Blind, broke, 79-years old and sleeping with the Manson Girls

The story of rancher George Spahn

In the 2019 Quentin Tarantino film “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” stuntman Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) drives a runaway girl to Spahn Ranch, a derelict 500-acre ranch in Simi Valley, California. Booth recognizes the place because he had stuntwork at Spahn Ranch during its heyday, shooting Western films and television programs. Now, it’s looking seedy at best, a group of filthy hippies are moping around the place and the owner, George Spahn is nowhere to be seen.

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A film still from “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” featuring Brad Pitt’s Frank Booth talking to Bruce Dern’s George Spahn

So Booth knocks on the door of Spahn’s shabby house and is greeted by a slit-eyed ginger-headed waif of a girl, distrustful, almost a barracuda in her watchfulness over George’s domain. That girl, portrayed by actress Dakota Fanning, is none other than Lynette Alice Fromme — aka Squeaky Fromme, one of the young people so devoted to dangerous cult leader Charles Manson that she later attempts the assassination of U.S. President Gerald R. Ford.

Booth manages to get inside the house to chat with old George, who is blind and napping in his bedroom. The old codger is clearly not well cared for, and seems to know little about what is happening at his property. He and Cliff reminisce about the Golden Era of Westerns, and Booth departs (after beating the beejezus out of Manson Family member Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan) for slashing the tires of his car.

I have issues with OUATIH as a film (particularly the liberties Tarantino took with the facts) but on this part, he got mostly right: someone should have been looking after George.

I thought I’d share here a little bit about the history of George Spahn. This is the first of a trilogy of stories about the man who was one of the primary benefactors of the notorious Manson Family.

George Christian Spahn was born February 11, 1889 in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. His father Christian Collier Spahn died in 1890, when his son was an infant — he was kicked to death by a horse. Spahn’s mother Wilhelmine Specht was born in Pennsylvania to German immigrants. She remarried a man named Charles Ray eight years after she was widowed. She had four children with her first husband, including a baby girl born after Christian’s untimely death, and Wilhelmine had several more children with her second husband. Poor George had to quit school after third grade to work the family farm.

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George Spahn in 1969 with one of his cherished chihuahuas

By 30, he owned his own 86-acre property with cows and horses. Spahn then married his housekeeper, Martha Virginia Lynn (maiden name Greenholz), the widow of a racecar driver with a young child. George and Martha had another ten kids together, most named for George’s favorite horses. During the Depression he decided to move the family to California and gave up the dairy business to focus on raising horses. Spahn rented pony rides for kids’ parties and horses to film studios, mainly for westerns. He even acted in one film, an Arabian desert drama.

In 1948 he bought the 500-acre Chatsworth ranch that later bore his name, from William S. Hart, a silent era cowboy star. Spahn also divorced his wife that year. Soon, there was a new gal at George’s side.

Her name was Ruby Pearl and she was from Sandstone, Minnesota. A farm girl lured to Tinseltown by show business dreams, Ruby married a Lockheed engineer and she rode horses in the circus, brandishing pistols like a flapper-era Annie Oakley. She and her husband had no children and divorced. She then married a wrestler named Molinaro. Ruby became an animal trainer, working with dogs and ponies for circuses and television. That’s when she met George Spahn. When he bought the Chatsworth ranch, he hired her to help with his animals. He was already close to blind by this point. Ruby decided it was just as important to keep an eye on George and his land, as the animals. By the late Sixties, George completely relied on Ruby to run Spahn Ranch.

But sometimes George wondered just how loyal Ruby was. His eyesight was now completely gone and when she led him around the yard, he often thought she wasn’t holding tight enough to his arm or she wasn’t telling him things he ought to know. He wondered why the movie studios weren’t coming around anymore. Their personal relationship had deteriorated as well. Now, Ruby was just someone who worked the ranch by day and went to her own home at night.

Chatsworth is 36 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. Once home to several Native American tribes, the region was settled by Spaniards and Mexicans as the Mission San Fernando. After Mexico’s 1821 War of Independence from Spain, the missions were redistributed to the United States. Chatsworth became the single largest land grant in California, in 1873.

In 1876, the Southern Pacific Railroad opened a tunnel through the Newhall Pass (which separates the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains), establishing rail connections from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The terrain is more desert than Los Angeles proper, which made it an attractive locale in the early days of Hollywood for western film sets. Spahn Ranch was one of several locations in Chatsworth that provided a backdrop for the movie studios. Iverson Movie Ranch, another 500-acre property in Chatsworth, was shooting silent films as early as 1912, eventually the home of several long-running Western television programs including The Roy Rogers Show and Bonanza.

“Spahn Ranch… was surrounded by steep, bouldered foothills, and the property had its own creek and waterfalls, which fed a crystal-clear swimming hole… there was a rickety boardwalk that ran along Main Street — the first building was the Rock City Café and the Long Horn Saloon, which had a jukebox. Down the boardwalk there was a jailhouse, a funeral parlor, and a carriage house full of old stagecoaches.”[1]

One summer day, George heard the ranch hands talking about a school bus full of hippies camped in the woods nearby. A few days later, he heard the sound of singing from inside the rundown house where he lived. Then he heard a tap at the screen door. He got up and shuffled to the door, wearing his dark sunglasses and weather-beaten cowboy hat.

The high-pitched voices of what sounded like teen girls told him they’d had car trouble, and would it be okay if they crashed there for a few days? There was only a few of us, just a handful of kids, they told him. George wasn’t keen on strangers staying on his land, but if it were just a couple of nights, that’d be okay.

The next morning, he woke to the sound of weeds being clipped near his living room window, the scrapes of raking against the desert brush and rustle of tall grass. He shouted out the window for someone to tell him what was going on. The wranglers said there was a bunch of long-haired kids — girls and boys — clearing some of the brush, tidying things up. George supposed that was alright.

Later, there was another tap at the door and George said for whomever it was to come inside. It was a young woman, very solicitous. She asked if she could fix him lunch, was he hungry? He was, by gosh.

Over the next few days, more girls came by to tidy up the house and clean the windows. Sandra Good wrote, “It was impossible to keep George Spahn’s house clean with the constant traffic of ranch hands stomping in from barn and corral to report the day-to-day business… The counter where food got fixed was slanted, so cats easily slid when you brushed them off, but no sooner would it be wiped clean and the stove and cast iron pans scrubbed of bacon or hamburger grease, than another ranch hand would come in to cook, leaving another mess.” Sandy remembered one girl being especially efficient at housekeeping: “Ruth went after the kitchen cupboards with gusto. She removed every greasy glass jelly jar, restaurant coffee mug, and chipped teacup, and washed them out in a big pot of sudsy boiled water. She tore out old shelf liners, put in new, and then proudly put back her sparkling assortment of glasses, pottery, and china.”[2]

The gals were nice company, Spahn had to admit. Sometimes they watched the little black-and-white television at lunchtime, while Dark Shadows was airing. They laughed at everything George said and let him do whatever he wanted. If he happened to put his hand on their thigh, give a little pinch — why, they wouldn’t tell him to take it away.

Being blind, George learned to differentiate people by their voices and sometimes, by the way they walked. He thought his new visitors sounded so chipper and well-educated and eager to please. Sometimes they would talk about someone named ‘Charlie’ so finally, George asked one of the gals to please send this Charlie up to have a chat with him.

The young man that came to George’s home said he was a poet and a musician, and his name was Manson. Like, the son of Man, you dig? Some evenings Charlie would sit with Spahn and talk about the most important things in the world. George never quite understood what Charlie was talking about, but it was pleasant company and Spahn figured it was a good thing that the younger generation was thinking about more than just their own little selves. Charlie played the guitar for George, which pleased the old man very much. It wasn’t country/western music, but Manson nonetheless had a little twang in his voice which felt soothing and familiar to the elder man.

Sometimes George asked the ranch hands what Charlie and his girls were really doing. They said that Charlie sat under a tree for hours, playing his guitar and the girls brought food and water to him. They said that the women all adored Charlie, which the wranglers couldn’t understand because Manson was small and sorta dark and not very handsome. They said the women sewed clothes for Charlie and rubbed his feet. They told George that there was a lot of lovemaking going on. George began to realize there were a lot more hippies than he’d originally been led to believe.

But by then, the girls were a constant presence in his home. Some of the women liked to paint and they made oil portraits of George with his favorite horses. Soon, a girl or two started to stay overnight, so that someone was always there in the mornings to fix him breakfast. Charlie told Spahn that the girls were there to serve. He said he wanted them to keep their eye on George, so he’d have everything he needed.

George confided to Charlie about his financial woes. He hadn’t been able to pay his hired hands for nearly four years and that’s why the ranch was in such poor shape. He also confessed that he had a debt on back taxes. He was mighty worried that Uncle Sam would take Spahn Ranch because of that debt. Charlie listened and told the older man that maybe they’d think of a way to sort the whole thing out.

Charlie didn’t just hand over the money for the delinquent taxes, but he was generous. He gave George several gifts including a tapestry of a horse. He also gave Ruby Pearl several items — a camera, a television. She may not have had quite the influence on Spahn that she used to, but Charlie knew that she paid attention to goings on. Charlie told George that he was about to sign a big music recording contract and when that happened, he’d be sure to help his old buddy out.

Manson noted that Spahn “wasn’t always on top of what went on any distance from the house. But despite his blindness and lack of mobility, old George was a long way from being anybody’s fool. And he wasn’t senile. He was still a pretty shrewd horse trader, and knew and understood people…”[3]

  • Excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following quotes: [1] The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder by Nikki Meredith ©2018 Citadel Press; [2] Sandra Good quoted in Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press; [3] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press)
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George Spahn (in the background) in this undated photograph from his ranch

I will post Parts Two and Three of these articles about George Spahn in the next week. For more information about the Manson Family and their crimes, please visit MansonFamily.net.

In the meantime, you can read my most recent post here:

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

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