Biography of Charles Manson

Convicted Killer and Cult Leader

Charles Manson
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Charles Manson (born November 12, 1934) was a convicted murderer and cult leader who has become an icon of evil. In the late 1960s, he founded a desert cult group known as "The Family" whom he manipulated into brutally killing others on his behalf. Manson died after a long period in prison on November 19, 2017.

Troubled Childhood

Charles Manson was born Charles Milles Maddox on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox. Kathleen had run away from home at the age of 15. Shortly after Charles' birth, she married William Manson. Despite their brief marriage, her son took his name and would be known as Charles Manson for the rest of his life.

Kathleen was known to drink heavily and spent periods of time in jail, including time for strong-armed robbery in 1940. According to Manson, she had little interest in being a mother:

"Mom was in a cafe one afternoon with me on her lap. The waitress, a would-be mother without a child of her own, jokingly told my Mom she'd buy me from her. Mom replied, 'A pitcher of beer and he's yours.' The waitress set up the beer, Mom stuck around long enough to finish it off and left the place without me. Several days later my uncle had to search the town for the waitress and take me home."

Since his mother couldn't take care of him, Manson spent his youth at the homes of various relatives. These were not good experiences for the young boy. His grandmother was a religious fanatic, and one uncle ridiculed the boy for being feminine. Another uncle, while Manson was in his care, committed suicide after he found out that his land was being seized by authorities.

Teen Years in Reform School

After an unsuccessful reunion with his mother, Manson began to steal at the age of nine. He was eventually sent to Indiana's Gibault School for Boys. This would not be his last experience in reform school, and it wasn't long before the young Manson added burglary and auto theft to his repertoire. He would escape a school, steal, get caught, and be sent back to reform school again and again.

When he was 17, Manson drove a stolen car across state lines, leading to his first stint in federal prison. During his first year there, he racked up eight assault charges before being transferred to another facility.


In 1954, at age 19, Manson was released on parole after an unusual period of good behavior. The next year, he married a 17-year-old waitress named Rosalie Willis and the two took off for California in a stolen car.

It was not long before Rosalie became pregnant. This was beneficial for Manson because it helped him receive probation rather than prison time for stealing a car. His luck would not last, though.

In March 1956, Rosalie gave birth to Charles Manson Jr., just one month before his father was sent to prison after having his probation revoked. The sentence this time was three years in Terminal Island Prison. After just one year, Manson's wife found someone new, left town, and divorced him in June 1957.

Second Imprisonment

In 1958, Manson was released from prison. While he was out, he began pimping in Hollywood. He conned a young woman out of her money and in 1959 received a 10-year suspended sentence for stealing checks from mailboxes.

Manson married again, this time to a prostitute named Candy Stevens (her real name was Leona), and fathered a second son, Charles Luther Manson. She would divorce him shortly after his next prison sentence.

On June 1, 1960, Manson was arrested again and charged with crossing state lines with the intent of prostitution, and this led to the immediate revocation of his parole. He was sentenced to seven years and sent to the McNeil Island Penitentiary off the coast of Washington State.

It was during this prison sentence that Manson began studying Scientology and music. He befriended the infamous Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, a former member of Ma Barker's gang. After Karpis taught Charles Manson to play the steel guitar, Manson became obsessed with making music. He practiced all the time, wrote dozens of original songs, and started singing. He believed that when he got out of prison, he could become a famous musician.

The Family

On March 21, 1967, Manson was once again released from prison. This time he headed to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury where, with a guitar and drugs, he blended in and began to develop a following.

Mary Brunner was one of the first to fall for Manson. The U.C. Berkeley librarian invited him to move in with her. It was not long before she started doing drugs and quit her job to follow Manson wherever he went. Brunner was the key figure who helped entice others to join what would eventually be called the Manson Family.

Lynette Fromme soon joined Brunner and Manson. In San Francisco, the trio found many young people who were lost and searching for a purpose in life. Manson's lengthy prophesies and strange songs led to a reputation that he had some sort of sixth sense. He relished this new position as a mentor and the skills of manipulation he had honed in childhood and prison only fueled his attraction to those who were vulnerable.

His followers saw Manson as a guru and a prophet, and they would follow him anywhere. In 1968, Manson and several of his followers drove to Southern California.

Spahn Ranch

In the late 1960s, Manson was still hoping for a music career. Through an acquaintance, he met and hung out with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys even recorded one of Manson's songs under the title "Never Learn Not to Love," which was released as a B-side to their single "Bluebirds Over the Mountain."

Through Wilson, Manson met Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son. Manson believed that Melcher was going to advance his music career—but when nothing happened, Manson was very upset.

During this time, Charles Manson and some of his followers moved to Spahn Ranch. Located northwest of San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth, the ranch had been a popular film location for westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. Once Manson and his followers moved in, it became a cult compound for "The Family."

Helter Skelter

Charles Manson was extremely skilled at manipulating people, but he also suffered delusions of his own. When The Beatles released their "White Album" in 1968, Manson believed their song "Helter Skelter" predicted an upcoming race war.

Manson believed that this race war—which he referred to as "Helter Skelter"—was going to occur in the summer of 1969 and that blacks were going to rise up and slaughter the white people of the United States. He told his followers that they would be saved because they would travel to an underground city of gold located in Death Valley.

However, when the Armageddon that Manson had predicted did not occur, he said that he and his followers must "show the blacks how to do it." Their first known murder was that of a music teacher named Gary Hinman on July 25, 1969. The Family staged the scene to make it look as if the Black Panthers had done it.

Tate and LaBianca Murders

On August 9, 1969, Manson ordered four of his followers to go to 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles and kill the people inside. The house once belonged to Terry Melcher, the record producer who refused Manson his dreams of a music career. However, Melcher no longer lived there; actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, had rented the house.

Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian brutally murdered Tate, her unborn baby, and four others who were visiting her (Polanski was in Europe for work). The following night, Manson's followers brutally killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home.


It took the police several months to determine who was responsible for the brutal slayings. In December 1969, Manson and several of his followers were arrested. The trial for the Tate and LaBianca murders began on July 24, 1970. On January 25, Manson was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. On March 29, 1971, he was sentenced to death.

Life in Prison

Manson was saved from capital punishment in 1972 when the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty.

During his decades in prison, Charles Manson received more mail than any other prisoner in the U.S. He died in November 2017.