Charles Manson returned to headlines on Monday, after decades in prison, with the news that he and Afton Elaine “Star” Burton, a 26-year-old who has been corresponding with him for nearly a decade, have secured a marriage license.
As Manson returns to public consciousness, so do his crimes: some physical similarities between Burton and the Manson Family followers of earlier years have been noted, and his relationship with the much younger woman generally calls to mind the enthralling power that Manson was once said to have, a power that captivated the attention of both his adherents and the appalled nation alike.
But Burton was not even born when the Manson family first made headlines, almost half a century ago. So who exactly is Charles Manson and what did he do?
It was 45 years ago that TIME first reported on the man it dubbed “The Demon of Death Valley.” A “band of hippies” had broken into a Los Angeles house and murdered five people, including the actress Sharon Tate, who was nearly nine months pregnant at the time. “Please let me have my baby,” Tate reportedly pleaded before being stabbed 16 times.
The killers were, the magazine reported, the “zombie-like followers” of a “semi-religious hippie drug-and-murder cult” — the leader of which was Manson, then 35 years old. Manson was not one of the killers himself, though he was charged with both murder and conspiracy for having ordered the acts (because, police suggested early on, the previous occupant of the house had once refused to record a song by Manson). The crimes were proof of the remarkable influence that he had acquired in just a few short years:
During the 1970 Tate-LaBianca murder trial — a months-long ordeal so called because it focused on the killings of Tate and those with her, as well as another double murder that took place the following night — further details of life with Manson began to emerge. Prosecutors claimed that Manson was inspired by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and that his goal was to make the white population believe that a “violent black uprising” had begun. The star witness for the state was Linda Kasabian, a defector from the Manson family who was granted immunity in exchange for testifying about what she had seen.
Manson, for his part, attempted to get the court to agree to let him represent himself, with the idea that his three co-defendants — young women whom he had told to actually commit the murders — would testify that they had indeed committed the crimes but that Manson was innocent. He had not told them to kill anyone, he would later say; rather, society had. A judge decided that Manson was incompetent to do represent himself, that he must take on an actual lawyer. In the end, Manson and the three women did not testify in front of a jury at all. All four were found guilty of first-degree murder. Manson would not allow any of them to plead insanity.
During the sentencing portion of the trial, however, followers like Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme — who was not accused in the Tate-LaBianca murders but would, a few years later, attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford — did speak up to describe life among the Family. They told of how “Charlie” was both a father figure and a lover to them, and described seeing Manson reanimate dead animals. The testimony also included an alternate motive, the idea that the murders would suggest that the state had been off-base in its findings about a separate but similar killing, of which another Family member had previously been convicted. Susan Denise Atkins, one of the convicted killers, also described the night of the Tate killings in vivid and gruesome detail, as TIME reported:
Manson and the three women were sentenced to death, but California abolished its death penalty before the executions could be carried out. And, despite having been denied parole several times of the years, Manson has never completely receded from the public eye — as this week’s news once again proves.
See more photos of Charles Manson and his followers here, at LIFE.com.
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