How Charles Manson rose to be a cult leader (1969)

May 14, 2015 by

Slayings suspect, born a social outcast, ‘rose’ to be cult leader

charles manson standing for police mugshot

By Jerry Cohen, Los Angeles Times Service

Trouble came looking for Charles Miller Manson the day he was born — out of wedlock to a teenage mother and a father he never laid eyes on.

The place: Cincinnati. The date: Nov. 11, 1934.

Not long after, he experienced life’s second cruelty: His mother, who bore him when she was 16, went to prison, convicted along with her brother of beating up and robbing dates she hustled in riverfront bars.

Ahead lay long years of trouble, which culminated this week when Charles Manson was identified as the evil mastermind of a renegade hippie band suspected of murdering actress Sharon Tate and perhaps 10 other persons.

After his mother’s imprisonment, the little boy who would become the leader of that violent band went to live in Mc- Mechen, W.Va., first with his maternal grandmother, then with an uncle and aunt who had a sour marriage and gave him little affection.

When he was 8, his mother got out of prison, and he joined her. She drank and lived with a succession of men in seedy apartments. The men paid little attention to him, the mother not much more. He spent most of his time indoors, alone. In 1945, the mother followed a traveling salesman to Indianapolis, and they took the boy along with them. Two years later, she tried to farm her son out to foster parents, as she occasionally had done before, but this time the law moved in.

Young Manson was made a ward of the county and sent off to the Gibault School for Boys, a caretaking institution in Terre Haute, Ind. After 10 months, he ran away. That escapade put him in his first correctional institution, the Indiana Boys School in Plainfield.

That was the way it would be most of the remainder of his life. By the time he was 25, he had spent 13 years in either reformatories or prison, and during the next 10 years, before he came under suspicion for the Tate and Leno and Rosemary La Bianca murders, that ratio would grow.

manson police mugshotIn February 1951, he and two other boys fled Plainfield, stole a car and wound up in Utah, where they were arrested. That made young Manson a federal problem and he was sentenced to the National Training School for Boys in Washington. He was shuffled along to other federal reformatories, an unbending adolescent, hiding loneliness, resentment and hostility behind an oddly ingratiating facade.

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>> Charles Manson emerging as key to Tate murders (1969)

By the time he was paroled from a federal reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1954 at the age of 21, he had a knack for nothing. After parole from Chillicothe, he went back to West Virginia to live with relatives and flitted from one menial job to another — waiter, service station helper and parking lot attendant.

He married a McMechen girl, Rosalie Jean Willis, a waitress in a hospital dining room, whom he had known six months, in January 1955 and fathered a child by her. But by the time the baby, Charles Jr., was born, Manson was back behind bars. For in McMechen, he became an accomplished auto thief, a trade he plied at times throughout the ensuing years. He transported stolen cars from one part of the country to another. At the end of one such transcontinental trip he found himself in Los Angeles — and under arrest. He was sentenced to San Pedro’s Terminal Island Prison.

That was November 1955. From then on he would be in and out of some of the nation’s best known penitentiaries on charges ranging from transporting females across state lines for prostitution, to escape, to parole violation.

In 1956, while he was at Terminal Island, his wife visited him and remained in Los Angeles to be near him. But in early 1957, the visits and correspondence ceased. Then, he tried to escape.

Before he was released from prison in 1958, divorce papers were served on him. Rosalie remarried and bore three other children.

Free of prison, according to a man who knew him then, “the mixed up ideas of morals and morality” he had begun to exhibit asserted themselves, perhaps a harbinger of concepts that would come to savage flower a decade later. He took up with one young woman, then another, and excused himself by saying he had been “in (prison) for a long time.” Acquaintances said he took to pimping.

The father of a Michigan girl who came to Los Angeles to study to be an airline stewardess accused Manson of being “a sex maniac.” The girl, 19, nearly died in a hospital operating room, the father claimed, as the result of sexual indiscretions involving Manson.

Another young woman, also 19, a friend of the Michigan girl, claimed Manson had drugged her on leaving the hospital after visiting her friend, then had taken her to bed.

In the early 1960s, Manson was back again, the result of cashing two stolen US Treasury checks at a supermarket here, both written for small amounts.

The "Manson Family"

The Manson “Family”

At McNeil Island Prison in Washington, Manson, who had obtained the equivalent of only a seventh-grade education in his reformatory days, began to experiment with the occult, exploring offbeat religions. He developed an interest in Scientology, a mystical pseudo-scientific philosophy.

He also found he had a natural bent for musicianship. He took prison courses in music, learned to play the guitar, discovered he had a pleasant voice and even began to write songs.

Mysticism ‘and music became his dominant interests and he would use them to influence others when he was free once more. That was in late March 1967, when he was conditionally paroled from Terminal Island, where he last served time. When he came out of prison, said an acquaintance, “a whole new world opened up to him”–that of the hippie. He headed for the San Francisco Bay area, at that time still the hippie’s promised land.



He took up with a young woman from Wisconsin and lived for a time in Berkeley. He described himself variously as “a roving minstrel” and “a walking musician.” He and the young woman moved into a hillside hippie pad in Haight-Ashbury and he began to collect followers — mostly other young women.

How they paid their rent or obtained their food only they could have told, but Manson boasted that he was not interested in money because he had 3,000 friends who will help me.” One gave him a piano, which he traded for a camper which he in turn used to obtain a converted school bus. In this, he and the clan of young women who had become subservient to him headed south in May 1968. He planned to seek fame as a musician and songwriter in Los Angeles.

The young Wisconsin woman gave birth to a baby during the 10-day trip to Los Angeles. It was presumed to be Manson’s child.

In Oxnard, Calif., the nomads camped and ran afoul of the law when some of the young women were discovered sleeping in the nude. They were detained only briefly, however, and continued their journey to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Manson struck up a friendship with a musician, Gary Hinmah, 34. He was slain a year later, victimized, it is believed, by some of the Manson cultists.

Manson and several of his followers moved into Hinman’s home. Manson described it as a “pig farm,” meaning a refuge for hippies.

Not long after, Manson met Dennis Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, a popular musical group, and ingratiated .himself. Wilson thought he sensed a talent in Manson and wanted to help him. He permitted Manson to move into his opulent home in Pacific Palisades, along with Manson’s bewitched followers. Wilson reportedly took Manson along with him to cocktail parties in celebrities’ homes, and Manson confided to a friend, “Imagine me, hobnobbing with movie stars.”

Manson also claimed he had contracted with the Beach Boys to buy two of his songs, one for $5,000 and with a record company for a $20,000 commitment.

He planned to accompany the Beach Boys to Texas in the spring of 1968 for two engagements there, but because of parole restrictions was unable to keep the date. Instead, he contented himself with gathering his girls about him in the garden of the Wilson residence.

Brown-haired, brown-eyed and slight of build, he reveled in the adulation of the circle of young women around him. He played the part of a guru, too, and made them believe he possessed a gift of prophecy.

But he also played on the fears of complaining followers. Sometimes he resorted to threats to bring stragglers into line when they developed doubts about his omnipotence. Sometimes it was only the reminder that he was “Jesus” or “God” or “Satan.”

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On occasion, he found it necessary to threaten bodily harm. “Follow my orders or meet a horrible death,” he might say. “His looks were deceiving,” said an acquaintance. “When he talks, he comes on so friendly you never would perceive bitterness in him.”


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