LOS ANGELES — Other killers snuffed out far more lives than Charles Manson did in 1969. Yet he has endured for nearly a half century as the personification of evil, even in an age in which mass shootings leave dozens dead at a time.
Manson, the hippie cult leader who died Sunday at 83, horrified America more than a generation ago with the way he seemed to have turned young people murderously against everything their parents cherished. That horror continued long after he had been locked up, in large part because of the demonic image that crime experts say he cultivated with his bizarre behavior and his searing, wild-eyed gaze.
“He had that maniacal look that was always so striking,” said James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, calling Manson the most notorious killer of all time. “Manson was memorable: his voice, his appearance, his mannerisms, as well as his crimes and the ‘crazy Charlie’ act he put on.”
Manson was convicted of orchestrating the slaughter of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six other people over two successive August nights in Los Angeles. Prosecutors said he was trying to foment a race war, an idea he supposedly got from a misreading of the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.”
He was sentenced to death, but that was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972.
The murders were horrific in their brutality. Tate, a beautiful 26-year-old actress known for “Valley of the Dolls,” was stabbed and hung from a rafter in her living room. The intruders scrawled “Pigs” and a misspelled “Healter Skelter” in the victims’ blood.
To his long rap sheet, historians might add this: accessory to the murder of the 1960s. The Manson family’s crimes, along with the deadly violence that erupted later in 1969 during a Rolling Stones concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, seemed to mark the demise of the hippie ideal of peace and love.
Manson’s notoriety developed in part because he played an integral role ending the mood of wishfulness and illusion that marked that era, said Todd Gitlin, author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.” Although Manson wasn’t typical of the counterculture, he could be seen as the poster child for violence that some associated with the anti-establishment movement.
Gitlin said he and others in the underground press were as aghast at the crimes as those in the so-called silent majority, which President Richard Nixon had dubbed the older generation.
“The country was deeply divided,” Gitlin said. “One of the things that deeply divided it was culture. So Manson was a gift to those Americans who felt that once you escaped from button-down America, you were prone to become a dangerous sicko.”
Although Manson didn’t carry out the murders himself, he has managed to endure in the annals of American crime as the cult leader who persuaded middle-class kids to kill for him.
“Manson was a manipulator. In a sense, he was a puppeteer,” said Jeff Guinn, author of “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson.” “Manson would seem to be all kinds of things to all kinds of people, but nearly all of it was an act.”
Had Manson been executed, he might barely be remembered today, Guinn said.
Instead, with a healthy assist from news coverage, he was able to capture the public’s attention every few years when he got a parole hearing or in the occasional interviews he granted, in which he often put on his “crazy Charlie” act, crime experts said.
With the swastika he carved in his forehead plainly visible, Manson crossed his eyes to make funny faces, shouted theatrically and occasionally uttered gibberish.
While he spoke earnestly about a troubled childhood and professed his innocence, he also made grandiose and odd remarks. He claimed in an interview that he created God and said they were best friends. He also said if he started murdering people, no one would be left but then, cryptically, said that his children were coming.
When ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked if the world would forget him, he said, “Forget, forgot, forget, forgot” and then muttered nonsense.