From Hard Luck to Horror Show


Charles Manson, Crime & Punishment Museum, Washington D.C.. Photograph by Sarah Stierch

From London Review of Books:

The Ketchup Bottle Holdup was the point where the five-year-old Manson’s life veered from hard luck to horror show. His mother and uncle went to prison in Moundsville, West Virginia. He was taken in by his aunt Glenna, in nearby McMechen, where his uncle Bill was a railroad engineer. On the boy’s first day at school, his teacher humiliated him and he ran home crying. His uncle wouldn’t stand for such sissyish behaviour, and sent him back the next day in a dress of his cousin Jo Ann’s to teach him a lesson. Jo Ann (not her real name) is one of Guinn’s sources, and she relates tales of the boy’s constant lying, his attempts to attack her with a sickle and later to steal her father’s gun, and his talent as a piano player and singer of hymns. He was a charmer, but also selfish and disloyal, a whiner and a snitch. Kathleen was paroled after three years and took her son back to Charleston. She married a circus hand she met at an AA meeting, though neither of them quit drinking, and he kept at it heavily. They drifted to Indianapolis. The boy’s truancy and shoplifting put a strain on the marriage, so Kathleen decided to send him to a Catholic school for delinquents. A psychological examination found he had ‘a tendency toward moodiness and a persecution complex’. He ran away, was caught robbing a store, and was sent to Boys Town in Omaha. The subject of a 1938 Spencer Tracy movie, it had a reputation for turning troublemakers into nice young men, and was the gentlest place he could have hoped for. But after four days, he and a boy called Blackie Nelson broke out, stole a car, got hold of a gun, robbed a grocery store and a casino, and headed for Peoria.

There the pair became apprentices to Nelson’s uncle, a professional thief. But within two weeks Manson was caught robbing an office, and sent to a tough reform school in Plainville, Indiana. Punishments included whippings with paddles, ‘duck walking (staggering painfully about with hands clasping ankles) and table bending (arching backward with shoulder blades barely touching the surface of a table; just holding the position for a few moments ensured that a boy could not walk normally for hours afterward).’ He was 13 years old and a runt: he later claimed that a staff member encouraged other students to rape him, a claim the sceptical Guinn credits. His method of fending off aggressors was to play the ‘insane game’, screeching and flapping his arms. He tried to escape at least six times, and made it out twice: the first time in a mass breakout that ended for Manson when he was caught robbing an Indianapolis petrol station; the second time, now 16, he was stopped in a stolen car at a roadblock in Utah. Crossing state lines made it a federal rap, and it landed him at the National Training School for Boys in Washington, DC. His IQ was found to be above average (109), and he was judged to be ‘aggressively anti-social, at least in part because of “an unfavourable family life, if it can be called family life at all”’. A psychologist who examined him wrote: ‘One is left with the feeling that behind all this lies an extremely sensitive boy who has not yet given up in terms of securing some kind of love and affection from the world.’ Guinn takes this as an instance of Manson conning his way into a transfer to a cushier (less brutal) institution. He got it, as well as a scheduled parole hearing. But a month before the hearing he was found raping another boy while holding a razor to his throat. He was moved to a maximum security institution. His wardens now believed that he was ‘criminally sophisticated’ and ‘shouldn’t be trusted across the street’. A further reversal in behaviour persuaded them to let him out two years before his release was required. He was 19.

He went back to McMechen to live with his aunt and uncle. He was ostracised by the clean-cut town youth, who saw him as a degenerate freak when he bragged about his crimes and about ‘shooting up’ in the clink. He was somebody people found repulsive or irresistible. A railroad man called Cowboy Willis took a shine to him and introduced him to his daughter Rosalie. ‘It was an unlikely romance,’ Guinn writes, ‘between a cute popular girl and the town pariah.’ They married, Manson bought his first guitar, and he worked at a racetrack sweeping out stables. On Sundays he went to church with his grandmother. Rosalie was soon pregnant, and the bills started to be a strain. Stealing cars was Manson’s solution, but he had to do it across the river in Ohio to avoid reprisals from the local mob. And he was growing restless. His mother and her husband had moved to California. He wanted to join them. He stole a Mercury, and took his wife to LA.

“The way out of a room is not through the door”, Christian Lorentzen, London Review of Books