At the age of approximately 15, my personal preoccupation with the true crime genre began, and it came about through my interests in music. At that time, I was discovering many of the “classics;” the likes of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, and more. I was especially enamored with The Beatles; we’re always aware of them, of course, but I was, for the first time, discovering all of the influential variations in their catalogue.
My favorite album was the last one I’d listened to, always.
Surfing the web on my big, slow, DSL-connected desktop, I was researching The White Album (yes, I know it is technically self-titled). I came across references to a name nearly as recognizable as The Beatles: Charles Manson. How he and his cult, a group of hippies who all lived together in an abandoned movie set called Spahn Ranch, committed gruesome murders. How they did so because they believed there were encoded messages within The White Album, urging them toward the acts. When I came across bloody crime scene and autopsy photos, my first time seeing anything of that nature, my stomach dropped, but I didn’t look away. I locked the door of my bedroom; my parents were sitting right outside it in our tiny apartment. I was acting like kids usually act when they’re covertly watching porn; honestly, I felt more scandalized, more like I was doing something that I should be ashamed of. I felt like a huge weirdo, to be honest.
But I was deeply fascinated. I spent the next several years hungrily consuming every scrap of information I could find about the murders. I read books and blogs, and I joined internet forums. I wrote to Bobby Beausoleil, convicted murderer of Gary Hinman, a peripherally related murder that Manson also had involvement in. When YouTube came around (yes, this began before the existence of YouTube), videos of interviews, of both Manson and others involved, further enriched my understanding of what happened.
The story of the Manson murders is well-trodden territory, so I do not want to simply rehash what happened. What I would like to talk about are bits that I have gleaned throughout the years; points that might be lesser known, and personal insights into various aspects of the crimes and the people involved. I want to get into some of those points here, because, well, I’d be remiss not to pour out something into this blog about the Manson murders. This won’t be one, big, cohesive narrative, but rather, my own free-flowing thoughts. It will come mostly from my memory (since I lent my Manson books to someone who never gave them back!), but I will share the books that I have read at the end, along with any other source material.
Helter Skelter and Lotsapoppa
If you want to know more about the Manson murders, the best place to start is by reading the famous book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter.
So named for the Beatles song – remember that White Album connection I mentioned earlier? – and, apparently, Manson’s name for an impending race war that he had foreseen. Fun fact: you know how the lyrics to that song mention a slide? It is literally about a slide…called Helter Skelter.
Witnesses who lived with and spent time around the commune dubbed by press as “The Family” told of Manson’s rhapsodizing, that a war between white and black people was imminent, and that they would survive it by hiding out in the desert. He interpreted the words to the song to be symbolically describing such a war. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi would frame the motive for the murders of Sharon Tate (who was nearing the end of her pregnancy), Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Rosemary LaBianca and Leno LaBianca, as a “kickstart” of sorts for this race war. Charles Manson, Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, were all convicted based on the idea that they had murdered these people for no other reason but to create a stir, making it look as though these wealthy white people had been murdered by black people, specifically the Black Panthers.
Interestingly, Susan Atkins, who participated in the murders at the Tate residence, wrote a book called Child of Satan, Child of God. In it, she detailed a somewhat different motivation, at least where Manson himself was concerned. She explained that a man named Bernard Crowe, known by the nickname “Lotsapoppa,” was, ultimately, one of the catalysts that brought about the murders.
Crowe was a drug dealer who Charles “Tex” Watson, another of Manson’s co-defendants, was attempting to rip off in a drug deal. Crowe called Spahn Ranch, threatening to come there with his crew and tear the place apart if they didn’t come back with money that Tex had stolen from him. Manson and another man went to where Crowe was and shot him. They hastily left, Manson believing that he had killed him. They heard on the news the next day that a member of the Black Panthers had been found shot to death, and Manson was convinced that this was the man he’d killed. He was afraid that the Black Panthers were going to seek out revenge against him. His fear even prompted the commune to move deeper into the desert, staying in a small house on Barker Ranch.
The Funny thing was, Crowe was not dead, nor was he part of the Black Panthers. Manson only learned that he was alive when he literally walked passed him in the courthouse, Crowe on his way to testify against Manson during his trial.
The paranoia concerning the Black Panthers would prompt Manson to try to “kill two birds with one stone” when a friend of theirs landed himself in prison for murder. The murder of Gary Hinman, to be exact, which had occurred prior to the Tate – LaBianca murders. An acquaintance of some members of the commune, Hinman had apparently come into a dispute over a batch of mescaline purchased from him. Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the commune, claimed to have been the intermediary for Hinman to sell a large batch of the drug to a motorcycle gang called the “Straight Satans.” This gang was known to spend time hanging out at the Spahn Ranch with the girls of the commune; one biker in particular by the name of Danny DeCarlo would be an important witness for the prosecution against Manson. Bobby was told by the gang that the mescaline had “gone bad,” and that they wanted their money back. So, he and two others, Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner, had gone to Hinman’s home, demanding the money. He resisted, and claimed not to have it. He was held against his will for a couple of days, during which Manson and Tex Watson had stopped by. Manson escalated the situation by slicing the side of Hinman’s face and ear with a sword, severely injuring him. A day or so after this, Bobby stabbed Hinman to death. At this scene, “Political Piggy” was written on the wall in blood, along with a little drawing of a paw print. Bobby was trying to frame the Black Panthers for the murder, apparently. In doing so, he left a big fat fingerprint on the wall, and was arrested and charged.
They wanted to make the Tate – LaBianca murder scenes reminiscent of the Hinman murder scene so that the police might connect them and blame the Black Panthers, simultaneously getting Bobby off the hook, and getting the Black Panthers’ attention off of Manson. This, Atkins says, is why they wrote on the walls, and why the victims were all stabbed to death; in an attempt to mimic Hinman’s murder scene.
In terms of the evidence at the Tate – LaBianca crime scenes, it doesn’t really contradict her point of view. All of the victims were stabbed repeatedly; Wojciech Frykowski, who seemed to have been fighting hard and attempting to flee, was also beaten and shot. At both scenes, they wrote words in blood. At the Tate house, the word “Pig” was on the door, and at the LaBianca house, “Healter Skelter” (yes, it was misspelled that way) and “rise” were written on the refrigerator and wall, respectively. Additionally, the word “War” was carved into Leno LaBianca’s stomach. The Tate-LaBianca murders were decidedly more vicious than Hinman’s, but I can see how, in a chaotic scene, strung out on drugs, overkill would have occurred. They also did not all have exact details on the Hinman murder scene; they were just told to do a stabbing and to write things on the walls in blood.
The Manson trial was one of the biggest media sensations in American history, and part of that is due to the bizarre “Helter Skelter” race war motive presented. Bugliosi clearly took the right approach in terms of getting his convictions – actually, all of the defendants were sentenced to death (but are not subject to the death penalty now, since it was overturned in California). Headlines and articles told of the hypnotic power that Manson had over his followers. Many of said followers did not dispel this notion, showing up to court every day singing, protesting, shaving their heads, carving X into their foreheads in protest, and acting generally bizarre.
Down-to-earth explanations are always more appealing to me than the idea of someone having evil powers to control people, so I was interested to see Atkins’ perspective on this. Especially since her perspective is not necessarily even a contradiction to the “Helter Skelter” motive; just more background information that brings everything a little more sharply into focus. Manson didn’t have evil powers; there was a conflagration of factors at play, not the least of which being excessive drug abuse by all of the offenders. Which may partly explain the stupidity and ultimate failure of their plans.
An Interview with Manson
Over the years, there have been several interviews with Charles Manson while he has been incarcerated. I’m sure many of you have seen at least excerpts from them; sometimes he acts rather outrageous. You can never quite tell if he is consciously messing with us, or if he is genuinely mentally ill. I suppose there could be some amount of both going on, and I am convinced that, at least in his later years, he was deeply mentally ill.
One of the earlier interviews has always stood out to me. In his interview with Tom Snyder in 1981, I actually find Manson to be coherent. Each time I watch it, I am deeply frustrated with the interviewer. He is extremely combative, constantly veering the conversation toward whatever sensationalized soundbites he is trying to lead him to say. I have noticed this happen frequently when murderers are interviewed; some interviewers seem to feel that they need to prove their disgust and disapproval with people like Manson.
To his credit, I’ve been told that Snyder was in a position where he had no choice but to conduct this interview; he didn’t want to be there and felt that it was inappropriate and sensational. He was becoming disenchanted with his profession, and some of his bitterness at having to even do the interview could be showing through. I wish he could have put that aside for the greater good, though, because this interview is the only one I’ve seen where Manson appears partially amenable to answering questions in a serious way, truthfully or otherwise. Obviously most of us don’t want to have a tea party with Charles Manson, but valuable insights can sometimes be coaxed out of people when one knows how to speak to them in the right way. Insights regarding people who commit heinous acts are an important part of learning how to make society better and safer.
At one point, Manson says in response to a question, “See, If I’m gonna explain it to ya it’s not gonna be that easy, you’re gonna have to bear with me.” This is because he’s telling a story in order to answer Snyder’s question. Manson rambles a lot, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to just let him yammer on and pick out the useful bits. People like Manson love to talk.
Earlier, I pointed out my need to bring stories like the Manson murders “down-to-earth.” The more I’ve learned about him, the more Manson himself has been diminished, in my view, from a crazy-eyed symbol of evil, to a typical con artist, pimp, and career criminal. He was completely institutionalized from being in prison for most of his life since childhood, and he knew how to move through the criminal world. He knew how to use people with weaker personalities, especially those who were at vulnerable, transitional points in their lives. This isn’t a unique or extraordinary trait among the criminal world.
I think I am going to start a Manson tag here. I’ll keep updating short, informal articles like this one with interesting tidbits.
Books I’ve read on the Manson murders
Atkins, Susan. (1977) Child of Satan, Child of God. Logos International.
Bugliosi, Vincent. (1994). Helter Skelter : The true story of the Manson murders. New York :W.W. Norton.
Emmons, Nuel. (1988). Manson in his own words. Grove Press.
Sanders, Ed. (1990). The Family. Signet.
Schiller, Lawrence. (1970). The Killing of Sharon Tate: The Exclusive Story by Susan Atkins. Signet.
Watkins, Paul. (1979) My life with Charles Manson. Bantam Books.
Watson, Charles. (1978) Will you die for me? The man who killed for Charles Manson tells his own story. Fleming H. Revell Company.