Charles Manson wanted to be a rock star - bigger than the Beatles, bigger than Jesus, to whom he often compared himself. He didn't achieve his goal, but he became the most infamous killer in California's (and perhaps America's) history.
Jeff Guinn's Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson
lets you know immediately that it's going to be a different sort of Manson biography. The front cover photo isn't the familiar 1969 mug shot that became the Life
magazine cover: Manson with the wild hair and the "hypnotic" stare - Manson as he remains in our imaginations. Instead, it's a photo of a winsome, smiling, 13-year-old Charlie, wearing a suit, no less, on the day he was shipped off to Father Flanagan's Boys Town. But little Charlie would have defeated the reformist resolve of even a kindly Spencer Tracy. On his fourth day at Boys Town, Manson and another student, Blackie Nielsen, stole a car and drove to Peoria, Illinois, where Blackie's uncle was a thief. On the way, the pair obtained a gun and committed two robberies, one in a grocery store and the other in a casino. Manson's career as an armed felon was off to a roaring start.
Guinn concentrates on Manson's early years, till now largely apocryphal. He interviewed various Manson family (note the lower-case f
) members about the future cult leader's childhood and early influences. The result is unexpected: a book on Manson with something new to say about this extensively analyzed character. It became a New York Times
One of the most infamous Manson murders, which almost no one now remembers, originated with the torture-murder of Gary Hinman, a music teacher and part-time dope dealer, by Bobby Beausoleil, a friend of Manson's. The motive was that common one: a drug deal gone bad. Family (as Manson's followers called themselves) members Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins participated, along with Manson himself, who hacked Hinman's ear nearly in half with a sword. Manson later left the scene, but gave Beausoleil the word by telephone to complete the execution. The much more famous Tate- LaBianca murders were in part copycat killings to distract attention from the investigation and prosecution of Beausoleil.
"Charlie Manson imbued two core beliefs in his followers - " Guinn summarizes in his book "that he must be obeyed and that, with the exception of Charlie, the members of the Family were the most special people on earth. ... The Family was meant to rule the earth after Helter Skelter [Manson's term for the coming apocalyptic race war, after the track on the Beatles' White Album]. It was ordained by the Beatles and the Bible through Charlie. ... [I]f that meant copycat killings to save Beausoleil, one of their own, then a few deaths - not murders, because the spirit was what counted and you didn't kill anyone's spirit, you just sent it on to a different place - were acceptable sacrifices to the eventual greater good."
In their book Helter Skelter
, Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry told the story of how prosecutors wove evidence supporting this seemingly preposterous motive, although they thought the copycat theory was nonsense. They believed that the sole purpose of the killings was to bring about Helter Skelter. The trial resulted in convictions and death sentences for Manson and Family members Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel.
But this was not the end of the Manson story, of course. On February 18, 1972, in People v. Anderson
, the California Supreme Court decided that the death penalty violated the California Constitution. The court commuted the sentences of the 102 men and 5 women on death row to life imprisonment. Because there was at that time no penalty of life without parole, the entire Family would be given parole dates. Manson then became the poster boy for death penalty advocates in California and elsewhere.
California restored the death penalty by plebiscite in 1978, and Manson was a contributing factor. But Charlie and the Family had already been sentenced to life, so they could not suffer a retroactive increase in their punishment.
One person who paid close attention to the Manson story was army physician Jeffrey R. MacDonald. On February 17, 1970, soon after Manson's arrest, when publicity about killer hippies was at its height, MacDonald's wife and two daughters were killed, and he was wounded, in what MacDonald described as an attack by four intruders. The word pig
was written in blood on the headboard of Mrs. MacDonald's bed. MacDonald said that three of the intruders were men and the fourth a woman with long, blond hair who held a candle and chanted, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs." But MacDonald himself was finally convicted of three counts of murder in 1979, although his appeals continue to this day. MacDonald's hippie mass-murderer defense proved ineffective because there was no hippie mass-murder trend. There was only Charlie.
Disclosure: I met Charles Manson two or three times back in 1967, when he was living in the Topanga Canyon house known as the Spiral Staircase. He was a ragged little hippie type who might have weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. Neighborhood chat in those days largely consisted of gossip about whose dog had knocked up whose bitch. I remember seeing Manson occasionally, sitting in the sun on the hood of an old Jeep, and he was fully up to this level of interaction. But I found neither his eyes hypnotic, nor his rap compelling. I must have flunked Charlie's entry exam (whatever it may have been), because he didn't try to recruit me into his Family. I gave Manson no thought until he rocketed to "stardom" two years later.
Ben Pesta is a white-collar and criminal defense lawyer in Beverly Hills.