The Day The Evil Died: Charles Manson, cult leader, dies at 83

By PAUL VALENTINE / Posted on November 20, 2017

Charles Manson, a fiery-eyed cult master whose lemming-like followers staged a bloody two-night murder rampage in Los Angeles in 1969 that gripped the city with fear and shocked the nation, died Nov. 19 at a hospital in Kern County, Calif. He was 83.

Spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause. Mr. Manson, who was serving a life sentence at California State Prison in Corcoran, had had health problems in recent years and was hospitalized in January for gastrointestinal bleeding, according to news reports.

The sheer incomprehensibility of his followers’ acts — mutilation and ritual stabbings of seven victims, among them rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant and married to movie director Roman Polanski — left the public aghast and police investigators stumped for months.

For many, Mr. Manson and his ragtag entourage of runaways, two-bit criminals and blindly loyal worshipers also symbolized the dark, even contradictory, excesses of the drug-driven, free-love 1960s, especially in California.

There, Mr. Manson and his “family” members wandered the countryside, scavenging, stealing and preparing for an apocalyptic race war prophesied by their leader and dubbed “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song.

A prelude to the conflagration was the slaughter of the seven people in two affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods. Orchestrated by Mr. Manson on two successive nights in August 1969, the seemingly random killings were calculated to hasten the race war by making them appear committed by black militants. That, in turn, he told his followers, would stir white sentiment against African Americans, triggering widespread violence by blacks.

The scheme bore surface plausibility with the rash of urban explosions throughout the 1960s, culminating in the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and nationwide rioting.

Investigators, however, said the attacks also appeared motivated, at least in part, by Mr. Manson’s uncontrolled rage in the weeks leading up to the murders, when Hollywood agents rejected his self-proclaimed musical talents.

The killings — known collectively as the Tate-LaBianca murders — led to the conviction of Mr. Manson and four of his followers in 1971. All were sentenced to death in the California gas chamber, but the sentences were reduced to life in 1972 when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.

Over the years, the Helter Skelter massacres, as they were often described, attained macabre folklore dimensions, generating books, songs, movies and even an opera.

Mr. Manson transfixed the nation with his roving, luminous eyes and courtroom theatrics during the months-long trial in which he and three female followers — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — were convicted. A fourth family member, Charles “Tex” Watson, was convicted in a separate trial.

Mr. Manson and the women, as well as family supporters outside the courtroom, repeatedly disrupted the proceedings with antics, shouting often unintelligible slogans and chanting protests in unison. Once, Mr. Manson was restrained by bailiffs when he lunged at the judge.

“Look at yourselves,” he shouted another time, glaring at the spectators. “You’re going to destruction.”

Vincent Bugliosi, the hard-charging deputy district attorney who prosecuted Mr. Manson, described the Manson name as “a metaphor for evil.”

Mr. Manson was a study in stark contrasts. Small and scrawny, he was also charismatic and held an almost hypnotic power over his followers, especially women. Some believed he was divine.

Investigators, academic researchers and journalists found him alternately erratic and focused, a proficient guitarist, a lover of animals, a racist and an anti-Semite with a left-leaning hatred of the “establishment” and corporate America and bitterness over his rejection by the music celebrity world of Hollywood.

He was not insane, but he could fake it and had an insatiable need to control others, prompting him to recruit naive and malleable acolytes to his family, according to behaviorists who studied his life.

“Basically, Manson was a coward,” Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, told Maclean’s magazine in 2012. “He was the kind of guy who had other people do his bidding, and I think he really enjoyed taking advantage of people who were gullible.”