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Things You Need to Know About Charles Manson & His Cult

On August 9, 1969, members of Charles Manson’s cult kill five people in movie director Roman Polanski’s Beverly Hills, California, home, including Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Less than two days later, the group killed again, murdering supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their home. The savage crimes shocked the nation and turned Charles Manson into a criminal icon.

Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934 to an unwed 16-year-old mother. He spent much of his childhood in juvenile reformatories and his early adulthood in prison. After his release in 1967, Manson moved to California and used his unlikely magnetism to attract a group of hippies and set up a commune, where drugs and orgies were common, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Manson preached his own blend of eccentric religious teachings to his acolytes, who called themselves his “Family.” 

Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist), was not the cult leader’s intended target. Manson, an aspiring musician, chose the Polanski house because he had once unsuccessfully tried to get a recording deal from a producer who used to live there. Polanski was out of town at the time of the murders, but his wife and her friends, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger, were shot or stabbed to death. Manson stayed out of the Polanski house on the night of the crime and didn’t take part in the LaBianca killings either. However, he would later be charged with murder on the grounds he had influenced his followers and masterminded the crimes.

After initially eluding police suspicion, Manson was arrested only after one of his followers, already in jail on a different charge, started bragging about what had happened. Manson’s subsequent trial became a national spectacle, in which he exhibited bizarre and violent behavior. In 1971, he was convicted and given the death penalty; however, that sentence became life behind bars when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in 1972.

Manson has been the subject of numerous movies and books, including the best-seller Helter Skelter (the title is a reference to a Beatles’ song of the same name, through which Manson believed the group was sending secret messages to start a race war). Manson died in prison in 2017.

Why Did the Manson Family Kill Sharon Tate? Here’s the Story Charles Manson Told the Last Man Who Interviewed Him

In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, one of the most infamous crimes of the 20th century plays a prominent role: though the movie’s story is fictionalized, Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, the real actor who was a victim of the 1969 murders committed by followers of the cult leader Charles Manson.

A half-century after Tate’s death, there remain plenty of myths and theories about why Manson’s followers carried out the murders — and one of the biggest questions is the extent to which Charles Manson himself was involved, and why.

At the time, prosecutors said that Manson, who wanted to be a rock star, ordered the murders of Tate and four others because the previous owner of the house at which the deaths occurred — Terry Melcher, a music producer — had refused to make a record with Manson. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi also argued that Manson was obsessed with the Beatles’ White Album, and thought its message was that he should start a race war by framing black innocents for crimes against affluent white people; the “race war” was nicknamed “Helter Skelter” after that song, and the fact that the word “pig” was written on the wall at the crime scene in blood was linked to the track “Piggies.”

But, says James Buddy Day, a true-crime TV producer and author of the new book Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words of Charles Manson, everyone involved in the crimes had a slightly different take on what happened. While researching the book, Day conducted interviews with Manson — who was still serving a life sentence — during the year leading up to Manson’s death on Nov. 19, 2017, at the age of 83, and is thus believed to be the last person to interview the infamous criminal at length.

“There are so many people involved in the Manson story, not one of them can say what really happened. No one was making decisions for the whole group,” he says.

One of the people who offered Day a version of the story was, of course, Manson, who maintained his innocence until his death. “I didn’t have nothing to do with killing those people,” he told Day in a phone call. “They knew I didn’t have anything to do with it.” So the story Manson told Day about the summer of 1969 is one in which, unlike in the “Helter Skelter” story, his role in the murders is relatively small.

“There’s this whole underlying story people don’t know,” says Day, who, 50 years later, hopes to set the record straight. The theory that Day describes in his book revolves around events that were known 50 years ago, but are not as well known today as the Tate murder is. Rather than looking at grudges or hidden messages, this story starts instead with a botched drug deal that took place that July 1.

The story, as Day tells it in his book, is this: Charles “Tex” Watson was a drug dealer in Los Angeles who lived at Spahn Ranch with Manson and his followers. Watson had stolen money from another dealer, Bernard Crowe. Crowe called Spahn ranch to look for Watson. Charles Manson was put on the line, and Crowe threatened to come kill everyone unless he got his money back. The threat led Manson to go to Crowe’s Hollywood apartment. The two men fought and Manson shot Crowe in the stomach; Manson believed he’d killed Crowe, though he hadn’t.

Day identifies this moment as a turning point. After, as fear of outsiders and retaliation intensified, Manson warned the ranch residents that the Black Panthers — a group to which he believed Crowe belonged — were going to come after them.

“Manson said, ‘Now we gotta fend for ourselves because the Black Panthers are going to kill us,’” says Day. “At that point, Manson has two problems: First, he’s worried that Black Panthers will take revenge for the drug dealer he believes he’s murdered, and second is that anyone in the group can rat him out. So he comes up with a strategy of saying, if everyone’s willing to commit these violent acts, it will bond us together, and no one can tell on anyone.”

The dynamic of the group further changed, this theory alleges, when Manson invited the motorcycle gang known as the Straight Satans to live on the ranch, to enjoy the female company in exchange for protecting the rest of the group from the Black Panthers. The Straight Satans weren’t the only ones he invited to the ranch for that reason. Another man who came around that time was Bobby Beausoleil, a wannabe biker he’d met via the Topanga Canyon music scene.

Beausoleil told Day that he wanted to impress the Straight Satans, so when they wanted drugs, he volunteered to find some. He got them some mescaline he’d purchased from his friend Gary Hinman, a grad student at UCLA. After the Straight Satans complained that the drugs were bad, Beausoleil tried to get their money back; on July 25, he and Hinman fought and both were injured. Manson was called, and came over with reinforcements. He slashed Hinman’s face with a Confederate sword and fled the scene. Worried that Hinman would call the police, Beausoleil stabbed him to death on July 27.

He then tried to cover his tracks: Beausoleil wrote “Political Piggy” on a wall in blood and later told the police that he had seen the two men who killed Hinman, and that they were black. Mary Brunner, another former Manson family member, told the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. in Dec. 1969 that Beausoleil also drew a black cat paw print on the wall to suggest the Black Panthers had been responsible for the crime.

“I don’t remember a lot of what happened immediately after I killed Gary,” Beausoleil told Day during conversations on the phone from prison. (Beausoleil, who has admitted to the murder, was tried twice and convicted the second time.) “There was a concerted effort to throw off the police and make it look like someone else had done it.”

When Beausoleil was arrested on Aug. 6 outside L.A., Manson worried he might spill the beans about the framed crime scene or what had happened with Bernard Crowe. Manson told Watson to figure out a way to keep things quiet.

Someone at the ranch hatched a plan to replicate a copycat crime scene elsewhere, so police would believe Beausoleil’s story that Hinman’s killer was still on the loose. A spot was chosen: a house on Cielo Drive, apparently one that Watson knew because he had gone to a party Melcher threw there. On Aug. 8, Watson and three female members of the so-called Manson family — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian — headed to the house. Five people were murdered there: Tate, the three people she was hanging out with, and a man who ran into them after visiting the caretaker of the property. “PIG” was written in blood on a wall. The gun Manson used to shoot Crowe was the same gun Watson used that night.

On Aug. 10, they struck again, this time with Manson joining the group at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Watson stabbed Leno, and he, Krenwinkel and another Manson family member named Leslie Van Houten stabbed Rosemary. Day’s theory is that Manson may have wanted money from Leno, a grocery-store-chain owner who liked to gamble, to pay off the Straight Satans, who were still angry about getting their money back for the bad mescaline.

A few months after Tate’s body was found on Aug. 9, 1969, Charles Manson and several of his followers were arrested for suspected auto theft. One of the Manson family members involved, Susan Atkins, told her cellmates that theft was not the limit of their crimes, and that confession led authorities to connect the group to the murders.

So, while media outlets like TIME reported that Manson had ordered the murders, which was also the timeline that came out in the trial, Manson’s own version was that his followers orchestrated the whole thing, and he was only involved in a passive way.

On Jan. 25, 1971, Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were convicted. They were later sentenced to death, but those sentences were changed to life in prison after California temporarily banned the death penalty in 1972. Later that year, Watson was convicted of the Tate murders, and Manson was also convicted of the murders of Gary Hinman and Donald Shea, a Hollywood stuntman who was killed at Spahn Ranch in late August of 1969. The lead prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, wrote a 1974 bestseller, and died in 2015. Linda Kasabian was granted immunity for giving testimony. Watson, Beausoleil and Van Houten are still alive and in prison. And there are several other Manson family members who were not involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders, but have talked to the press and done documentaries about life on the ranch, including the upcoming one Day is executive producing, Manson: The Women.

So with all that time talking to Charles Manson, what does Day believe actually happened? He says he thinks Manson’s version is more likely than not pretty close to the truth, but he doesn’t agree with the cult leader’s feeling that the drug-deal story is exculpatory.

“I think there’s no question Manson is culpable for those murders, if not all of them,” Day says he believes. “The murders would not have happened without him.”

Five myths about Charles Manson

Fifty years ago, Los Angeles was shocked by the horrific slaughter of actress Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant, and four visitors to her Benedict Canyon estate. The next night, across town, two more people were murdered in their home: Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. At both houses, the victims were found stabbed to death, with variations of the word “pig” written in blood on the walls. When police identified the killers as a brainwashed “family” led by an ex-con named Charles Manson, the murders took on a mythical quality, becoming a source of perennial fascination. With the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” — which dramatizes the Manson Family’s crimes with a grisly, revisionist twist — the misconceptions about the historic case may only multiply.

Manson, a serial killer, slayed the Tate-LaBianca victims.

Fox News, the Guardian and HuffPost have all recently used the term “serial killer” to describe Manson. It’s an easy mistake to make, since Manson’s group murdered many people in rapid succession, and Manson himself is synonymous with those crimes.

But Manson wasn’t even at the scene when his followers killed Tate and her visitors — Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent — on the night of Aug. 8, 1969. He was present at the LaBianca murders, but helped only by tying up the couple in their living room. After that, he left, ordering his followers to repeat the events of the previous night, but with less “mess.”

Though Manson did not directly perform the killings, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi won a conviction against him on seven counts of first-degree murder by arguing that he had ordered them. Manson was also convicted of two murders that he did physically participate in: of Gary Hinman, a musician and UCLA graduate student, and Donald “Shorty” Shea, a movie stuntman.

Manson was a hippie.

When the Family was indicted on murder charges, the Los Angeles Times labeled the group a “hippie clan,” and the tag has become an immutable part of the way we see them. In “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio sneeringly dismisses the Manson girls as “hippies.” And a new book on Manson, “Hippie Cult Leader,” also suggests that he shared the movement’s flower-power ethos.

But Manson and his ragged following were not hippies. To be sure, they fit the popular stereotype: The men grew their hair long and didn’t shave; the women wore flowing peasant dresses and flowers in their hair; and drugs such as LSD, hash and marijuana were part of their daily lives. Manson borrowed some hippie lines about free love. But as he saw it, hippies were weak and ineffectual, and where they aimed to expand their consciousness, he wanted his followers “dead in the head.” As an alternative, he adopted the term “slippies,” derived from one of the group’s signature practices: Late at night, they would slip in and out of the homes of wealthy families to rearrange their furniture and steal their personal belongings. They called this “creepy crawling,” and it was hardly a way to make love and not war.

Manson obviously lacked musical talent.

Prosecutor Bugliosi’s best-selling book about the Manson case, “Helter Skelter,” claims that Manson didn’t have the chops to succeed as a musician, citing a “folk-song expert” who found Manson’s songs “extremely derivative” and wrote him off as “a moderately talented amateur.” Bugliosi used Manson’s alleged lack of talent to fortify his motive for the murders: In this view, he wanted to lash out at the Hollywood music scene that had rejected him. The notion that Manson was a bad musician has percolated into more recent narratives about the murders; a Vox explainer from this month repeatedly calls him untalented.

In fact, many musicians in Hollywood who heard Manson’s music thought he was a promising singer-songwriter. Neil Young, in his 2012 autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace,” described the songs as “off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.” The Beach Boys even recorded one of Manson’s songs, “Cease to Exist,” though they altered the music and retitled it “Never Learn Not to Love.”

Manson was mentally ill.

The cruelty and sadism of the Family have led many to conclude that Manson suffered from some mental illness. A Jezebel reporter, interviewing me about my book, wondered if the story was so complicated because Manson was “one of the most extraordinarily mentally ill people that the American public has ever been exposed to.” A New York Times reporter put it more bluntly: “Manson was completely insane, right?” After studying historical footage for the role, actor Damon Herriman, who plays Manson in Tarantino’s movie and in the new season of the TV series “Mindhunter,” likened him to “someone with schizophrenia that you see talking to themselves on the street. . . . Clearly the guy was mentally ill.”

In reality, though, Manson was never diagnosed with any illness. He refused to submit to a psychiatric evaluation at his 1970 trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the psychiatrists and psychologists who examined him during his subsequent years in prison disagreed about whether he was faking. (One report from 1982 recommended that Manson be transferred out of the psychiatric ward, concluding that he was only “a psychiatric curiosity or oddity.”)

Manson hoped to ignite a race war.

As Bugliosi explained at trial and in his book — and as has been repeated in pretty much every news article , book or film about the case — Manson instructed his followers to kill everyone at the Tate and LaBianca homes and frame the Black Panthers. Manson’s belief, Bugliosi contended, was that the subsequent police crackdown would spark an apocalyptic race war. Manson promised his followers he’d protect them in a bottomless pit in the desert, and then they’d reemerge to repopulate the planet with their perfect white offspring

In the first book about the trial, “Witness to Evil,” author George Bishop wrote that Bugliosi believed his race-war motive even “more than Manson” did. But that belief wasn’t widely shared among Bugliosi’s colleagues. Nearly a dozen cops and prosecutors involved with the original investigations told me that they thought the Tate and LaBianca murders were “copycat” crimes intended to spring a lesser Family member, Bobby Beausoleil, from jail: He was awaiting trial in the Gary Hinman murder, committed two weeks earlier, and the new killings may have been meant to sow doubts that authorities had captured the right man. Many of them said Bugliosi inflated a minor Family “philosophy” about a possible coming race war into Manson’s central, personal motivation. “Did you ever hear of dramatic license?” Aaron Stovitz, Bugliosi’s original co-prosecutor in the case, asked me. (Stovitz, for his part, says he never bought the race-war theory.)

Bugliosi himself made a startling admission in the last interview he gave before his death in 2015. “ Did Manson himself believe all this ridiculous, preposterous stuff about all of them living in a bottomless pit in the desert while a worldwide war went on outside? I think, without knowing, that he did not,” he told Rolling Stone. If not to start a race war, why did Manson order the killings? He died in prison in 2017, and we may never know the answer.







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