It’s really not all that surprising to find a single diseased mind that is capable of some pretty outlandish behavior. I once met a guy on a psych rotation who had murdered his mom and then spent two days driving around with her in the car. He got caught when he took her chilly corpse with him through the drive-through at McDonald’s. Sometimes folks just aren’t wired correctly.
What is even more viscerally shocking, however, are those circumstances wherein a significant group of people can be motivated to engage in egregiously antisocial behavior en masse. The Nazis are the archetypal examples. How do you convince an entire population to suspend human decency and commit such atrocities as those for which the National Socialists were responsible?
On a smaller scale, we see the same profoundly psychotic mindset on display within the Manson Family. Comprised predominantly of disaffected white middle-class women, the family had at its apogee around 100 members. By the time the legal system incarcerated the guru of this drug-addled homicidal mob they had brutally killed seven people. The darkly messianic overtones of Charles Manson’s twisted worldview will make your skin crawl.
The Making of a Monster
Charles Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934 to a sixteen-year-old single mother named Kathleen Manson-Bower-Cavender. Manson’s father was purportedly Colonel Walker Henderson Scott. Don’t be impressed with that, however. Colonel was a given name, not a military rank. Colonel Scott was a professional con artist.
As is so often the case with truly extraordinary criminals, Manson’s upbringing was chaotic, violent, and tragic. Kathleen was an unrepentant alcoholic who was in and out of jail. Charles began shoplifting by age nine. At age thirteen he was caught stealing a gun from his uncle’s home.
During one of his several teenaged arrests, Charles was given a series of aptitude tests. He was found to be illiterate, have an IQ of 107 (100 is the accepted average) and was diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Think of Antisocial Personality Disorder as essentially the congenital absence of a conscience. Persons thusly afflicted are unable to empathize with the pain or basic needs of others.
Manson was sexually assaulted on several occasions while incarcerated and adopted a self-defense technique he called the “insane game” wherein he flailed about, screeched, and grimaced to convince an attacker that he was well and truly unhinged. He was later disciplined for a series of homosexual assaults to include the rape of a boy at knifepoint. By age 32 Manson had spent fully half his life behind bars.
Starting a Family
Charles Manson was undeniably charismatic, and women were attracted to him. I will never understand this. I always tried to be gracious, generous, respectful, and, within my limited capabilities, charming. Apparently I was doing it wrong. Some women just prefer psychopaths.
Before he entered the full-time homicidal cult business Manson was a singer and song-writer. Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys picked up Patricia Krenwinkel, one of the Manson girls, while she was hitchhiking in 1968. Returning from a recording session the following day he was greeted by Charles Manson and a mob of his female acolytes occupying his home. This bizarre and awkward chance meeting landed one of Manson’s songs on the B-side of a Beach Boys single. Manson was not credited.
Manson and his followers set up shop at an abandoned Western movie set called the Spahn Ranch, armed themselves, and kept busy plotting the coming apocalypse. Manson’s bizarrely twisted worldview called for a series of songs he was producing to somehow precipitate a sweeping race war between blacks and whites that would ultimately devolve into genocide. This hemoclysmic event was to be called Helter Skelter.
The First Killing
The first person the Manson mob murdered was a music teacher and UCLA Ph.D. student named Gary Hinman. Like most of the Manson killings, this one spawned from a misunderstanding. Manson’s crew thought they were shaking Hinman down for a $25,000 inheritance. These lunatics held this poor slob hostage for two days before they realized that he was just as broke as they were. In the process Manson cutoff part of Hinman’s ear with a sword.
A Manson disciple named Bobby Beausoleil eventually stabbed the poor guy to death. Beausoleil was a former porn actor who fit in perfectly with Manson’s freak show of a family. Family members wrote “Political Piggy” on the walls in Hinman’s blood along with a panther print in a failed effort at convincing the authorities that Black Panther revolutionaries were responsible. This, however, was just the warm-up act.
The Main Event
Movie director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate lived in a domicile previously occupied by an acquaintance of Manson. Manson had suffered a disagreement with the previous occupants and likely targeted the place as a result.
In a further twisted effort at triggering his coveted race war, Manson directed three of his followers, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, to proceed to the address and kill everybody they found there. Armed with a cheap .22 pistol, a folding Buck knife, and some rope, this merry trio struck out on the evening of August 8, 1969. Linda Kasabian tagged along but didn’t take part in the killings.
Polanski was in Europe working on a movie. Present this fateful night were his wife Sharon, herself 8 and ½ months pregnant, and Sharon’s former lover, Jay Sebring. Apparently Roman was a fairly open-minded sort, so Sebring, a hairstylist of some renown, was a perennial houseguest.
Also in attendance was a Polish friend of Polanski’s named Wojciech Frykowski along with his lady friend Abigail Folger. Abigail was the daughter of Peter Folger and heiress to the substantial Folgers coffee fortune.
In a bizarre twist of fate, three other people who should have been at the house that evening were not. Music producer Quincy Jones had planned to join in but backed out on short notice. Famed action movie star Steve McQueen and his girlfriend were also slated to attend but declined at the last minute in favor of an intimate night at home.
In 1969 Steve McQueen, an ex-Marine, was an accomplished martial artist who trained with his friend Bruce Lee and kept himself legendarily fit. Though undeniably determined, Manson’s ad hoc hit squad was poorly armed and not unduly impressive physically. The mind boggles as to how things might have turned out differently had the legendary King of Cool been added to the tactical mix.
After the Tate murders, McQueen kept a weapon close and remained on the lookout for Manson Family assailants.
Accompanied by the two women, Watson approached on foot and cut the phone lines into the house. In the driveway, he encountered an 18-year-old young man named Steven Parent who had been visiting the caretaker of the property in the guest house.
After a brief exchange, Watson attacked Parent with a knife then shot him four times in the chest with his .22 pistol, killing him as he sat in his car.
Once inside the house, the Manson followers rousted the occupants and brought them into the living room. They then used their rope to truss their victims up. When queried as to their intentions Watson answered, “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”
Watson tied Sebring and Tate together by their necks, snaking the rope over an exposed beam in the living room. Sebring objected to their rough treatment of Tate and was shot for his trouble. Frykowski then slipped his bonds but was stabbed as he fled the house.
Frykowski made it out the front door before Watson caught up with him. Watson then beat him vigorously with his pistol, breaking the grip and trigger guard, before shooting him twice and killing him.
Folger was ultimately stabbed 28 times. Frykowski’s body had 51 separate wounds. Tate was stabbed 16 times and killed. Before they called it a day Manson’s crew wrote “Pig” on the front door in Sharon Tate’s blood.
The murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s homicidal acolytes represents one of the most sordid and darkly fascinating crimes in American history. Next week we will explore the Manson Family arsenal, the aftermath of these horrific crimes, and see what fate ultimately befell the perpetrators.