The Gruesomely Random True Story Behind The Charles Manson Murders

Emily Becker
The Gruesomely Random True Story Behind The Charles Manson Murders
Photo credit: John Malmin - Getty Images

From Women's Health

After the previous decade had brought peaceful protests and promises of free love, the Charles Manson murders in the summer of 1969 stopped the country in its tracks. Not only were the crimes incredibly gruesome, but their perpetrators—a group who had been dispatched by their cult’s leader—were unlike anything anyone had seen before.

The murders pierced the bubble of affluence and security that had surrounded Los Angeles and its suburbs until then. As Joan Didion wrote in an essay about the case, "Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969." Wow.

Since then, few murder cases have cultivated as much notoriety or inspired as many pop-culture interpretations as the Charles Manson murders. Most recently, Quentin Tarantino reimagined the crime in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (now in theaters), and the case will be featured in the second season of Mindhunter.

But before you tune in to see how the interview between Holden Ford and Charles Manson plays out on the hit Netflix show, here's all the facts you need to know about the Charles Manson murders.

Charles Manson first started amassing a group of followers—mainly women—in the late 1960s.

Before moving to L.A. in 1968 to pursue a career in music, Manson had already been married twice, fathered a son, and spent time in prison in California, the Smithsonian reported.

After he was released, Manson went first to Berkeley and then San Francisco, where he mixed with groups of young adults who were looking for a new way of life and moving to the area en masse during the 1960s.

According to the Smithsonian, people were drawn to Manson because of his older age and his charisma. As he began to exert more and more control over them, the group became known as the Manson Family.

Manson and his family lived together at Spahn Ranch, an old film set northwest of Los Angeles.

The Manson family spent their days taking care of the property, and in exchange, according to Oxygen’s new documentary about its members, they were allowed to stay at Spahn Ranch rent-free. The cult also listened to sermons and took LSD, both of which Manson provided.

"They worshiped Charlie like a god," former Manson Family member Barbara Hoyt told CNN in 2017.

On Friday, August 8, 1969, Manson sent four Family members to L.A. to "leave something witchy," according to Esquire.

It's still unknown why Manson directed the group to 10050 Cielo Drive, a home that, at the time, was being rented by director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. The house sat by itself at the end of the road, and Manson had never met any of the five people who were brutally murdered that night, CNN reported.

In addition to Tate, who was eight and a half months' pregnant at the time, four other people died that night. Writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, a friend of the family's gardener, were all stabbed to death by Manson Family members Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, and Patricia Krenwinkel. (Another Family member, Linda Kasabian, stayed outside as a lookout.)

In total, the victims were stabbed 102 times. Tate was not only stabbed but also hanged by her neck from a rafter. Atkins then used a towel soaked in Tate’s blood to write the word "pig" on the front door of the house, per the Smithsonian.

The next night, Manson family members killed two more people.

Accompanied this time by Leslie van Houten and Manson himself, the same four Family members drove to the home of grocery business executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, according to Vincent Bugliosi, prosecutor and author of Helter Skelter, the best-selling true-crime book about the murders.

Btw, if you love true crime, you need to check out these other chilling reads:


The couple was stabbed, and the group used blood from the victims to write several messages in the house: "rise" and "death to pigs" on the wall, a misspelled "helter skelter" on the refrigerator door, and "war" on LaBianca’s chest, into which Krenwinkel also stabbed a fork she'd been holding.

Once again, Manson had no personal vendetta against LaBianca; the house was chosen at random after driving around L.A., Bugliosi wrote.

Manson's murder motive was likely to incite a race war.

According to Bugliosi, Manson believed in "Helter Skelter," an impending race war during which the Manson Family would hide out underground until they were able to emerge and rule what was left of the world.

But, as Manson became more desperate, his thinking shifted, and he believed they would need to commit crimes in upscale, white neighborhoods themselves in order to show African Americans how the war should be carried out.

Though Manson didn't actually kill anyone, he was prosecuted.

The Family leader bragged to several people after the murders that he was the one responsible, The New York Times reported at the time. Police and prosecutors used his statements, and others', to start building a case against Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Kasabian, and van Houten for the murders. Authorities argued that Manson himself was just as responsible as the Family members because they were acting on his behalf.

CNN noted that Kasabian would later agree to testify against the others in exchange for immunity. The other five were found guilty on January 25, 1971.

Watch what happened to the rest of the Manson Family:


During the trial, Manson’s followers kept a vigil outside the courthouse, and CNN wrote about the way his Family followed his every move. Like: When he shaved his head, they shaved theirs. When he carved an "X" into his forehead, they did the same.

Even four years after Manson was found guilty and sent to prison, Family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.

In Mindhunter (the book), FBI profiler John E. Douglas, who interviewed Manson during his prison sentence, said that, from his perspective, Manson’s followers were more dangerous than Manson himself. "The biggest threat would be from the misguided losers who would gravitate to him and proclaim him their god and leader," he wrote.

Manson died in prison at age 83 on November 19, 2017, of natural causes. But his name, as they say, will live on in Hollywood productions and in infamy forever.

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