Charles Manson, the wild-eyed cult leader who orchestrated a string of gruesome killings in Southern California by his “family” of young followers, died on Sunday, prison officials said. He was 83.
Manson died of natural causes Sunday evening at a Kern County hospital, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement. It gave no further details of the circumstances surrounding his death but he was hospitalized for gastrointestinal issues at Bakersfield Hospital in January 2017.
Manson had been serving a life sentence at the nearby Corcoran State Prison for ordering the murders of nine people, including actress Sharon Tate.
Long after Manson had largely faded from headlines, he loomed large as a symbol of the terror he unleashed in the summer of 1969.
“The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil,” the late Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.
A recent photograph showed the gray-bearded killer’s face still bearing the scar of a swastika he carved into his forehead decades earlier.
Manson became one of the 20th century’s most notorious criminals when he directed his mostly young, female followers to murder seven people in what prosecutors said was part of a plan to incite a race war.
He told followers an apocalyptic race war was coming and described the collapse of society as “helter skelter,” a term he borrowed from a Beatles song and one that was later found scrawled in blood ― though misspelled ― on a refrigerator at one of the crime scenes.
Tate, aged 26 and eight months pregnant, was stabbed 16 times in the early morning hours of 9 August 1969, by members of Manson’s cult at the rented hillside house she shared with her husband, filmmaker Roman Polanski, in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.
Four friends of the celebrity couple, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger and hairstylist Jay Sebring, were also stabbed or shot to death that night by Manson followers, who scrawled the word “Pig” in blood on the home’s front door before leaving. Polanski was away in Europe at the time.
The following night, members of Manson’s group stabbed grocery owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary to death, using their blood to write, “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter” - a misspelled reference to the Beatles song - on the walls and refrigerator door.
Although Manson did not personally kill any of the seven victims, he was found guilty of ordering their murders.
He was also later convicted of ordering the murders of music teacher Gary Hinman, stabbed to death in July 1969, and stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea, stabbed and bludgeoned that August.
Manson was sentenced to death for the Tate-LaBianca murders, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in the state in 1972.
The nearly 10-month trial cost Los Angeles $1 million, a record that stood until serial killer Richard Ramirez’s murder trial nearly 20 years later.
Born Charles Milles Maddox on 12 November 1934, in Cincinnati to a 16-year-old girl, Manson spent much of his youth shuttled between relatives and juvenile detention halls. By age 13, he had been convicted of armed robbery.
Newly paroled from prison in 1967, he began attracting members of his “family” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, which had become a haven for the hippie youth culture.
The group moved with his followers to the Los Angeles area, eventually settling at Spahn Ranch, site of an outdoor movie location used for Western films and TV shows. Communal sex and drug use were a way of life as Manson became a messiah to the runaways, outcasts and criminals drawn by his charisma, intimidation and twisted spiritualism.
One follower told authorities she had seen Manson bring a bird back to life by breathing on it. Another said he could see and hear everything she did and said.
Manson aspired to be a rock star, and through one of his followers befriended Dennis Wilson, drummer of the Beach Boys, who would go on base their 1969 song “Never Learn Not to Love” on a Manson composition.
Wilson introduced Manson to music producer Terry Melcher, who later snubbed him. Melcher, along with his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, had previously rented the Benedict Canyon house.
The brutality of the killings stunned the nation.
“There was a lot of fear,” Bugliosi, author of the chilling book about the murders, “Helter Skelter,” told the Times in 1994. “The words printed in blood made it especially frightening for the Hollywood crowd.”
Denied his request to represent himself during his 9-1/2 month trial, Manson showed up in court with an “X” carved into his forehead, and would later alter it into a swastika.
Co-defendants Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel cut “X”s in their foreheads, shaved their scalps, sang Manson-written songs and giggled through chilling testimony.
At one point, Manson tried to leap over the defense table at the judge, snarling: “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.” The judge began carrying a gun afterward.
During the penalty phase, Manson, according to the book The True Story of the Manson Murders, shaved his head and trimmed his beard in the likeness of a fork.
“I am the devil, and the devil always has a bald head,” he told reporters covering the trial.
Manson ultimately was brought down by his followers. Atkins told two inmates about the Tate-LaBianca murders while she was jailed in an unrelated killing, then testified to a grand jury before recanting. Prosecutors then persuaded another follower, Kasabian, to testify against the rest of the group in exchange for immunity.
Convicted along with Manson, his three co-defendants, Atkins, Van Houten and Krenwinkel, also had their death sentences reduced to life terms.
Manson long maintained his innocence, telling Rolling Stone magazine that follower Charles “Tex” Watson was responsible for the Tate-LaBianca killings. Watson was tried separately and is serving a life term for his role in those killings.
Even in prison, Manson didn’t fade from the media spotlight. In the 1980s, he gave several interviews, including a notorious session with Geraldo Rivera on NBC in 1988. During the interview, Rivera hit a raw nerve when he suggested Manson was not brazen enough to do his own bidding.
“Where I come from the guys with guts, they do it themselves,” Rivera said.
Manson, apparently irritated by the comment, replied, “Come on, man, why you feel the need to get down on me? Is that going to make you look any bigger? What if I just jumped on you and beat the dog shit out of you. Would that make you feel any bigger?”
The public’s fascination with the notorious killer endured, with Manson’s likeness plastered on T-shirts and featured in comic books. His story was told countless times in books and true-crime TV shows and he was featured in movies and documentaries, including two made-for-television dramatisations of his crimes. Songs written by Manson have been sung by several hard-rock bands. Singer Brian Hugh Warner, who goes by the stage moniker Marilyn Manson, reportedly created his name by combining Manson’s last name with the first name of actress Marilyn Monroe.
Sandi Gibbons, a former reporter who covered the Manson trial for City News Service, discussed Manson’s cultural influences with The Associated Press in 1999.
“Charlie was always a con man,” Gibbons said. “And now he’s managed to con a whole new generation of people.”
Manson captured headlines around the world again in November 2014, when Afton Elaine “Star” Burton, then 26, announced she was engaged to the aging killer. While Burton did obtain a marriage license, it expired and they did not obtain another prior to Manson’s death.
Manson seemed resigned to a life of incarceration, ceasing to even attend his parole review hearings after 1997.
“What would I want out for?” he said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This beats an old folks home.”
In April 2012, Manson was quoted by parole officials as having told a prison psychologist the previous fall: “I have put five people in the grave. I’ve been in prison most of my life. I’m a very dangerous man.”
Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, author of the 1974 book Helter Skelter, didn’t outlive Manson. He died at age 80 in 2015. Bugliosi made his feelings clear in a 2009 interview with Time, when asked if he was sorry Manson was not executed.
“I don’t use the word sorry, but he should have been executed, and I told the jury, if this was not a proper case for the imposition of the death penalty, then no case ever would be,” Bugliosi said. “Manson did not deserve to live.”