Charles Manson and Flower Power

how the ex-con got out of jail just in time to take advantage of San Francisco’s burgeoning counterculture movement

In March 1967, Charles Manson was 32-years old and newly released from federal prison. He left Terminal Island in San Pedro with $35 in cash, a flimsy suitcase and his guitar.

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Manson’s 1967 driver’s license (his height is falsely listed as 5'7" — in reality he was 5'2" or 5'3")

The following is excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story:

Manson asked if he would permit a transfer to San Francisco. Approved. Charlie walked outside, stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride north into the epicenter of the nation’s biggest youth movement, at the height of Flower Power.

In the Bay Area, Charlie called a fellow ex-con, a part-time fencer. The man offered Manson the chance to work in his organization, but Charlie declined it. He claims he wanted to stay clean when he first got out and that’s probably true.

Charlie may have rented a room for $5 that night or crashed in one of the parks in the Haight/Ashbury district. He met a 15-year old panhandler who taught him the rules of the Haight and Manson listened to the kids around him. They were escaping society as much as he was trying to relearn it. They called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and readily gave away what they could — food, flowers or love. Charlie told them he was just out of prison. Groovy, they said and they meant it. There was no judgment here, there was no shame. When they saw he had a guitar, they asked him to play it. Then they maybe tipped him a few dimes in appreciation.

If Charlie had any plans to start pimping in San Francisco, it would have been a moot point. Thanks to the pill, everybody was giving it away for free. He couldn’t sell sex here. But maybe he could peddle something else.

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Michael Ochs Archives

Charlie would have quickly become acquainted with the street preachers scattered around the city. For every person seeking the truth, there was someone there to offer an answer. Most spiritual leaders of that era were harmless: vagrants with a soupçon of wisdom looking for a warm meal or a toke of hash in return. Others, like Manson, would prove dangerous.

During his first days of freedom, Charlie visited San Francisco’s Scientology Center and asked to join the organization. He told them he was ‘Clear’ but they declined his membership. But this was not the end of Manson’s Scientology connections or his attempts to be embraced by an elite spiritual organization.

He then spent a few days indulging in the riches of the counter-culture. There were soup kitchens to get a hot meal, free clinics if you needed birth control. Charlie had sex with a runaway girl that week and at a Grateful Dead concert, dropped his first tab of acid.

LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, a chemical derived from ergot or rye fungus) was discovered in 1938 in Switzerland. The CIA got its dirty hands on it in the Fifties, hoping to exploit its hallucinogenic properties. By ’63, a handful of prominent American intellectuals were advocating its use in consciousness expansion, including writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and psychologist Timothy Leary. LSD found popularity as a recreational drug largely thanks to ‘Owsley’, a key figure in the music movement of the late ’60s. Owsley (whose real name was Augustus Stanley III) was an audio engineer who recorded live tapes of the Grateful Dead, a key developer of the band’s signature sound. Owsley also designed the Dead’s trademark skull logo. He was one of the first people to manufacture large quantities of acid (as it became known) spreading it around California and among key influencers in the Bay Area rock music scene. San Francisco bands the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and Jefferson Airplane became synonymous with acid, particularly with their West Coast audiences.

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A 1968 photograph of Owsley on left, with Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia. Photo by Rosie McGee.

LSD, in positive experiences, creates a vivid and dream-like trance state. Colors appear more intense and emotions may feel amplified, almost euphoric. There are ‘bad trips’ as well, resulting in sensations of paranoia and anxiety, even dark and frightening visions. But for psychopaths, LSD may be even riskier:

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A poster created by artist Wes Wilson promoting a 1967 concert by the Grateful Dead

Charlie had a good first acid trip, grooving to the dark-light show at the Dead concert. He continued to use LSD himself and as a tool in breaking down the egos of the young people that flocked to him, the next two years. But this explanation of faked empathy, of mirrored behavior, is Manson to a T: everyone who came to him felt that Manson was looking deeply into their soul. Each believed that he valued the same things they did and that Charlie was the only one who really cared about them. It’s how he got those kids to kill for him.

By the way, the difference between a psychopath and sociopath is loosely defined by degree: A sociopath has less empathy for others but can usually hide their feelings. A psychopath cannot easily fake empathy and is more likely to be violent. Manson was labeled a sociopath for much of his life but evidence shows that he likely was a psychopath.

Manson’s parole officer in the Bay Area was Dr. Roger Smith. Smith was founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, a facility that Manson and his Family used frequently over the next couple years. Smith later noted that,

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A mugshot photograph of Charles Manson (date unknown)

San Francisco, in spring of 1967, was a virtual paradise for young people in search of experience. There were bohemians and beatniks, flower children and more do-gooders than you could shake a Thai stick at. If you were hungry, you found your way to the Diggers — a collective of street performers who provided meals to lost souls. Charlie got the idea of ‘dumpster diving’ for groceries from the Diggers who, like the Family, made women do the lion’s share of this humbling work.

Manson wouldn’t have just found himself welcomed in the Haight that season — he would have been fucking celebrated, and he was. He also could have looked around and found others that he might have followed: wise men and women who gave of advice freely. But Charlie was done being told what to do.

To learn more about Manson’s life before the murders, please read this:

Or, this article:

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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