The horrific true story behind the 1969 Manson Family murders that changed America forever

The horrific true story behind the 1969 Manson Family murders that changed America forever
  • In early August 1969, followers of the cult leader Charles Manson took the lives of seven people.

  • One of the victims was the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski.

  • More than 50 years later, a California appeals court ruled that one Manson family member should be granted parole.

The Manson murders closed out one era for the US, and heralded the arrival of another.

No more guaranteed innocence or safety. No more children playing on the streets late at night. From then on a shadow would hang over the counter-cultural movement. It was the end of the "flower-powered" 1960s.

Over two nights in August 1969, seven people were brutally murdered. The Manson "Family" killers were following orders from their cult leader, Charles Manson. One of the seven victims was pregnant actress Sharon Tate.

The effect of these murders continues to haunt the nation 50 years on. In 2019, three movies about the killings, including Quentin Tarantino's film, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," were released. And Vulture has a guide to all the books, films, and television series the story's been a part of.

But there's also the real story behind the killings that isn't on the big screen. This is what happened.

Charles Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934.

charles manson young mugshot
Charles MansonFCI Terminal Prison via Wikimedia Commons

His father abandoned the family before his birth, and his 16-year-old mother struggled to raise him; at one point, she sold him for a jug of beer.

He began committing petty crimes when he was 12 and spent years in and out of reform schools where he was the victim of sexual assault attacks and also victimized others.

Sources: CNN, Vox

In 1954, at the age of 19, Manson was released from reform school and put in the custody of his aunt and uncle.

Hundreds of hippies in Golden Gate Park in 1968.
Hundreds of hippies in Golden Gate Park in 1968.Bettmann / Getty

Soon after, he married and moved to Los Angeles with his new wife, seeking fame and fortune.

But just a few years later, in 1957, Manson was sent to prison for violating the terms of his probation. Manson would spend the next ten years in and out of prison for petty crimes and probation violations.

In 1967, divorced and ready for a change, Manson moved to San Francisco, then the center of the counterculture movement.

Source: CNN

Manson didn't believe in the counterculture, but he had wild eyes and long hair, and so he looked the part.

American criminal and cult leader Charles Manson
American criminal and cult leader Charles MansonMichael Ochs Archives / Getty

He was able to blend into the burgeoning hippie scene and began to exercise his ability to manipulate and control people.

Sources: CNN, Vulture, New York Times

In the fall of 1967, he brought together a group of followers, called the "Family," telling them he was a religious leader.

A view of the Hollywood Sign.
A view of the Hollywood Sign.Santi Visalli / Getty

Together, they returned to Los Angeles so Manson could chase his Hollywood dreams.

Source: Vox

This group was comprised mostly of young women who would later be called the "Manson girls."

manson family women

Manson, who had previously worked as a pimp, was an expert at controlling the women.

Source: Vox

One of his youngest followers was Dianne Lake, who met Manson when she was 14 years old.

Dianne Lake
Dianne LakeBettmann Archive / Getty

Lake's parents were hippies who encouraged their daughter to take drugs and have sex. She didn't participate in the murders but would serve as a key witness in the trial.

Lake would later argue that the counterculture movement allowed for widespread abuse of women and girls.

Source: Vox

Manson had aspirations to be a famous singer and closely studied the Beatles.

he Beach Boys pose in December 1968. Left to right are Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston.
The Beach Boys in December 1968. Dennis Wilson is centre.Susie Macdonald Redferns / Getty

In 1967 or 1968, he met a music teacher named Gary Hinman, who introduced him to Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

It was a fortuitous meeting: Wilson let Manson and the Family live in his house on Sunset Boulevard — and also lent him hundreds of thousands of dollars to record an album — in exchange for sex with the Manson girls.

Sources: CNN, Vox

In August 1968, Wilson finally kicked them out, and the Family moved to a gone-to-seed western movie set called Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth, California.

Spahn Movie Ranch.
Spahn Movie Ranch.Ralph Crane/ The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Manson traded sex with his followers to the owner for free rent.

Source: Vox

Before their relationship had soured, Wilson introduced Manson to a record producer named Terry Melcher, who initially seemed interested in Manson's music.

The road to the villa.
The road to the villa.Wikimedia

But after completing some initial recordings, Melcher chose not to sign Manson.

At the time, Melcher lived with his girlfriend in a luxury home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Manson visited him there several times before Melcher moved out.

Source: CNN

Despite his conflicts with Wilson, the Beach Boys did decide to record a track of Manson's.

Beach Boys 1969
Getty Images

The song, called "Cease to Exist," eventually morphed to the Beach Boys B-side "Never Learn Not To Love."

Though Manson had initially been thrilled to have the band record the song, he found the end product markedly different from his initial track and was miffed that he hadn't been given a songwriting credit.

Source: Vox

By the summer of 1969, after Melcher's rejection, Manson's Hollywood dreams appeared to be crushed.

Terry Melcher, center, is shown leaving the grand jury room in Los Angeles after testifying in the Sharon Tate murder hearing
Terry Melcher.AP

And, although he knew Melcher had moved out, the Cielo Drive house remained in Manson's mind a symbol of Hollywood and the life he'd been denied. In May, the cracks began to appear when Manson shot a drug dealer named Bernard Crowe over a disputed payment.

Source: Vox

The next people to move into Melcher's Cielo Drive house were director Roman Polanski and his young wife, the actress Sharon Tate.

sharon tate wedding
Keystone/Getty Images

Source: CNN

In July 1969, Manson ordered his followers Bobby Beausoleil, Mary Brunner, and Susan Atkins, to force Gary Hinman to give him $20,000.

Bobby Beausoleil, talks with newsmen after the jury returned a verdict against him of first-degree murder
Bobby Beausoleil, talks with newsmen after the jury returned a verdict against him of first-degree murderBettmann / Getty

Manson also showed up with a sword and almost cut off Hinman's ear. After two days, Hinman was killed by Beausoleil. The family attempted to frame the black power group, the Black Panthers, for the crime by writing "Political Piggie" in blood on the wall.

Manson was an avowed racist and believed that a coming race war — which he referred to as "Helter Skelter" (from the Beatles song of the same name) — was on the horizon. In framing the Black Panthers for Hinman's murder, he was hoping to move it along.

Sources: CNN, NY Daily News, Vox

On August 6, Beausoleil was arrested in connection to Hinman's murder.

Manson Murders Sharon Tate Home

Manson panicked, terrified that Beausoleil would implicate him in the crime (and the earlier murder of Crowe), and wanted to deflect attention away from the deaths.

So, two days later, Manson ordered four of his most loyal followers — Susan Atkins, Charles "Tex" Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian — to murder anyone in Polanski's house.

On that night, heiress Abigail Folger, hair stylist Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Sharon Tate were killed.

Sources: Vox, Business Insider

Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.

Sharon Tate.
Sharon Tate.Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty

On her last day alive, she ate lunch by the pool with a friend, spoke to her husband on the phone, and napped.

Source: Washington Post

Roman Polanski was in London on the night of the murder, on the back end of a trip to Europe to scout movie locations.

Roman Polanski sitting on bloodied porch outside his home after murder of his wife Sharon Tate and friends by Charles Manson and group. PIG was scrawled on door.
Roman Polanski in front of his Cielo Drive house where the murder of his wife and friends took place.Julian Wasser / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

Sources: People, Washington Post

The murders were meant to look like the Hinman killing to pull the attention off Beausoleil, who was being held by the police.

sharon tate house

But Manson wasn't impressed. He complained the murder was "sloppy."

Source: Vox

On August 9, 1969, the following night, Manson went with his followers to the second round of murders to ensure they weren't as sloppy.

An aerial view of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leno A. LaBianca, who were found slain on August 10 in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, is seen on Aug 13, 1969.
An aerial view of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leno A. LaBianca, who were found slain on August 10 in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, is seen on Aug 13, 1969.AP

He accompanied Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten to the house of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, where the Manson Family members bound and murdered them.

Manson ordered the group to "leave something witchy" at the crime scene, so they wrote "helter skelter" on the house in blood.

Sources: CNN, Vox

In October 1969, Manson and his followers were arrested at Barker Ranch, their outpost in Death Valley National Park.

Aerial view of Barker Ranch, former home of serial killer Charles Manson and family
Aerial view of Barker Ranch, former home of serial killer Charles Manson and familyVernon Merritt III / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

But the arrest wasn't for murder — they were suspected of stealing a car.

Sources: CNN, NY Daily News

Susan Atkins, who had already been charged with Hinman's murder, said the Manson Family wanted to commit a crime that would shake the world.

Susan Atkins outside court in 1969.
Susan Atkins outside court in 1969.Ralph Crane / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

A month later, Atkins told a fellow inmate at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, where she was incarcerated, that she killed Sharon Tate.

Source: CNN

On December 8, 1969, Manson was indicted in connection to the murders at the Cielo Drive house and the La Bianca house.

Charles Manson in court.
Charles Manson in court.Bettmann / Getty

Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were also charged related to the murders.

Six months later, in June 1970, the trial began.

Linda Kasabian, who had served as the lookout for the group, became the prosecution's chief witness in exchange for immunity.

Source: Business Insider

During the trial, Manson and the women showed no remorse and often giggled during the proceedings.

Manson with a X on his forehead.
Manson with a X on his forehead.Bettmann / Getty

Manson changed his appearance, carving an "x" into his forehead. The girls ended up doing the same.

Later, he turned the "x" into a swastika.

Source: Business Insider

A group of Manson's followers who had not participated in the murders publicly supported him during the trial and shaved their heads in solidarity.

manson family women
Wally Fong/AP

Source: Business Insider

On January 25, 1971, after a seven-month trial and 10 days of jury deliberation, all of the defendants — Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten — were found guilty.

Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten after being found guilty of first degree murder.
Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten after being found guilty of first degree murder.AP

Four of the killers, including Manson, got the death penalty, but the following year, California abolished the death penalty. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Source: CNN

In November 2017, Manson died at the age of 83.

2017 file photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows Charles Manson.
Charles Manson in 2017.California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP

During his sentence, he was denied parole 12 times, accrued 108 disciplinary violations, and never showed any remorse for the murders.

Susan Atkins died in prison in 2009. Patricia Krenwinkel is in prison and will later be up for parole. In June 2019, Leslie Van Houten was denied parole but later released in July 2023. Charles "Tex" Watson will be eligible for parole in 2026.

Source: CNN

Correction: February 20, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misstated that the resident of the Cielo Drive house. It was rented by Terry Melcher, not Gary Hinman. It also previously misstated who was meant to be in the Polanski house. Steve McQueen was not meant to be there. It also misidentified one of the locations where the Manson Family wrote "pig" in blood. It was Tate and Polanski's house, not the LaBiancas' house. This article has been updated to include recent and accurate information.

Read the original article on Business Insider