On August 9, 1969, members of the Manson Family, under orders from their leader Charles Manson, committed one of the most terrifying crimes in American history when they broke into the Los Angeles home of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and savagely murdered her and four of her houseguests. While much has been written about the gruesome crime and its Machiavellian mastermind, author Jeff Guinn’s biography "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson" takes a look at one of America’s most notorious killers, revealing untold details of his life from the people who knew him, including Manson’s sister and cousin.
Once we’re familiar with the real story of Charles Manson’s life, it isn’t at all shocking that in 1969 he orchestrated mass murder. What’s surprising is that it took him so long.
Based on fresh testimony from Manson’s sister, cousin and childhood acquaintances, we now know that he displayed violent tendencies from early childhood in the working-class river town of McMechen, West Virginia. Things he did in elementary school eerily foreshadowed his bloody deeds a quarter-century later.
Beginning in first grade, Charlie would recruit gullible classmates, mostly girls, to attack other students that he didn’t like. Afterward, he’d swear to teachers that his kid followers were just doing what they wanted – he couldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Because no one thought a six-year-old could be capable of such Machiavellian manipulation, Charlie usually got off scot-free while his disciples were punished.
But young Charlie’s nastiness wasn’t confined to conning others into doing his dirty work. Sometimes, when he felt personally insulted or slighted, he turned violent himself.
More than 70 years later, Charlie’s first cousin Jo Ann remembered a particularly telling episode. Though Charlie’s mother Kathleen was not an unwed teenage prostitute as he’s always claimed, she did serve a short prison sentence for robbery that began when Charlie was five. While she was incarcerated, Charlie moved in with the Thomas family - his aunt Glenna, uncle Bill and Jo Ann, who was three years older than Charlie. They lived only a few miles from where Kathleen served her time in the West Virginia state prison.
From the outset, Charlie caused the Thomases nothing but trouble. He lied constantly, always blamed others for anything he did that was wrong, and was so determined to be the center of attention that he’d deliberately misbehave while the grownups were around.
Even at such an early age, he was fascinated by guns and, especially, knives or any other sharp implements. One afternoon when Charlie was seven, Jo Ann recalled, her parents went out for the afternoon and instructed her to change the bed linens and watch over Charlie. There was no question of Charlie helping Jo Ann; he always ignored assigned chores. So she sent him out into the yard to play while she changed the sheets in one of the bedrooms.
Soon Charlie came skipping back inside, brandishing a razor-sharp sickle that he’d found in the yard. He waved it in Jo Ann’s face. Bigger and stronger than her scrawny cousin, she pushed him out of the way and continued tucking in the sheets. Charlie jumped between her and the bed; Jo Ann shoved him outside and locked the screen door behind him. She thought that was the end of it, but Charlie shrieked and began slashing the screen door apart with the sickle. There was a crazy look on his face. Jo Ann had no doubt that her cousin was going to kill her. He had cut through the screen and was wrenching the door open when Bill and Glenna Thomas drove up. They took in the ravaged screen door, Charlie’s furious red face, and Jo Ann’s pale frightened one and demanded to know what was going on. So terrified that she could barely speak, Jo Ann mumbled, “Ask Charles.” His version was that she attacked him, and he was only protecting himself. The elder Thomases didn’t believe him, and Charlie got a whipping.
“Of course it didn’t make any difference,” Jo Ann remembers. “You could whip him all day and he’d still do whatever he wanted.”
In late 1969, when word reached McMechen that Charlie had been arrested for what have become known as the “Tate-LaBianca murders,” no one in his old hometown was astonished. “We were all very sad and horrified, but not surprised,” Jo Ann says. “Once you really got to know Charles, anything awful that he did was no surprise.”
Thanks to Jo Ann, Manson’s sister, Kathleen, and a score of others who have never previously been interviewed, we now know the whole of his life rather than a few years of it. The 1960s allowed Charlie Manson to blossom in full, malignant flower – but all the signs were there long before that. His story is far more fascinating – and, yes, perverse – than we ever thought.
From the Biography archives, originally published on August 9, 2013.