This week marks the 50th anniversary of the gruesome Tate-LaBianca Murders, which were carried out by a group that has become known as the Manson Family. The killings in the summer of 1969 had a transformative effect on America. As Joan Didion wrote in her essay “The White Album,” “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Here are nine things you should know about the murderous cult and their demonic leader:
1. The Manson Family was a messianic cult and commune located in California in the late-1960s. The group was formed and led by the notorious criminal and cult leader Charles Manson. The crimes committed by the Manson Family included multiple murders, torture, hostage-taking, and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford.
2. Charles Manson became a criminal and sadist at a young age. While a pre-teen and early teen he committed numerous thefts and burglaries. At age 17, while in reformatory school awaiting parole, he raped a young boy while holding a razor to the child’s throat. After he became an adult Manson was again imprisoned for a variety of crimes, including pimping the woman who would become his first wife.
3. After being released from prison in 1967 Manson moved to San Francisco where he lived for a time with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson established himself as a religious figure in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where he garnered the followers that would later be called the Family. After a falling out with Wilson, Manson moved the Family to the Spahn ranch, a former television and movie set for Western productions located in the San Fernando Valley. According to arrest records, there were 60 members of the Manson Family, 26 of whom were living on the Spahn ranch on August 16, 1969, when around 100 deputies raided the property.
4. Manson claimed the members of the Family were the original Christians who had been reincarnated. He also claimed the first-century Romans had been reincarnated as the 1960s-era American establishment. Manson began using the alias Charles Willis Manson, often saying it very slowly (“Charles’s Will Is Man’s Son”) so as to imply his will was the same as that of the Son of Man. Several members of the cult testified that they believed Manson was the second coming of Christ. “I was so convinced that he had all the answers and that he was Jesus Christ personified,” Catherine “Gyspy” Share said, “that I convincingly told many ‘Family’ members that he was.” (Before his conversion to Christianity, Dennis Rice noticed a difference between Manson the messiah and the true Christ. “My Jesus was in prison,” Rice said. “Their Jesus was changing their lives.”)
5. On the night of August 8, 1969, Manson told Charles “Tex” Watson to take Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to “that house where [musician Terry Melcher] used to live,” as Manson had instructed him, to “totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can.” At the time, the house was being rented by film director Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”) and his eight-and-a half-months pregnant wife, actress and fashion model Sharon Tate. The Manson Family brutally murdered everyone in the home, shooting and stabbing them repeatedly. Tate pleaded to be allowed to live long enough to give birth, and offered herself as a hostage in an attempt to save the life of her baby. Instead, the Manson Family stabbed her 16 times.
6. The next night Manson himself joined Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Kasabian as well as Leslie van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan in a search for additional victims. After several hours, the group arrived at the house of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. The couple was brutally murdered by Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. Using blood from the victims, the killers wrote “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” on the walls, and a misspelled “Healter Skelter” on the refrigerator door. Before leaving the crime scene the Manson Family members showered and petted the LaBianca’s dogs.
7. In November, Atkins was in jail on charges of another murder when told a fellow inmate he had killed Tate, “Because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice.” By the end of that month the other Manson Family members involved in the murders were also arrested and indicted. Most were tried and sentenced to death, though Kasabian, who was in the getaway car during the LaBianca murders, received immunity for being a lead witness. However, because the state of California reversed its decision on the death penalty all of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Manson and his followers would ultimately claim they had killed a total of 35 people and buried their bodies in the desert. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme wasn’t present at the Tate or LaBianca murders but attempted to kill President Gerald Ford in Sacramento in September 1975. In December 1987, Fromme escaped from a West Virginia prison in an attempt to meet up with Manson. She was later recaptured and released from prison in 2009.
8. During his trial Manson—a lifelong white supremacist—carved a swastika on his forehead. “The mark on my head simulates the dead head black stamp of rejection, anti-church, falling cross, devil sign, death, terror, fear,” he said. He was convicted in 1971 of seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In 1974 Manson claimed his religion was Scientology, stating that he has “never settled upon a religious formula for his beliefs and [was] presently seeking an answer to his question in the new mental health cult known as Scientology.” Manson died of a heart attack and complications from colon cancer in 2017 at age 83.
9. Several members of the Manson Family became Christians while in prison. After leaving prison Catherine “Gyspy” Share became a victims advocate to those affected by cults. Dennis Rice became a follower of Christ while at San Quentin prison and, until his death in 2013, headed a ministry to serve prisoners. Bruce Davis, often described as Manson’s “right-hand man,” is still imprisoned and has served as a preacher in the prison chapel. The lead murder, Charles “Tex” Watson, founded Abounding Love Ministries in 1980 and became an ordained minister in 1981, though he still remains incarcerated. “Today, my time is spent sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in prison and through the ministry website,” Watson says. “I have been solidly committed to full time ministry almost since my salvation in 1975. Through these prison walls, the Lord has made a way for his testimony to be shared with thousands of people worldwide.”