It was the crime spree if not of the century certainly one that sent Hollywood into a spin of acute paranoia and terror in the late 60s. Fifty years have nearly passed since the grisly Manson Murders - possibly the most notorious in the history of celebrity killings - took place over two evenings on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, at the height of California’s flower power youth movement of ‘dropping out’, free love and experimentation with drugs.
For an era that saw in a social revolution with its messages of peace, casual sex and anti-war principles it was a particularly sinister and cruel epilogue to a decade of naive positivity. Epitomising what was then seen as the ‘counter culture’ to middle America’s conservative traditions, and the very same year the moon was conquered, Charles Manson’s cabal of teenage killers following his orders to sadistically slaughter seven innocent people, left a dark shadow over the era representing what was meant to be a panacea against war and violence.
If one crime in recent history has perpetuated countless myths over the decades then the Manson murders have to be the one still open to scrutiny, fascination and investigation even half a century on. From the suggestion that Charles Manson as a cult leader of a Californian commune was trying to incite a race war through the 1969 murders, to the influence of the Beatles’ song ‘Helter Skelter’, or his actions explained as an extreme act of vengeance for having been rejected by the music industry - all such theories tend to distract from the fact that a manipulative individual with a history of criminal activity, violence and psychosis contributed to one of the most infamous and senseless murder scenes in history.
In 1968 Manson lived with his family of around 25 followers, mainly consisting of teenage girls, at Spahn’s Movie Ranch a rundown former film set for Westerns on the outskirts of Hollywood, north of Los Angeles. Manson had established himself as a quasi-spiritual guru, tapping into the ‘hippie’ counterculture that was predominant in the Californian communes of the 60s. Previous to his move to Spahn’s ranch he had spent a turbulent ten years serving time in and out of prison for theft and burglary offences which saw an escalation in violence and as well as armed robbery including convictions for ‘pimping’ girls. Manson was already noted as a troubled young man with psychiatric issues and a propensity for violence and had served half of his 32 years in prisons and juvenile institutions.
While living at the ranch Manson had cultivated a friendship with Beach Boys’ singer Dennis Wilson who would visit the ranch and become involved in a lifestyle of casual sex and drug taking amongst Manson’s cult family. It was through Wilson that Manson saw an opportunity to realise his ambitions to be a music artiste as successful as the then-popular Beatles. Wilson and the Beach Boys recorded one of Manson’s songs and for a moment the ex-con felt a short breath away from being part of the glamorous Hollywood society he had only seen from the outside. His rejection by Wilson's music producer Terry Melcher, who refused to offer Manson a dream record contract left him bitter and consumed with hate, believing himself to be a victim of persecution by the ‘establishment’.
Manson soon found an anthem for his rage through the Beatles’ White Album, notably its track ‘Helter Skelter’ with its tracks such as ‘Piggies’ and lyrics about the white establishment in the suburbs which may have fed Manson’s paranoiac belief that the songs were meant and written for him. Interpreting the John Lennon created song ‘Revolution 9’ as a message relating to the Biblical book of Revelations and its prophecies of the Apocalypse, initiated a shift in tone from preaching free love in Manson’s cult family to one of retribution and murder and preparing his followers for in his mind was to be a racially motivated revolution.
The atmosphere at Sphan ranch quickly changed from being relaxed and carefree to one of fear and where the family members had access to more guns. By summer 1969 the most trustworthy of Manson’s followers and those who had proved themselves to him agreed to ignite the ‘Helter Skelter’ revolution and bring the world of vengeance down on people.
It was only a matter of time before Manson and his deranged ideology fuelled by egocentric paranoia would instruct his brainwashed followers to carry out a series of murders that shocked the world.
Charles Manson was 35 years of age when he was arrested on October 12th 1969 for conspiracy to commit what became known as the Tate/LaBianca murders, carried out by several of his most loyal teenage members of his cult ‘family’ including Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten alongside ‘outlook’ Linda Kasabian.
The target of the first multiple murder conspiracy was 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, then occupied by aspiring actress Sharon Tate, wife of film producer Roman Polanski. Tate’s guests in the house on that fateful night of August 8th, 1969 included Tate’s former lover and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebrang, screenwriter Wojciech Frywoski and his girlfriend Abigail Folger. Roman Polanski himself was away in London on business.
Actress Tate, whose last film ‘The Thirteen Chairs’, filmed in Italy in 1968 was eight months pregnant at the time of her murder had only just rented the house with husband Polanski from record producer Terry Melcher who has been credited with shaping the 1960’s Californian sound. It may have been possible that Manson believed Melcher was still living there. The four minions of Manson were told by Manson to ‘totally destroy everyone in it as gruesome as you can’ and carry out the slaughter under the pretext of inciting a race war.
On the night of August 8th after telling his murder clan 'now is the time for Helter Skelter' Manson’s foot soldiers arrived at Cielo Drive armed with knives and with murder on their minds. Susan Atkins already had a taste for blood from two weeks previously after having helped torture and kill Gary Hinman, an acquaintance of Manson over a dispute connected with drug money. For Atkins, the prospect of murdering people she didn’t know was not something she worried about.
In a premeditated act, the group cut telephone wires to the house and then while the pregnant Tate was entertaining her guests broke into the house and carried out a terrifying ordeal of torment, torture and eventual murder of all occupants. It was the sadism and savagery meted out to the victims that particularly shocked police officers who surveyed the scene of carnage the morning after.
It was midnight when the killers parked their car some distance from the house. Before they undertook a series of brutal murders that shocked the world, Watson killed 18-year-old passerby Steven Parent by shooting him four times after slashing his hands with a knife. Kasabian, mainly acted as look out at the end of the drive as the trio broke into the house. After Watson had kicked Tate’s guest Frywoski in the head he uttered the demonic line ‘I am the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business’All occupants were brought into the front from by Atkins and Krenwinkel as Tex Watson tied both the traumatised Sharon Tate and friend Sebring by their necks with rope that Watson slung over a beam. After defending the pregnant Tate, Sebring was shot by Watson but left alive. While Abigail Folger tried to placate the maniacs with $70 from her purse in a bedroom Sebring was stabbed several times. Screenwriter Frywoski who had his hands tied struggled and tried to escape as Atkins reacted by stabbing his legs. Making his way to the front porch Watson pursued the terrified victim hitting him over the head with his gun, stabbing him and shooting Frywoski twice.
In a moment of rare compassion look-out Linda Kasabian hoping to halt the slaughter told Atkins that ‘someone was coming’ while Folger, having escaped from a bedroom to the pool area outside was pursued by Krenwinkel. The distraught victim was caught and stabbed by both Krenwinkel and Watson up to 28 times. While the still barely alive Frywoski struggled across the lawn the demented Watson stabbed him 51 times.
The most shocking and obscene of murders that night was of the young Sharon Tate. She had been strung up to the ceiling and despite pleading for her life and that of her baby was mercilessly slain by both Atkins and Tex Watson with a knife to the terrified woman’s belly as she was stabbed sixteen times. Her last words were ‘Mother....mother’. Tate’s blood was then used to write Political Piggy on the front door of the house as part of sickening order from Manson to leave behind ‘witchy’ things. This phrase was in reference to the Beatles song ‘Piggies’ on the band’s ‘White Album’ that Manson was obsessed with and encouraged his followers to listen to it as well as other tracks while under the influence of LSD and cannabis.
Saturday 9th August, just one night after the heinous murders at Cielo Drive Manson arranged another night of slaughter, this time the victims were to be supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary at their home at 3301 Waverley Drive in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. Manson assigned for this second orgy of violence Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan, four of the other members (including Krenwinkel) from the previous massacre and Leslie Van Houten (later associated with the girl trio on death row) to carry out the cowardly attack. As before Linda Kasabian was recruited as look-out and driver and this time Manson went along with the group to ‘show them what to do’
The only connection to the victims transpired to be that Manson’s target for murder happened to be next door to a house where he and his family group had partied at the year before. Manson gave Tex Watson leather laces with orders to tie up Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and cover their heads with pillow cases. But soon after Manson left the scene for his disciples to carry out multiple murder while making sure he avoided leaving any evidence of him being there. Before fleeing the scene he ordered Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten to kill the married couple.
Manson, according to Van Houten left the trio of killers instructions ‘don’t scare them like last night’ (referring to the Tate murders) as Watson armed with a bayonet bound and gagged Leno LaBianca while Krenwinkel and Van Houten took the terrified Rosemary LaBianca into the bedroom as all heard the distressing sounds of Mr LaBianca dying. Krenwinkel stabbed Mrs LaBianca as she tried to fight off the two demonic women with a lampshade that had been tied around her neck.
Despite calling out to her husband the merciless Van Houten and Krenwinkel continued with their psychological torture of a woman in earshot of her husband being murdered and knowing she was going to be next. Van Houten admitted in a documentary in the 90s that ‘for a brief moment I realised that these are people who loved each other’ but such fleeting thoughts didn’t stop LaBianca’s abusers from preventing Watson coming into the room and killing her.
Having taken orders from Manson for them all to get ‘their hands dirty’ Van Houten stabbed the body of LaBianca sixteen times in the lower back and buttocks. Many of the stabbings were post-mortem. After the brutal merciless slaughter of the LaBiancas, Watson took a shower while the women had a snack of chocolate milk and cheese. Before leaving the house Krenwinkel admitted to making ‘witchy signs’ in blood over the house while stabbing the dead LaBianca with a fork several times and leaving it in his body.
Some of the signs written on the walls included ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Death to pigs’ and the word ‘War’ carved on the abdomen of Leno LaBianca was, according to a later statement by Susan Atkins and who didn’t enter the house, carried out by Pat Krenwinkel. Manson in answering questions about his instructions that night replied he told his followers to leave messages... ‘I said..if you’re going to do something....leave something witchy’.
In total, including the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her guests and the LaBiancas the victims’ assailants had stabbed them 146 times. The trio of women, Pat Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins who had participated in the murders spent ten months on Death Row until the US Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in California and commuted their sentences to life in prison. Susan Atkins, responsible for eight murders including Sharon Tate’s, would later plead for parole in a tearful testimony to how sorry she felt for her the living relatives of her victims as part of her and her fellow prisoners’ continuous campaigns over the years that they are remorseful and changed women.