Charles Manson, one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history, died late Sunday at the age of 83, after four and a half decades in prison.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Manson died of natural causes at a hospital in Kern County.
Manson and six of his associates were jailed in 1971 for a series of seven grisly murders in the Los Angeles area over two nights in 1969. Three other of his followers were later jailed for crimes linked to Manson.
Manson was born to an unwed mother in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934. He spent his entire life in and out of detention for various crimes. He started in his teenage years with sentences for burglary and armed robbery. As an adult, the diminutive Manson was believed to be illiterate, but the chronically unemployed, self-styled songwriter won followers with good looks and charisma. In the mid-1960s he became the leader of a small cult known as the Manson Family whom he led to commit the murders of August 1969.
Manson claimed to be influenced by the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.” He said he believed the song alluded to an impending race war that would be brought about by the murders he and his followers committed.
Manson’s most well-known victim was the American actress Sharon Tate, who was 26 years old and eight and a half months pregnant when she was stabbed to death by the Manson gang at the home she shared with film director husband Roman Polanski in Benedict Canyon, California. Also killed at the same location were Tate’s acquaintances Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, as well as Steven Parent, a friend of the house caretaker. The murder scene was left in a gruesome mess; one of the Manson gang left the word “pig” written in blood on the front door.
The following night, six members of the Manson gang broke into the Los Feliz (L.A.) home of a wealthy supermarket executive, Leno LaBianca, and killed him and his wife Rosemary. The two sets of murders were not connected by authorities until weeks later.
After law enforcement authorities identified the Manson gang members by their fingerprints, Manson and his followers were tried in a spectacular court proceeding the following year. Manson attempted to represent himself, which resulted in a number of flamboyant legal motions. Ultimately he was assigned an attorney and responded by carving an “X” into his own forehead to demonstrate his displeasure. His followers copied him, disfiguring their own faces as well.
Manson later converted his “X” into a swastika, the symbol of the white-supremacist Nazi Party of Germany.
Manson and his followers were each given death sentences in the 1971 verdict, but the state of California outlawed the death penalty the following year — so most of the Manson family members have remained behind bars despite dozens of parole hearings. Manson himself had been denied parole 12 times.
Manson’s death leaves five members of the Manson Family still in prison, serving out their life sentences: Robert Beausoleil, Bruce Davis, Charles “Tex” Watson, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel. All are in their 60s and 70s. A sixth member, Susan Atkins, died in prison, of brain cancer, in 2009.
At least three other Manson associates have been paroled after serving time for crimes linked to Manson.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was paroled in 2009 after serving 33 years for an attempt on the life of U.S. President Gerald Ford.
Sandra Good was paroled in 1985 after serving nine years for sending threatening letters to more than 150 corporate executives. And Steve Grogan, convicted for helping Manson and Davis kill a ranch hand in 1969, also was paroled in 1985, after drawing a map that helped authorities locate the body of the victim, eight years after the murder.