How the Manson Family cult continued long after its leader was behind bars

Rob Crossan

29 December 2020

In late 1970, Charles Manson and his 'Family' stood in the dock accused of some of the most brutal crimes in American history. Far from spelling the end of the cult, what followed was five more decades of assassination attempts, violence and insanity

29 December 2020 | Rob Crossan

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harles Manson was, at the age of 36, about to return to jail, an environment he already knew only too well – though the man due to be locked up for the rest of his life was not the same person who had spent 23 years of his formative life incarcerated. The diminutive petty crook (he was only 5ft 2) who was jailed in his teens and 20s for robbing petrol stations and stealing cars had grown into something infinitely more powerful. The Charles Manson entering California’s correctional system at the start of the 1970s was one of the most famous, and feared, men on earth, complete with a small army of followers who were prepared to stop at nothing to secure his freedom and obey his crazed desires.

The story of the Manson Family has fascinated Americans, and much of the rest of the world, for more than half a century, spawning dozens of books, TV series and movies, with the tale most recently being given a completely fictional dénouement by Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Living on a semi-derelict Californian movie set called Spahn Ranch, Manson and his followers were responsible for the brutal murder of heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends in her Hollywood Hills home alongside similarly viscous killings of successful Beverly Hills businesswoman Rosemary LaBianca and her husband Leno over the course of the summer of 1969.

Charles Manson in 1968

With Beatles song titles Helter Skelter and Piggies written on the walls of the murder scenes in their victim’s blood, the Family were the ultimate manifestation of the dark underbelly of 1960s counter-culture. Ideals of flower power and anti-capitalistic future utopias were gruesomely inverted by Manson and his burgeoning group of mainly female, maniacal drop-outs, all of whom were completely under the spell of a man capable of imposing messianic powers over his acolytes.

For most of the outside world, the arrest of Manson and key members of the Family marked the end of the murderous activities of the group. The truth, however, was infinitely more murky, confusing and dangerous.

Now all but forgotten by history, Manson’s murder trial almost resulted in a killing inside the court room itself when, on 5 October 1970, Manson leapt over his lawyer’s table with a sharpened pencil and attempted to stab Judge Charles H. Older. His female followers inside the court house began chanting in Latin as Manson was led from the room, screaming “in the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off!”

Despite the intervention of President Richard Nixon, who publically declared that he thought Manson was guilty “either directly or indirectly” before the trial had even concluded, pleas for a mistrial by Manson’s lawyers were rejected. In his testimony, Manson voiced a directed culpability for his actions onto wider society: “These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up. Most of the people at the ranch that you call the Family were just people that you did not want.”

Charles Manson in California's Pelican Bay State Prison, 1 September 1996

Judge Older was now sitting with 
a pistol concealed on his person. And although he wasn’t hurt in Manson’s court room attack, the attorney Ronald Hughes was less fortunate. Acting for Family member Leslie Van Houten, Hughes argued with Manson that his client shouldn’t attempt to protect the Family leader by claiming, as she was being pressured to in her upcoming testimony, that Manson had nothing to do with either the Sharon Tate or LaBianca murders.

Hughes’ decomposed body was found wedged between two boulders by fishermen in March 1971, over four months after he disappeared. To this day nobody has been charged in connection with his death, yet Manson follower Sandra Good has stated that “Hughes was the first of the retaliation murders.”

Found guilty on seven counts of first degree murder, Manson’s death penalty sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, the State of California abolishing the death penalty in 1972.

Manson and the leading members of the Family may now have been behind bars, but there were still plenty of devotees willing to complete his work on the outside. Moving to live near Folsom prison so she could regularly visit Manson, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme waited four years before making her next move on behalf of the deranged beliefs of the Family. Dressed entirely in red and standing barely a foot away from President Gerald Ford, she fired a Colt.45 pistol at the US head of state while he walked across the grounds of the California State Capital building in Sacramento on the morning of 5 September 1975. Incredibly, it seemed that Froome wasn’t aware that her gun didn’t include a round in the gun’s chamber. Failing to pull back the gun slide to insert a cartridge into the pistol’s chamber, the only sound on firing was an empty metallic click. Froome was swiftly jailed for attempted murder. But her attempts to reach her leader Manson wouldn’t be over yet.

All the while, Manson was being shuffled around various US prisons, now with a swastika tattooed between his eyes and seemingly determined to cause as much trouble as possible.“Suffice it to say that he cannot be described as a model prisoner,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2017, by which time Manson’s violations numbered well into the hundreds.

Charles Manson in a Santa Monica court room, 1970

A mail order catalogue for hot air balloons was found in Manson’s cell in 1982 along with nylon rope, a hacksaw blade and LSD tabs, advancing theories and conspiracies that leaked well beyond prison walls that Manson would, one day, mount an escape. These plans, fanciful as they may have been, were dealt a severe blow two years later when Manson was doused with a flammable liquid and set ablaze by a Hare Krishna devotee who claimed Manson had threatened him for practising his faith in the same penitentiary in Vacaville. Manson was treated for second- and third-degree burns, and his scalp, hair and beard were singed.

Incredibly, despite a rap sheet of inmate offences that also included setting fire to mattresses and attacking guards and fellow inmates, Manson was given permission to take part in a series of high-profile TV interviews to US stations in the 1980s and 1990s, where he was allowed to vent at length on his theories. He bragged to ABC News that he was a “gangster” and, with his prominent swastika tattoo and full, greying beard and hair on show, he stated to journalist Penny Daniels in 1989 that: “we use the word God. God hooks all the other words up. I’m the Pope. I’m 10 times the Pope. I’m 50 times the Pope. But I’m the Pope in the hills and in the mountains.”

Manson’s unhinged proclamations seemed designed to ensure that he would never be paroled. And there is a school of thought that suggests that prison was the environment Manson actually wanted to inhabit all along. Able to prolong his fame from behind bars, Manson became even more enigmatic, winning over new converts such as Gray Wolf.

Formerly known as Craig Hammond, the McDonald’s employee quit his job and moved to California in order to be close to the man he called his “hero”. It is believed that it was Wolf who managed to smuggle cell phones to Manson, who was regularly caught with mobile devices in his cell until 2016. Continuing to communicate with various female members of the Family, both old and new, the Manson rumour mill went into overdrive in 2014 when Charles became engaged to Afton ‘Star’ Burton, a Mississippi woman five decades his junior.

Charles Manson on 16 June 2011

Burton visited the famous inmate every day as well as running his website. But despite obtaining a marriage license, they never became officially wed with Manson later claiming to the press that the reason the nuptials were never concluded was due to him discovering that Burton planned on taking possession of his corpse when he died and charging members of the public to view it.

By this time, Manson was in his 80s and becoming seriously ill. Having long stopped attending his own parole hearings, deeming them a “waste of time”, he was admitted to Bakersfield Hospital in January 2017 with gastrointestinal bleeding. Considered too weak for surgery, the diagnosis was kept from the public, as were pictures of the dying Manson. Knowing his time was running out, there was a conspicuous lack of info from both Manson and prison officials in the final months of his life with both parties having vastly differing reasons for not wanting to draw attention to the imminent end of the darkest of cult figures.

Charles Manson died aged 83 on 19 November 2017 of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure connected to colon cancer, having spent almost half of the last century in prison. His body was cremated in the California desert with rumours continuing to persist that surviving, freed members of the Family, plus new converts to Manson, were there to see Charles’s remains perish to ash.

Former Manson Family member Dianne Lake gave a TV interview at the time of his death, stating that Charlie was “cute, impish, fun” at first but that she wanted to commit suicide after he later raped her. “If they [the surviving imprisoned Family members] really had remorse,” said Lake, in a separate interview, “they would waive their parole hearings so that the families of the victims don’t have to relive this experience over and over.”

As of now, key Manson Family members, including Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, are both still behind bars, while Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, who described himself as Manson’s right-hand man, has become an ordained minister while still serving jail time in San Diego. He has been denied parole 17 times.

As for Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Froome; she escaped from prison in 1987 after receiving a life sentence for the assassination attempt on President Ford. Attempting to reach Manson in his cell, she was found two miles from the jail she’d fled in West Virginia after a 48-hour man hunt.

In August 2009, after serving 34 years in jail, Froome was released. Now in her early 70s, her whereabouts are unknown; just another former Family member now living in an America no longer containing Manson but where similarly deranged cults celebrating violence, conspiracy and white supremacy continue to persist.

As Linda Deutsch, who has covered the Manson Family story for more than half a century for US newspapers recently observed: “Manson had a streak of pure evil. The story is that it persists until now. He’s dead, finally, and yet it’s as if the curse has not yet disappeared. And it hangs over everyone who was ever involved with him.”