Charles Manson Biography: criminal, cult leader of the Manson Family

He is the epitome of pure, unadulterated evil; the mastermind guru with the swastika on his forehead and the wild, crazed look in his eyes. He was responsible for the one of the most heinous crimes of our time, controlling his minions like a puppeteer. In this week’s Biographics we discover the dark, disturbing story of Charles Manson.

A Dysfunctional Beginning


Charles Milles Manson was born on November 12th, 1934 to sixteen-year old Kathleen Maddox and a 24-year old transient laborer known as ‘Colonel Scott’. Kathleen was a promiscuous teenager who drank too much and earned money to fuel her habits be selling her body.

The baby was known as ‘No Name Maddox’ for the first few weeks of life until his mother settled on Charlie. He never knew his father; he cleared out as soon he heard that Kathleen was pregnant.

Kathleen Maddox Bower, mother of Charles Manson

Kathleen Maddox Bower, mother of Charles Manson

Kathleen was too young, immature and unpredictable to provide a stable environment for a young child. She appeared to have no maternal instinct and would leave the child to fend for himself while she went off on one of her benders. As an adult, Charlie often related that his mother was once in a café with him on her knee when the waitress offered to buy the baby from her. Kathleen’s asking price was a pitcher of beer and, having consumed it, she simply walked out and left Charlie to the woman. According to Charlie, his uncle took four days to track him down and return him home.

When Charlie was six years old, his mother and uncle decided to rob a gas station. They were both caught, convicted and sent for five years to Moundsville State Prison. The boy was put into the care of his strictly religious grandparents but after a few months he went to live with his aunt and uncle in McMecham, West Virginia.

This environment was very different to anything Charlie had known previously. His aunt, unlike her sister, was regimented and disciplined. She was also strictly religious. Her husband, Bill, was even more fervent in his faith than his wife. A strict disciplinarian, he considered Charlie to be a sissy. On his first day of school he sent the boy to class in a dress in order to teach him how to fight.

Charlie soon adapted to this very different kind of life and actually grew to enjoy his new regimented routine. The two years between six and eight were to prove to be the most stable of his young life. But then his mother was released from prison and immediately took him back.

Kathleen was more unstable than ever. She preferred a life of promiscuity and alcohol abuse to maternal domesticity. Constantly in trouble with the law and with no money for food and board, the constantly moved around the midwest. At the age of nine, Charlie dropped out of school.

The transient life that he was forced to live shaped the type of boy that Charlie became. He kept to himself, living his life through his imagination. He was constantly watching, taking things in and dreaming of a future free of his no-hope mother. He also learnt how to become a very accomplished thief.

At age nine, Charlie was caught stealing and sent to reform school. Three years later, he was caught again. This time he was packed off to the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Charles Manson, age 5.

Charles Manson, age 5.

Before he was taken away, Kathleen promised to visit him often. Of course, she never did. Just ten months in to his incarceration, Charlie escaped. He robbed a grocery store to get some money and, when that ran out, stole other things, including a bicycle. He got caught in the act of making off with the bike and soon found himself back in confinement. This time he was sent to an Indiana juvenile center. But after just two days, he stole some wire cutters and freed, not only himself, but 30 other boys.

This time the escaped young felon stole, not a bike, but a car. But the 13-year old could hardly see over the steering wheel and was apprehended within hours of his escape. When he ended up in juvenile court, he was surprised to see his mother. His spirits were dashed, however, when she testified that she would not take him in.

The somewhat sympathetic judge sent Charlie to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. But the stay here was almost as short as his last incarceration. After just four days, he ran off with another young offender named Blackie Nelson. They stole a car which they subsequently crashed. Still, they made their way to the home of Blackie’s uncle, a World War 2 veteran and underworld figure who gave the young hoodlums free board and food in exchange for the proceeds from armed robberies that he made them commit.

During their third robbery the two boys were caught. This time Charlie was sent to the Indiana School for Boys in Plainfield. Here he stayed for three years. Charlie would later claim that his small stature led to him being constantly raped and sodomized by other inmates as well as by school employees. He also recalled that he was constantly picked on by the guards, who would continually find fault with him, beating him with leather straps and wooden clubs.

An Angry Young Man

One night, after being gang raped by a group of older boys, he beat one of his attackers to just short of the point of death with an iron bar as the boy lay sleeping. Charlie then placed the bar under the bed of one of his other attackers, successfully implicating him in the attack.

Charles Manson's children tried to escape their father's gruesome legacy.

Charles Manson’s children tried to escape their father’s gruesome legacy.


Charlie was exhibiting a trait that would characterize his personality as an adult; he would hold in his anger for a time, only for it too explode in an orgy of violence.

Over the three years that he spent at Plainfield, Charlie escaped no less than eighteen times. He was returned every time. In March, 1951 his sentence was increased and he was sent to a minimum-security institution. He was sent to the National Training School for Boys in Washington, D.C.

Things here were very different to what Charlie had known at Plainfield. The facility was well run, the boys were treated well and a genuine focus was placed on rehabilitation. Charlie liked it here but he had no interest in being rehabilitated. He’d do his time but then he’d get back to the life of crime that he was the only life he knew.

At around the age of fifteen, Charlie was give a psychiatric assessment. He was found to be aggressive, antisocial and illiterate. A caseworker reported that the boy was severely emotionally traumatized and in serious need of psychiatric treatment. It was also noted that he had a higher than normal aptitude for music.

On October 24th, 1951, Charlie was transferred to the Natural Bridge Honor Camp in Petersburg, Virginia. Three months later, just weeks before his parole hearing, he sodomized another inmate while holding a razor blade to his neck. He was reclassified as extremely dangerous and transferred to a tougher high security facility – the Federal Reformatory at Petersburg, Virginia.

After seven months at the Federal Reformatory, Charlie had racked up eight major violations. He was classified as ‘defiantly homosexual, dangerous and safe only under supervision, with assaultive tendencies.’

Towards the end of 1952, he was sent to a higher security facility. There, to the surprise of everybody, he transformed into a model prisoner. He took lessons in reading and math and began working in the vehicle maintenance department. On January 1st, 1954, he was given a Meritorious Service Award for his scholastic achievements.

His application to his studies and his apparent change of attitude led to Charlie being paroled on May 8th, 1954. He was put in the care of his aunt and uncle but, within a month, the now nineteen-year-old was back living with his mother, herself recently released from prison.

Career Felon

Six months after his release, Charlie married a waitress by the name of Rosalie Jean Willis. Shortly thereafter a son, Charles Manson, Junior, was born. Charlie worked at a serious low-income job, augmenting his pay by stealing cars. He used one of those stolen cars to move his wife and baby to Los Angeles. The car had been taken from Ohio and authorities were able to track it down. Charlie was charged with a federal crime for taking the car across state lines. He received five years’ probation but, when he failed to show up to a subsequent hearing, he was arrested.

Rosalie Willis is the first wife of serial killer Charles Manson. Mrs. Willis had one son with Manson, Charles Manson Jr. (now deceased), before divorcing him in the mid 50’s. Manson subsequently married Leona Rae “Candy” Stevens, a prostitute with whom he had a second son, Charles Luther Manson.

Rosalie Willis is the first wife of serial killer Charles Manson. Mrs. Willis had one son with Manson, Charles Manson Jr. (now deceased), before divorcing him in the mid 50’s. Manson subsequently married Leona Rae “Candy” Stevens, a prostitute with whom he had a second son, Charles Luther Manson.

With his probation revoked, Charlie was sent for three years to the prison on Terminal Island, in San Pedro, California. After being there a few months, he was informed that his wife was living with another man. Two years later, she obtained a decree of divorce.

In September, 1958, Charlie was released on five years parole. He now extended his criminal earning potential by becoming a pimp. He had a sixteen-year-old girl working for him. Over the next year, he roamed around California and New Mexico, committing crimes and repeatedly coming before the law. In June, 1960 he fled to Laredo, Texas with a California warrant out for his arrest. When one of his girls was arrested there for prostitution, he was picked up and returned to Los Angeles to face a 10-year sentence for cashing a forged treasury check.

Booking photo, Federal Correctional Institute Terminal Island, May 2, 1956

Booking photo, Federal Correctional Institute Terminal Island, May 2, 1956

At the age of 26, he was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington. While serving his sentence he learned to play the guitar and became interested in Scientology. During his time at McNeil Island, he also became obsessed with the Beatles. Charlie had an inflated appreciation of his own musical talent, claiming that he would, with the right backing and training, be even bigger than the Beatles.

Charlie became friends with an inmate by the name of Alvin Karpis. This former Public Enemy Number One was a former member of the infamous Ma Barker gang. He taught Charlie how to play the steel guitar. This further fuelled his musical obsession. In 1966, Charlie’s prison record noted that he spent most of his free time writing songs, accumulating 80 or 90 of them in a year.

Karpis later commented on the Charlie that he knew at that time. He recalled that Manson was a master manipulator of other people. Prison authorities also noted that he had a tremendous drive to call attention to himself.

In June, 1966, Charlie was sent once again to Terminal Island – this time in preparation for early release. When that release day arrived on March 21st, 1967, he had spent more than half of his 32 years behind bars. He requested that the authorities let him stay in jail but he was told that he had to leave.

Charlie Unleashed

And so it was that the five foot nothing drifter with the penetrating stare and gift of the gab wandered into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco with $35 in his pocket and no plans except for a desire to make it big in the music business.

Charlie moved into an apartment in Berkeley and made money by panhandling. Before long he had gotten to know a 23-year-old assistant librarian at UC Berkeley named Mary Brunner. He quickly won her over and moved into her apartment. Brunner came under Charlie’s spell and he convinced her to widen out the home. Within a few months, there were eighteen young women living with them. Charlie introduced Mary and the other girls to drugs and before long Mary had quit her job and become a devoted follower of Manson. The ‘family’ was beginning to take shape.

Mary Brunner, en route to jail for the murder of Gary Hinman.

Mary Brunner, en route to jail for the murder of Gary Hinman.

With his female entourage and his guitar, Charlie merged perfectly into the hippie culture that was then in full bloom in San Francisco. He refined his role as spiritual master, guru and prophet, using mind control techniques to get his girls to do whatever he wanted.

Most of the girls that he gathered around him came from troubled backgrounds and suffered from insecurities that left them directly about open to Charlie’s manipulations. As well as breaking down their inhibitions with mind control techniques, he used LSD and amphetamines to control his ever-expanding harem.

After about nine months living in and around San Francisco, Charlie began to despair of the place. It had, he asserted become too overrun with African Americans and crime was rampant. Of course, the ‘Family’ were doing their bit to add to those crime statistics. They stole credit cards and used counterfeit money to get what they needed. They also stole a big yellow bus and painted it black.

The Family

Charlie and his followers took to travelling by bus down the California coastline as far as Mexico and Texas, partying and committing more crimes. After eighteen months of extended travel, they finally settled in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles in a two-storey house.

It was here that Charlie began gathering some male members to the Family. The first was a teenager named Bobby Beausoleil, who turned up one night for a party and then stayed on as Charlie’s right-hand man. Bobby had been staying with his music teacher Gary Hinman not far from the Manson home. Bobby recruited an 18-year-old named Leslie Van Houtein to the family in June, 1968.

Robert Beausoleil leaves a Los Angeles Superior courtroom, June 15, 1970, Los Angeles.

Robert Beausoleil leaves a Los Angeles Superior courtroom, June 15, 1970, Los Angeles.

Around that time, Charlie and some of the girls traveled to Los Angeles where he met up with a record executive at universal studios. Former jail friend Phil Kaufman had arranged the meeting. This was Charlie’s entry into the rich jet set crowd and he turned on all his charm to make a good impression. Soon the ‘Family’ were rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous at posh parties in the Hollywood Hills.

In the late spring of 1968, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson was driving away from Malibu Beach when he happened to pick up two hitchhikers. The girls were part of the Manson family and, they quickly agreed to go back to his Beverly Hills home with Wilson on Sunset Boulevard. The three made love that afternoon and then Wilson left for a recording session, promising to return later to take up where they left off.

When Wilson returned home in the early hours of the following morning, he was surprised to see that a full-scale party was underway. He was greeted in the driveway by a short man with a scraggly beard who approached him, dropped to his knees and began kissing his feet.

The girls who Dennis had met earlier came running out declaring, ‘This is the guy we were telling you about . . . this is Charlie.’

Inside his home, Wilson found twelve more women, most of them topless, lying around smoking pot. Manson told him that the girls were all there for Wilson’s pleasure.

Wilson was impressed with the sway that Charlie held over the women. He welcomed the ‘Family’ with open arms and his home become the regular venue for Charlie orchestrated orgies. Wilson called Manson the Wizard and began inviting influential showbiz friends to come and meet him. Dennis also allowed Charlie to use anything he wanted – his Ferrari or Rolls Royce and all the food drink and drugs he or his groupies wanted.

Eventually Wilson’s manager became fed up with the influence and expense that Manson was having on his client and Charlie and the girls were ordered out of the mansion. Rumors were also spreading of the children of the rich and famous being given drugs and having sex under Charlies direction. Suddenly, the door to the Hollywood elite lifestyle was slammed shut.

Charlie’s planned for music career was also shut down. This caused that familiar build up of jealousy, anger and rage that would inevitably find expression in violence.

Manson managed to convince the owner of a former Western movie set, the Spahn Ranch, in Chatswood, not far from Topanga Canyon, to allow the family to live on the abandoned property. The family now moved to the ranch, getting by stealing and scavenging.

Charlie took to quoting the Bible to Family members as they gathered round a bonfire during the evenings. He also interpreted Beatles songs, explaining that the lyrics were directed toward them. He was obsessed with one song ‘Helter Skelter’, telling his followers that the song envisioned an apocalypse brought on by a race war of blacks killing whites. The blacks would win, he said, but would then turn to Manson to lead the new world.

Helter Skelter

For Charlie, however, the revolution was taking too long. He wanted it to happen immediately. He began preparing family members for a series of actions that would precipitate the black uprising. The first step would be to release an album of music that would contain subtle messages that would foment the black revolution.

On May 18th, 1969, Terry Melcher, a producer who Charlie had met through Dennis Wilson arrived at Spahn Ranch to listen to Charlie and the girls sing. Melcher made promises but never followed through on them.

On July 25th 1969, Charlie ordered Bobby Beausoliel and two women to the home of Gary Hinman, the music teacher who Bobby used to live with. Manson had heard that Hindman had inherited $20,000 and he wanted it. Hinman refused to hand over the money. Charlie was called and he soon arrived. After screaming at Hinman, Charlie pulled out a sword and cut off his ear. He then left, giving instructions to get the money or kill Hinman. After three days, Bobby stabbed his former teacher to death. Before leaving he and the girls wrote the words ‘Political Piggy’ on the wall along with a panther paw in red to lay the blame on the Black Panther movement.

Bobby Beusoliel was arrested for the murder on August 6th, 1969 after being caught driving around in Hinman’s car.

Charles Milles Manson booking photo for San Quentin State Prison, California (CII 966 856) 1971

Charles Milles Manson booking photo for San Quentin State Prison, California (CII 966 856) 1971

Manson was now ready to get his revenge on Terry Melcher, the record producer who had let him down. On the evening of August 8th, he directed followers Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel to the house where he believed Melcher was living with instructions to ‘totally destroy everyone in it, making it as gruesome as possible.’

The house was located at 1050 Celio Drive but Melcher didn’t live there anymore. It was now occupied by famous director Roman Polanski and his beautiful 8-month pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. That night, Polanski was in Europe on a film project. His wife was entertaining guests at the property – hairdresser Jay Sebring, screenwriter Voyteg Frykowski and coffee empire heiress Abigail Folger.

Arriving at the property, around midnight, Watson climbed a telephone pole near the gate and cut the phone line. The car was then back to the bottom of a hill that led to the house and the murder team walked up to find the victims.

Watson thought the gate might be electrified so he and the girls climbed a brushy embankment to get onto the grounds. Just then, car headlights came on from farther up the property.

Ordering the women to lie down in the bushes, Watson approached the vehicle and levelled his 22-caliber rifle at the driver, 18-year-ol Steven Parent. Watson first slashed him with a knife and them shot him four times in the chest.

Watson then ordered Linda Kasabian to keep watch down by the gate. He and the other two women then made their way to the house. The occupants were quickly gathered together in the lounge. When asked by Frykowski who they were, Watson replied, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.’

When asked by Frykowski who they were, Watson replied, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.’

Watson then began to tie the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring together by their necks with rope he’d brought and slung over a beam. When Sebring protested over the rough handling of Sharon, Watson shot him and then stabbed him seven times.

American actress Sharon Tate (1943 - 1969), second wife of film director Roman Polanski, in London. She was murdered by followers of Charles Manson the notorious serial killer.

American actress Sharon Tate (1943 – 1969), second wife of film director Roman Polanski, in London. She was murdered by followers of Charles Manson the notorious serial killer.

Meanwhile Frykowski began struggling with Susan Atkins, who repeatedly stabbed him in the legs and torso. Still Frykowski managed to get to the front door. Seeing this, Watson rushed after him, meeting up with him on the porch and smashing in his head with the gun butt before shooting him twice.

Abigail Folger had managed to escape out onto the yard. She was chased by Patricia Krenwikel who tackled her and then stabbed her to death.

The only remaining victim was now Sharon Tate. As she lay on the lounge room floor with a rope around her neck she begged to be able to live long enough to have her child. But her pleas were ignored and either Watson or Atkins stabbed her repeatedly, including in the abdomen, until both she and her unborn baby were dead.

Remembering Manson’s instructions to leave a sign on the walls, Atkins wrote the word “PIG” with Tate’s blood.

The very next day, the Family struck again. This time the victims were Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Unhappy with the messiness of the previous night’s killings, this time Charlie went with the group to show them how it was done. Different accounts have been giving about the exact happenings that night but we do know that Manson was in the house and he orchestrated the tying up of the couple, He then left with orders that the couple be killed. They were finished off by Watson with a chrome plated bayonet. Before leaving the words “WAR”, “Rise”, “Death To Pigs” and “Healter Skelter’ were written with the blood of the victims on the walls and refrigerator door.


The murders caused a huge panic through Hollywood. The pressure was now on to solve the heinous crimes. The police got nowhere until they finally linked the Hinman murder to the Tate-LaBianca killings. They knew that Bobby Beusoliel had lived with a group of hippies at Spahn Ranch so they decided to pay the ranch a visit. Bobby’s girlfriend had told police that Charlie Manson, the hippie guru, had ordered the killing of Hinman. Still there was no evidence linking the group to the later murders.

Then, in October, twenty-four Manson family members, including Charlie, were arrested on charges of arson and grand theft. Susan Atkins was also taken into custody and it was she who first began to spill beans. She bragged to a cellmate about killing Sharon Tate, giving a detailed account and implicating Charlie as the mastermind.

About the same time, police interviewed a member of the Straight Satans motorcycle gang who was a Manson acquaintance. He told them that Manson had recently been bragging about ‘knocking off’ five people.

The first piece of physical evidence was a fingerprint of Patricia Rewinkle that was found on Sharon Tate’s bedroom door.

When other pieces of physical evidence were recovered, the police were ready to send the case to court. Manson and the four people who had committed the Tate-La Bianca murders were found guilty and sentenced to death. These penalties, however, would never be imposed. In 1972 the California Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional. Manson’s’ death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Charles Manson prison photo taken August 14, 2017

Charles Manson prison photo taken August 14, 2017

Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, of cardiac arrest having spent nearly fifty years behind bars for his orchestrating of the crimes that shook the world in 1969. He was 83 years of age.

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