Biography of Charles Manson, Cult Leader and Mass Murderer

Charles Manson
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Charles Manson (November 12, 1934–November 19, 2017) was a mass murderer who founded a desert cult known as "The Family" in the 1960s and manipulated its members into brutally killing people on his behalf, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate and other Hollywood residents. The crimes inspired "Helter Skelter," a best-selling book released in 1974, and an Emmy-nominated TV miniseries by the same name released in 1976.

Fast Facts: Charles Manson

  • Known For: Manipulating his cult to commit mass murder
  • Also Known As: Charles Milles Maddox
  • Born: Nov. 12, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Mother: Kathleen Maddox
  • Died: Nov. 19, 2017 in Kern County, California
  • Spouses: Rosalie Willis, Leona Stevens
  • Children: Charles Manson Jr., Charles Luther Manson
  • Notable Quote: “You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy.”

Early Life

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

His mother was known to drink heavily and spent periods in jail, including time for a strong-arm robbery conviction 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 with various relatives, which weren't 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 learned that his land was being seized by authorities.

After an unsuccessful reunion with his mother, Manson began to steal at age 9. Three years later he was sent to Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana, which wouldn't be his last experience in reform school. Before long he added burglary and auto theft to his repertoire. He would escape a reform 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, earning 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.

Before long Rosalie became pregnant, which was good for Manson because it helped him get 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., one month before his father was sent to prison after his probation was revoked. The sentence this time was three years in Terminal Island Prison in San Pedro, California. After 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 (real name Leona), and fathered a second son, Charles Luther Manson. She divorced him in 1963.

On June 1, 1960, Manson was arrested again and charged with crossing state lines with the intent of prostitution. His parole was revoked and he received a seven-year sentence to be served at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Puget Sound, off the Washington state coast.

During this term, Manson began studying Scientology and music, and he became obsessed with performing. He practiced his music all the time, wrote dozens of 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 released again from prison. This time he headed to San Francisco, California's Haight-Ashbury district, where, with a guitar and drugs, he 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. Before long she started doing drugs and quit her job to follow Manson. Brunner helped entice others to join what would eventually be called the Manson Family.

Lynette Fromme soon joined Brunner and Manson. In San Francisco, they found many young people who were lost and searching for purpose. Manson's prophesies and strange songs created a reputation that he had a sixth sense. He relished his position as a mentor, and the manipulation skills he had honed in childhood and prison fueled the attraction of the vulnerable to him. His followers saw Manson as a guru and a prophet. In 1968, Manson and several followers drove to Southern California.

Spahn Ranch

In the late 1960s, Manson was still hoping for a music career. Through an acquaintance, music teacher Gary Hinman, he met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who recorded one of Manson's songs under the title "Never Learn Not to Love." Through Wilson, Manson met record producer Terry Melcher, actress Doris Day's son, whom Manson believed would advance his music career. When nothing happened, Manson was upset.

He and some of his followers moved to Spahn Ranch, which was northwest of the San Fernando Valley. 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

Despite his skill at manipulating people, Manson suffered from delusions. When The Beatles released their "White Album" in 1968, Manson believed their song "Helter Skelter" predicted an upcoming race war, which he referred to as "Helter Skelter." He thought it would occur in the summer of 1969 and that Blacks would rise up and slaughter white America. He told his followers that they would be saved because they would hide in an underground city of gold in Death Valley.

When the Armageddon that Manson had predicted didn't occur, he said he and his followers would have to show Blacks how to do it. In their first known murder, they killed Hinman on July 25, 1969. The Family staged the scene to look as if the Black Panthers had done it by leaving one of their symbols, a paw print.

Tate and LaBianca Murders

On Aug. 9, Manson ordered four of his followers to go to 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles and kill the people inside. The house had belonged to Melcher, who had spurned Manson's dreams of a music career, but actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, were leasing it.

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 working in Europe). The following night, Manson's followers brutally killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home.


It took 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 Jan. 25, Manson was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Two months later, he was sentenced to death.


Manson was saved from execution when the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972. During his decades in the California State Prison in Corcoran, Manson received more mail than any other prisoner in the U.S. He was denied parole a dozen times and died, apparently of natural causes, on Nov. 19, 2017. He was 83.


Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School who followed high-profile cases, described Manson in 2009 as the worst of the worst: "If you're going to be evil, you have to be off-the-charts evil, and Charlie Manson was off-the-charts evil," Levenson told CNN.

Despite the vicious brutality of the murders he committed or ordered, however, Manson became an icon of sorts to the more radical elements of the counterculture movement. His image is still seen on posters and T-shirts.

To others, he was an object of morbid curiosity. In addition to the best-selling "Helter Skelter," which was written by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and the TV movie released two years later, many other books and movies related to the Manson story have been released.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Charles Manson, Cult Leader and Mass Murderer." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). Biography of Charles Manson, Cult Leader and Mass Murderer. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Charles Manson, Cult Leader and Mass Murderer." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).