Charles Manson, America’s most infamous murderer and mesmeric cult leader, was like his victims in one respect: he never had a chance in life.
Manson has died, apparently of natural causes, at the age of 83, in a Kern County prison hospital in California. I imagine that his funeral will be attended by nobody but officers of one or more of the correctional facilities in which he has spent most of his life.
Just as well: if he were to have a public funeral, it would draw only primitives and those fellow-sociopaths who still regard him as some kind of messianic prophet. It would also open up the American psyche like a razor blade drawn across a wound. Such was the impact of Manson’s crimes on a nation to which mass murder was hardly a novelty.
He was mentally damaged beyond repair from an early age. He was born to a sixteen-year old unwed woman who had no interest in raising him and a father who has never been formally identified. His mother, one Kathleen Maddox, was an alcoholic, and probably a prostitute, who lived on the margins of society with an endless procession of men, most of them drifters and ne’er-do-wells. She herself drifted into minor crime and, when Manson was five, served a prison term for robbing a gas station. At twelve, Manson, shunting from one set of relatives to another, was sent to a Federal reformatory. There, he is said to have held a razor to a boy’s throat and raped him. By 1967, when Manson was 32, he had served half his life in detention.
Two years later, Manson was living as the leader of a commune on a desert ranch, a derelict former movie set, with a floating ménage of a dozen or so followers, many of them young women from middle-class backgrounds, anxious to participate in the ‘hippie’ lifestyle that espoused sex, drugs, rock music and Satanism, a potent mix made the more so with strong seasonings of Scientology and Hitler-worship.
And, as it turned out, murder.
On August 8, 1969, Manson despatched four of his disciples to the Hollywood Hills home of Sharon Tate, an actress married to Roman Polanski, the film director. She was eight months pregnant. Manson knew the house, which had been owned by a music producer with whom he had once discussed making records. There, the four murdered Tate and four of her house-guests in a blood-soaked orgy of shooting, stabbing, beating and strangling. The word ‘pig’ was scrawled in blood on the front door.
The following evening, members of the same gang went, with Manson, to the randomly chosen home of a wealthy grocery store owner, Leno la Bianco and his wife Rosemary. Manson left, but the remaining gang, acting on his instructions, tied up the la Biancos and killed them.
The Los Angeles police, in the absence of a clear motive, were baffled by the case for months, until one of the killers, Susan Atkins, in prison for an unrelated crime, boasted of the murder to a cellmate.
America may have witnessed bloodier crimes and more prolific serial killers, but the gory details of the Tate murders, as reported in the press and described in even greater detail at the seven-month trial, held the nation in horrified thrall.
Manson was sentenced to death, which might have salved the national thirst for expiation, but California’s death penalty was revoked and Manson was committed to life in prison.
The media have offered regular updates on Manson’s incarceration, including once a television interview, staged in the prison, with Charlie Rose. Manson’s demented stare, through all the changing appearances of his advancing years – though the swastika carved on his forehead remained constant – had been staring out at us as if from a poster of a vampire movie for half a century, nibbling away at a collective guilt and unabashed horror, and for some perhaps an unadmitted prurience.
Finally, his demise may now free us from a waking and recurring nightmare that he inflicted on many of us through some form of mystical Hannibal Lecter-ish influence while he was alive.