Charles Manson: How the notorious cult leader brought an abrupt end to the 60s

Charles Manson: How the notorious cult leader brought an abrupt end to the 60s

Charles Manson: How the notorious cult leader brought an abrupt end to the 60s

Updated 21 November 2017, 8:15 AEDT

Charles Manson, the notorious cult leader who directed his followers to commit a string of brutal murders, came to represent the worst excesses of a divided society spinning out of control, and a generation at war with its elders, writes Mark Bannerman.

It would be wrong in any way to underplay the calculation and the savagery involved in the murder of Sharon Tate and six other people in the Los Angeles hills in 1969, but nearly 50 years on, Charles Manson, the man who engineered the crimes, wears another title — he was the man who killed the 60s.

If Woodstock was the zenith of the counterculture, the slaughter in Cielo Drive on August 9, 1969 and Waverly Drive one night later was its low point.

Not because Manson was in any true sense a hippie, but simply because he came to represent the worst excesses of a divided society spinning out of control, consumed by a war it didn't want to fight, and at war with its elders.

After he was captured, Manson dared the authorities to kill him, warning they were in effect killing themselves.

He told them that he and the people around him represented the failure of American society.

He claimed his followers who became known as "The Family" were simply the product of a fractured society that no longer protected its children and simply didn't care for vast tracts of its poor and disadvantaged.

To hear and watch him say this is chilling in itself, because as he says it he is utterly convincing.

Manson the master manipulator

Manson's upbringing fed this world view and reads like the textbook for a psychopath.

Growing up with his mother he was beaten, abused, forced to sleep in her bed while she regularly took other men for sex. He once attempted to have sex with her himself, only to be brutalised by her.

For much of his life before turning to murder he indulged in petty crime and violence, spending much of life in jail.

In jail he learnt how to take punishment and to manipulate everything and anyone to his own purpose.

In 1967, finally free, he headed for San Francisco recruiting future followers, many of them young homeless women drawn to the city with the hope of peace, love and free drugs.

Soon they were back in Los Angeles following the man they would come to see as their leader and saviour.

At first his plans involved becoming a pop star. He wrote songs and befriended Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys. Wilson tried to get him a recording contract introducing him to record producer, Terry Melcher.

Melcher wasn't convinced and enraged Manson when he rejected his audition tape.

None of this was good news for Wilson, who fled his home in Los Angeles fearing he would be killed by Manson. He had, it turned out, every reason to be afraid.

Heading back to his ranch hide-away Manson re-grouped hatching an extraordinary plan.

Feeding his "Family" a diet of mind-altering drugs and ongoing abuse, he convinced them that he was being spoken to by the Beatles on their recently released White Album.

The apocalyptic war and Helter Skelter

Claiming they were the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, and citing the songs Helter Skelter and Piggies, he told his "Family" the band had, in effect, called on him to start a war — by killing high-profile rich people, that would in turn incite a war between black and white.

The Family he said would hide in the void — the desert — and appear after the war, with Charlie ready to help "the blacks" — as he called them — run the world.

With this as his objective, he sent four of his followers to a house, now rented by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. That night Charles 'Tex' Watson, Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel butchered Tate and four other people, with a gun and knives, variously taunting them and telling them this was being done out of love.

They left writing the word "pig" on the wall of the house in blood.

Far from pleased, Manson said the murders had been too messy and sent a larger raiding party the next night to commit more murder and mayhem. This time the target was Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Having killed the couple, the murderers then wrote Healter (sic) Skelter on the fridge in the kitchen in the blood of one of their victims.

The crucial point here was that Manson did not physically kill anyone. Although he had gone with six Family members on the second night to the LaBianca's home, he had not used a weapon.

Instead he had successfully manipulated his followers to commit the most terrible slaughter.

An abrupt end to the 60s

When it came time to prosecute Manson this fact made life very tough for the prosecution.

Conspiracy to murder is a difficult charge to prove.

What Manson had not counted on was locking horns with a brilliant prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi.

Bugliosi laid out the evidence describing what Manson had told his followers about the Beatles songs and the need to commit "Helter Skelter".

Being careful not to paint Manson as insane, Bugliosi argued Manson did not believe his own story but used it to brainwash his people.

It was a brilliant legal strategy. The court accepted the argument and the evidence set out before it, and Manson and three of his followers were locked up.

Although Bugliosi was appalled by Manson and the people who followed him, he admitted watching him and studying his life, the prosecutor was astonished by his power to bend people's wills to his own service.

As a prosecutor in more than a hundred major cases, he admitted that while there may have been more horrific murders than the ones Manson engineered in US criminal history, it was his ability to influence others at a distance that singled him out.

Five days after the killings he engineered, the Woodstock Music Festival began in upstate New York.

Thousands arrived at the festival site. They may not have known it, but the '60s, with its message of peace and love, was over. All courtesy of one man.

Charles Manson.