Charles Manson
Charles Manson

Manson set on path to murder in childhood

CHARLES Manson was the charismatic leader of a rag-tag group of hippies living on a ranch outside Los Angeles, once used as a movie set for westerns. The members of his cult, later dubbed the "Manson Family", were in the thrall of their long-haired, bearded leader who plied them with drugs and preached a mixture of racism and misreadings of religious scriptures, suggesting he was Jesus.

He was also influenced by Hitler, L. Ron Hubbard, Buddhism, various other mystics and Beatles songs.

After listening to the Beatles' White Album in late 1968 Manson became obsessed. He heard something in the lyrics that fed his weird delusions about a race war.

Until then the cult he led had only been involved in drugs, small thefts and prostitution. Members kept themselves going by any means, including foraging for food in rubbish bins. To bring in money they stole Volkswagens, cutting them up to make dune buggies, which they sold. Female members also slept with men for cash. But, under the malign influence of Manson, the group's activities began to turn to more sinister intent.

Charles Manson en route to court in December 1969. Picture: AP
Charles Manson en route to court in December 1969. Picture: AP

From December 1968, people connected with the cult began turning up dead. In July 1969 cult members murdered a drug dealer Manson had defrauded and who had threatened revenge. They then killed a music teacher, thinking he had a stash of wealth. But on August 9, 1969, 50 years ago today, they committed the crime for which they would always be remembered: the murder of five people at a Los Angeles home.

One of the victims was pregnant actor Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski. Those deaths were followed the next night by the murder of grocery store executive Leo LaBianca and his wife Rosemary.

The killings made national headlines. Police later rounded up the Manson Family cult members as suspects. But while the henchmen who committed the murders were easy enough to prosecute, authorities had to get inside the mind of Manson to send him away for masterminding the crimes.

Actor Sharon tate with her husband Roman Polanski.
Actor Sharon tate with her husband Roman Polanski.

Manson's mind had long been a dark place. He was born in 1934 to Kathleen Maddox, a 16-year-old girl abandoned by conman Colonel Walker Henderson Scott shortly after he got her pregnant.

Maddox later married William Manson and Charles took his name. His childhood was mostly spent being cared for by friends and relatives as his mother made a living attracting wealthy men and getting her brother to mug them, which resulted in Maddox doing prison time.

Deprived of affection at home and teased at school, he grew into a troubled teen who hated African-Americans. Involved in crime he was in and out of juvenile detention before graduating to prison. While behind bars he read a diverse range of books, cherry picking bits and pieces to assemble his twisted world view.

The three Manson Family members Patricia Wrenwinkel, Susanne Denise Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten arrive in court. Picture: UPI
The three Manson Family members Patricia Wrenwinkel, Susanne Denise Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten arrive in court. Picture: UPI

Released from prison in 1967 he busked with his guitar to make a bit of money. But tapping into the hippie culture in San Francisco he also started to gather followers, drawing them in with his bizarre ideas. His growing cult moved to several locations before finding the movie ranch owned by George Spahn.

Manson told female cultists to have sex with Spahn in
lieu of rent.

When Manson was rebuffed by record producer, Terry Melcher, who he expected would secure him a recording contract, the cult leader was disappointed he would be unable to impart his Messianic messages through his music. Instead he began plotting how to bring about an apocalyptic war between blacks and whites.

This vision was inspired partly by the Beatles song Helter Skelter, which likens a relationship with a woman
to a spiral playground slide known in England as a helter skelter. But, bizarrely, Manson believed the song was about the race war.

The body of actor Sharon Tate is taken from her Benedict Canyon estate on August 9, 1969.
The body of actor Sharon Tate is taken from her Benedict Canyon estate on August 9, 1969.

He sent out followers on August 8, 1969, to kill everyone in the home once rented by Melcher (although he knew Melcher no longer lived there). He ordered them to make the killings as horrific as possible and to scrawl messages to make it look like it was perpetrated by blacks. Tate and four others were murdered in the early hours of August 9. The next night Manson went along with cult members while they murdered the LaBiancas, writing more slogans in blood.

Police were led to the Manson Family by former cult members, raiding the Spahn ranch on August 16. Manson and four other cult members were sentenced to death on the testimony of a follower who turned against them. Manson died in prison in 2017.

The events of 50 years ago are revisited in Quentin Tarantino's movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which opens in cinemas next week.