Who Was Charles Manson?

Charles Manson spearheaded a murderous campaign with his followers, the Manson Family cult, that made him one of the most infamous criminals in history. The group’s killing spree included the notoriously brutal slayings of pregnant actor Sharon Tate and other Hollywood residents. For these crimes, Manson received the death penalty in 1971, a sentence that was commuted to life in prison the following year. In total, he is thought to be responsible for around 35 murders. Manson died in prison of natural causes in 2017, just after his 83rd birthday.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Charles Milles Manson
BORN: November 12, 1934
DIED: November 19, 2017
BIRTHPLACE: Cincinnati, Ohio
SPOUSES: Rosalie Jean Willis (1955-1958) and Leona Rae “Candy” Steves (1959-1963)
CHILDREN: Charles Manson Jr. and Charles Luther Manson

Early Life

Charles Manson was Charles Milles Maddox born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati to Kathleen Maddox, a 16-year-old girl who was both an alcoholic and a prostitute.

Kathleen later married William Manson, but the marriage ended quickly, and Charles was placed in a boys school at age 12. Rejected in his attempts to return to his mother, Charles was soon living on the streets and getting by through petty crime.

Still just a teenager, in 1951, Manson began spending time in prison. Early on, before he discovered the benefits of being a “model” prisoner, he was considered dangerous. He would eventually spend half of the first 32 years of his life behind bars. When he wasn’t incarcerated, he also attended reform schools.

Manson was described by probation reports as suffering from a “marked degree of rejection, instability, and psychic trauma” and “constantly striving for status and securing some kind of love.” Other descriptions included “unpredictable” and “safe only under supervision.”

His various offenses included pimping and passing stolen checks, and in 1961, he was sent to McNeil Island prison in Washington State for 10 years. It was while he was incarcerated that Manson learned how to read music and play the guitar. He was released from prison on March 21, 1967, and moved to San Francisco.

The Manson Family Cult

“The Family” was a group of around 100 followers of Manson who shared his passion for an unconventional lifestyle and habitual use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and magic mushrooms. The Manson Family eventually moved from San Francisco to a deserted ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

Manson’s followers also included a small, hard-core unit of impressionable young girls. They began to believe, without question, Manson’s claims that he was Jesus and his prophecies of a race war.

Charles Manson and “Helter Skelter”

Manson was influenced not only by drugs, but also by art works and music of the time, most notably The Beatles song “Helter Skelter” from their 1968 White Album. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders was later the title of a best-selling book about Manson and his crimes.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

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Paul McCartney has said that the playground slide in “Helter Skelter” was a metaphor for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Manson, however, interpreted the song’s lyrics as incitation to begin a race war. He turned to the album and lyrics to justify his scheme and guide his followers to murder.

Manson had a strong belief and interest in the notion of Armageddon from the Book of Revelations and also explored the teachings of Scientology and more obscure cult churches, such as the Church of the Final Judgment.

In many ways, Manson reflected personality traits and obsessions that were associated with gurus of cult-quasi-religious groups that began to emerge in the 1960s. He was pathologically deluded into believing that he was the harbinger of doom regarding the planet’s future.

The Manson-Beach Boys Connection

Before Manson’s famous murderous spree, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys had allowed Manson and several members of the Manson family to stay at his home after picking up two female followers who had been hitchhiking.

It was through this association that Manson, who wanted to be a musician, got the opportunity to audition for Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day who was a friend and producer of the popular 1960s band The Beach Boys. At the time, Melcher was living at director Roman Polanski’s house. Ultimately, the producer wasn’t interested in signing a contract with Manson.

Manson allegedly did record some music at the home studio of Dennis’ brother Brian Wilson. Additionally, The Beach Boys released a song written by Manson entitled “Cease to Exist” (renamed “Never Learn Not to Love”) on their 1969 album, 20/20, as a single B-side.

Murders and Victims

sharon tate looks down and to the left of the camera, she has on heavy eye makeup and her long blonde hair is down

Manson Family victim Sharon Tate, circa 1965
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The Manson Family—including Manson and his young, loyal disciples—is thought to have carried out some 35 murders. Most of their cases were never tried, in part for lack of evidence. The perpetrators had also already been sentenced to life for brutally killing seven people—actor Sharon Tate and wealthy supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, among them—on back-to-back nights in August 1969.

On August 9, 1969, Manson gathered a group of followers to carry out his massacre among Hollywood’s elite and “beautiful people.” The first of Manson’s victims was murdered at the home director Roman Polanski had rented, located at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, an area just north of Beverly Hills. Polanski was away in London shooting a film, and four soon-to-be victims had just returned home from dinner when they were attacked.

Although Manson himself took no part in the actual killings, he directed four of his most obedient followers—Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian—to the address and directed them to kill everyone. According to one of the Family member’s statements, the Polanski household had been targeted because it represented the showbiz world that had rejected Manson.

Steven Parent had been visiting a friend when he became the Manson Family’s first victim. As he drove away from the house in the dark early morning hours, he was spotted by the intruders and shot dead. Kasabian was horrified by the shooting of the 18-year-old, and she remained outside to keep watch. Kasabian acted as the getaway driver and later became the star witness during the trial.

When the other three broke into the house, they herded actor Sharon Tate, writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee bean heiress Abigail Folger, and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring into the living room and tied them up. Sebring was shot and brutally kicked as he tried to defend Tate, who was eight months pregnant. During the terrifying attack, both Frykowski and Folger managed to briefly escape from the house but were chased down and stabbed to death.

At the trial, Kasabian described how she saw Frykowski staggering out of the house covered in blood and was horrified at the sight. She told him she was “sorry,” but despite her pleas to his attacker to stop, the victim was bludgeoned repeatedly. Folger escaped from the house with terrible injuries but was caught on the front lawn and stabbed 28 times.

Tate, who was married to Polanski, pleaded for the life of her unborn child. She was mercilessly stabbed in the stomach by Atkins. Kasabian later shared Atkins’ chilling words to Tate before she stabbed her: “Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You’re going to die, and you’d better get used to it.”

Atkins then used Tate’s blood to write the word “pig” on the front door. However, instead of this brutal massacre sating the pathological Manson, he criticized the murderers for being sloppy.

The following night, Manson took Family members Watson, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten to the Los Feliz address of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and the couple was murdered in a similarly horrifying fashion.

Arrest, Trial, and Conviction

seven police officers in uniform escort charles manson as the group walks down a hallway, manson is handcuffed behind the back and wears a white shirt, jeans, and a bandana

Police escort Charles Manson into custody after he and three followers were found guilty of murder in January 1971.
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Ironically, Manson and his family were arrested not on suspicion of the Tate-LaBianca murders, but simply on the belief that they had vandalized a portion of the Death Valley National Park while hiding out in the Mojave Desert.

In 1969, the county sheriff had taken them into custody, not realizing that they were involved in the heinous murders. But the confession of Susan Atkins, while held in detention on suspicion of murdering Gary Hinman during an unrelated incident, led detectives to realize that Manson and his followers were involved in the killings.

Various motivations were examined during the course of the trial. The most feasible was that Manson’s pathological ego, insanity, and belief in Armageddon were influences that led him to leave behind a trail of destruction. Manson believed that he was the new Messiah and that after a “nuclear attack” he and his followers would be saved by hiding in a secret world under the desert.

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His prophetic visions included a belief that the race war would result in a Black victory, which would lead to Manson, along with his followers, mentoring the Black community, as they would lack experience to run the planet. As Manson and the family were to be the beneficiaries of the race war, he told his followers that they had to help initiate it.

According to defense witness and murderer Leslie Van Houten, this was the primary reason why they murdered the LaBiancas. Manson had taken the wallet of murdered Rosemary LaBianca with the intention that he would deposit it in a section of Los Angeles where a Black person might find it, use it, and then possibly have the murders pinned on them.

Later in court, Van Houten, who was just 19 when she took part in the LaBianca killings, alleged that Manson had taken advantage of her vulnerability and dislike for her mother, though she believed, like the other members, that he was a man of vision. Thirty years later, during a parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was horrified by what she had done that night and desperately wanted to redeem herself.

Susan Atkins admitted in initial confessions to fellow prisoners that she had wanted to cut out Tate’s unborn baby but didn’t have the time. She also revealed that other grisly and macabre acts were to be perpetrated against the victims and that a list of other high-profile Hollywood stars were on a list to be killed and mutilated. These included Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, and Tom Jones. When asked why they wanted to kill celebrities, Atkins replied that the Manson Family wanted to commit murders that would shock the world and make people take notice.

charles manson sits in court with his arms crossed, he wears a denim shirt that is partially unbuttoned and jeans, around him are several men in suits

Charles Manson sits in court at the beginning of his murder trial in June 1970.
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The trial began in June 1970, with lawyer Ronald Hughes named the attorney for Manson and Van Houten. Hughes soon dropped Manson as a client, reportedly because he felt he could convince the jury that Van Houten had been unduly influenced by the cult leader. The move might have cost him his life: Late in the year, Hughes went camping and disappeared, and his decomposed body turned up several months later. It is thought that he was the victim of a retaliation killing by members of Manson’s Family.

During the trial, Manson released an album titled Lie in an effort to raise money for his defense. He reveled in the media attention, and during court proceedings, he turned up with an X carved into his forehead. Some of his female followers copied the act and shaved their heads, sometimes sitting outside the courthouse. The X was gradually modified until it turned into a swastika.

Throughout the trial, the killers often giggled and exchanged grimaces with Manson, showing no remorse for their crimes.

On January 25, 1971, Manson was convicted of first-degree murder for directing the deaths of the Tate-LaBianca victims. He was sentenced to death, but this was automatically commuted to life in prison after California’s Supreme Court invalidated all death sentences prior to 1972. He spent the next four decades behind bars Corcoran State Prison in California.

Atkins and Van Houten were also sentenced to death, but their sentences were similarly commuted to life in prison. Atkins was incarcerated from 1969 until her death in 2009. After multiple parole hearings, Van Houten was released from prison in July 2023 after serving more than 50 years. Kasabian was granted immunity for her part as star witness.

Children and Wives

In 1955, between prison sentences, Manson married Rosalie Jean Willis, a 17-year-old hospital server. The couple moved to California and had a son, Charles Manson Jr., who died by suicide in the 1990s. By 1956, Willis had left with their child to be with her new lover, and she divorced Manson two years later.

In 1959, Manson married Leona Rae “Candy” Stevens, a sex worker, with whom he had a second son, Charles Luther Manson. Stevens divorced Manson in 1963.

Girlfriend in Prison

In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Afton Burton, who called herself Star, claimed that she and Manson were in a relationship, telling the reporter: “I’ll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married. When that will be, we don’t know. But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you this.”

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At the age of 19, Star had moved from Illinois to Corcoran, California, to be near the prison where Manson was incarcerated, and she also ran multiple websites aimed at securing his release.

In November 2014, the 26-year-old Star and 80-year-old Manson obtained a marriage license. However, their marriage license expired in 2015, and allegations were made in February of that year by writer Daniel Simone that Star primarily intended to marry Manson so she could publicly display his corpse for profit after his death. Manson’s wife Star later told Inside Edition the nuptials were still on, while her mother disputed Simone’s claims in a Rolling Stone story. Their marriage never did come to pass before Manson’s death.


Manson died on November 19, 2017, of natural causes. The 83-year-old had been in prison for more than 46 years for his crimes.

Days earlier, Manson had been admitted to a hospital in Bakersfield, California. No details about his medical condition or his location were disclosed, due to privacy and security reasons. The longtime prisoner had also been hospitalized earlier in the year.

Posthumous Legal Battles

For around four months after Manson’s death, the Kern County Superior Court of California sought to determine who had the right to claim the notorious cult leader’s body. Four people expressed interest, including two who claimed to be his son, one who demonstrated he was a grandson, and a fourth who said he was a longtime pen pal. The matter was further complicated by the submission of competing wills. In March 2018, the court awarded Manson’s body to his grandson, Jason Freeman, the only child of Charles Manson Jr. A resident of Bradenton, Florida, Freeman told a local news channel he planned to cremate his grandfather’s body and scatter the ashes in an undisclosed location.

Charles Manson Documentaries and Movies

The infamy of Charles Manson has led to dozens of books, documentaries, and movies.

One of the earliest documentaries is 1973’s Manson that includes footage of places were the Manson family lived and interviews with former followers of the cult leader. The seminal documentary earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1972.

More recently, the two-part documentary Manson Speaks: Inside the Mind of a Madman (2017) investigates whether the Manson family was connected to other unsolved murders in late 1969. Elsewhere, Manson: Music from an Unsound Mind (2019) delves into Manson’s musical ambitions and brief friendship with The Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson.

The horrific crimes of the Manson family have also inspired several onscreen dramatizations. The best-selling book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders was twice made into a movie. The 1976 adaptation featured Steve Railsback as Manson, and in 2004’s Helter Skelter, Jeremy Davies portrayed the infamous criminal mastermind. Other movies include House of Manson (2014) with Ryan Kiser and Charlie Says (2018), starring Matt Smith.

The Manson family was also included in an episode of American Horror Story: Cult, the seventh season of the popular anthology series that aired in 2017.


  • I am not a bad person, I am a good person.
  • Look down at me, and you see a fool. Look up at me, and you see a god. Look straight at me, and you see yourself.

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