistol-whipped Frykowski so severely the repeated impact broke the gun’s handle.

Folger did manage to make it outside. As she bolted across the lawn, though, Krenwinkel caught up with her and plunged a knife into her. Watson ran up and, together, he and Krenwinkel stabbed Folger 28 times.

Back inside, Tate reportedly begged to be taken hostage, just long enough to give birth to her baby, who was due to be born in two weeks. Accounts vary as to whether Atkins, Watson, or both plunged a blade into Tate 16 times as she cried for mercy. Regardless, Sharon allegedly died while yelling, “Mother! Mother!”

Following Manson’s order to “leave a sign,” Susan Atkins later said she used a towel sopped with Tate’s blood to scrawl the word “PIG” on the front door.

The following morning, Winifred Chapman walked in on the horrific aftermath. The news shook the world - but hardly prepared anyone for what would happen the following night.

The LaBianca Murders

As news of the massacre at Sharon Tate’s house spread, the Manson Family quickly executed part two of their Helter Skelter plan - specifically, by executing supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary LaBianca.

On the evening of August 10, Manson reportedly accompanied the four killers from the previous night's murders, along with Leslie Van Houten, 19, and Steve “Clem” Grogan, 18, to the LaBianca residence to commit the additional murders more to his specifications.

Allegedly, Manson and Watkins woke up Leno at gunpoint in the living room and told him they were only there to rob the house. Watkins reportedly bound Leno’s hands with a leather thong, while Manson pulled Rosemary out of her bedroom, whom Watkins tied up as well.

Watkins then allegedly put pillowcases over the LaBiancas’ heads, gagged them with electrical cords, and stole whatever cash he could find. Then Manson reportedly went out and came back with Krenwinkel and Van Houten, ordering them to kill the LaBiancas.

Watkins is said to have first stabbed Leno in the throat with a bayonet before further savaging him with the blade. Krenwinkel is believed to have carved the word “WAR” in Leno’s stomach before stabbing the dead man and leaving a steak knife in his throat and a carving fork protruding from his stomach.

Leslie Van Houten is believed to have then stabbed Rosemary sixteen times in the back and the buttocks. Afterward, Krenwinkel said she used the blood to write “Death to Pigs” and “Rise” on a wall and also wrote (the misspelled) “Healter Skelter” on the refrigerator.

The next day, humanity reeled at the particularly savage horror of what was now serial murder and feared where “Helter Skelter” might strike next.

The Manson family on trial, behind bars, and beyond

In the time leading up to the murders, authorities had reportedly been watching the Manson Family on suspicion of various crimes, including participating in a car theft ring, stealing dune buggies, and torching construction equipment.

In fact, Charles Manson himself had been arrested on suspicion of car theft on August 16, just one week after the murders. The charges were dropped, however, due to a misdated warrant.

The teams of detectives working the separate Tate and LaBianca murders quickly joined forces and compared evidence left at the two crime scenes.

Acting on tips from local bikers and prisoners who knew the Family, police arrested Manson and various Family members as 1969 drew to a close. Manson’s wild-eyed LAPD mug shot proved instantly iconic, turning him into a cultural “boogeyman” for the next 50 years.

To call the ensuing trials a “circus” would be to downplay the chaos.

Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi famously prosecuted Manson while female Family members showed up with shaved heads, who were disruptive and frequently yelled during the hearings. During proceedings Manson revealed himself to be terrifyingly charismatic, issuing statements such as, “The children that come at you with knives are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up!”

The other Family member’s proceedings proved to be only slightly less bizarre and packed with unpleasant surprises.

In January 1971, Manson and all the other participants in the Tate-LaBianca murders were convicted and sentenced to be executed. The following year, California outlawed the death penalty, which led to their sentences being commuted to life in prison.

Over the ensuing decades, the Manson Family remained ubiquitous in popular culture, serving as the subject of a multitude of books, films, documentaries, and other multimedia platforms.

The Family even made criminal news again in 1975, when Manson devotee Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

Manson himself remained in the news regularly, particularly after providing reporters with one of his signature rant-and-rave interviews.

The fascination continues, even after the death of Manson at age 83 on November 19, 2017.

On July 11, 2023, Leslie Van Houten was released from prison after serving 53 years for the 1969 murders of Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.

For more on the Manson Family Murders, stream People Magazine Investigates: Cults "Manson Family Murders" on discovery+.

This article was originally published on June 6, 2019 and updated on July 12, 2023.

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