The early life of Manson Family murderer Charles ‘Tex’ Watson

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Tex Watson in high school

During the month of November, I’ll be sharing several stories about the primary Manson Family killer, Tex Watson. You’ll learn about his childhood, his life before meeting Charles Manson, his life at Spahn Ranch and away from it, the murders he committed, his life on the run after the murders, his arrest and eventual conviction, and the last several decades of his life as he has been serving his sentence for several capital crimes. This story is about his early life:

Charles Denton Watson was born December 2, 1945 in Farmersville, Texas in Collin County, about forty miles northeast of Dallas. He was the third child born to Clarence Denton Watson and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Montgomery. The couple were married in 1932 in Durant, Oklahoma and had a daughter (born ten years before Charles) and their first son a few years later.

Clarence later served in the U.S. Army (enlisted in 1940) before returning to civilian life. He purchased a gas station and convenience mart in Copeville, Texas. Charles Denton Watson was born. The Watson family were devout Methodists who believed in living a simple, Godly life.

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Clarence Watson’s gas station in 1969

“My folks were married during the Depression and spent several years living off a small garden and a few animals until they scraped together enough capital to buy one of Copeville’s stores, the whole place about the size of a single-car garage. It had one gas pump in front — a real pump that lived up to its name; you pumped the gas by hand. Over the years they built their house, enlarged the store, added new automatic pumps, and had three children who they were determined would have the chances they never did. They worked hard; they believed in a God who rewarded hard work and simple values. They believed in an America that was always right and would never change — not in any way that couldn’t be made right by an appeal to the way ‘decent’ folks had always done things.” — Would You Die For Me? by Charles Watson with Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revell

As a child, young Charles attended elementary school in nearby Farmersville, the same town that World War II hero Audie Murphy hailed from. He had a happy, carefree childhood from all accounts. Loving parents and siblings, a family dog (a collie) and Watson was handy — he liked to tinker on small projects like model cars and toys. He helped his parents in their store, and at the age of ten made extra money by selling crawdads to local fishermen.

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Charles Watson (far right) in a high school choir

Religion was the backbone of the family life, and Watson later recalled that he was admonished not to give in to the more ecstatic experience of God’s divine love. Good Christians sat in a pew and read from their missal and sang along with the choir. They didn’t jump and scream and shout, like other folks might.

“Religion was important, especially for women and old people, but the only folks who got carried away with it were some blacks and poor white trash that we called ‘Holy Rollers’. I never saw a ‘Holy Roller’ in the flesh, but I knew that they were almost as ‘bad’ as the Catholics.” — Would You Die For Me? by Charles Watson with Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revell

During High School, Watson was an honors student, a football and track star and a member of the 4H Club. He was also editor of his high school newspaper. But his teen years also brought a touch of rebellion — a favorite pastime was hot-rodding with his buddy Tommy, stealing beer from the gas station and flirting with the pretty girls. Especially the ‘easy’ ones.

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Watson and his prom date, sophomore year

“And no matter how bad my mother or the church might say it was, I knew what I wanted and I found a girl who would give it to me. The only problem was the fact that her reputation had spread beyond the locker room. My parents told me not to see her anymore. That didn’t stop me — we just met in secret for those clumsy encounters. If I felt any guilt at all, it just added to the excitement. I told myself that my parents just didn’t understand what it was like to be sixteen. Just like the good Methodists that they were, they made a big fuss about beer, but once I tried it I found out you didn’t get roaring drunk on your first sip. My parents’ world of church and God and rules wasn’t what I wanted. I was a success. I could handle my life without them or that pale-faced Jesus in the church magazines. I started to think about getting out, finding a larger, more exciting world where everybody didn’t know you and every false step wouldn’t get reported and discussed within twenty-four hours behind the counter of my father’s store.” — Would You Die For Me? by Charles Watson with Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revell

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In 1964, Charles enrolled at North Texas State University in Denton where he pledged the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, started to party and began dabbling in drugs (initially just Dexedrine or speed to cram for tests, and marijuana). He was spending more time carousing and dating and his folks were not happy about the changes they witnessed. It all came to a head during Pledge Week:

Excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story (published 2019 from Swann Publications) —

His freshman year, Watson broke into his former high school and stole several typewriters as a fraternity initiation. In his words, “Part of the fraternity initiation was a scavenger hunt… My partner and I had to find, among other things, four typewriters. Through the beer-soaked fog… I remembered the typing class at Farmersville High School, with row on row of battered Royals. Getting them was easy — break the glass, open the door, giggle a lot, and shush each other boozily. It seemed extremely funny. The next day, with a throbbing hangover, four typewriters, and the certainty of being caught, it seemed extremely stupid. Rather than have them find out from someone else, I went to my parents myself. They took it hard, and as we drove into McKinney, the county seat, to talk to a lawyer… they couldn’t have been any more upset if I’d committed murder.”

In January 1967, Watson got a job with Braniff Airlines at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport as a baggage handler. He used his employee miles to regularly fly himself and his girlfriends to Los Angeles, sometimes visiting southern California fraternities and indulging in the West Coast drug culture. — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including quote from Would You Die For Me? by Charles Watson with Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revell)

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Watson was crushed when his old friend Tommy was killed in Vietnam. He attended Tommy’s funeral, distraught and shocked, but he continued with his partying ways. And it was through a new friend, Richard, that Watson got his first taste of ‘California Dreamin’

“A few days later I was leaning to look out the plane window as we started the descent into the Los Angeles basin. It was smoggy as we crossed over the mountains and the slanting sun turned the haze into a kind of blazing, thick red stew. It was like sinking into the mouth of a volcano. The city seemed to go on forever, and I liked it even before we landed. From listening to the music you sometimes got the impression that there was nobody in California over thirty. The first thing Richard showed me was Sunset Strip and I began to think the songs were right. The rows of discotheques and clubs and psychedelic shops were packed with young people, and they looked different from any people I’d ever seen before. The men wore beards and long hair and beads; the girls danced along with nipples outlined beneath their thin blouses. People played flutes on the corner and walked barefoot on the concrete. A girl brushed by me murmuring, “Grass? Acid? Speed?” Rich took me into the famous Whiskey a Go-Go, and as the rock blared I stared at the dancers, couples moving to the beat in the most unabashedly sexual movements I’d ever seen in public. It was a long way from Texas and if freedom was what I’d been looking for, I was certain this was it. — Would You Die For Me? by Charles Watson with Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revell

During that first visit to Los Angeles, Watson got a good taste of the drug culture, met upcoming singer-songwriting Paul Williams, and even was introduced to the Church of Scientology which he claimed didn’t pique his interest. But the rest of his experience was enticing enough to drop out of NTSU.

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Watson’s photo in his college yearbook (upper left corner)

That August, he moved to L.A. It is rumored that Watson arrived in California with more than $4000 — perhaps evidence that he was dealing drugs even before leaving Texas since that amount of money seems much higher than a baggage handler might earn in eight months. (He also bought a 1959 yellow Ford Thunderbird ahead of his trip).

He enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles, but never attended class. Watson rented an apartment in Silverlake with a roommate and began selling ‘wiglets’ or wig pieces that gals fashionably wore those days to give the appearance of longer, fuller hair. He’d walk along the Sunset Strip, offering women the chance to buy a really cheap wiglet to get them into the shop, where senior sales staff would attempt to upsell them a more expensive piece.

Charles got a kickback from each wig purchased but that wasn’t enough. With his roommate Rich, he opened his own wig shop on Sunset Boulevard (‘Love Locs’). By then, he was also dealing marijuana. Within two to three months, everything was going to pot, and the wig shop shut down. A car accident in early ’68 badly damaged his knee, a disability Watson later maximized to get out of his scheduled Army physical. — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications

Just a few weeks after the car accident, Charles was driving to the beach when he saw a young man hitchhiking. He’d sold the T-bird and bought a 1935 Dodge pickup. Watson pulled over to let the man into his truck and the man was none other than Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson.

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The Sunset Strip, circa 1968

It was June 1968, and for the past several weeks Wilson had been hosting a group at his Pacific Palisades home. The group consisted of about a dozen teenage girls and young women, along with an older man, 32-year old musician and ex-convict Charles Manson.

Dennis told Watson about the harem of hippie girls living at his pad and about their guru, Charlie… The Texan saw the bevy of girls around the diminutive Manson and liked what he saw. There was a chance to sell drugs. There was more than a chance to get laid. Plus, he could hang out with superstars! — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications

One of the women, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme later recalled that Charles Watson was a complete charmer:

“He was so personable, he could have sold homes, cars, magazines, or anything but wigs on southern California beaches.” — Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press

Just over a year later, Charles Watson committed seven murders at Manson’s orders.

In the next installment you’ll learn about Watson’s life with the Manson Family.

Written by

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

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