Charles Manson: The man who helped take away America's innocence
As a man, Charles Manson had long faded to irrelevance. A wild-eyed octogenarian in an orange prison jumpsuit, condemned to a jail cell for the rest of his natural life. All that remained for him was a footnote. Born November 12, 1934, died November 19, 2017.
As a symbol, though, he remains a potent symbol of the loss of America’s innocence in the late 1960s. An embodiment of pure evil, whose appalling crimes paralleled the murder of a young fan by Hells Angels as the Rolling Stones played at the Altamont Festival months later in 1969.
Together they represented a dark and pessimistic end to the early optimism of the 1960s. The transmuting of the hippy nirvana of the Summer of Love to the darkness of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the rioting and burning of America’s inner cities, and the seemingly endless bloody quagmire of Vietnam.
Manson personified this waking nightmare. He will be remembered for two days in early August 1969, even though he played no active part.
On August 9, drug-addled followers of Manson’s wilder pronouncements invaded a house in the prosperous Los Angeles of Benedict Canyon and slaughtered the inhabitants.
The five dead included Sharon Tate, an up and coming model and actor and the eight and half months pregnant wife of the film director Roman Polanski. On the way out, one of the gang marked the front door with the word “pig” written in Tate’s blood.
The following day the same gang, joined by other Manson followers, cruised the streets of the city until forcing their way into another house and killing Leno and Rosemary LaBIanca, a supermarket executive and his wife. The only connection seems to be that Manson had attended a party next door a year early.
The case was suffused with pop culture. Manson, the product of a broken home and with a history of petty criminal activity and observable mental illness, was reincarnated by his trial as a cult leader; his followers as “The Family,” brainwashed by his overbearing personality.
Those attracted to Manson’s commune in Death Valley tended to the vulnerable and the susceptible, many of them young women. Manson had reinvented himself with a full blown Messiah complex, and an apocalyptic message that blended Satanism and the prospect of a Second Coming.
His views were shot through with racism, for which he delved in the lyrics of the Beatles, in particular the White Album and the song Helter Skelter which he interpreted as a premonition of a full blown race war between black and white. It was said he hoped the Black Panthers would be blamed for the Tate murders.
Manson himself had pretensions as songwriter, and even established himself on the fringe of the Beach Boys, the band that symbolised golden Californian summers, after two female members of The Family moved in with the group’s drummer, Dennis Wilson.
The relationship came to a swift end in 1968, when Manson was reported to have threatened Wilson with a bullet.
Although not one of the killers, Manson was convicted, along with four members of The Family, for six murders. Sentenced to execution, this was later commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in the 1970s. Evidence was produced in court that Manson had ordered the killings.
Manson’s hold on his followers continued from behind bars. In 1975, another member of The Family, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, failed in an attempt to assassinate president Gerald Ford, when her gun did not fire.
Manson, from prison, continued to attract the impressionable, to whom he sold autographs, with his reputation as a cultural icon, if anything, growing over time. The American singer Marilyn Manson co-opted his surname with that of the actress Marilyn Monroe for his stage persona.
In 1993, Guns N’ Roses included a cover version of a Manson song Look at Your Game Girl, on their album, The Spaghetti Incident, on the insistence of lead singer Axl Rose. Manson’s share of the royalties was eventually paid to the family of one of his victims.
Manson’s sense of importance, though, remained mostly in his own mind. A cross he had carved into his forehead was reworked as a swastika and he gave a number of rambling interviews to the American media.
He was denied parole 12 times. “I’m special. I’m not like the average inmate. I have spent my life in prison. I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man,” he told one hearing.
At the final hearing, in April 2012, the parole board was told he was suffering from schizophrenia and paranoid delusional disorder. His physical health also began to deteriorate and he was taken to hospital in January with internal bleeding. Manson's death on Sunday, according to California Department of Corrections, was the result of natural causes. He was 83.
After learning of Manson’s death, Sharon Tate’s sister Debra told American TV that she felt no ill will to him or any of the killers, but was determined to keep him and his followers behind bars.
“One could say I’ve forgiven them, which is quite different than forgetting what they are capable of.” she said.