Who Is Charles Manson? The True Story of Helter Skelter, Explained
With the release of both Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and the second season David Fincher‘s true-crime Netflix drama Mindhunter, the name Charles Manson is, once again, on everyone’s lips. Manson never really went away, cementing his infamy on August 9, 1969, but it’s through these recent pop culture reexaminations that it’s worth looking at who Manson was, what he did, and why he’s (unfortunately) endured in our collective consciousness for the last 50 years.
The man known as Charles Manson was initially brought into this world as “no name Maddox,” the result of his 16-year-old mother Kathleen Maddox’s inability (or unwillingness) to name him. She eventually gave him the name Charles Milles Maddox. Kathleen Maddox was an alcoholic and a prostitute, and it’s unclear whether Manson ever knew his birth father. Maddox’s inability to control her drinking and her penchant for crime caused the marriage to dissolve when Manson was three. When the child was five, Maddox was arrested for a burglary gone wrong and was sentenced to five years in prison. Charles Manson was left to an aunt and uncle until his mother was paroled in 1942.
When his mother was released, she couldn’t control her wayward son, who by this time was known for playing truant and stealing from both his home and local businesses. Maddox sent her son to the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana, possibly hoping that the Catholic priests would straighten him out. Manson eventually fled to the streets, committing petty burglaries to support himself.
In 1952, Manson’s crimes took a turn for the violent. He was charged with raping a boy at knifepoint and eventually sent to a maximum-security reform school in Ohio. After he was let out for good behavior, he met a small-time hospital waitress named Rosalie Willis. The two were married and moved to Los Angeles (in a car Manson had stolen). Rosalie was prepared to give birth to the couple’s first child. Manson was charged with stealing the car and transporting it across state lines and after a series of probation violations he was sent to the infamous Terminal Island prison in San Pedro, California to serve three years. Willis gave birth to Charles Manson, Jr. but soon moved in with another man and filed for divorce from Manson.
After, Manson was paroled in 1958 and turned to pimping out young women, many of them runaways from wealthy families. He was still getting in trouble with the law throughout the ‘60s, generally for federal crimes like violating the Mann Act (crossing state lines to commit a crime) and check fraud. By 1967 Manson had spent over half his life in various reformatories and prisons. He also managed to marry for the second time, a woman named Leona who claimed to bear him another child, named Charles Luther, whose paternity remains in dispute.
By 1967, Manson wanted to start over and moved to Berkeley, California, where he took up playing the guitar and amassing a group of followers, usually young women. He started to profess that his will was on par with that of Jesus Christ and that his followers were reincarnations of the original Christians that followed Jesus. He began traveling throughout the U.S. and also had another child. From this point out, Manson’s life becomes a series of half-truths, rumors, and apocryphal storytelling. Allegedly, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys started dating two of Manson’s followers and invited Manson to a few parties, only to discover that the strange hippie he met was living in his home, along with 12 other people. Undeterred, Wilson offered to pay for studio time, to let Manson record music in the hopes of getting a record deal, and also introduced Manson to other people in the music industry like Terry Melcher.
Wilson’s manager, uninterested in having his client’s house taken over, evicted Manson and his group, who eventually took over the dusty former movie studio, Spahn Ranch. The Ranch’s owner, George Spahn, allowed the group to live there, with Manson supplying the older man with sex from the numerous women on the property. By 1968, Manson was declaring that a race war would soon break out, bringing on the apocalypse, and that Manson and his followers would be the only ones left standing. He became obsessed with the Beatles, whom he believed talked in code about this presumed war. The group, he declared, would need to record an album to trigger this, an event he called “Helter Skelter,” and he believed Melcher would help him get it out there. But Melcher never arrived.