The untold truth of Charles Manson

When Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, the announcement was met with a puzzled sort of, "Huh." The world has held a strange fascination with Manson ever since the inner workings of his "family" went public after a string of grisly murders, all of which were done not by him, but at his behest. According to CNN, Manson was given nine life sentences, denied parole 12 times, and was elevated to something of a cult figure. He was the face of evil for most, though for some he was a wrongly convicted crusader. You can't get much more polarizing than that, and it's led to a continued fascination with the figure prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi described as a "dictatorial ruler of the family, the king, the Maharaja." There's a lot that's come out about Manson, his family, and his beliefs over the years, so let's buckle up and take a trip into the darkness.

His MO started when he was 6

The infamous killings happened in 1969, and it didn't take long for it all to be traced back to Manson and the cult-like following he called The Family. Writer and Manson biographer Jeff Guinn (via NPR) says Manson's fanatical ways started early. When he dug into Manson's childhood he found that Charlie inspired terrifying loyalty even he was wearing short pants and toddling around the schoolyard. Manson's cousin later said of him, "There was never anything happy about him. Never anything good about him."

He was 6 years old in first grade, and that was when he started with the same kind of manipulation that later escalated into murder. Guinn says he would talk to the girls in the class about other kids he didn't like, convincing them to go beat up the kids who had crossed him. When the principal confronted him, he used the same defense he would use in a courtroom decades later: "It wasn't me; they were doing what they wanted." If you've ever wondered if a child can be terrifying, there's the answer.

His early years were shaped by reform schools and horrible situations ... maybe

It's human nature to want to know why something happened, especially when it's something this horrible. For years, people have looked for explanation in the early life of the man whose birth certificate listed him as "No Name Maddox," son of a 16-year-old girl who refused to name the father. According to the LA Times, the story told of Manson's mother, Kathleen, was that she would leave him with relatives for weeks at a time and was a heavy drinker and robber who spent five years in state prison. When she was released, she and Manson traveled the country with a series of men he called his "uncles," until he ended up in a string of reform schools where he claimed to have suffered unthinkable abuse.

That's the accepted story, but when Jeff Guinn was given access to family documents and members for his book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, he says he found something else (via NPR). He says the stories — including Manson's tale about his mother's attempts to sell him for a pitcher of beer — were largely false. Guinn says Manson's mother loved him unconditionally, tried to keep him in school, and "loved him … to the end of her life, her heart ached for things he did." That doesn't sound like the hateful mother Manson always went out of his way to describe — so clearly, something's not the truth.

The significance of Helter Skelter and the White Album

"Helter Skelter" was found written on the LaBiancas' fridge in blood — misspelled as "Healter Skelter" — and you've probably heard about Manson's obsession with The Beatles. The whole story is ridiculously complicated, and Rolling Stone says Manson wasn't just obsessed with "Helter Skelter," but the entire White Album.

Manson believed the album was an ode to a coming race war that would destroy the country with its epic proportions. During the trial, Manson and his followers claimed they had interpreted the White Album with help from the Book of Revelation, and it was especially powerful because it came on the heels of Magical Mystery Tour, which Manson believed documented his own hippie trip. Manson assigned most of the songs an apocalyptic meaning: "Rocky Raccoon" was a clear racial slur, "Blackbird" was a fight against the establishment and a call for revolution, and "Piggies" was mocking the establishment. In case you're not intimately familiar with the White Album, there are two other songs that don't need much in the way of explanation: "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9." The Beatles have each individually expressed their horror at Manson's interpretation of the album, and George Harrison even condemned him for giving the scruffy, long-haired hippie look a bad connotation. It was John Lennon who put it best, though, simply saying, "He's barmy."

He preached about the end of the race war

Manson preached Helter Skelter was coming and when he said it, he meant it in a very literal sense. He — and, in turn, his followers — believed Helter Skelter was the name of a race war that would rip the country apart. The Miami Herald says he claimed white people would fight on two fronts: against each other and against blacks. That schism would be the deciding factor, and Manson preached that only he and his followers would be safe during the revolution. They were destined to retreat to Death Valley and live in an underground compound until he was sought out by the champions of Helter Skelter. That was, Manson said, destined to be the blacks, who would need to find a new ruler.

You can probably guess who he thought that was going to be. He and his family were to be installed as the new leaders in a post-war world, and it was happening soon. He thought. The Beatles were the harbingers of the end of days, and that meant it was time to find the bottomless pit where he and his select few would wait out the war. When the war didn't start, he decided to accelerate the schedule a bit by sending his followers out to start killing.

Manson's interpretation of the Book of Revelation

Where on Earth did Manson get the basis for any of this? According to the UMKC School of Law, it was all rooted in his interpretation of the Book of Revelation. If you're not familiar with Chapter 9 of Revelation, that's the part of the Bible about opening "the pit of the abyss," fire and brimstone, the horses of the apocalypse, and the reign of Abaddon (angel of the abyss). It's heavy stuff whether you're a believer or not. Manson believed he was the fifth angel who held the key to the abyss and that he would unlock it to literally unleash hell on the world.

He interpreted the entire section of the Bible to reflect his world, and of course, he was at the center of it. The locusts foretold to swarm the Earth were The Beatles, and references to their human faces and long hair … well, let's just say it was pretty convincing to him. The fire and brimstone was their music, they were the four angels mentioned in verse 15, the so-called armies of horsemen were motorcycle gangs, and the abyss itself was in Death Valley. All that was left was for him to unlock the abyss and bring about the end of days. Just when you thought it couldn't get any darker.

Manson's family had an uncomfortable relationship with the Beach Boys

Anyone who's asked to come up with a list of the most inoffensive groups in music history would almost certainly include the Beach Boys. But weirdly, in addition to their connection to surf, sand, and Kokomo, they're also connected to Charles Manson.

Specifically, it's drummer Dennis Wilson who had the Manson connection, and it started when, according to The Washington Post, Wilson picked up a few hitchhikers. They were part of Manson's Family and made introductions that led to Wilson crashing with The Family to enjoy some girls and even more drugs. Manson even taught him how to play a bit of guitar. Wilson was already riding high on fame, and the Manson clan moved in with him — until a vicious STD made orgies not as much fun anymore, and Wilson apparently footed the bill to get everyone cleaned up.

Wilson made the mistake of offering to help Manson with his dream of becoming a serious musician, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Manson didn't take well to the criticism that came with actually recording his music and they parted ways. Fellow Beach Boy Mike Love suggested there might have been more to it than that, though, and wrote in his autobiography (via Mic) that Wilson had seen Manson actually kill a man. It's unconfirmed, but it wouldn't be entirely surprising. There's a lot about Manson's life story that's full of half-truths and outright lies.

Manson claimed he was the original writer of a Beach Boys song

Manson relentlessly insisted there was more to his relationship with the Beach Boys, though. He claimed Wilson took one of his songs, turned it into "Never Learn Not to Love," and didn't even give him a writing credit.

Manson repeated the claim in the documentary Truth and Lies: The Family Manson (via Rolling Stone), and added at the time, he was so insanely angry about it he went as far as leaving a bullet on Wilson's bed. There was no violence, though, as Manson was holding out hope Wilson would introduce him to producer Terry Melcher. It was a hope that would eventually lead to murder. (We'll get to that.)

It wasn't the only time Manson would claim the Beach Boys stole his music, either. Rolling Stone says Manson also swore he originally wrote "In My Room" as "In My Cell," but the claim is absolutely impossible. Impossibility didn't stop Manson at other times, so why would that matter here?

10050 Cielo Drive and Sharon Tate

Any manipulative killer achieves a certain amount of notoriety, but part of the reason we still know Charles Manson's name is the high profile of victim Sharon Tate. The wife of Roman Polanski and an upcoming actress, she ultimately met her horrible, horrible end because they had picked the wrong house.

After meeting up with Dennis Wilson and being promised a hook-up to producer Terry Melcher, Manson continued to hold out hope his music career was going to take off. When it didn't, the BBC says Manson targeted Melcher and sent his loyal followers out to kill everyone they found in the producer's home. He had since moved out, and Polanski had moved in with his wife.

Polanski was in Europe when four Manson Family members broke into the house and started killing. Tate — who was due to give birth in a matter of days — died, along with friends Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger. Even though the goal was to kick-start the race war Manson believed would lead to him being crowned king of the world and head of a new social order, getting revenge on Melcher would have been, to put it mildly, killing two birds with one stone.

He had a seriously insane list of rules violations during his prison time

No one would expect Charles Manson to be an angel behind bars, but according to the LA Times, he'd amassed somewhere around 100 rules violations by the beginning of 2017. As California correctional spokeswoman Terry Thornton put it, "Suffice it to say that he cannot be described as a model prisoner."

What exactly does that mean? The violations included things like bizarre outbursts and behavior, throwing hot coffee on prison staff, starting fights, trying to start a flood, and trying to start fires. He was caught several times with drugs, illegal cell phones, weapons (including a hacksaw blade), and catalogs that led staff to believe he was trying to order hot air balloons in a completely insane plan to escape.

His figurative middle finger to law enforcement started at his trial, when he stood up, assumed the pose of Christ on the crucifix, and refused to sit down. He also lunged toward the judge and declared, "In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off." It sounds like a little LSD in his cell was the least of their worries.

His followers fanatically defended him as a crusader for the environment

Along the way, Manson coined the term ATWA. It stood for air, trees, water, animals, and it was at the heart of the spiel he used to lure in some of the hippiest of hippies, even into the 21st century.

It's no secret Manson had a weird way with the ladies. His last conquest, Afton Burton (who went by Star, the name Manson gave her), called herself Manson's wife and claimed everything about Helter Skelter, the murders, and the race war was absolute bunk. Instead, her Manson was a crusader for the preservation of everything that existed on the planet: ATWA. She told CNN, "Charlie never believed in something called Helter Skelter. … He never thought any of that stuff. That's ridiculous. That's crazy. … The only thing that he's trying to manipulate people into doing is planting trees and cleaning up the Earth. He genuinely cares about that. He's nice to everyone. I've never seen him try to be manipulative. I've never seen any of that."

She wasn't the only one who followed him because of ATWA; CNN reported he continued to gain followers, like Burton, who flocked to his idea of ATWA for years after he was tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

He'd touch everyone on the nose

Erik Hedegaard interviewed Manson for Rolling Stone in 2013, and it was plenty weird. Hedegaard said Manson stroked his arm at one point during the interview, and if that's not enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, nothing will. He also said Manson "reached out and bounced one of his fingers off the tip of my nose, fast as a frog's tongue, dart and recoil."

All right, there's the nightmare stuff. Manson explained: "I've touched everybody on the nose, man. There ain't nobody I can't touch on the nose. … If I can touch you, I can kill you."

Manson's care packages

Manson will have been gone for decades before his figure stops being larger-than-life. When Erik Hedegaard interviewed him for Rolling Stone, Hedegaard also talked to superfan Star about what Manson was really like — you know, behind the crazy.

Star said that four times a year, she was allowed to send Manson a care package. And what did someone like Manson really hope to find when he opened that package? His favorites were mundane, almost unnervingly so. He loved sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, roasted peanuts, vegetable soup mix, crackers, cough drops, tea, and protein bars, along with socks, tank tops, and shorts. Just for good measure, Star also included guitar strings because playing the guitar remained one of his favorite hobbies. It's true what they say — everyone needs a hobby.

He believed he was Jesus (and immortal)

Manson's delusions of grandeur didn't stop at claims he was going to be the head of a new world order, he had also convinced his followers he was Jesus. All he'd needed to do was hint at the possibility, Rolling Stone said, and his followers did the rest when they elevated to him a position of near divinity.

They completely believed it, too. In 1977, Family member Leslie Van Houten went on record (via CBC News) to say, "I think at one point I really believed he was Jesus Christ." Manson hinted that he not only believed it, but that he believed in everything that went along with it. According to The Independent, Manson called off his imminent marriage to Star in 2015, after it emerged she only wanted to marry him so she could put his body on display after his death. Apparently he didn't think that was cool (true, that's not cool), plus he fully believed he was immortal (false, he dead).

His actions kick-started the idea of victim's rights

At a glance, not much good came from Manson's insane reign of terror. The Washington Post says there's one bright spot, though, and we can thank Sharon Tate's mother and sisters for it.

After Tate's gruesome death, mother Doris Tate appeared at family member Charles Watson's parole hearing, and she spoke. She was heard, too, and her words were the first victim impact statement in the state. Tate's family campaigned tirelessly for what became the Victims' Bill of Rights in California that ultimately led to all states passing laws allowing victims to speak out during trials and parole hearings. Later, Tate sisters Patti and Debra took up the crusade to fight for victim rights — and to keep Manson and his Family behind bars.

And that's huge. Manson may have wanted to bring about a race war and lead humankind into the next era, but his actions allowed a grieving family to pave the way for countless victims to have their voices heard throughout the justice system. That's something worth remembering.