Manson: An Oral History

Forty years ago Charles Manson, a psychopath passing himself off as a hippie guru, sent members of his “Family” on one of the bloodiest killing sprees in L.A. history. Those involved in the murders and their aftermath speak out


The Family had many hangers-on, but the core group was no larger than 30. They squatted all over Los Angeles, surviving on food scrounged from grocery store Dumpsters. During the summer of 1968, the group lived in the Pacific Palisades home of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, wreaking thousands of dollars in damages. (Wilson had picked up two female Family members hitchhiking one afternoon. The next thing he knew, Manson had moved in.) Spahn Ranch, however, became the Family’s base.

BUGLIOSI Manson was the king of Spahn Ranch, the maharaja.

PURSELL Manson clearly held himself above the others. They dressed in rags. It looked like they’d robbed a Goodwill store. But Manson dressed in a buckskin shirt with fringe down the sleeves and buckskin pants with fringe down the legs. The girls had sewn the outfit for him.

BUGLIOSI In the hierarchy of the Family, the men were on top and the women had only two purposes: to procreate and to serve the men. If Charlie could have done it, he’d have kept women out. But he needed them—to attract more men.

STEVEN V. ROBERTS, Los Angeles bureau chief of  The New York Times. He is 66 and a professor at George Washington University. I met the Manson women when I wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Charlie Manson: One Man’s Family.” I spent a lot of time with them. This was early—right after Manson was charged with the murders. I got to know Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good before they became media freaks, and what I came to understand was how shrewd Charles Manson was as a recruiter and as a seducer. These women were empty vessels. There was a hole in each of their lives—a lack of confidence, a lack of accomplishment, a lack of identity. I remember Sandra Good telling me, “I never thought I could sing. But we were sitting around a campfire at the ranch. Charlie kept saying to me, ‘Sing, sing.’ I said, ‘I can’t sing.’ ” Charlie kept prodding and pushing her. She said, “I burst into tears and started singing.”

BARBARA HOYT, member of the Family. Fifty-seven years old, she is a registered nurse. In April of 1969, I got in a fight with my dad—I don’t even remember what it was about—and stomped off. We lived in Canoga Park, and I started walking toward Spahn Ranch. I was picked up by two of the girls—one was Deirdre Shaw, Angela Lansbury’s daughter. I met Charlie that first night. They had dinner, and everybody sat on the floor. We passed around casseroles and salads. You’d take three or four bites and pass them on. Everybody ate with the same utensils out of the same bowls. After the meal, the group shared a couple of joints. Then Charlie got out his guitar. He sang songs like “Cease to Exist”:

Pretty girl, pretty, pretty girl, cease to exist.

Just come and say you love me.

Give up your world…

I’m your kind. I’m your kind.

He sang that song on my first night. I felt like I was loved and accepted the way I was. It was unconditional. I needed that. I was misunderstood. I was 17.

CATHERINE SHARE, member of the Family. Sixty-six years old, she is a writer. I first met Charlie in the summer of 1968. He drove up to the house where I was staying with Bobby Beausoleil. He was in a beaten-down Chevy. He wore a cowboy hat and had a beard. He wanted us to go swimming with him. Bobby got on his chopper, and I got into the Chevy with the cowboy. Sitting in the front seat with him was a redhead, who turned out to be Squeaky Fromme, and Ruth Ann Moorehouse, called Ouisch. No one spoke—the cowboy’s presence filled the vehicle. We drove to Pacific Palisades and pulled up to the gate of a huge glass-and-log home. It was Dennis Wilson’s house. The cowboy said, “This is your dream, isn’t it, girl?” Then he turned around and looked me in the eyes and said, “Start living it.” He punched in numbers, and we went onto grounds with peacocks and eucalyptus trees and a pool on a cliff where beautiful men and women were swimming, some in suits, some topless. The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” was blaring in the background.

I went into a bathroom to change, and this person walks up to me and he’s no longer a cowboy. He has freshly washed chestnut hair, a tan, and is wearing an open silk kimono and harem pants. He looked like a rock star, and he introduced himself like we’d never met: “Hello, I’m Charlie Manson.” I went to Spahn Ranch that night. On a stage in the western saloon a member of the group was lying on his stomach, crying and thanking Charlie for setting him free. Charlie now wore a cream-colored robe, and his hair was down. He looked like Christ. He was saying, “That’s all right, brother. You can give it all to me. Just let it go and be free.” Charlie’s face was shining. I thought he was the wisest and kindest man I’d ever met. He made me his woman right away. That’s how it happened with all the new girls.

BUGLIOSI He used conventional techniques, and sex was one of them. He tried to subvert their sexuality. When a new girl joined the Family, he’d try to induce her to have sex with another girl. When a new boy joined, he’d try to get him to have sex with another boy. He tried to break down their pride. He tried to break down their egos. He told them all ego was bad.

FLYNN Charles Manson is a pimp.

BUGLIOSI LSD and marijuana were the main drugs. Manson went on LSD trips with the Family two, three, four times a week. Very cleverly he either took no LSD himself or used smaller dosages. That way he could retain control of his mental faculties. While they were on these trips he’d say, “Who says it’s wrong to kill? There’s nothing wrong with death. Death is a very beautiful thing.”

FLYNN I saw people go from 16 to older than I was—24 at the time—in a matter of months. It was devastating.

BUGLIOSI Isolation was important. Spahn Ranch may have been only 25 miles from downtown, but in terms of lifestyle it was light-years away. There were no newspapers, no calendars, and no clocks. And there was Manson, sitting atop a rock with his guitar, preaching and philosophizing. No one spoke without his permission.

HOYT He was God. He was the devil. Everyone aspired to be like him or be with him. He offered an explanation of why the world is as it is. His sources were Scientology and a few others. He said we would have to die to ourselves and give up all knowledge. Everyone considered Charlie a pure soul. He’d only managed to go through a few years of school, so he wasn’t programmed with society’s rules and laws. He was like a person who’d been raised by wolves. He wanted us to discard our upbringings, our knowledge, and our hang-ups and live in Now.

SHARE He would show us how our parents hadn’t raised us right and had abused us, had tried to shut down the light we had within, the brightness we had within. He talked about how the mind works. He discussed the subliminal messages that society transmitted. Then he would give us his own subliminal messages. We knew he was doing it, and we let him. That’s how good he was. He was a visionary, a newscaster, a prophet, and a lover.

HOYT  We ate when Charlie wanted to eat, sang and got together when he wanted to sing and get together. He told you what chores to do, what jobs to do.

SHARE I was like everyone else—enslaved to the point I couldn’t put two sentences together. The thing you have to remember about Charlie is that he was a con. Kids don’t know about cons. They don’t know about people who’ve been in prison. People in prison live by their wits. Otherwise they don’t survive. Charlie came out of prison with that skill. He knew what you were thinking before you did. He found himself with all these hippies, and it was easy for him to manipulate them. Real easy.

BUGLIOSI My belief is that all the people who killed for Manson had hostility coursing through their veins. The other Family members were equally subservient, but they weren’t murderers. Manson, of course, was the catalyst. He brought all the hostility—some of it against parents, some of it against society—to the surface. But the murderers would not have killed had they not wanted to do so. One of Manson’s most devoted followers was a guy named Paul Watkins. When he realized Helter Skelter was coming down, he fled.


HOYT When I joined the Family, the first thing they asked me was if I had heard the Beatles’ White Album and knew about Helter Skelter. Susan Atkins—Sadie—was the one who told me about it. She told me Helter Skelter was coming. She said the blacks were going to rise against the whites, but the Family would escape it. They were building dune buggies with fur seats and gun mounts. They were making clothes out of hides. It was like they were all pioneers. I thought, “Wow! This is fun. It’s like camping.”

SHARE Charlie talked about Helter Skelter every night. He said the way it would start is that the blacks, who’d already burned Watts, would start burning white neighborhoods. Then the whites, with the police behind them, would start killing blacks, and that would spark total chaos. Blackie—that’s what he called them—would do this. Whitey would do that. And we’d learn to live off the land. We’d live in the desert and come in on dune buggies and rescue the orphaned white babies. We’d be the saviors.

BUGLIOSI The White Album came out in late November 1968. In Manson’s mind, the song “Helter Skelter”—no matter that it came from the name of a British amusement park ride—was the signal for the last destructive war on the face of the earth. He thought the Beatles were sending him messages. “Piggies” talks about wealthy husbands and wives eating out with forks and knives. It says that they need a “damn good whacking.” He thought another song, “Revolution 9,” was the Beatles’ attempt to invoke the Bible’s Revelation 9, which says that during Armageddon the earth will be invaded by locusts. The Beatles once spelled their name the Beetles. Revelations says the locusts will have iron breastplates—to Manson those were the Beatles’ electric guitars. It says the locusts will have the faces of men but the hair of women, like the Beatles.

FLYNN Charlie decided he would have to teach blacks how to start the revolution. He said, “The black man is nothing but a monkey dressed up in a white man’s suit.”

SHARE I think Charlie really believed his own hype. That’s why the killings happened. That’s why they wrote “PIG” on the door at the Tate house and “HEALTER SKELTER” at the LaBiancas’. All the messages were intended to ignite Helter Skelter. I totally believed Charlie. I believed that the cities were going to burn. I believed my only safety was to stay with the Family. I believed Charlie knew best.

HOYT Once the blacks killed the whites, they wouldn’t know how to run things. They wouldn’t know how to be judges or politicians. The only white people left would be the Family. We’d be hiding in Death Valley in what Charlie called “the bottomless pit.” We’d emerge, and Charlie would take over.

SHARE The Family had been preparing for this. Charlie would take the kids on what he called “creepy crawls.” They’d break into houses and move around the furniture. There were a lot of creepy crawls before the Tate murders. He’d say, “Get your black clothes on, get in the car, and do a creepy crawl.” Tex, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Clem, Squeaky, and Patricia Krenwinkel—they all went on creepy crawls.


BUGLIOSI Charlie had been at the Cielo house a couple of times before. A record producer named Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son, lived there. Dennis Wilson and Manson drove Melcher home one night after a party. A few months later Charlie went back. Melcher had auditioned him at Spahn Ranch, but he didn’t like his music. Manson went there the second time to ask Melcher for another audition. Melcher, however, had moved to Malibu, and Manson got booted off the premises.

McGANN  Manson thought Melcher was going to sign him. Melcher said, “You’re talented. I’m gonna make your record.” But he didn’t do anything. Manson was mad about that. It’s no accident he sent his group to Cielo.

BUGLIOSI On the afternoon of August 8, Manson told the girls, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.” That evening, he told Tex Watson, “Go to the former home of Terry Melcher and kill everyone on the premises.” Manson didn’t know exactly who lived there, but he indicated to Tex they were “entertainment types.” Charlie then got the girls together and told them to do everything Tex told them. It was Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian. As they were pulling away Manson told the girls, “Leave a sign. You girls know what to write—something witchy.”

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