Charles Manson: Crazy Hippie Cult Leader or “Patsy”?
Charles Manson: Crazy Hippie Cult Leader or “Patsy”?
Of the best known killers in American history, few have managed to reach the level of controversial fame that Charles Manson managed to reach in 1969 through 1971, and even fewer have managed to stay in the minds of the public decades after being locked up. Somehow, as a shriveled 78-year-old man, he is still just as famous as he was when he was arrested and stood trial as the charismatic leader of a murderous cult in his thirties. Manson was born in 1934 and spent nearly his entire life in prison, even before the murders he orchestrated occurred. One of his earliest experiences breaking the law occurred when he was just thirteen; he broke into a grocery store and stole $1,500 for a friend’s uncle. From the age of sixteen, he was incarcerated and paroled multiple times for various charges including car theft, pimping, “homosexual” rape, domestic violence, forgery, and skipping court hearings. During his last stay in prison before he formed the infamous Family – a group of his followers – he learned how to play the guitar and was said to have hopes for a musical career. He had developed an obsession with the Beatles and would later use their music to justify his orchestration of the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969. Perhaps what makes Manson so fascinating is that while he planned the murders, he never actually killed anyone. Instead, he used his charisma to drive others to kill for him. Manson convinced his followers that there would be an apocalyptic race war between blacks and whites. The blacks would win the war, but they would turn to Manson to lead them. In order to prove this theory, he used lyrics from various songs on The White Album, claiming that they had a secret meaning that confirmed the upcoming race war, specifically the song “Helter Skelter,” which would become Manson’s code-word for the upcoming race war. Was Manson simply insane or was he product of the time period, famous for drugs, psychedelic music, and radical expression?
There have been various books and articles that have attempted to explain Manson. Possibly the most popular is Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted the case. Bugliosi paints a picture of Manson as a charismatic evil genius and a madman who gathered vulnerable young people in their late teens to mid-twenties and influenced them. His followers, who dubbed themselves his Family, came from various backgrounds; some had run away from abusive households and others were simply bored teens who liked to experiment with drugs and sex, and still others had been a part of different nomadic groups before meeting and sticking with Manson. He would eventually move the family to Spahn Movie Ranch where he would convince his followers that there would be an apocalyptic race war and that they had been chosen to help him bring it about. They would do this by killing mostly affluent white people: Sharon Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski and eight months pregnant at the time of her death; Jay Sebring, an internationally known hair stylist; Abigail Folger, heiress to the popular coffee brand; Voyteck Frykowski, the lover of Folger; and the next day at a different scene, Leno LaBianca, the owner of a grocery store chain and his wife Rosemary. The only out of place victim was Steven Parent who was in his car and was leaving the house when he encountered and was killed by Charles “Tex” Watson before the others were killed. The brutality of the killings combined with the ludicrous motive, bizarre antics, and lack of remorse from Manson and his followers made it a media sensation, forever linking Manson’s name to radical hippie culture and the macabre.
NBC News, “‘Hippie Cult’ Arrested,” Dec. 2, 1969
Largely due to the book Helter Skelter and media reports like the one above, Manson and his Family have been most popularly portrayed as a hippie cult. The reasoning for this is likely because the Family did things that were typical of hippies during that time such as sexual expression, experimentation with drugs, and were nomadic. What sets them apart are, of course, the murders and their bizarre behavior during and after the trials. Some of his followers even went so far as to attempt to murder witnesses for the prosecution and one of the defense attorneys, Ronald Hughes, is said to have been killed as a result of his involvement in the case.
Charles Manson. Image courtesy of Life magazine
The above cover of the December 16, 1969 issue of Life magazine uses what is quite possibly the most widespread photo of Manson. It isn’t difficult to see why this photo was used out of so many others; one can almost see insanity in Manson’s expression. His wide eyes have an unnerving gleam to them and appear to be slightly unfocused, giving him an almost demented appearance. It would certainly reinforce the image of a madman who established himself as the leader of a murderous cult. The bizarre behavior of Manson and his followers around courtrooms during and after his trial has done him no favors in banishing this idea. They shaved their heads bald and carved X’s into their foreheads (Manson would later change his into a swastika).
However, others have argued that Manson was merely a product of the hippie culture that the 1960’s is so famous for. In a section of his book Horrible Workers, Donald Nielsen claims that story of Charles Manson and the Family has been recycled and retold so many times, it is difficult to tell truth from fiction; even Manson’s followers have written differing accounts of the same events they all witnessed. Nielsen argues that errors and reality have been mixed together to form what he calls the “Manson Myth” and that the classifications of Manson and his followers as a religious cult and a commune is not especially helpful. He goes on to state that Manson was overwhelmed by the social environment when he was released from prison, where he had spent over half his life by that point: “The free availability of drugs, easy sexual encounters, and especially the open and friendly attitude of others came as a shock to someone with his experience. I think it is important to recall that he was initially influenced by this social and cultural environment as much as he influenced it in turn” (Nielsen, 76). In other words, Manson was both created and enabled by the hippie culture of the time.
“Mae Brussell: Charles Manson Was a Patsy (10-13-1971)”
A lesser heard argument is that the Tate-LaBianca murders were really just a part of a government conspiracy to end the hippie movement and that Charles Manson was used by the government to achieve these ends. The above video is an October 13, 1971 radio broadcast from Dialogue: Assassination featuring Mae Brussell. Brussell makes the claim that Manson was just a “patsy”:
“Charles Manson was a patsy. He is identical, historically, to Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and James Ray. Charles Manson killed nobody in the Sharon Tate home or in the La Bianca home. He was being charged with these murders and he didn’t kill any one of those seven people. He was used. He was a person who had been in jail twenty-two of his thirty-two years of life. He was the product of our penal system. He was not a hippie or a part of the youth culture. They bought him a guitar, let his hair grow, put a leather jacket on him, gave him money, gave him a bus and credit cards, and told him to do his thing.”
Brussell essentially claims that Manson was told by the government to do what he did to put an end to the revolutionary attitudes of the 60s. The fact that Manson himself didn’t actually kill anybody also seems to have created questions of his culpability.
Ultimately, it is still unclear what “created” Charles Manson. Whether he was simply a lunatic who knew how to manipulate or an inevitable product of the hippie culture has been debated and is still up for debate decades after the murders. The violence and senselessness of his crimes combined with his bizarre behavior as well as arguments over his guilt have made him a popular icon of waywardness.
- Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (New York: Norton, 1974)
- Donald A. Nielsen, Horrible Workers (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005)
- Joan Didion, The White Album (New York: FSG,1979)