Born to a teenage single mother who once, he claimed, bartered him for a pitcher of beer, Charles Manson grew up to wreak havoc on the world that rejected him. An ex-con on the far fringes of the Los Angeles music scene, Manson assembled a “family” of young, mostly female, misfits and drifters in a ramshackle house in the desert. Over two nights in 1969, he dispatched his followers on a murder spree that killed actress Sharon Tate and six others, and destroyed whatever shreds of American innocence and complacency had survived that calamitous decade. Sentenced to death along with three of his acolytes, he escaped the gas chamber when the California Supreme Court ended capital punishment, and died Sunday, at the age of 83, still a prisoner.
There have been much bigger mass murders since, more prolific and sinister serial killers, but the Tate-LaBianca murders, as the crimes came to be called, still occupy a unique place in the American psyche: exceptionally gory (Tate, stabbed 16 times in the torso, was eight months pregnant at the time) frighteningly random (the victims, killed in their homes in wealthy hillside neighborhoods, had no connections to Manson or the other killers) and with touches, such as the word “pig” written in blood on a wall, calculated to strike fear into the heart of a nation in which the memory of the inner-city riots of the previous two years was still fresh. Different participants have suggested different motives for the killings over the years, but the one that stuck in the public mind was Manson’s supposed intention of provoking a race war, which he named “Helter Skelter,” an homage to the Beatles song of that name on 1968’s “White Album.”
And there was Manson himself, the self-described “Satan” with his wild hair and scruffy beard — the swastika tattoo on his forehead came later — his piercing gaze, and his uncanny gift for attracting vulnerable young women and bending them to his will. An embodiment of the nightmare stalking every middle-class white family where rebellious adolescents sulked in their rooms, dreaming of the forbidden fruit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Manson offered them that, and the embrace of a “family” — what Americans would later learn to call a “cult” — in exchange, as he himself might have put it, for their souls. (Jerry Adler/Yahoo News)