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Becoming Charles Manson: His Life Before The Tate-LaBianca Murders

Culture | June 14, 2019

Left: Charles Manson in 1970. Right: Manson at Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Terminal Island, California on May 2, 1956. Sources: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

You're no doubt familiar with the horrific events carried out by followers of Charles Manson August 8 and 9, 1969, in Los Angeles -- but how did Manson rise from a young hoodlum, inept car thief, and failed rock musician to wield such terrible power?

On those two nights, members of the so-called "Manson Family" killed actress Sharon Tate and four friends on Cielo Drive, then murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Feliz the next day. The seven killings were intended to incite "Helter Skelter," Manson’s crazed vision for a race war. The new Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood tells the story of the city while Manson was searching for a record deal -- and though it portrays real people, including Manson, Tate, and her husband Roman Polanski, it departs from the historical facts and culminates in a very different, fairy-tale like ending.

Before he was the leader of a group of killer hippies, Charles Manson was a criminal with dreams of becoming a rock star. He spent his youth conning people and moving from prison to prison, spending most of his young life behind bars. Manson was only out of jail for two years before he ordered his followers to carry out one of the most disturbing crimes of the 20th century. 

Manson's Childhood Was Spent In Juvenile Detention

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Born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, Ohio to 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox, Charles Manson grew up in a state of near-constant chaos. He once bragged that his mother tried to trade him for a pitcher of beer, and claimed that if he was able to choose his mother he would have lived with Kathleen all over again.

After his mother was sent to prison, Manson was sent to the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana. After multiple escapes, Manson was sent to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska where he stole a car and once again escaped the detention center. He was caught after four days of freedom and sent to the Indiana Boys School. This is where Manson’s history of being sexually abused began. He says that because he was so small it was easy for inmates to use him how they saw fit. Manson acted in kind, and by the time he was at the Federal Reformatory in Petersburg, Virginia he was regularly committing sexual assaults on younger inmates.

In 1954, at the age of 20 Manson was finally released from the juvenile system and sent to live with his aunt and uncle in West Virginia. 

He Couldn't Stay Out Of Trouble For Long

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Before he was a cult leader with a ranch full of acid-addled hippies at his disposal, Charles Manson was nothing more than a common criminal. By all accounts, Manson tried to live the straight life for a few months before he began boosting cars and selling the hot wheels to the first person he could find.

In 1955 he married Rosalie Jean Willis and convinced her to move to Los Angeles. The two hopped in a stolen car and made their way across the country. Because Manson is a magnet for the cops and maybe one of the most bumbling criminals ever, he was caught shortly after moving to the west coast and sent to Terminal Island, San Pedro, California. Rosalie, now pregnant with Manson’s first son, filed for divorce and moved on with her life.

During his stint in San Pedro, Manson began cobbling together the dogmas and tactics that he would later use to ensnare a group of young women to carry out his wishes. He studied Dale Carnegie’s teachings on how to get people to do what you want while thinking it’s what they want, and how to disconnect people from their families. He also gleaned a bit of Scientology while he was in the joint, something that he said helped him have “a positive outlook on life.”

Manson Became A Guru During The Summer Of Love

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Manson continued bouncing around federal prisons until 1967. His final stint in the joint took place at the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington. While on McNeil, Manson heard The Beatles for the first time and began composing songs that he planned on taking to LA as soon as he was released. When he was actually let out of prison, he was sidetracked by a trip to San Francisco.

The Summer of Love was in full swing when Manson arrived in the East Bay, and while dealing with the culture shock of life on the outside, he found a new world of free love, cheap drugs, and young people searching for a spiritual guru. It was here that he began applying the lessons that he had taught himself in prison. According to Manson biographer Jeff Guinn:

[San Francisco's] Haight-Ashbury is the place where as many as 300 teenage waifs a day are drifting in. And Haight-Ashbury is overflowing with children who don't know where they're going, what they're going to do ... but they've come in search of some guru to be able to tell them what to do and make their lives better. And that's who Manson preys on. Any other time, any other place, it could not have worked. But unfortunately for the world, he was in the perfect spot to exploit his very terrible gifts.

Manson Moved To Los Angeles To Score A Record Deal

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It didn’t take long for Manson to move his burgeoning family from the Bay Area to Los Angeles so he could search out a record deal. While it sounds ludicrous for someone to just show up in Hollywood expecting to get the attention of record producers, Manson was so magnetic that people flocked to him.

At the time, musicians and other artists were placing a heavy premium on people with a little grime on them (literally and figuratively) and Manson had grime for days. His closest brush with fame came when he and the family took over the home of Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys. Through Wilson, Manson got a shot to record a demo with producers Gregg Jacobson and Terry Melcher.

Each time that Manson was put in a scenario where he put some ideas on tape he completely whiffed. He wasn’t able to handle producers or engineers telling him what to do in a studio setting -- in spite of the fact that he’d never been in a studio. He was “too intense” for Wilson and the rest of the LA scene, and apart from one song idea that was heavily reworked by the Beach Boys and recorded, Manson’s music never saw a major label release. 

The Moved To Spahn Ranch Set Helter Skelter Into Motion

After striking out with the music industry Manson needed to do something to make sure his followers stuck around. Cult leaders need to keep their followers busy and provide them with new things to do, or else they’ll lose their grasp. After the Beach Boys released “Never Learn Not to Love,” originally titled “Cease to Exist” by Manson, the cult leader pivoted away from earning a record contract and used Wilson’s betrayal to jumpstart Helter Skelter, his name for an artificially-induced race war that would somehow cleanse the United States.

Manson moved his followers to Spahn Ranch, a former Western movie set that was falling apart at the seams. From here, Manson became entangled with a motorcycle gang called the Straight Satans while he preached about a Beatles-inspired racial apocalypse ("Helter Skelter" is a song on the Beatles self-titled album, the "White Album," from 1968). The Manson Family lived on Spahn ranch for about a year while Manson grumbled about losing out on a record deal and his hate for Terry Melcher. On August 8 and 9, 1969, Manson would push his family members to carry out a series of murders that shook Los Angeles. 

Tags: 1960s News | A Brief History Of... | Charles Manson | Crime in the 1960s | Manson Family | Sharon Tate

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.