This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.
Charles Manson was a not a big man. His mug shot shows him at a measurement stick on the wall clocking in at around 5 feet 4 inches tall. By any measure, that height is under the norm for an American man. Charlie was not going to physically dominate very many men at that height, and he could not have weighed more than 125 pounds.
Further, he was a small man in prison, where his skills to survive at that size had to be honed to a fine edge. He was accused of raping another boy at reform school, but he was surely on the receiving end of that equation as well. He later described himself as bi-sexual and it was reported by his followers that he viewed same sex sexual contact as part of how one got over their ‘hang ups or ‘ego’ about themselves.
Charlie knew perfectly well that while he was not going to dominate men, he could get them to do his bidding another way; he could pimp out his girls to them. And it was in this way that he was able to control many men and build his petty criminal enterprise.
Most of what Charlie did from a criminal perspective was simple and small scale. He was not mastermind. He and his followers engaged in theft, some light extortion, some drug dealing, and the girls engaged in prostitution. They stole guns, drugs, and money, and they stole cars, often Volkswagens, which they would convert into dune buggies.
Nevertheless, operating these enterprises took money and muscle and Manson solicited the help of many men including members of the Straight Satan’s motorcycle gang. His ‘in’ was with a gang member named Danny DeCarlo who stated many times that he hung around the ranch with Charlie getting drunk and high and working on cars mostly because of the girls who were available to him.
Manson clearly wanted to be famous. He was strongly attracted to anyone of any celebrity status. One such person was Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, In 1968, Manson entered Dennis Wilson’s home when Wilson was not there, and when Wilson showed up, Charlie was with the women, who knew to make themselves available. Wilson was used for months this way.
Charlie also knew Terry Melcher, and Melcher was a record producer. Charlie thought Terry would help him become a famous recording artists, and when Melcher declined to produce Manson’s songs, Charlie took it very personally. It was Melcher’s presence at the Ciello Road house brought Charlie there, and that lead to Sharon Tate’s murder.
There were many others, including the possibility that Manson was using the girls to get access to the doctors at the Height Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. If there is any truth to what Tom O’Neil writes about in Chaos, at some point, Manson was in the same office with doctors that were cooperating with the FBI and possibly the CIA, and those agencies wanted to have informers in the counterculture scene, and they were carrying on experiments with LSD. How much interaction Charlie had with the government while he was still in prison, or during this period, can’t be confirmed. The thrust of Chaos is that Manson was an informer, test subject, and possibly a facilitator of the technique that could convert certain people into killers.
It was at the Haight that Charlie must have developed relationships with powerful men who could keep him out of jail. While he as on parole, he committed all manner of crimes and traveled all over the country, and yet he was never taken in. He was arrested along with the rest of the family in August of 1969, six days after the Tate and LaBianca murders, but again, released. O’Neil asserts, based on several police sources, that this was because Manson was an informer. Somehow, he kept out of jail and developed a fanatical following, which goes beyond merely pimping out vulnerable women.
If so, it was another instance of Charles Manson, all five feet four of him, with a poor education and no powerful connections in his background, managed to stay moving and active, for years, often with the cooperation of the many men he encountered. Manson was a master manipulator who could spin good times, free love, drugs, and some light philosophy, into a lifestyle and seduce women literally and men figuratively. He was, by any account, a remarkable figure that is inscrutable in so many ways. He was a bad harbinger of things to come.
As with other small, odd men, men like Lee Harvey Oswald, one wonders how this creature could affect so much, so quickly. Manson used everyone to accomplish his plans, and we don’t know what those plans were, and we don’t even know all the men he encountered. He made a few rich and famous, men like Vince Bugliosi, he sent a few to their death, and he spawned a generation of followers who put his image on t-shirts and wore them. As a leader of men, he stands alone in the depth and breath of his ability to manipulate.
Mostly what Manson had working in his favor, was timing. His release from prison right at the moment of counter-culture breakout brought him into contact with men who would not have looked twice at him before or after that moment.
Back – Part 4: Charlie’s Girls