Manson believed in what he called “Helter Skelter“, a term he took from the song of the same name by the Beatles. Manson believed Helter Skelter to be an impending apocalyptic race war, which he described in his own version of the lyrics to the Beatles’ song. He believed the murders would help precipitate that war. From the beginning of his notoriety, a pop culture arose around him in which he ultimately became an emblem of insanity, violence and the macabre. The term “helter skelter” was later used by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as the title of a book that he wrote about the Manson murders.
At the time the Family began to form, Manson was an unemployed former convict, who had spent half of his life in correctional institutions for a variety of offenses. Before the murders, he was a singer-songwriter on the fringe of the Los Angeles music industry, chiefly through a chance association with Dennis Wilson, drummer and co-founder of the Beach Boys. After Manson was charged with the crimes of which he was later convicted, recordings of songs written and performed by him were released commercially. Various musicians, including Redd Kross, Guns N’ Roses, White Zombie, Devendra Banhart and Marilyn Manson, have covered some of his songs.
Manson’s death sentence was automatically commuted to life imprisonment when a 1972 decision by the Supreme Court of California temporarily eliminated the state’s death penalty. California’s eventual reinstatement of capital punishment did not affect Manson, who is currently serving nine concurrent life sentences at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California.
Prior to the murders in Southern California, Manson had been a petty criminal who had amassed a number of arrests from 1949 onward. He has spent all but four years since then in custody.
Manson’s presentation of himself
Actor Al Lewis, who had Manson babysit his children on a couple of occasions, described him as ‘A nice guy when I knew him’. Through Phil Kaufman, Manson got an introduction to young Universal Studios producer, Gary Stromberg, then working on a film adaptation of the life of Jesus set in modern America with a black Jesus and southern redneck ‘Romans’. Stromberg thought Manson made interesting suggestions about what Jesus might do in a situation, seeming strangely attuned to the role; to illustrate the place of women he had one of his women kiss his feet, but then kissed hers in return. At the beach one day, Stromberg watched while Manson preached against a materialistic outlook only to be questioned about his well-furnished bus. Nonchalant, he tossed the bus keys to the doubter who promptly drove it away, while Manson watched apparently unconcerned. According to Stromberg, Manson had a dynamic personality with an ability to read a person’s weakness and ‘play’ them. Trying to co-opt an influential individual from a motorcycle gang by granting him access to ‘Family’ women, Manson claimed to be sexually pathetic, and convinced the biker that his outsized endowment was all that kept the ‘Family’ females at Spahn ranch. On one occasion, the enraged father of a runaway girl, who had joined the ‘Family’, pointed a shotgun at Manson and told him he was about to die. Manson quietly invited him to shoot before talking to the man about love and, with the aid of LSD, persuaded him to accept the situation.
Involvement with Wilson, Melcher
The events that would culminate in the murders were set in motion in late spring 1968, when (by some accounts) Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys picked up two hitchhiking Manson women, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey, and brought them to his Pacific Palisades house for a few hours. Returning home in the early hours of the following morning from a night recording session, Wilson was greeted in the driveway of his own residence by Manson, who emerged from the house. Uncomfortable, Wilson asked the stranger whether he intended to hurt him. Assuring him he had no such intent, Manson began kissing Wilson’s feet.
Inside the house, Wilson discovered 12 strangers, mostly women. Over the next few months, as their number doubled, the Family members who made themselves part of Wilson’s Sunset Boulevard household cost him approximately $100,000. This included a large medical bill for treatment of their gonorrhea and $21,000 for the accidental destruction of his uninsured car, which they borrowed. Wilson would sing and talk with Manson, while the women were treated as servants to them both.
Wilson paid for studio time to record songs written and performed by Manson. Wilson introduced Manson to entertainment business acquaintances. These included Gregg Jakobson, Terry Melcher and Rudi Altobelli (the last of whom owned a house he would soon rent to actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski). Jakobson, who was impressed by “the whole Charlie Manson package” of artist/lifestylist/philosopher, also paid to record Manson material.
The account given in Manson in His Own Words is that Manson first met Wilson at a friend’s San Francisco house where Manson had gone to obtain cannabis. The drummer supposedly gave Manson his Sunset Boulevard address and invited him to stop by when he came to Los Angeles.
Manson established a base for the group at Spahn’s Movie Ranch, not far from Topanga Canyon Boulevard, in August 1968 after Wilson’s manager evicted the family. The entire Family then relocated to the ranch. The ranch had been a television and movie set for Western productions. However, by the late 1960s, the buildings had deteriorated and the ranch was earning money primarily by selling horseback rides.
Family members did helpful work around the grounds. Also, Manson ordered the Family’s women, including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, to occasionally have sex with the nearly blind, 80-year-old owner, George Spahn. The women also acted as seeing-eye guides for Spahn. In exchange, Spahn allowed Manson and his group to live at the ranch for free. Squeaky acquired her nickname because she often squeaked when Spahn pinched her thigh.
Charles Watson soon joined the group at Spahn’s ranch. Watson, a small-town Texan who had quit college and moved to California, met Manson at Dennis Wilson’s house. Watson gave Wilson a ride while Wilson was hitchhiking after his cars had been wrecked.
Spahn nicknamed Watson “Tex” because of his pronounced Texan drawl.
In the first days of November 1968, Manson established the Family at alternative headquarters in Death Valley‘s environs, where they occupied two unused or little-used ranches, Myers and Barker. The former, to which the group had initially headed, was owned by the grandmother of a new woman in the Family. The latter was owned by an elderly, local woman to whom Manson presented himself and a male Family member as musicians in need of a place congenial to their work. When the woman agreed to let them stay there if they’d fix up things, Manson honored her with one of the Beach Boys‘ gold records, several of which he had been given by Dennis Wilson.
While back at Spahn Ranch, no later than December, Manson and Watson visited a Topanga Canyon acquaintance who played them the Beatles’ White Album, then recently released. Manson became obsessed with the group. At McNeil, he had told fellow inmates, including Alvin Karpis, that he could surpass the group in fame; to the Family, he spoke of the group as “the soul” and “part of ‘the hole in the infinite’. ”
On May 18, 1969, Terry Melcher visited Spahn Ranch to hear Manson and the women sing. Melcher arranged a subsequent visit, not long thereafter, on which he brought a friend who possessed a mobile recording unit; but he himself did not record the group.
By June, Manson was telling the Family they might have to show blacks how to start “Helter Skelter”. When Manson tasked Watson with obtaining money supposedly intended to help the Family prepare for the conflict, Watson defrauded a black drug dealer named Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe. Crowe responded with a threat to wipe out everyone at Spahn Ranch. Manson countered on July 1, 1969, by shooting Crowe at his Hollywood apartment.
Manson’s mistaken belief that he had killed Crowe was seemingly confirmed by a news report of the discovery of the dumped body of a Black Panther in Los Angeles. Although Crowe was not a member of the Black Panthers, Manson concluded he had been and expected retaliation from the Panthers. He turned Spahn Ranch into a defensive camp, with night patrols of armed guards. “If we’d needed any more proof that Helter Skelter was coming down very soon, this was it,” Tex Watson would later write, “Blackie was trying to get at the chosen ones.”
On July 25, 1969, Manson sent Family member Bobby Beausoleil along with Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins to the house of acquaintance Gary Hinman, to persuade him to turn over money Manson thought Hinman had inherited. The three held the uncooperative Hinman hostage for two days, during which Manson showed up with a sword to slash his ear. After that, Beausoleil stabbed Hinman to death, ostensibly on Manson’s instruction. Before leaving the Topanga Canyon residence, Beausoleil, or one of the women, used Hinman’s blood to write “Political piggy” on the wall and to draw a panther paw, a Black Panther symbol.
In magazine interviews of 1981 and 1998–99, Beausoleil would say he went to Hinman’s to recover money paid to Hinman for drugs that had supposedly been bad; he added that Brunner and Atkins, unaware of his intent, went along idly, merely to visit Hinman. On the other hand, Atkins, in her 1977 autobiography, wrote that Manson directly told Beausoleil, Brunner, and her to go to Hinman’s and get the supposed inheritance—$21,000. She said Manson had told her privately, two days earlier, that, if she wanted to “do something important”, she could kill Hinman and get his money. Beausoleil was arrested on August 6, 1969, after he had been caught driving Hinman’s car. Police found the murder weapon in the tire well. Two days later, Manson told Family members at Spahn Ranch, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.”
On August 8, 1969, Manson directed Watson to take Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to Melcher’s former home and kill everyone there. He told the three women to do as Watson told them. The Family members proceeded to kill five people: actress Sharon Tate, who was living there at the time; Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski, who were visiting her; and Steven Parent, who had been visiting the caretaker of the home. Atkins wrote “pig” in blood on the front door as they left. The murders created a nationwide sensation. In a trial lasting from June 1970 to January 1971, Manson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel were found guilty and sentenced to death. In a separate trial in 1971, Watson was also found guilty and sentenced to death. All the death penalties were commuted to life in prison in 1972 when the death penalty was abolished in California.
The next night, six Family members—Leslie Van Houten, Steve “Clem” Grogan, and the four from the previous night—rode out on Manson’s orders. Displeased by the panic of the victims at Cielo Drive, Manson accompanied the six, “to show [them] how to do it.” After a few hours’ ride, in which he considered a number of murders and even attempted one of them, Manson gave Kasabian directions that brought the group to 3301 Waverly Drive. This was the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, a dress shop co-owner. Located in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, it was next door to a house at which Manson and Family members had attended a party the previous year.
According to Atkins and Kasabian, Manson disappeared up the driveway and returned to say he had tied up the house’s occupants. He then sent Watson up with Krenwinkel and Van Houten. In his autobiography, Watson stated that having gone up alone, Manson returned to take him up to the house with him. After Manson pointed out a sleeping man through a window, the two of them entered through the unlocked back door. Watson added at trial, he “went along with” the women’s account, which he figured made him “look that much less responsible.”
As Watson related it, Manson roused the sleeping Leno LaBianca from the couch at gunpoint and had Watson bind his hands with a leather thong. After Rosemary was brought briefly into the living room from the bedroom, Watson followed Manson’s instructions to cover the couple’s heads with pillowcases. He bound these in place with lamp cords. Manson left, sending Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten into the house with instructions that the couple be killed.
Before leaving Spahn Ranch, Watson had complained to Manson of the inadequacy of the previous night’s weapons. Now, sending the women from the kitchen to the bedroom, to which Rosemary LaBianca had been returned, he went to the living room and began stabbing Leno LaBianca with a chrome-plated bayonet. The first thrust went into the man’s throat.
Sounds of a scuffle in the bedroom drew Watson there to discover Mrs. LaBianca keeping the women at bay by swinging the lamp tied to her neck. After subduing her with several stabs of the bayonet, he returned to the living room and resumed attacking Leno, whom he stabbed a total of 12 times with the bayonet. When he had finished, Watson carved “WAR” on the man’s exposed abdomen. He stated this in his autobiography. In an unclear portion of her eventual grand jury testimony, Atkins, who did not enter the LaBianca house, said she believed Krenwinkel had carved the word. In a ghost-written newspaper account based on a statement she had made earlier to her attorney, she said Watson carved it.
Returning to the bedroom, Watson found Krenwinkel stabbing Rosemary LaBianca with a knife from the LaBianca kitchen. Heeding Manson’s instruction to make sure each of the women played a part, Watson told Van Houten to stab Mrs. LaBianca too. She did, stabbing her approximately 16 times in the back and the exposed buttocks. At trial, Van Houten would claim, uncertainly, that Rosemary LaBianca was dead when she stabbed her. Evidence showed that many of Mrs. LaBianca’s 41 stab wounds had, in fact, been inflicted post-mortem.
While Watson cleaned off the bayonet and showered, Krenwinkel wrote “Rise” and “Death to pigs” on the walls and “Healter [sic] Skelter” on the refrigerator door, all in LaBianca blood. She gave Leno LaBianca 14 puncture wounds with an ivory-handled, two-tined carving fork, which she left jutting out of his stomach. She also planted a steak knife in his throat.
Meanwhile, hoping for a double crime, Manson had gone on to direct Kasabian to drive to the Venice home of an actor acquaintance of hers, another “piggy”. Depositing the second trio of Family members at the man’s apartment building, he drove back to Spahn Ranch, leaving them and the LaBianca killers to hitchhike home. Kasabian thwarted this murder by deliberately knocking on the wrong apartment door and waking a stranger. As the group abandoned the murder plan and left, Susan Atkins defecated in the stairwell.