“Tex then told Sadie to scout the house for other people. She evidently climbed up the redwood ladder to look in the loft. And then she walked to the south, toward the hallway off which were the two main bedrooms of the house. In the room on the left, Abigail Folger lay reading alone. She looked up, she saw Sadie, and Abigail waved! Waved and smiled, and Sadie smiled back and walked away. Hi death.”
Long ago, in my late teenage years, I decided it was time for me to overcome my natural distaste for ‘true crime’ subject matter and get the full dope on this whole Manson Family business, which I kept finding fearful references to in the ‘60s counter-culture books and rock biogs that composed the bulk of my non-fiction reading at the time.
A remaindered copy of Los Angeles County Assistant D.A. & Chief Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s exhaustive 1974 book ‘Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders’ certainly did the trick with regard to nailing down the essential facts of the matter (or, the officially recorded versions thereof, at least), but at the same time, the book’s mountain of dry, forensic detail raised as many questions as it answered, particularly with regard to the aspect of the whole business that most interested me – that being, the wider cultural and sociological circumstances that allowed these insane events to transpire in the first place.
When I learned of the existence of Ed Sanders’ ‘The Family’, I naturally supposed that an investigation undertaken by a member of The Fugs might shed a slightly different light on things, but sourcing a copy of Sanders’ book proved difficult at the time, and besides, I didn’t really have the stomach for reading two massive Manson tomes in quick succession.
Fast forward to 2019 however, and I’ve actually ended up with two paperback copies of ‘The Family’ (boring story not worth recounting here), so, with Charlie himself now finally six feet under and the ever-classy Quentin Tarantino apparently revving up his new, Manson-related movie for release to coincide the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders… the time finally seemed nigh to actually read the damned thing. (1)
Before continuing, I should issue a disclaimer to clarify that I generally take a dim view anything which seeks to glorify and/or obsess over the activities of real life serial killers. In and of himself, Charles Manson was little more than a psychotic confidence trickster and pimp, worthy of no more interest or respect than any other creep who has ever made a career out of exploiting human misery.
What fascinates me rather is the frequently extraordinary nature of the marginal – and otherwise largely undocumented - worlds in which Manson moved, and the unique socio-cultural circumstances that allowed him to achieve such remarkable success (in psycho cult leader terms, at least) within them.
Manson’s followers have often been likened to locusts in terms of their tendency to hoover up cash, drugs, vehicles, food, crash-space and favours from anyone who gave them even the slightest opportunity to do so, but in the same way, Charlie himself strikes me as a kind of cultural locust.
In addition to his extensive and well-documented connections to the music and movie industries (which we need not reiterate here), the wider scope of Manson’s activities also seemed to encompass various other cult religious groups, assorted ‘hippie’ communities (including the core San Francisco scene centred around The Diggers, The Grateful Dead and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic), several fringe Christian churches, Scientology and its shadier off-shoots, Anton Lavey’s comical Church of Satan, certain therapy / self help institutions, behavioural/hypnosis specialists and the formative roots of California’s New Age culture, along with the world of literary science fiction, prison sub-cultures (of both racist and homosexual varieties), college students and Berkeley activist groups, pirate radio broadcasters, underground and documentary filmmakers, the world of strip clubs, go-go dancers and ‘stag films’, outlaw motorcycle gangs, desert motor-racing enthusiasts, a wide variety of drug traffickers and manufacturers, the community of stuntmen and cowboys hanging around the Spahn Ranch, and even the culture of modern day gold prospectors and wilderness homesteaders whom The Family interacted with in Death Valley.
Excepting perhaps Dennis Wilson, I’m not aware that Manson ever hung out with any surfers (his activities being primarily directed in-land), and his virulent racism prohibited him from interacting with any black, Latino or Native American sub-cultures (despite his constant bleating about “Black Panthers”, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he was ever even in the same zip code as any of them) - BUT, that aside, it seems as if pretty much EVERYONE who has was cultivating a lifestyle outside of the square, mainstream norm in Southern California in the late 1960s was touched by the dirty fingers of Manson at some point, and the groups on the above list who had any credibility to begin with all found themselves degraded and damaged to some extent by the association. Meanwhile, he managed to feed something gleamed from every single one of them into the insane, indigestible gumbo of his eventual ‘Helter Skelter’ project.
How did so many doors open for him? That’s the question that fascinates. Purely in terms of his attempts to infiltrate the entertainment industry, the fact that a character this unkempt, criminally-minded and evidently deranged could manoeuvre himself into a position one step removed from figures of such diverse cultural import as Doris Day, Kenneth Anger, Nancy Sinatra and Neil Young, is remarkable. Even if he’d never turned to murder, Manson's exploits as a kind of Sunset Strip Rasputin would remain intriguing to those of us with an interest in this particular historical milieu.
And happily, as the back cover blurb for Panther’s UK paperback of ‘The Family’ strongly implies, these wider connections between Manson and the cultures he managed to infiltrate is very much the subject that Sanders gets stuck into herein, striking an extremely precarious balance between credibility and sensationalism in the process.
At the outset, I was slightly worried that, given his own sub-cultural affiliations, Sanders may have been tempted to take a more sympathetic line on Manson and his cronies than Bugliosi, but rest assured, he goes even harder on them than the Chief Prosecutor, if such is possible, with his pejorative-heavy descriptions of the Family members betraying the anger of a man who has seen the public image of the movement he tied himself to warped and discredited by the actions of a bunch of kill-crazy goons.
As anyone who taken even the slightest interest in this stuff will be aware, attempting to research the wider activities of the Manson Family is liable to lead one pretty quickly into a bottomless Death Valley black hole of mis/disinformation, rife with missing links, random dead ends and irresolvable contradictions. For each verifiable fact that can be established about The Family, there are a thousand rumours, exaggerations and outright lies to contend with.
As Sanders outlines in his introduction, his method for dealing with this was basically to trawl through the testimony of anyone and everyone who interacted with The Family and proved willing to talk about the matter (indeed, the author implies that his hippie/yippie ‘cred’ allowed him access to deeper sources than the authorities were able to tap), and then to cross-reference these interviews against a map and timeline outlining (as far as is possible) the locations and activities of the killers, their associates and (where relevant) their victims. Basically it seems, everything that proved both interesting and not verifiably untrue made it into the book, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
As we’ll discuss below, Sanders’ excursions into the further realms of speculation got him into no small amount of trouble, and the accuracy of more or less everything he throws into ‘The Family’ remains open to question, but, when you’re dealing with a set of witnesses who were likely various combinations of stoned, mentally ill, terrified, brain-washed and self-interested at the time of their testimony, I’d argue that he was probably right to retain as many of the “apparently”s, “allegedly”s and “it is reported that..”s as possible.
I do wish that Sanders had been a bit more forthcoming about his sources, and a bit more circumspect about the wilder rumours he offers up as ‘fact’, but at the same time, when it comes to defining the contours of the vast psychic maelstrom emanating from the undeniably grim realities of Hollywood, August 1969, I tend to think there is probably just as much value in hearing what people were saying about the events in their immediate aftermath, as in the cold hard facts themselves – and, so long as you can take him with a generous pinch of salt, Sanders’ book certainly provides an invaluable record of the former.
“It seems strange that all of a sudden they got in to wearing black capes. The girls made Charlie one that reached to the floor. With a flourish Manson tried it on, remarking how no one for sure now could see him when he creepy-crawled. Mary Brunner had a black cape. Sadie had a cape. Squeeky, according to Danny DeCarlo, used to dye clothing black in a pot in the Spahn Ranch kitchen.”
- p. 185
If nothing else, the version of Charlie presented here was certainly industrious. Whereas you’d naturally expect a messianic cult leader to express hostility toward competing gurus, Manson, in keeping with his locust-like M.O., often seems to have actively encouraged the crossover of personnel and ideas between his ‘Family’ and various other groupings of fringe whackos, and Sanders’ book is particularly strong when it comes to making the case that the Mansonites were not an isolated phenomenon, but merely the most high profile symptom of a entire network of similarly demented (and potentially dangerous) groups who seemed to flourishing on the far outskirts of American society.
It is reported, for instance, that in 1968 Manson was present as a “guest of honour” at a bizarre trial / exorcism rite undertaken by some kind of homosexual “death cult” operating out of a commune house (the Waller Street Ashram, otherwise known as the “Devil House”) in Haight Ashbury. During this alleged event, a young man identified only as “Pussycat” – the former lover of the cult’s boss, one Father P., who is later said to have visited Manson at Spahn Ranch - was put through a series of gruelling ordeals to try to save him from a supposed demonic possession orchestrated by a deserter from the group. “Poor Pussycat,” quoth Sanders. (2)
The author also spends a full chapter outlining the eye-opening history of an outfit known as the Solar Lodge of the O.T.O., an illegitimate off-shoot from the branch of the famed Crowleyite magickal order, which seems to have mutated by the late ‘60s into a controlling personality cult masterminded by a woman named Jean Brayton, the wife of a USC philosophy lecturer.
Like The Family, The Solar Lodge made their home on a remote desert ranch, and there seems to have been a clear crossover of ideas (and, Sanders implies, personnel) between Brayton’s group and the Mansonites. Brayton is reported for instance to have also preached a gospel of hard-line racism, predicting the approach of an apocalyptic race war and telling her followers they would need to hide-out in underground caverns to survive the resulting carnage (sound familiar?).
The control Brayton and her husband exercised over their followers seems to have been even more sadistic and authoritarian than that practiced by Manson, but, thankfully, The Solar Lodge was put on ice in July 1969, when their leadership was arrested en masse on child abuse charges, after some horse traders who had visited their ranch called the police, having observed what investigating officers later confirmed to be a six-year-old boy chained up in a six foot square wooden crate and left exposed to the desert sun – which gives us some insight into the kind of outfit these particular creepos were really operating.
It should be noted however that, despite the publicity surrounding this ‘boy in the box’ case, Sanders’ claims regarding Manson’s connections with the Solar Lodge seem never to have been verified elsewhere. A brief web search reveals that the Braytons – who were soon back on the street and heading up another neo-Crowleyite religious order after initially fleeing to Mexico to avoid the child abuse charges – actually initiated legal action against Sanders in 1973, reaching an out of court settlement which ensured that the entire chapter related to the Solar Lodge was excised from future editions of ‘The Family’. Presumably, Panther’s UK paperback, dated that year, must have made it to the printers shortly before this agreement came into effect. Lucky me! (3)
In parallel with the Solar Lodge, Sanders also raises the spectre of a particularly shady motorcycle gang known as the Satan’s Slaves, whose members are alleged to have provided the connecting tissue between the Solar Lodge, the Mansonites, the Ku Klux Klan and something the author refers to as the “Kirke Order of Dog Blood” (seriously, don’t ask). (4)
“There are subjects associated with the Manson case that are so soaked in evil that the mere knowing of them is like a nightmare,” Sanders states later in the book, kicking off a chapter in which he addresses rumours of unidentified Satanic groups (presumably, but not definitively, connected to the quasi-mythical Kirke mob referenced above) carrying out animal sacrifice / blood-drinking / orgy rituals on several remote West Coast beaches in 1968-69. Pretty hair-raising stuff.
Sanders goes on to print verbatim the transcript of an interview with a young male Manson Family hanger on, who claims to have been present at the Spahn Ranch when a set of films – apparently made by another cult group – were screened, depicting both the killing of domestic animals and the apparent decapitation of a human female, carried out in ritual circumstances on a nocturnal beach.
To be honest, the interviewee sounds pretty out of it, but Sanders insists that the information he provided on other subjects proved reliable, so – make of this what you will. As far as I’m aware, nothing concrete on any of this has ever come to light in subsequent decades, so by this stage, it’s nothing more than another sinister, apocryphal underground legend to add to the ever-growing bonfire of such, any grain of truth lost in a long-forgotten vortex of misfiled missing persons reports and blighted, undocumented lives.
In fact, Sanders seems to have had a real bee in his bonnet about the possibly that The Family may have filmed some of their own crimes (presumably using the equipment they stole from a CBS outside broadcast truck in early ’69?), repeatedly hinting that certain “uptight persons” are holding back information from him on this subject to protect their own skins. Whoever these “persons” were, they must have done a pretty good job, because again, fifty years on, this hypothetical footage remains elusive, insofar as I’m aware. (5)
Amid all this shady occult networking, I was surprised to note that Sanders’ book entirely overlooks Manson’s widely documented connections to that most infamous of Scientology spin-offs, The Process Church of the Final Judgement. The details of Manson’s interactions with The Process Church became public knowledge so early in the game that they even made it into New English Library’s otherwise largely fictitious Manson book (which I wrote about here), so it seemed surprising to me that Sanders would have ignored such a rich vein of High Weirdness.
Well, guess what – the first edition copy of ‘The Family’ consulted by writer John Anthony Day for this review, published in The Harvard Crimson magazine in 1971, apparently contained an extensive (indeed, the reviewer claims, excessive) amount of information concerning Manson’s connections to The Process. But, Day also notes that Robert De Grimston, founder of the Process Church, had launched a $1.5 million lawsuit against Sanders and his U.S. publishers. So, consulting the entirely Process-free 1973 U.K. paperback, we can probably guess how that worked out. (6)
Sanders’ narrative becomes even sketchier, and even more queasy, when he occasionally turns his attention to the wider scope of The Manson Family’s crimes – unsolved category. Basically this consists of a grim run down of unsolved killings (primarily rape-murders of young women, with a weirdo/mutilation element) which were committed during 1968-69, at points when Sanders’ research leads him to believe that members of The Family were in the immediate vicinity.
As you can well imagine, reading capsule summaries of these cold cases – each of them a potential mini-Black Dahlia, just waiting for the True Crime podcasters to descend – is a grim business, and I’m actually not sure which possibility is more disturbing to contemplate; that Tex, Clem, Charlie and the gang were occasionally enjoying a brutal “boy’s night out” as they drifted hither and yon across the West Coast, or alternatively, that these killings actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the easy scapegoat of Satanic psycho-hippies, instead simply representing yr average, run-of-the-mill crime stats for a large American state over a two year period, the faceless perpetrators simply blending back into the mainstream ebb-and-flow of society and keeping their heads down. (7)
Of all the legally dubious claims contained within ‘The Family’ however, Sanders perhaps sails closest to the wind when he isuggests a connection between Charles Manson and the Esalen Institute, a storied and influential spa resort and spiritual / therapeutic retreat based in Big Sur, which survives to this day.
These claims centre around the admittedly intriguing fact that, a week prior to the Tate-LaBianca killings, Manson seems to have jumped behind the wheel of a stolen Hostess Twinkie bakery truck and spent a weekend tooling around the Big Sur area – entirely on his own, unusually, although he did manage to recruit a new Family member / sex slave / punching bag (a pregnant seventeen-year-old named Stephanie) along the way.
Sanders believes that Manson travelled to Big Sur to visit Esalen, and indeed, various rumours to this effect swirl about the lower depths of online Manson-ology. This is significant due to the fact that Cielo Drive murder victim Abigail Folger was a frequent visitor to the Institute, and Sharon Tate may or may not have also attended at some point.
The suggestion of a tangible connection between Manson and his future victims is chilling enough in itself, but once again, Sanders over-plays his hand by stating, apparently apropos of nothing, that both Folger and Tate were present at Esalen on the same weekend that Manson allegedly visited – a suggestion which I’m sure is contradicted by the official record, if not elsewhere in this very book.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Esalen Institute have spent the past fifty years vigorously denying that Manson ever came anywhere near them (their statements on the matter have been pretty weird and contradictory however, but.. that’s another story), and indeed, Sanders reports that a cast iron veil of secrecy hangs over the whole affair, even stating that representatives of the Institute have issued what he describes as a “veiled snuff threat” against him, should he persist in pursuing the matter.
Was there another, subsequent edition of ‘The Family’ with the references to Esalen also redacted? I wouldn’t be surprised. (8)
Exactly how many re-drafts did the text of this book go through to avoid legal action, I wonder? Three, four? I mean, I’m guessing the Kirke Order of Dogs Blood were unlikely to put a call through to their lawyers, but even so, if Sanders took some of the stuff he reports here remotely seriously, he must have spent a few years in fear of waking up some dark night with the smell of axle grease in his nostrils and a curved blade pressed to his throat.
“There was one heavy problem facing Helter Skelter. By early 1969, the West Valley Station of the Los Angeles sheriff’s department had in use Bell-65 two-man helicopters with powerful searchlights installed that could light up a city block from 1000 feet in the air. Manson had various plans to deal with these helicopters. One was to attack the helicopter with magic. Another method was to thwart the helicopters at night by taping the headlights of the dune-buggy battalion with black tape, leaving only a small slit to allow a thin ray of light to escape, hopefully undetectable from the air.”
- p. 124
There is much more I could go on to say about other aspects of ‘The Family’; there is so much rich, soggy flesh here to pile onto the bones of the crazed milieu Manson and his followers operated within. Not least, the significant portion of the book which Sanders devotes to outlining the vast auto-theft / dune buggy manufacturing ring orchestrated by the Mansonites during their final months of freedom - an operation which proved necessary simply to keep the cult’s membership mobile and maintain supply lines across the incredibly inhospitable terrain which Charlie seemed increasingly fixated on forcing his followers to inhabit.
As is implied by the book’s memorable sub-title, Sanders details Manson’s apparent dream of drilling his Family into a unit of full on, ‘Road Warrior’ style desert outlaws, undertaking armed raids on the small towns bordering the Death Valley national monument, carrying off food and women like some kind of motorized neo-vikings, and bamboozling the cops from their impenetrable network of underground hidey-holes.
Even if they’d been left to their own devices however, the chances of The Family achieving this level of self-sufficient barbarity seems remote. Another thing that becomes clear from Sanders’ book is that, far from their rep as ruthless killers, these hapless hippies – many of them nursing either young children or severe mental illness by the time Helter Skelter took hold – were simply not prepared for the hardship of the desert.
As food and shelter became scarce, as Charlie became more violent and demanding, and as lines of communication between various outposts started to fray, The Family’s vital biker allies disappeared, and tertiary family members began drifting away at a steady rate, several of them walking vast distances across the desert in the search of help.
When a combination of armed police units and National Park officials finally began carrying out raids and pulling the Mansonites into custody on grand theft auto and arson charges in September/October 1969, the roving miscreants are reported to have been in an appalling physical condition, riddled with sores and parasites and caked in mud to protect themselves from the sun, the girls having tonsured and shaved their hair into bizarre, Mohawk-ish arrangements….. a far cry from the heady days of '68, when Gregg Jakobson and his fellow “golden penetrators” would cruise over to the group’s latest Hollywood hang-out to enjoy a few sexual favours in exchange for vague promises of booking Manson in for another studio session.
Where might this trip have ended, if the authorities hadn’t moved in to put a stop to it? Would the whitened bones of The Family’s hardcore members and assigned assassins now be buried in the sands of some distant canyon, as survivors of the nastier end of biker/field hippie sub-culture mutter darkly of their legend, and probable fate?
God knows, it certainly would have saved the State of California a lot of time and effort, and given a few generations of “transgressive culture” assholes and neo-nazis one less incarcerated icon to look up to.
Crazy, man. Crazy.
A song for the closing credits:
(1) I was initially shocked to hear that Tarantino (and, more to the point, the studio marketing bods backing him up) had decided to tie-in the release of their new movie with the anniversary of – uh - *a mass murder*, but cooled down after reflecting on Jello Biafra’s memorable answer to a question re: whether a Dead Kennedys concert on the anniversary of JFK’s shooting was in good taste: “well, the assassination wasn’t very tasteful either”.
(2) It is interesting to note that, despite his racism, misogyny and relentless enthusiasm for heterosexual congress, Manson never seems to have espoused any homophobic sentiments, having spent much of his of early life exploring the “other side of the tracks” whilst incarcerated.
(3) Those wishing to journey further down the Brayton / Solar Lodge rabbit hole are advised to begin here.
(4) Trying to google up some info on the Satan’s Slaves who were active in California in the mid/late ‘60s turns up practically nothing, beyond the knowledge that dozens of other motorcycle clubs have used the same name over the years (most prominently in the U.K.), and a reference to a California-based gang bearing that name who were “patched over” by (ie, incorporated into) The Hell’s Angels in 1978.
(5) Adult film fans with a stronger stomach for research than myself may wish to take note of the following paragraph, from p. 126: “Around this time [January 1969] Charlie and the girls made a pornographic movie by the swimming pool at 2600 Nicholas Canyon Road in the hills above Malibu. The producer, according to Los Angeles homicide officers, was Marvin Miller.” Your safety filter-free search engine of choice awaits.
(6) It seems ironic in the extreme that De Grimston should have filed for defamation against Sanders in the same year that The Process Church’s official magazine proudly published an article dictated by Manson from his prison cell, but Jesus/God/Lucifer/Satan moves in mysterious ways I suppose.
(7) The timeframe of Sanders’ book, it should be noted, discounts the inclusion of the several rather more compelling “officially unsolved” murder cases which sprang up in parallel with the trial of Manson and his co-defendants during 1970, including the violent death of at least one woman who severed ties with the remnants of The Family, and the mysterious disappearance of a controversial and reportedly incompetent attorney who for a time was representing several of the Mansonites in court… until he reportedly went on a camping holiday and never returned, delaying the trial for several weeks as a result. But, this isn’t a True Crime blog, so I’ll shut up now, and let you investigate further, should you wish to.
(8) If you’ve somehow found your way out of the other internet wormholes I’ve dumped on you so far in this post, take a leap into this one for everything you need to know re: Manson and Esalen. My own takeaway is that, compared to a lot of these rumours, the kernel of this one actually seems pretty plausible.
I mean, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Charlie may have called on the Institute, either to try to connive his way in as a guest lecturer/visiting guru, or to audition for someone involved in organising Esalen’s annual folk festival, and that he may have subsequently kept quiet about it to salve his ego after the Institute - known for its tight security and elitest attitude - presumably just told him to get lost.
From there, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that, in the depths of his enraged, stoned/paranoid mind, he might have pegged the Esalen crowd as the same “type” he encountered when he scoped out 10050 Cielo Drive in search of Terry Melcher? And, a week later, Helter Skelter time? We will likely never know, but hey - it’s a theory. What’s that? Oh yeah, NOT A TRUE CRIME BLOG. Sorry.