Charles Manson, a cult leader whose crimes loom large in the American psyche, died in the early hours of Monday, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 83.
Manson rose to notoriety as the leader of the Family, which TIME described in 1969 as a “semi-religious hippie drug-and-murder cult.” With powerful charisma and a unique blend of ideas culled from religion, science fiction and the occult, he amassed this band of followers from San Francisco and Los Angeles before establishing a compound in Death Valley. “Among the greasewood and rattlesnakes, they holed up in run-down cabins and led an indolent, almost savage existence, singing Manson’s songs, dancing, swimming in a small pool, stealing cars for cash and picking through garbage for food,” TIME wrote. “Manson reportedly held an almost hypnotic spell over his followers, who called him ‘God’ and ‘Satan.'” He convinced his followers that a race war would soon rock America, and that the Family would emerge victorious and dominant.
In the late ’60s, Manson ordered his followers to carry out a number of murders, most notably that of Sharon Tate. The wife of Roman Polanski was almost nine months pregnant when she and several guests were killed in her home in a bloodbath that shocked the nation.
Manson was already a known criminal before this string of brutal murders: the son of a teen mom who was in and out of jail, he accumulated a long record that included everything from petty larceny and burglary to car theft and armed robbery. His road to cult leadership began in 1967 when he was released from a stint in prison.
While he himself was not present for the killings, he was charged with both murder and conspiracy and sentenced to death — though that was commuted to life in prison when a California court temporarily struck down the death penalty in 1972.
Manson has repeatedly returned to the spotlight over the years, attracting attention whenever he came up for parole (always denied) or when he sought a marriage license with a young correspondent. His life and crimes have been documented and analyzed in numerous books and movies as generations of Americans have tried to understand what could motivate such senseless violence—and how one man could so maniacally brainwash a group of young people, as TIME wrote in 2012. “Carving x’s in their foreheads? No problem. Shaving their heads to show solidarity with their leader? Done. Blocking entrances to the courthouse, chanting, singing, treating the trial — and, by extension, the murders themselves — like a trip to the amusement park? For the Manson clan, it was all grist for their cheery, death-adoring psychopathy.”
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