Forty years ago (over a two day period) seven of the most brutal, savage, bestial, and horrific murders in the annals of human criminality were committed. The man who orchestrated those murders: Charles Manson remains, to this day, inexplicably, a beguiling figure who continues to weave a spell upon the American consciousness from his prison cell in California.
If you’re wondering why I used the name No Name Maddox in the title of this blog entry it’s because that was the name recorded on Manson’s birth certificate when he was born in 1934. He got the surname Manson later in childhood but Manson was a man with many names, aliases, faces, and guises. During his long strange trip through the underbelly of California life from 1967 to 1969, he was known variously as God, Jesus Christ, Infinite Soul, Satan, the Devil, as well as Charles Willis Manson. (Prosecutor Vince Bugliosi was curious about the latter alias. He asked a Manson Family member what it meant and he later wrote that the answer he received chilled him. The Family member said, “Charles’ will is Man’s Son.” i.e. Charley’s will was equal to that of the Son of Man.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that so many young men and women were so willing and eager to believe that Manson was a divine figure. That was the aspect of Manson’s crimes that beguiles and frightens us today: what did he possess which could twist the minds of ordinary American youths and make them into killers, eager to do his bidding; eager to kill at his command? To look at Manson from afar it’s hard to figure. Manson was short (only 5-2) hunchbacked, lacking a proper formal education, living nearly his entire life in criminal institutions for various charges (none of which involved murder) until he sent his killers on those two hot August nights in 1969. And yet if you read the massive library of literature about Manson from those who met him up close and personal Manson had that ability to reflect back at people what they wanted to see and to hear. He had that conman’s ability to be what you wanted him to be. He could say the right words which turned the keys to the heart and soul which allowed him to take possession, manipulate, and control his followers. Subtlety and deceit were intrinsic in his nature. Manson amazingly hobnobbed not only with the detritus of society but also the California elite. Rock stars Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Neil Young, John Phillips and Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas had encounters with Manson. Manson claims in his memoir written by Nuel Emmons that he had sex with a Hollywood producer and his wife. (My favorite celeb encounter with Manson is the one involving Dean Martin’s daughter Deanna. She met Manson at a Hollywood party. Manson gave her a coral ring and asked her to join the Manson Family; true story.)
Even today he commands followers. If you google the name Charles Manson you will be amazed at the number of websites that record his murders, fornications, and his thefts. (Be warned though some of those sights contain horrifically graphic photos of the crime scenes and autopsy photos of the Tate-LaBianca murders. If you see some of those photographs like I have you will never forget them for as long as you live). Indeed I like to use the Manson case as an example of the decline and fall of western civilization. When Vince Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter came out in the 1970s the book had crime scene photos in it but the photos showing the dead bodies were obscured out of respect for the victims and their families. Twenty years later I have seen at least two books and several websites which show the crime scenes with the dead bodies in place in complete gory detail, especially those showing Sharon Tate (eight months pregnant) in a pool of blood caused by sixteen stab wounds. It took a lot of personal will and discipline on my part not to break down and cry when I saw those pictures.
Actually the most frightening crime scene photo is not that of Sharon Tate. It’s the one of Abigail Folger, the heiress to the Folgers Coffee fortune. Folger died from twenty-seven stab wounds. She had been wearing a white night gown which would become saturated with her own blood. The photograph I saw showed her lying flat on her back; her hands and arms frozen upward in rigor mortis as she was vainly trying to ward off being stabbed by Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel and the others. Her cheeks have two deep puncture wounds from the Buck knife used by Krenwinkel. She died with her eyes and mouth wide open; her face contorted in a look of absolute fear, horror, and terror. When I looked at that photograph a rather morbid and odd thought entered my head. If I was told that I was to die a violent death and I had to choose the mode of violent death, I would unhesitatingly choose to die by gun than by knife; after seeing the photos of the Tate-LaBianca murder victims who died by knife wounds. I would definitely prefer to be shot to death rather than be stabbed to death.
Hopefully I will never die violently.
One topic of debate amongst criminal experts was how Manson kept his followers in line. One recent documentary I saw on TV gave great credence to drug use by Manson and his followers but I don’t buy that. Yes, Manson and his minions did an enormous amount of drugs during their heyday but if drugs were the motivating factor in causing the killings then why is it that there weren’t more horrific knife killings caused by people taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs? Not everyone who took LSD turned into a Mansonoid killer. (In fact some of Manson’s killer used speed during the two nights of murder). Indeed not everyone who encountered Manson from 1967 to 1969 fell underneath his hypnotic spell. Ed Sanders who wrote an excellent book called The Family about Manson (one of the greatest works of counter culture literature) relates that many youths came and went through Manson’s life. Not everyone who passed through Manson was bewitched by him. The ones who stayed the longest were the ones who did believe in Manson; who worshipped at the altar of his nihilistic personality.
Manson didn’t start preaching Helter Skelter until the winter of 1968-1969. Before that Manson and his followers’ sole focus was sexual excess, drug use, and, later on, what Ed Sanders would call sleazo inputs such as Satanism and other unspeakable practices. Sex was the lever which Manson used to keep his followers in line and to recruit new minions. Is it any coincidence that one of Manson’s former occupations was being a pimp? Manson used sex to entice, enthrall, and enslave.
One psychiatric expert told prosecutor Vince Bugliosi that if you take an average American youth (male or female) who comes from a middle class background and moral compass and subject them to a wide variety of sexual stimuli and sexual practices which they would never have performed in their normal milieu then you can go a long way into achieving control over that person. If a person balked at performing a certain sex act then Manson would force the person to perform the act again and again and again. Manson killer Susan Atkins would later tell a prison informant that she had done everything there was to do sexually and that she didn’t care whether she lived or died anymore. She was barely into her twenties when she said that.
Sometimes Manson used violence to get his way. Ed Sanders writes that three weeks after the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson and his followers were hiding in Death Valley from the authorities. With them were two new female recruits named Sherri and Barbara. Manson decided to initiate them into the Family in his own inimitable way. First he ordered Sherri to perform oral sex on a male member of the Family in front of everyone. Sherri refused whereupon Manson gave her a brutal, savage beating. Manson then ordered Barbara to do the same thing. Frightened, Barbara reluctantly obeyed. (Barbara would get her revenge. She would be a key prosecution witness who helped convict Manson and his killers of their crimes).
One would think that after forty years there would be no mysteries left involving Manson. The truth is there are innumerable questions left unanswered about him. How many people did he kill? Manson was formally convicted of ordering nine murders yet Manson family legend and police investigations seem to suggest he may have killed more. Indeed last year forensic teams went to Barker Ranch in Death Valley (Manson’s last hideout) to do underground sonar searches to see if they could find any shallow graves on the property. At first investigators thought they had some possibilities but subsequent digging failed to find any human remains.
Another question is whether Manson’s satanic gospel of Helter Skelter was the real motivating factor behind the Tate-LaBianca murders? Author Maury Terry in his book The Ultimate Evil suggests strongly that Manson had other hidden motives for committing the killings and that he might have been acting at the behest of others when he sent the killers to the Tate residence. If so then who was Manson working for? There are disturbing questions. Some of Manson’s followers have said that they were told ahead of time that Sharon Tate was not supposed to be home during the first night of the murders. Indeed Sharon Tate had plans to spend the night with a friend that evening but changed her mind at the last minute. The question is who told Manson and his killers that information?
Another question regards the conduct of Bill Garretson, the caretaker of the guest cottage on the Tate property, during the night of the Tate murders. Murder victim Steve Parent was at the Tate property to see Garretson in the hopes of selling him a clock radio. Garretson refused to buy the radio and he led Parent out the door to his car whereupon Parent drove to the front gate of the Tate residence only to be killed by the Manson family killers. Parent was murder victim number one. The guest house where Garretson was staying is only fifty yards from the Tate house where the other four victims were killed and yet Garretson would testify that he heard no gunshots or screams during the night and he never left the guest cottage; all well and good right? There’s only one problem. Manson killer Patricia Krenwinkel claims that she went to the guest cottage to see if anyone was there (with instructions from Manson killer Tex Watson to kill anyone who was in there). She looked through the windows and saw no one. So why is Garretson lying about not leaving the guest cottage?
If Garretson had said that he had heard shots and screams and tried to call the police but couldn’t get through because the phone line was dead (the Manson killers cut the phone lines before they entered the Tate property) and so he left the guest cottage and hid in the bushes for fear of his life then no one would have blamed him. His behavior would be completely understandable. Even more interesting is what happened when the police entered the Tate property after being called when the victims were discovered. They approached the guest house and overheard Garretson telling the guard dog “be quiet! They will hear you.” Which “they” was he talking about? Sharon Tate’s mother (who later became a vigorous advocate for crime victim’s rights) always expressed doubt and skepticism about Garretson’s story and rightfully so, in my opinion.
Considering the forty years of public scrutiny Manson has faced and the periodic televised questioning by such journalistic luminaries like the late Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, Charley Rose, and Diane Sawyer, Manson has not been given the ultimate pop culture seal of immortality—a major Hollywood motion picture about his life and crimes. Other, lesser known killers have gotten the full cinematic treatment but not Manson. There have been ample documentaries on Manson and a few portrayals in made for TV movies (the best of which remains Helter Skelter starring Steve Railsback as Manson and George DiCenzo as Vince Bugliosi. Interestingly Railsback’s acting career subsequently suffered because he played the role of Manson. Why? I do not know. Railsback did an excellent portrayal in my opinion).
But no major motion picture.
The question is why? One would think director Oliver Stone would be tempted by the possibility since Stone has always had a fascination with 1960s history but so far he has not bitten on the project. When one considers how much Manson’s stigma has permeated American pop culture the failure (or refusal) of Hollywood to examine Manson, the Manson Family, and the murders is puzzling. It’s not out delicacy for the victims or their families. When one considers the tawdriness of Hollywood society and its gutter instinct for mega-millions, the absence of a Manson picture becomes suspicious.
One wonders if the reason why is because Manson moved so easily through Hollywood society; interacting with its resident powers that be; perhaps serving their bidding is the motive for denying him cinematic immortality?
The only person who can answer the question in Manson himself and he’s not talking.
May he (and his killers) rot in jail (and in hell).