Wednesday 21 August 2019

Monster who embodied the American bad dream

Charles Manson was a divine figure to some of his followers, but his name became a byword for evil

Charles Manson, cult leader and mastermind behind 1969 deaths of actress Sharon Tate and several others Photo: AP
Charles Manson, cult leader and mastermind behind 1969 deaths of actress Sharon Tate and several others Photo: AP

Paul Valentine

The sheer incomprehensibility of the acts of Charles Manson - mutilation and ritual stabbings of seven victims, among them Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant by her movie director husband, Roman Polanski - left the world aghast and police investigators stumped for months.

Last Sunday, Manson, the cult master whose lemming-like followers staged a two-night murder rampage in Los Angeles in 1969, died in hospital in Kern County, California, aged 83. Manson, who was serving a life sentence at California State Prison in Corcoran, had had health problems in recent years and was hospitalised in January for gastrointestinal bleeding.

SLAUGHTERED: Hollywood beauty Sharon Tate, above with filmmaker husband Roman Polanski, was pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times by a follower of Charles Manson Photo: AFP/Getty
SLAUGHTERED: Hollywood beauty Sharon Tate, above with filmmaker husband Roman Polanski, was pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times by a follower of Charles Manson Photo: AFP/Getty

For many, Manson and his ragtag entourage of runaways, two-bit criminals and blindly loyal worshippers symbolised the dark excesses of the drug-driven, free-love 1960s.

Manson and his so-called 'family' members wandered the Californian countryside, scavenging, stealing and preparing for an apocalyptic race war prophesied by their leader and dubbed 'Helter Skelter' after the Beatles song.

A prelude to the conflagration was the slaughter of the seven victims in two affluent Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Orchestrated by Manson on two successive nights in August 1969, the seemingly random killings were calculated to hasten the race war by making them appear committed by black militants. That in turn, he told his followers, would stir white sentiment against blacks, triggering widespread violence by blacks.

The scheme bore surface plausibility with the rash of urban explosions throughout the 1960s, culminating in the assassination of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 and nationwide rioting.

Investigators, however, said the attacks also appeared motivated, at least in part, by Manson's uncontrolled rage in the weeks leading up to the murders, when Hollywood agents rejected his self-proclaimed musical talents.

The killings - known collectively as the Tate-LaBianca murders - led to the arrest and conviction of Manson and four of his followers in 1971.

All were sentenced to death in the California gas chamber, but the sentences were reduced to life in 1972 when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.

Manson transfixed the nation with his roving, luminous eyes and courtroom theatrics during the months-long trial in which he and three female followers - Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten - were convicted. A fourth family member, Charles 'Tex' Watson, was convicted in a separate trial.

Manson and the women, as well as family supporters outside the courtroom, repeatedly disrupted the proceedings with antics, shouting often unintelligible slogans and chanting protests in unison. Once, Manson was restrained by bailiffs when he lunged at the judge.

"Look at yourselves," he shouted another time, glaring at the spectators. "You're going to destruction."

Manson was a study in stark contrasts. Small and scrawny, he was also charismatic and held an almost hypnotic power over his followers, especially women. Some believed he was divine.

Investigators, academic researchers and journalists found him alternately erratic and focused, a proficient guitarist, a lover of animals and a racist with a left-leaning hatred of the 'establishment' and corporate America.

He was not crazy, but he could fake it and had an insatiable need to control others, prompting him to recruit naive and malleable acolytes.

"Basically, Manson was a coward," Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies, told Maclean's magazine in 2012. "He was the kind of guy who had other people do his bidding."

Charles Milles Manson was born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, the son of an unmarried 16-year-old girl who supported herself on petty crime.

He never knew his father, and with his mother periodically jailed, he was shunted among various relatives in small-town West Virginia and Kentucky. He began engaging in petty theft himself and ended up in a series of foster homes and reformatories.

His education stopped at the seventh grade. While only sketchily literate, he scored a high-normal IQ of 121 while in prison.

He married twice, first to a teenage waitress, Rosalie Willis, in 1955, divorcing in 1958. Then in 1959 he married a woman with a prostitution record named Leona 'Candy' Stevens. That union also ended in divorce.

A son from his first marriage, Charles Manson Jr, who renamed himself Jay White, committed suicide in 1993. He had a son from his second marriage, Charles Luther Manson. He may have other children.

Manson drifted to California in the mid-1960s, drawn to the hippie scene in San Francisco and later Los Angeles. He began gathering a loose following of devotees, many of them disillusioned and confused youngsters.

He attempted to ingratiate himself with the Hollywood glitterati, using his guitar and songwriting as a wedge, and was briefly befriended by Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson, record producer Terry Melcher, son of actress Doris Day, and others. He managed to get one song on the Beach Boys' album 20/20 in 1968. It was titled Cease to Exist but revised and retitled Never Learn Not to Love by Wilson.

Meanwhile, his followers, ranging loosely from a handful to a few dozen, encamped at various sites, abiding by his strict rules of communal living, including mandatory group sex and drug use. "We took hundreds of [LSD] trips together," Krenwinkel said in a 1994 prison interview.

Women were entirely subordinate to men. They turned over their money to Manson. "The women did the cooking... The men ate first and the women got what was left," wrote Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson.

It was during this time in the late 1960s that his vision of racial Armageddon gelled as well, guided, he asserted, by biblical prophecy and coded language in the Beatles' White Album in such songs as Helter Skelter, Blackbird and Piggies.

During the war, he preached, his followers would go underground with him in Death Valley, then rise again to take over leadership from the victorious blacks.

On the night of August 9, 1969, the first of two family teams entered a home formerly rented by Melcher. Manson assumed it would be tenanted by people similarly wealthy, influential and deserving of death.

The team forced its way in, repeatedly beating, stabbing and shooting Tate and three friends - coffee heiress Abigail Folger, her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring.

A fourth victim, Steve Parent, an acquaintance of the property's caretaker, was shot in his car outside the house. Polanski was abroad at the time.

Late the next night, another family team drove to a second upmarket neighbourhood where Manson picked a house next to one where he and friends had partied earlier that year. The group broke in and with ritual savagery killed Leno LaBianca, a grocery store chain operator, and his wife, Rosemary.

At both houses, the intruders smeared bloody slogans on walls and furnishings - 'Death to pigs' and 'Rise' - as well as a telltale Black Panther paw print to mislead police.

Investigators were stymied for months. They got their break when Atkins, jailed in connection with an unrelated murder, confided to cellmates about the Tate-LaBianca killings.

Fingerprint and ballistics evidence at the scene confirmed Atkins's assertions. Manson, also in custody on unrelated charges, was quickly indicted.

Prosecutors depicted Manson as the mastermind of the murders, and while family members acknowledged his planning role, they said he did not participate in the killings. The jury nevertheless found him equally culpable.

Manson spent his years behind bars answering mountains of mail, weaving scorpions and spiders from string and granting occasional TV interviews.

As he aged, his eyes dulled, his scraggly hair and beard whitened and the swastika carved on his forehead began to fade.

Charlie Rose, in an Emmy Award-winning interview on the CBS Nightwatch show in 1987, asked Manson for his reaction to the public perception of him as a "monster".

His answer: "What you see is what you get."

© The Washington Post

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