Charles Manson, 'Helter Skelter' Cult Leader, Dead at 83

Considered one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century, cult leader Charles Manson died on Sunday from natural causes.
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Charles Manson Photo

Charles Manson arrives at Inyo County Courthouse in Independence, California, for a preliminary hearing on charges of arson and receiving stolen goods, December 1969. 

Charles Manson, the cult leader who in 1969 directed followers to murder actress Sharon Tate and others, died on Sunday. Manson, 83 years old, had been serving life in prison in California since 1971. Officials for the California Department of Corrections said he died of natural causes.

Manson was responsible for a killing spree that profoundly shocked America and ended the collective innocence of the 1960s, when peace and love were dominant pop-culture themes. While Manson did not physically murder the victims himself, his leadership of his antisocial “family” led to the seven killings — and possibly as many as 30 more.

He himself cheated death for decades: After he was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1971, he was sentenced to death, then in 1972, California ended capital punishment and invalidated prior sentences. 

But prison had already long been a way of life for Manson. Born in 1934 to an unwed teen mother in Cincinnati, Manson was sent to a series of institutions and reform schools as a youth. Those were followed by prison stints, including for federal crimes. In 1967, upon finishing a prison sentence, Manson asked not to be released.

He was indeed, however, set loose. In San Francisco amid the free love of the 1960s, he soon gathered a following of drug-addled young men and women whom he manipulated into believing that he was a Jesus-like religious figure with apocalyptic warnings.

He led them to a communal living arrangement at Spahn Ranch, near Los Angeles. Among his claims and prophecies was that of a coming race war he dubbed “Helter Skelter,” after the 1968 Beatles song. To incite this vision, he hatched a murderous plan that, he evidently told followers, would set an example and spark more violence.

On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson family members broke into the Benedict Canyon-home, near Hollywood, of film director Roman Polanski, killing his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, as well as four friends. The next night, driving around the neighborhood on a search for new victims, the disturbed brigade descended upon the home of supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, killing both in gruesome fashion.

In contrast to the all-too-frequent mass murders and shootings today in America, the seven Tate-LaBianca murders may seem few in number. But they had seismic impact in 1969, long before cable news and social media could offer wall-to-wall coverage.

Charles Manson Photo

Charles Manson, accused leader of a hippie cult charged with the Tate-LaBianca murders, leaves court after deferring a plea on the murder charges. The 35-year-old Manson was clad in a filthy fringed buckskin jacket and trousers and a full length beard when he appeared before Judge William B. Keene in the packed courtroom. December 11, 1969.

The gleeful brutality with which the murders were committed was part of the shock. Manson’s followers inflicted 169 stab wounds and seven gunshot wounds, according to chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who led the nine-month murder trial, the longest in American history at the time.

The trial revealed Manson’s unhinged imagination, as well as his charisma in creating a quasi-religious cult of personality that led seemingly well-adjusted young people to abandon any sense of morality. During the trial, he carved an “x” into his forehead. The next day, his followers imitated him, showing up with the same marking on their foreheads. He later changed his own to a swastika.

Details of the bizarre home life he created came from testimony by one-time family member Linda Kasabian, a defendant who was given immunity for sharing evidence and was on the witness stand for 18 days.

Kasabian and the girls in the commune worshiped Manson, said Bugliosi in his summation: “She loved him and thought he was Jesus Christ. She said Manson had a power over her and ‘I just wanted to do anything and everything for him because I loved him and he made me feel good, and it was just beautiful.’”

His mental hold over them was complete. “The girls in the Family, used to tell Linda, ‘We never question Charlie. We know that what he is doing is right." In fact, Manson told Linda, when Linda joined the Family, ‘Never ask why.’”

Testimony from Barbara Hoyt, an 18-year-old family member in 1969, underscored the twisted atmosphere that Manson cultivated. As Bugliosi said in his summation: “She said the group watched the TV account of the Tate murders. At one point a couple of the group watching TV laughed.”

Manson quickly became a figure of cultural fascination. In 1970, he landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, as he was a sometime musician and songwriter who managed to have songs recorded (with modifications) by the Beach Boys. 

Over time, his legacy only expanded through numerous books and films about him. The performer Marilyn Manson took the killer’s last name for the stage, combining it with the first name of Marilyn Monroe in homage to two pop culture figures. The rock band Guns N’ Roses recorded a Manson song for its 1993 album. 

In 1988, Grove Press published Manson In His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of ‘The Most Dangerous Man Alive.’ Even within prison, he held sway over others: A movement to release Charles Manson continued to proclaim his right to freedom for decades.