“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”
Just as many regard “Call me Ishmael” from Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick” as the most famous first sentence in all of American Literature, so the quotation above may be recognized as the most widely known opening statement in the true crime literary genre. For the uninitiated, it is from “Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders,” written by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry and published in 1974, five years after the horrifyingly bizarre Tate-LaBianca murders orchestrated by Charles Manson in Los Angeles on the nights of Aug. 9-10, 1969.
Even though these particularly heinous and gruesome slaughters of seven people occurred 44 years ago, the story of Manson and his so-called “Family” remains morbidly fascinating even to this day. With more than 7 million copies sold, “Helter Skelter” is the best-selling true crime book of all time, and Manson and is followers have been the subject of numerous books and even some dramatic productions.
The newest contribution to the Manson canon, however, is “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson” by Jeff Guinn, a former journalist whose investigating reporting, features stories, and literary criticism have earned him myriad awards at the regional, state, and national levels. Guinn also is the author of 16 books, including “Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” and he’s listed among the members of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.
Whereas “Helter Skelter” is Bugliosi’s firsthand account of the murders and the ensuing trial, “Manson” offers readers a meticulously researched, extremely comprehensive, and very readable biography of one of the most notorious killers in the annals of American crime. Guinn’s research includes myriad interviews with people who knew or were associated with Manson from the time he was a toddler until his ultimate trial and incarceration.
In a prologue that ties Manson to recording producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son), talent scout Gregg Jakobson, and Dennis Wilson (the drummer for the Beach Boys), all of whom played significant roles in Manson’s adult life, we learn that Manson spent most of the summer in 1968 living off the generosity of Wilson, “…who was notorious for giving strays temporary run of his luxurious log cabin house… .” And how did Manson repay his gracious host?
“Besides writing some interesting songs and spouting an addictive form of philosophy, Manson had with him a retinue of girls who adored Charlie and were happy to engage in any form of sex his rock star benefactor desired. Accordingly, Wilson’s summer was a carnal extravaganza, though he had to make frequent trips to his doctor since the Manson girls kept infecting him with gonorrhea.”
After the prologue Guinn begins the story of Manson’s life with the birth of his mother, Ada Kathleen, in 1918, and in August of 1934, when Kathleen was only 15, she married William Manson.
“On November 12, 1934, Kathleen delivered a healthy baby boy at Cincinnati General Hospital. The child’s birth certificate, filed on December 3, contained no taint of illegitimacy. His father was listed as William Manson, now of Cincinnati, a ‘laborer’ employed at a dry cleaner’s. The infant was named Charles Milles Manson in honor of his maternal grandfather.”
When Manson was only four-and-a-half years old, his mother was convicted of unarmed robbery and sentenced to five years in the Moundsville, W.Va., penitentiary, and Manson was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in McMechen, W.Va. From the time he was a child, Manson showed signs of what he would turn into as an adult.
LESLIE VAN HOUTEN
“But even at such a young age (5) he lied about everything, and when he got in trouble for telling fibs or breaking things or any of the other innumerable misdeeds he committed on a daily basis, Charlie always blamed somebody else for his actions. The child was also obsessed with being the center of attention. If he couldn’t get noticed for doing something right, he was just as willing to attract attention by misbehaving. You couldn’t ever relax when Charlie was around. It was only a matter of time before he got up something bad.”
As Manson grew up, he was always in some kind of trouble, and by the time he was 26, “…counting reform schools, he had already been in some form of custody or on probation for almost fourteen years.”
Guinn leaves no stone unturned in his account of Manson’s bizarre life, and he paints a vivid picture of the time Manson and his followers aka “The Family” spent at the Spahn ranch and the events leading up to the murders of actress Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steve Parent on Aug. 9, 1969, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 10, 1969. Guinn’s description of the murders and the crime scenes is not for the faint of heart because it is graphically thorough.
CHARLES “TEX” WATSON
Anyone familiar with the Manson story already knows how he used a combination of drugs (mostly LSD) and preaching to program his family members to do his bidding. Not only were they willing to kill for him, but the girls also had sex with anyone Manson designated. Of course anyone engaging in sexual intercourse with Manson girls risked being infected by numerous forms of venereal disease.
Among the most famous Manson family members are Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles “Tex” Watson, Linda Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Guinn devotes ample space to delineating their respective roles in the Family. In fact Krenwinkel and Van Houten are among those Guinn interviewed for his book.
I found “Manson” a fascinating read from beginning to end, but of course I have been intrigued by the case since its inception. Manson seized on the song “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles’ White Album and made that the title of his master plan. He told his followers that the black people were going to start a revolution and take over the world. In the meantime, Manson and his family members would go to a hole in the desert where they would hide until they had multiplied to 144,000. Then they would emerge, kill all the black people, and rule the world. And his followers believed him!
Because I read “Helter Skelter,” some of the material in “Manson” was familiar to me, but something that really intrigued me was the information about Wheeling, McMechen, and Moundsville. For example I didn’t realize that prisoners in the Moundsville Penitentiary were often tortured when Manson’s mother and uncle were incarcerated there in 1939. The place also was horribly overcrowded, as its capacity was 870, but the inmates numbered 2,700. And rats and cockroaches ran rampant in the dining hall. The book includes more about the prison, and the part about the executions that occurred back then is a real revelation.
LYNETTE “SQUEAKY” FROMME
Those who call Wheeling home will be pleased to learn that “The Friendly City” is a much nicer place now than it was when Manson lived nearby and worked at Wheeling Downs. In 1954 Manson lived for a time with his grandmother in McMechen, and Guinn points out that the residents there wanted nothing to do with Wheeling.
“The city of Wheeling a few miles to the north was widely recognized as a regional hotbed of crime, with prostitution and gambling controlled by mobster ‘Big Bill’ Lias, and Moundsville to the south was a brooding place dominated by the penitentiary. McMechen took pride in its working-class decency.”
Anyone interested in the Manson case should find Guinn’s book riveting reading, and those who know nothing about the guy may also enjoy learning about the life of a diminutive juvenile delinquent who ended up as one of America’s most famous killers and who was able literally to program people to do his bidding. Some of them actually believed he was Jesus Christ. Guinn’s summation of Manson is one of the best I’ve ever read.
“By the time the 1960s arrived, Charles Manson was already a lifelong social predator. Almost everyone who had anything to do with him was damaged in some way, and Charlie could not have cared less. Gregg Jakobson compares Charlie to a cancer cell because he thrived by eradicating everything around him that was healthy. There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie–he was opportunistic sociopath. The 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.”
Fortunately that flower will wilt and die in a cage where it belongs.
THE MANY FACES OF CHARLES MANSON