Fifty years ago yesterday, on July 27, 1969, a crime spree in the Los Angeles, California area began that would scar America forever and which continues to resonate in our history to the present day. On that day Gary Hinman, a peaceful and good-hearted music teacher, was brutally murdered by the hippie cult followers of one Charles Milles Manson, perhaps the most infamous criminal in U.S. history. Over the next month, many more innocent people would die at the command of Manson, a delusional racist lunatic with an eerie hold on his followers, most of them very young women. The story of these crimes and their victims will be told many times over the next week. This article is in small part a retelling, but mostly a re-visitation, in terms of time, space and historical memory, of these awful crimes and what they mean half a century later.
My job as a historian is to make sense of the past, and to try to put it into the service of modern day problems. I confess that the story of Manson, his victims and his followers is a tough historical problem–the lessons we can and should draw from it are difficult to parse out and make sense of. What is clear is that we, as a society, still have to reckon with the horrible things that happened in the L.A. area in July and August 1969. Families still grieve; some of the perpetrators are still alive and in jail. Though it was 50 years ago, the wounds of these crimes still haven’t healed.
One of the things I do in presenting history is to ground it to real-world locations. This is what I call “geohistory,” and if you’re familiar with my classes and webinars, you know all about it. In revisiting the Manson case, I’ve collected for those who are interested a group of relevant locations. You can see these on Google Maps and the images embedded are photospheres and/or Street Views. I use geohistory because it really brings the past to life if you can see where it happened.
Former Gary Hinman House, Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles
Coordinates: 34.102386, -118.621095
Musician and devout Buddhist Gary Hinman was the first of the Family’s victims. He lived here in this house on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which was much smaller then, but portions of what you can see through the trees apparently existed in 1969. What preceded his murder on July 27, 1969 is unclear, but what we do know is that Manson slashed Hinman with a sword, and later a Manson Family member, Bobby Beausoliel, stabbed him to death, with the participation of other Family members such as Susan Atkins, and allegedy at Manson’s telephoned direction: “You know what to do.” The killers were apparently after his cars which they stole and drove away from the scene. Hinman lay dead for several days before being discovered. The horror of what happened in this house is almost unfathomable. Beausoliel is still in prison; Susan Atkins died in 2009.
Former Dennis Wilson House, Sunset Boulevard, Pacific Palisades
Coordinates: 34.047070, -118.512067
Much ink has been spilled about why the murders happened. Some contend it was part of a delusional plot to ignite a race war that Manson called “Helter Skelter”; others claim it had more to do with drugs than anything else; others insist the killings subsequent to July 27 were meant to demonstrate that Bobby Beausoliel, already in jail for the Hinman murder, was supposedly innocent. But zooming out, what it really had to do with was fame and stardom. Manson, a mediocre guitar player and an even worse songwriter, had it in his head that he was going to be a rock star on par with the Beatles. When this failed to materialize, he made it everyone else’s problem by sending his minions out to kill people.
The Hollywood fame connection to Manson goes through Dennis Wilson, one of the Beach Boys, who in 1968 and 1969 lived in the mansion behind this simple tree-shrouded gate on Sunset Boulevard. It was here in 1968 that Wilson took in a number of members of the Manson family, and also wrote songs with Charlie, a few of which were recorded. It wasn’t all peace and love. Manson and his groupies fleeced Wilson out of $100,000 and wrapped his sports car around a tree. Increasingly nervous about the hippies he’d invited in, Wilson eventually moved out and just left them here. This story is documented in the excellent podcast You Must Remember This, the series titled “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.” Wilson died, homeless and alcoholic, in a drowning accident in 1983.
Former Spahn Ranch Location, Los Angeles, CA
Coordinates: 34.271416, -118.616798
This was, for a while, the kill cult’s home base, an old Western-style ranch in the hills above L.A. where cheap westerns were filmed in the heyday of Western movies and particularly TV. The ranch was owned by an old timer named George Spahn. The geography of this area shows just how diverse Los Angeles is; this location is less than a mile from the rim of the great basin, almost totally urbanized, that contains the city and all its many neighborhoods and suburbs. Yet the Manson Family lived up here, amid fake storefronts and saloons, as if they were the only people in the world. Notice the cave you see in the photosphere view at lower right. There are photos of Manson Family members, especially the girls, playing around in that cave, smiles on their faces. It was from here, on August 8 and 9, 1969, that the cultists sallied forth in an old Ford to commit some of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century in the great urban basin below.
Spahn Ranch has not existed for a long time. It burned down even before the trials were over. Its heyday was done even before the Mansonites got there.
Near Former 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills (Polanski-Tate Residence)
Coordinates: 34.093905, -118.432480
Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime book about the murders, begins with these words: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.” This view shows you what way down the canyon looked like. The coordinates I’ve linked here resolve to a large house just above this location. Though that is the location where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voijtek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent were murdered on August 8, 1969, it’s not the house. The real one was torn down in 1994, mainly because of the notoriety and the intangible hangover of the horrors that happened there. Industrial-metal musician Trent Reznor was one of the house’s last owners. Even he got bad vibes there.
Manson murdered mainly by giving orders, but he did visit this house in person. He came to the door earlier in 1969, while Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski lived there; he’d also been there a year previously when it was owned by Terry Melcher, a friend of Dennis Wilson’s. He also seems to have visited it the night of the murders, after Sharon Tate, Tex Watson and the killers had left and returned to Spahn Ranch. Whatever he saw there dissatisfied him. The next night, on the next foray out to destroy innocent people for his delusional ends, he insisted he come along so he could show his hippie killers what to do.
Former La Bianca House, Waverly Drive, Los Feliz
Coordinates: 34.113650, -118.273162
This house apparently looks exactly the way it did on August 9, 1969 when Manson and his followers drove up, eager to kill “piggies” in such a way that it would shock the world and ignite a race war, or so Manson said. Leno La Bianca was born in this house–he bought it from his mother–and also died here. His death, and that of his wife Rosemary, was so excruciating it cannot be comprehended. Manson had already left, after instructing his followers what to do. The killers, two girls and “Tex” Watson, showered, ate watermelon and drank chocolate milk in the kitchen while their victims lay dead and horribly mutilated in the other rooms. It seems hard to believe something so depraved happened in this nice unassuming location.
What drove these young people to such butchery? America was a bit insane in 1969, reeling from Vietnam, changing cultural mores and social dislocation. But that’s not the only explanation. Something was fundamentally broken in these people. Manson was a monster, but not necessarily a Svengali. Fifty years later, explanations are still hard to come by.
Barker Ranch, Death Valley, CA
Coordinates: 35.859708, -117.088292
The murders happened toward the end of a downward spiral for Manson and his Family. Increasingly boxed in by police, their enemies in the underworld and even rival cult leaders, Charlie eventually brought his dwindling brood to this, one of the most remote and forbidding locations in America. Barker Ranch had no running water or electricity and it was barely possible to reach it by road. It took the authorities months to finger Manson and gang for the murders, but they were closing in on them for a host of lesser crimes, including running a car theft ring. The day the cops raided Barker Ranch, October 12, 1969, was the last day Charles Manson took a breath as a free man. He was charged with the murders while in custody for other crimes, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.
I’ve heard the stories of some people who subsequently went to Barker Ranch because of its notoriety. Most of them, having been there, never want to go back. It seems like a truly hostile and forbidding place. It’s now fallen into ruin, not that it was ever much else. Just looking at it on Google Maps makes me shudder.
Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, CA
Coordinates: 33.989644, -118.386711
Various Hollywood and showbiz celebrities are buried here, at the Holy Cross Cemetery; Jimmy Durante is among them. So is Sharon Tate Polanski, who was 8 months pregnant when her killer, Manson cultist Susan Atkins, refused to listen to her pleas for her life. The crimes still haunt the families of the victims. Sharon’s sister Debra has been tireless in attending parole hearings for the Manson criminals still alive, urging that they never be released. Thus far she’s been mostly successful. Tate’s family is not the only one. Steven Parent, an 18-year-old kid with no connection to the celebrity victims, was killed at Cielo Drive after trying to sell a clock radio to the teenage caretaker on the premises. Parent’s family has had to live with the loss of their son for five decades. The emotional suffering of the families dwarfs the already incomprehensible and horrific physical suffering of those who were killed. Violence is a moral toxin that continues to poison lives long after the violent acts have receded into history.
California Institute for Women, Chino, CA
Coordinates: 33.95, -117.635
We are now far enough away in time from the murders to be in the era when the survivors and the perpetrators are dying off. Manson croaked in November 2017 at California State Prison in Corcoran; nobody claimed his body. Susan Atkins is dead. Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten are still alive and are housed here, at the California Institute for Women. They’ve been in prison longer than Nelson Mandela, and longer than any Nazi war criminal. They long ago renounced Manson and his sick ideas. They were all supposed to have been executed, but a Supreme Court case in 1972 caused their sentences to be commuted to life in prison.
As awful as their crimes were, these women were so young and so terribly misguided when they committed them. I wonder how many times Krenwinkel and Van Houten have relived the events of that terrible night, now 50 years ago. I don’t feel competent to judge where punishment should end and forgiveness, if it ever comes, should begin in their cases. I don’t envy anyone–a judge, a parole officer, a politician–who does have to make that call. All I know is that many lives were destroyed during that awful bloody summer, and we still don’t know what to make of what happened.
Joel Pugh Murder Site, Talgarth Hotel, London, UK
Coordinates: 51.490460, -0.208226
There are still loose ends and questions in the Manson case. This place probably looks almost exactly the way it did on December 1, 1969, when a maid discovered a dead body in one of the rooms. A young American man, Joel Pugh, apparently a hippie, had been killed by a throat slash and bloody razor blades were found lying around him. Pugh was the husband of Sandra Good, Manson’s most loyal follower and one of the few who refused to renounce him. As late as 2001 she was still running pro-Manson websites. Pugh’s death was ruled a suicide by London police, but that strains credulity. Manson cultist Bruce Davis, who is still alive and still in jail, was in London at the time and is suspected of involvement.
How many more lives did the Manson Family destroy? We may never know, and now, more than 50 years since the cult’s foundation, there’s nothing new left to go on. Other bodies were found in the late 1960s and early 1970s and possibly linked to the group; one of Manson’s confirmed victims, Donald Shea, was not found until 1985. Are there more? Will they ever be found?
Charles Manson, his cult and his crimes occupy a dark space in American history in that transitional era of the late ’60s. You can identify trends in culture and society that gave rise to him, and certainly, as Joan Didion wrote (echoed by others), his crimes seem to have deeply affected many who lived through that era, to the point where you can say they “ended” the ’60s. As I said at the outset, Manson is a strange problem in history. He’s not a fluke by any means, but he’s not part of a clearly identifiable historical process either. We should at least be glad that we no longer live in a time when he exists. But people will still be talking about these events 50 years from now, of that I’m sure.