To understand why Charles Manson has remained such a riveting figure in American popular culture for five decades, it helps to go back to mid-April 1969, when Manson, then 34, called his three dozen or so followers together on the isolated Spahn Ranch outside Los Angeles.
It was several months before the notoriously gruesome murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends, followed by the wealthy couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. But it was well after Manson had informed his ragtag flock of an imminent “Helter Skelter” race war—prophesized, he claimed, by the Bible and the Beatles—and began training them for combat. A few days earlier, officers from the county sheriff’s office had raided Spahn, confiscating stolen dune buggies and arresting some “Manson Family” cult members, though they were soon released on technicalities. Manson himself was away from the ranch and had avoided being taken into custody. But having spent much of his adult life in prison, the group leader wanted to explain to the others what he planned to do if he was ever put behind bars again.
“Charlie said that if he was in jail for a few days or even for years, he’d start acting like ‘Crazy Charlie,’ being strange and not making sense until (the authorities) got so frustrated with him that they’d let him go,” former Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten recalled in a 2013 interview while serving her life sentence in a California women’s prison. “But he told us we shouldn’t believe it, because it was just an act he’d put on as long as he had to.”
Six months later, Manson had to. And thanks to his skill as a performer—in particular, his instinctive understanding of when and how often to remind the world of his murderous nuttiness—Charles Manson held the world in fascinated thrall for more than four decades of high-security incarceration, right up to his death on November 18th. Though he was a prisoner, Manson orchestrated everything. And the world couldn’t help but ogle.
The attention started with the seven Tate-La Bianca murders on August 9th and 10th, 1969, as well as two ancillary slayings, one before and one afterward. Los Angeles was thrown into a city-wide panic. Constant media coverage of the horrific murders and a drawn-out search for the perpetrators mushroomed from mostly local to national, then global, coverage. In October, as Manson’s bedraggled band was arrested for unassociated crimes in Death Valley, and authorities began to connect the dots, Manson flipped the switch, as promised: He transformed from cunning cult leader into full-fledged Crazy Charlie.
He’d already had considerable practice. In previous prison stints, and in juvenile-delinquent facilities before that, the tiny (5 ft.-3 in.) Manson was often confronted by much larger inmates. Too small and weak to fight them off, he startled them instead with wild rantings and gyrations. This apparent insanity often unsettled the bullies enough for them to leave Manson alone.
“And even outside (prison) he would constantly put on an act,” said Phil Kaufman, a former inmate who met Manson in prison in the mid-1960s and later lived for a while with the Manson Family. “He’d pretend to be all kinds of different things, depending on the audience.” Gregg Jakobson, who knew Manson through their mutual friendship with Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, remembered Manson bragging about his chameleon-like skills: “Charlie said it was easy for him to ‘change hats’ and instantly switch his personality to fit whatever situation he was in.”
Prior to his arrest and trial for the Tate-La Bianca slayings, Manson sometimes described himself as the Second Coming of Christ. Or he predicted that he and his followers would rule the world after Helter Skelter ended, with whites exterminated and blacks unable to fend for themselves due to intellectual deficiency. His ultimate goal, ever since he first heard the Beatles on a prison radio, was to become the most famous musician on earth. One way or the other, Manson was determined to be important. He would have preferred legions of fans—or at least cult followers—but as long as it was widespread enough, virtually any form of notoriety would do.
Being the accused in a high profile, death-penalty-possible trial wasn’t Manson’s first choice, but he took full advantage of the stage. On the first day, he carved a bloody X between his eyebrows, and supporters passed out leaflets claiming he’d done so because he felt X’d out of society. The trial was the longest in U.S. history, giving Manson ample time to unleash Crazy Charlie on the breathlessly watching world. He leapt over a barrier to attack the judge, led followers in silly sing-alongs, and frequently broke into howling rants that resulted in his ejection from the courtroom. According to Leslie Van Houten, who, along with Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, were Manson’s co-defendants, every gesture, grimace and shriek was planned in advance.
“Charlie and the three of us would meet every morning with our lawyers before (going into) court,” Van Houten said. “That was when he’d tell us what he had planned for the day.” Manson would give pre-arranged signals to the three women when he wanted them to follow his lead in acting outrageously. His lurid antics, reported in both the evening TV newscasts and the morning papers, kept America transfixed. By April 1971, when he and the female trio were sentenced to death, Manson had been a household name for almost 18 months—and, thanks to his own guile and unexpected help from the outside, Manson’s hold on the public imagination was only beginning.
Prompt execution in the gas chamber would probably have ended Manson’s time in the limelight— since Watergate loomed, as did the disastrous end to America’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Once Manson was gone, there would have been plenty of new tragedies to claim the nation’s attention. But in February 1972, the California Supreme Court abolished the state death penalty, and Manson’s sentence was automatically reduced to life in prison, with periodic all-too-public parole hearings where Crazy Charlie took center stage. There was never any chance of Manson being set free, but he craved the inevitable attention.
Manson also commandeered the spotlight by granting occasional interviews to popular television personalities, each designed to further his own reputation for unsettling weirdness. The most notorious came in 1988, when he informed Geraldo Rivera on-camera that “I’m going to chop up some more of you (expletives)… I’m going to pile you up to the sky.”
As Manson aged, he found other ways to not only retain his celebrity, but extend it. Some of his remaining followers established a website where Manson’s ramblings attracted a new wave of disaffected youth. In November 2014, 27-year-old acolyte Afton “Star” Burton announced that she and her 80-year-old hero were engaged. Headlines followed, particularly when Manson disavowed the engagement before the bride-to-be even had a chance to register at Target. Crazy Charlie remained master of the media.
Devoted Manson follower Squeaky Fromme did her part to keep her beloved leader in the spotlight. On September 5, 1975, she attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, failing only because her semi-automatic handgun failed to fire. Manson denied putting Fromme up to it, but most people believed he’d surely had some influence on the act—that his malignant reach extended far beyond his prison walls. Not even the president was safe from Charles Manson.
Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi demonstrated considerable courtroom talent in convicting Manson for the Tate-La Bianca murders, but as an unintended consequence gave Manson the public attention that Charlie skillfully exploited. In 1974, though, Bugliosi, along with co-author Curt Gentry, did Manson an even greater favor. Helter Skelter, their gripping first-person account of Manson’s capture and trial, became an international hit and the best-selling true-crime book in history. A spinoff made-for-TV movie two years later set ratings records.
“I wanted the public to get the real story, not Manson’s version,” Bugliosi told me shortly before his death in 2015. Helter Skelter began with a warning: “The story you are about to read will scare the hell out of you.” To date, the book has sold more than 7 million copies, and Helter Skelter remains a top seller.
Speaking four years before her one-time leader’s death, Leslie Van Houten gave Manson grudging credit: “Charlie lied about everything except how, if he got caught, he’d play Crazy Charlie. In that one thing, he was a man of his word.”
Even at the end, dying of undisclosed causes in a Bakersfield hospital near the state prison in Corcoran where he spent the last decades of his life, Manson commanded worldwide media coverage. He would have enjoyed every spoken and printed word, no matter how negative. Ultimately, Manson didn’t care what we thought of him, only that we did. He made sure of it.
This is the first in a series called HISTORY READS, offering thought-provoking essays, exclusive book excerpts and other deep-dive stories.