Charles Manson: How the LSD-Fuelled Murder Cult Killed Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate had everything. 26-year old sex symbol, fashion icon and star of cult classics like Valley Of The Dolls and Fearless Vampire Killers, the latter directed and co-starred by her husband, infamous auteur Roman Polanski. They’d been married for just over a year and she was already pregnant.

While their private life was as complex and unconventional as her husband’s films – rife with tabloid-baiting love affairs (We have a good arrangement,” Tate was once reported to have said. “Roman lies to me and I pretend to believe him.”) – they were part of the Hollywood elite.

American actress Sharon Tate (1943 - 1969), second wife of film director Roman Polanski, in London. She was murdered by followers of Charles Manson the notorious serial killer.  Original Publication: People Disc - HM0257   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
American actress Sharon Tate (1943 – 1969), second wife of film director Roman Polanski, in London. She was murdered by followers of Charles Manson the notorious serial killer. Original Publication: People Disc – HM0257 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Brutal Death of the Tate Party

The night of 8 August 1969 began as many might have, with Tate entertaining some of her closest friends in the couple’s Beverly Hills home – celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, would-be screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski and coffee heiress Abigail Folger.

Polanski was in London working on a film while scenes every bit as macabre as those in his films played out in his own home.

Tate was two weeks from giving birth when death strolled up the drive of 10050 Cielo Drive, tied her to Sebring by the neck and stabbed her 16 times, scrawling “Pig” in her blood on the front door. Sebring was shot, Frykowski was stabbed 51 times and shot twice, Folger was stabbed 28 times and 18-year-old student Steven Parent was shot and stabbed in his car for having the misfortune to pull up into the drive at the wrong time.

The next night, in a completely different part of town, supermarket exec Leno LaBianca and his wife, dress shop co-owner Rosemary LaBianca were tied together in their home, before being stabbed 67 times.

The word “War” was carved into the flesh of Leno’s abdomen, while “Rise” and “Death to pigs” were scrawled on the wall in blood, and “Helter Skelter” on the fridge door.

The Tate and LaBianca murders shocked America, but the man responsible – the prosecution’s Public Enemy Number 1, the man who dominated headlines and nightmares for much of 1969 and 1970 – had barely lifted a finger.

“These children that come at you with knives,” snarled Charles Manson, under the gaze of the judge and jury. “They are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up.”

The body of Sharon Tate is removed from her home
The body of Sharon Tate is removed from her home

The Making of a Maniac

Born 12 November 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio and rejected by his single mother, Manson bounced from reform schools to juvenile detention centres and back again for much of his childhood.

“I’m nobody. I’m a tramp, a bum, a hobo,” he said during a 1989 interview. “I’m a boxcar and a jug of wine, and a straight razor if you get too close to me.”
Graduating from arson and petty theft to armed robbery and running prostitutes, Manson caught a glimpse of the family he craved during a seven-year stay at McNeil Island, Washington and Terminal Island Penitentiary, California. There he discovered a clear hierarchy among the inmates, one that punished falsehood, and Manson was struck by this commitment to ‘truth’ and the seeds of a creed that would lead his devoted followers to kill were sown.

He also learnt guitar from another inmate and picked up a useful Hollywood contact, two interests which would later come to define his countercultural mystique, one that would place him right at the dark heart of 20th Century American folklore. He told his guitar teacher, depression-era mobster Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, that he would be bigger than The Beatles.

Already aggressively antisocial and arrogant, Manson was proving increasingly manipulative and charismatic too.

In 1967 he was released from Terminal Island and moved to San Francisco, still the capital of the hippie lifestyle, but one that was increasingly losing its way. In October the scene’s old guard held a mock funeral for the movement (complete with a 20-foot coffin that the ‘mourners’ dropped their beads into), but the truth is that anything pure and honest in the lifestyle died the second that Manson turned up.

Manson acolytes appear in court
Manson acolytes appear in court

The Thorns of Flower Power

In a city of drug-laced drop outs, transcendental meditation and doomsday cults, Vietnam War protest and Civil Rights marches, Manson scarcely stood out. The stars had aligned and suddenly this dangerous outsider had found himself in a world of outsiders.

Preaching the ‘truth’ he had learnt behind bars – dressed up with some of the Scientology he had studied in prison – he gathered disaffected young men and women from middle class broken homes under his banner. Like the pimp he had once been, Manson used sex to assert control – bedding the women and handing them out like gifts to the men.

The eight or nine members of the Manson Family – as they’d soon become known – hit the road in a school bus, touring California and increasingly finding themselves drawn to LA, where Charlie was able to indulge his musical ambitions. When The Beach Boys’ co-founder Dennis Wilson picked up two of the Family who were hitchhiking, the rest of the clan moved in and Manson recorded in his home (“He [had] drifted into crime,” Wilson said of his new friend in 1968, “but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas.”)

As the number of Family members in Wilson’s home doubled – and with it the costs, as the Beach Boy picked up the tab for their Gonorrhea treatment and for the uninsured car they totalled.

Only when he became steadily more violent and unstable did Wilson draw their friendship to a close by simply moving house and leaving Manson and his Family behind. Manson initially responded by leaving a single bullet with Wilson’s housekeeper as a wordless threat, but his real response may have come later – one of Wilson’s friends lived at 10050 Cielo Drive, the property later rented to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.


The Manson Family retreat at Spahn Ranch
The Manson Family retreat at Spahn Ranch

From Dangerous Outsider to Doomsday Cult

“I lived in Hollywood and I had all that,” Manson told NBC in 1987, “the Rolls Royce and the Ferrari and the pad in Beverly Hills. I had the surf board and The Beach Boys [and] the Neil Diamond [and] the Elvis Presley’s best of bestlies and all them guys…

“So I went through all that and I seen that was a bigger prison than the one I just got out of and I really didn’t care to go back in prison. See, prison doesn’t begin and end at the gate. Prison is in the mind. It’s locked in one world that’s dead and dying, or it’s open to a world that’s free and alive.”

From the fringes music industry to the wreckage of the movie business, in 1968 the Manson Family moved into an Old West movie set called Spahn’s Movie Ranch – used in TV series like The Lone Ranger, Bonanza and Zorro – and a Death Valley retreat called Barker Ranch

Now completely isolated from the outside world, Manson led his followers through endless play-acting scenarios plucked from their favourite movies and his own diseased imagination. In this rural idyll of free love and fantasy, he began reconstructing his followers’ personalities, immersing them into his worldview with imagined scenarios and LSD sessions where the Family would look on through their mind-mangling fug as he re-enacted the crucifixion or barked “Would you die for me?”

His pick’n’mix philosophy that once emphasised the power of love and oneness soon morphed into moral ambiguity where there was no right and no wrong, and life was no different from death. With the assassination of Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr the previous year, Manson became increasingly fearful of a ‘race war’ between black Americans and white Americans, and incorporated this new mania into his increasingly apocalyptic belief system – helped on its way by The Beatles’ recently released ‘White Album’.

The lyrics to ‘Helter Skelter’ became gospel – indeed he insisted they contained coded messages, and the band were part of “the soul” – and the Manson Family now expected to hide out the ‘race war’ at the bottom of the ‘Helter Skelter’, emerging after the destruction of ‘the white race’ to rule over the survivors.

Manson Family ringleader 'Tex' Watson at the ranch
Manson Family ringleader ‘Tex’ Watson at the ranch

The Bloodshed Begins

After shooting an African-American drug dealer (Manson didn’t kill him, but he remained convinced he had done) who he believed was connected to the militant Black Panthers, Manson expected ‘race war’ to erupt sooner rather than later. The Family began to patrol their Death Valley ranch by night, fearful of retaliation.

“Charlie was always preaching love,” recalled Family member Paul Watkins in 1974. “Charlie had no idea what love was. Charlie was so far from love it wasn’t even funny. Death is Charlie’s trip. It really is.”

On 25 July 1969, the Family’s unhinged campaign of violence escalated when three members held a mutual friend Gary Hinman hostage, convinced he had inherited money. Manson turned up and slashed Hinman’s ear with a sword, firing the starting pistol on murder as Family member Bobby Beausoleil stabbed Hinman to death, writing “Political piggy” on the wall and drawing a Black Panther paw on the wall in his blood.

Beausoleil was the first to kill and the first to be caught, getting picked up by the police on 6 August while driving Hinman’s car with the murder weapon in the boot. Two days later Manson told the family “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.”

Turning to his lieutenant Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, he ordered him to gather up Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel, and pay a little visit to 10050 Cielo Drive.

“Totally destroy everyone in[side],” Manson commanded them, “as gruesome as you can.”

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