Charles Manson: The Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive

A chilling, deeply investigative look into the terrifying Manson family – including a jailhouse interview with Charlie himself

charles manson 1970 cover
Charles Manson on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Book One: Year of the Fork, Night of the Hunter

But the decadence of history
is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge
he opens up the gate
A blinding revelation
is served upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love
is a hurricane of hate.
"Crucifixion" by Phil Ochs.

Three young girls dance down the hallway of the Superior Court Building in Los Angeles, holding hands and singing one of Charlie's songs. They might be on their way to a birthday party in their short, crisp cotton dresses, but, actually they are attending a preliminary hearing to a murder trial.

A middle-aged lady in Bel Air wants to "mother" Charlie, and two little girls send a letter to him in jail.

"At first we thought you were guilty. But then we read in the papers about these kids who were stabbed to death in the same way as the Sharon Tate murders. We knew you hadn't done it because you were in jail at the time. We knew you hadn't done it anyway when we saw your face in the newspaper. . . .

"Love . . . "

Charlie gets letters from little girls every day. They come from New Hampshire, Minnesota, Los Angeles. A convicted bank robber who met Charlie in jail writes "The Gospel According to Pawnee Fred, the Thief on the Other Cross," in which he asks:

"Is Manson Son of Man?"

Thirty miles northwest of the courthouse, seven miles due north of Leonard Nimoy's Pet Pad in Chatsworth (Supplies – Fish – Domestics – Exotics), a circle of rustic women at the Spahn Movie Ranch weave their own hair into an elaborate rainbow vest for Charlie.

Most of them are early members of Charlie's three-year-old family. There's Lynne Fromme – they call her Squeaky – Sandra Good, Gypsy, Brenda, Sue, Cappy, Jeany.

"We've been working on this vest for two years," says Sandra, "adding things, sewing on patches. It's for Charlie to wear in court." And Squeaky adds, "Wouldn't it be beautiful to have a photograph of Charlie wearing it? And all of us standing around close to him, hugging him like we used to?"

Wouldn't it be beautiful to have the others standing around too, the rest of the family, the others imprisoned? Tex Watson and Patti Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian and, oh yeah, the snitch, Sadie Glutz. Her real name is Susan Atkins, but the family calls her Sadie Glutz because that's what Charlie named her.

Meanwhile Charlie sits blissfully in his cell at the Los Angeles County Jail, composing songs, converting fellow inmates to his gospel of love and Christian submission, and occasionally entertaining a disturbing thought: Why haven't they gotten in touch? A simple phone call would do it. Surely they've received the telegrams, the letters. Surely they realize that he knows, he understands their glorious revelation; that he understands the whole fucking double album.

Everywhere there's lots of piggies
Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner
With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.

Ten blocks from the new County Jail stands the old County Hall of Justice, a grotesque, brown brick fortress that for decades has guarded the Los Angeles Civic Center from aesthetic inroads. The entire sixth floor belongs to the District Attorney and his staff, a member of which, now alone on his lunch hour, unlocks a file cabinet and withdraws several neatly bound, family-type photo albums. Slowly he turns each page, studies each snapshot, each personality:

• Sharon Tate, considered one of Hollywood's prettier, more popular promising young stars, wife of genius film sorcerer Roman Polanski. After her biggest film, Valley of the Dolls, she retreated to private life to enjoy her first pregnancy. The photographs show her in her eighth month.

• Jay Sebring, the handsome young hair stylist who revolutionized the fashion industry by introducing hair styling to men, convincing them – despite early masculine scoffs – there was something better looking than a shave even if you had to pay ten times the price. He once was Miss Tate's fiance.

• Wociech Frykowski, Polanski's boyhood pal who came to Hollywood with hopes of directing films himself. His luck at this was dismal, and even Polanski later admitted he had little talent. Instead, he began directing home movies inside his head, investing heavily in many forms of exotic dope.

• Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger's Coffee millions, an attractive Radcliffe girl considered by neighbors to be the most charming of the Polanski's house guests. She met Frykowski in New York and became his lover.

• Steven Parent, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, a friend of Polanski's caretaker, unknown to the others, a nobody like the rest of us. Had fortune been on his side, he would have so remained.

• Leno La Bianca, owner of a grocery store chain, and his wife, Rosemary, an ordinary couple of the upper middle class, fond of such quiet pleasures as boating, water skiing and watching late night television in their pajamas. They knew nothing of Sharon Tate and her friends, living miles away in different neighborhoods and different worlds.

• Gary Hinman, music teacher, bagpipe player, and onetime friend of Charlie Manson's. He once, in fact, gave the Manson family his Toyota, although the circumstances surrounding that gift have since come into question.

The snapshots are homey little numbers, color polaroids taken by staff photographers from the County Coroner's office and the Los Angeles Police Department. They show all the wounds, the nakedness, the blood. Sometimes the exposure is a little off, but the relevant details are there – shots of the rooms, the bullet holes, the blood on the furniture and floors, the bizarre blood writing on the walls, words like RISE and HELTER SKELTER and PIGGIES.

And shots of the weapons found at the scene – ropes, pillowcases, forks and knives.

After replacing the albums, the D.A. investigator continues eating his lunch and now starts perusing an official looking 34-page document. It is an interview with Miss Mary Brunner, a former member of Manson's family, by detectives last December.

Q. Mary, did you never see Charlie Manson or Bruce Davis hit Gary Hinman?

A. No.

Q. Do you know how he got the slash on the side of his face that severed his ear?

A. He got it from one of those two, he had to.

Q. Now, after everybody left on Sunday night, did anybody ever go back to the house?

A. Yes.

Q. Who?

A. Bobby.

Q. Was anybody with Bobby?

A. Not that I know of. He told me about it and he talked like he was alone.

Q. What did Bobby tell you he went back to the house for?

A. He tried to erase that paw print on the wall.

Q. And how many days later did he go back to the house?

A. Two or three days after Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

Q. All right. Did he describe to you what the house looked like or smelled like or anything like that?

A. He told me it smelled terrible. He could hear the maggots.

Q. Hear the maggots? What?

A. In Gary, eating Gary.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add about this that we haven't covered?

A. There isn't anything else to it.

Los Angeles is the third largest city in America, according to population, but easily the largest according to raw real estate. It is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and southwest, by Ventura County to the west, by the San Gabriel Mountains and fire-prone Angeles National Forest to the north and by scores of cruddy, smoggy little towns and cities to the east.

Its shape resembles some discarded prehistoric prototype for a central nervous system, the brain including the entire San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel foothills, West Los Angeles, Venice, portions of the Santa Monica Mountains, Hollywood, Hollywood Hills and Highland Park – actually hundreds and hundreds of square miles – with a weird, narrow spinal chord extending from the Civic Center, through the country's largest black ghetto, to San Pedro Harbor 25 miles away.

Charles Manson knew his city well. Like many Los Angeles residents he learned to drive long distances regularly without giving a second thought. During his two years as a free man in Southern California he frequently "made the rounds," visiting friends, keeping business appointments, preaching to small groups, giving and taking material possessions.

For some reason, perhaps for no reason, many of the spots where he stopped or stayed are located on the extreme periphery of the brain of Los Angeles. Which at least makes it an easy, scenic drive – Sunday afternoon with the wife and kids. Who knows? Ten years from now these spots may be official points of interest, stations of the cross as it were. Save these handy directions for your personal map to the homes of the stars.

Starting at the Spahn Movie Ranch in the extreme northwestern corner of Los Angeles – drive two miles east on Santa Susana Pass Road to Topanga Canyon itself.

It was here that Manson and his family first lived after arriving from the Haight-Ashbury in late 1967, and it was here that Manson first met Gary Hinman. Hinman's house is a little further down the road, almost where Topanga Canyon meets the beach at Pacific Coast Highway.

You can't see into the house now, of course, because the cops boarded it up last July after they found Hinman's body perforated with stab wounds. They say he was tortured for 48 hours. On a nearby wall they found the words POLITICAL PIGGIES and a neat little cat's paw print in blood. Bobby Beausoleil, an electric guitarist and member of Manson's family, has already been sentenced to death, and Manson and Susan Atkins are awaiting trial in the matter.

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