Son of Man: The Early Life of Charles Manson

excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications

On March 21, 1967, 32-year old Charles ‘Charlie’ Manson was released from Terminal Island, a federal correction institute in Southern California. Manson had served nearly two decades in prisons, jails and youth detention centers on charges including petty larceny, auto theft, check fraud and pimping. Less than three years after his ’67 release, Charlie was again in a jail cell, where he spent the rest of his miserable life.

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Charles Manson, arrested in 1969 for the Tate/LaBianca murders

Charles Milles Manson was born November 12, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio to a 15-year old redheaded runaway named Kathleen Maddox. His father was Colonel Scott — a laborer, married to another woman. Shortly after delivering young Charles, Kathleen married a man named Manson, giving her son a legitimate name (his birth certificate simply read ‘No Name Maddox’).

Kathleen was from Ashland, Kentucky, the youngest born to a devoutly religious couple. Impulsive and rebellious, she’d run off to the big city not long before getting pregnant. Kathleen Maddox was at best, a juvenile delinquent and at worst, an alcoholic prostitute. She was also a neglectful mother. Once, she gave little Charlie to a friendly cocktail waitress in exchange for a beer. She left the boy with the woman for several days.

The marriage to the senior Manson did not last. Kathleen continued to party and to run afoul of the law. She was arrested in 1939 for armed robbery — a crime she committed with her brother Luther. She was sentenced to five years in prison and her son was remanded to Kathleen’s sister’s care.

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A young Charles Manson, around the age of 5 years old

Aunt Glenna and her husband Bill Thomas lived in McMechen, West Virginia with their daughter, Jo Ann, three years older than her cousin. McMechen is a small mining town south of Wheeling, close enough to the penitentiary in Moundsville, Ohio where Kathleen was serving. Glenna and Bill wanted Charlie to see his mother as frequently as possible.

He later wrote that, “the big stones were like the temple of a solemn place. I never realized I would spend my life in such temples of suffering.”[1]

The Thomases tried to provide Charlie with a stable home life. But Charlie had two issues working against him. First, everyone knew about his bastard birth, his mother’s criminal activity and viewed him as a nuisance. Second, Charlie was a pathological liar even at age 5, and selfish. Tiny and impish, he tried to turn on the charm but most in McMechen weren’t buying it.

Bill Thomas, a hard-drinking man who worked for the railroad, thought Charlie needed to ‘toughen up’. When Charlie ran home crying from his first day of school, his uncle was disgusted. The next day, he forced his nephew to walk to school in a dress, to show Charlie not to be a ‘sissy’. And Aunt Glenna, like her mother Nancy, held very strict and dogmatic religious beliefs that expected children to be seen, not heard. Charlie’s personality quirks turned into a full-blown narcissistic disorder while living with the Thomases. Charlie was also a bedwetter for much of his childhood. It’s likely that he received corporal punishment for his nightly accidents.

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Another childhood image of Charles Manson

The Christmas he was seven, taunted by neighborhood kids for his size, Charlie retaliated. He burned up all their gifts and toys. Even then he was resentful of others’ good fortune and willing to destroy it, to make them suffer. Even as a child, he turned perceived wrongs into mammoth acts of vengeance.

Cousin Jo Ann initially tried to protect Charlie, but then he’d throw her under the bus in return. It didn’t take long to figure out he wasn’t worth defending.

Charlie was an easy target as a child for skirmishes and taunting in the school yard. He developed a fascination for knives and guns. He also had an early love for music and learned to play the piano while living with his aunt and uncle. He didn’t much care for church but did love to sing the hymns.

In 1942, Kathleen was released from prison and moved to McMechen. She found work in a bar and later, at a grocery store. Charlie was now 8-years old. He frequently played hooky from school and was known to beg for money on the street, which he usually spent on penny candy.

Kathleen saw that her son had developed some manipulative behaviors while she was away. But a parolee who spent three and a half years away from her child would be especially susceptible to guilt trips, even when she knew she was being played. Charlie needed a father, Kathleen decided and went man-hunting. But her charisma and looks had faded in recent years.

Broke, chafing under the oppressive belief system of her family, Kathleen Maddox spiraled out of control. It is believed that she committed several thefts in McMechen in the mid-40s but since she used aliases, the cops weren’t able to identify her. She might have found good fortune with the law but otherwise, her prospects of supporting herself and her son remained slim and it was alleged that she resorted to prostitution.

During that era, Charlie often visited his great uncle Jess. Jess lived in Moorehead, Kentucky in a log cabin with his wife and four unruly daughters, making moonshine. Jess was a member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. And It was Jess who, after chastising Charlie for abusing a hound dog, taught the youngster to respect animals (clearly more than people). Jess’s dogged determination to keep Uncle Sam off his land later got himself killed, leaving a lasting impression on Charlie about the evils of big government.

Kathleen finally married again to an alcoholic circus worker named Lewis, who’d just gotten out of the Army. Together, they tried to curb their drinking and raise Charlie, who was turning out to be quite a hellion, now stealing from local merchants. But Lewis wasn’t father material — tough on Charlie, unsympathetic and overly critical — and he ran through a string of menial jobs the first year of their marriage. Kathleen realized almost immediately that she had chosen another piss-poor spouse but she was determined to make things right with this man.

She turned to her mother, Nancy. She asked for guidance with her son. Nancy then sat down with Charlie to share her words of wisdom, fueled by her religious convictions. Nothing she said seemed to matter. His behavior worsened and Kathleen, at her wits’ end, decided that he needed authority and discipline she could not provide. In 1947, she enrolled him at the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana. Gibault was a well-organized facility for wayward boys, run by Catholic priests. Most families paid for their sons to attend the school, but some were able to qualify for scholarships.

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Manson in his early teens

It is hard to determine just how good or bad Gibault was, these many years later. Charlie claimed it was a virtual torture chamber, where boys were worked half to death on its 150-acre vegetable garden or beaten with paddles. What is clear is that his behavior did not improve. At Gibault, Manson was diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. It was also in Terre Haute that he first heard the rumor that he might be the product of ‘mixed blood.’ In other words, his father might be black. This was untrue but cannot discount the huge stigma, during that era that a troubled youth would carry due to these rumors.

Charlie ran away from Gibault, going to his mother who was now living in Indianapolis. He cried and told her how horrible the school was but she knew he was lying and sent him back.

Charlie next left Gibault that Christmas, approved by staff to visit the Thomases. Grandma Nancy was also now living in McMechen, with her son Luther. Luther, diagnosed with tuberculosis, was released from Moundsville to live with her. He was dying and in his fear, finally embraced his mother’s Nazarene faith.

An early photograph of Manson’s mother (on left) Kathleen, with her mother Nancy and her younger brother Luther. Kathleen and Luther later were sent to prison for robbery, when Charlie was a young boy.

The Nazarenes believe that God requires complete obedience and that submission to the Holy Spirit can create a Christ-like transformation in even the worst sinners. This deviates from most Protestant faiths, who believe total sanctification isn’t possible while living in a sinful world. Most Protestants believe that sanctification comes only after death, when God makes them new in both body and spirit. Nazarenes also differed from other churches in that they allowed women into clergy positions decades ahead of trend. Many of these women were the kind of rigid authoritarians that found their way, in earlier decades, into the temperance movement.

“You got to know a hillbilly grandmom to understand,” Manson later wrote a follower. “She read one book, the Bible. No movies, no makeup, no sex and she never lied.”[2]

After Christmas, Charlie returned to Gibault. He ran away again the next fall and went back to Indianapolis, but didn’t bother groveling at Kathleen’s door. He rented a room from someone who obviously didn’t ask many questions. But after he broke into a local market, he was arrested by Indianapolis police.

Charlie got lucky. His judge took pity on the wayward lad and sentenced him to the famous Boys’ Town facility in Nebraska. Just four days later, however, 13-year old Manson broke out of Boys’ Town with another kid named Blackie. They stole a car and drove to Peoria, Illinois. There, they stole a gun and committed not one, but two armed robberies including a casino.

Blackie’s uncle was a thief and fencer and the boys worked for him for the next two weeks. That’s when Charlie’s luck ran out. He was arrested while robbing a store. Police also nailed him for the two armed robberies and he was sentenced to the Indiana Boys School.

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Charles Manson, around the time he was sentenced to the Indiana Boys School

The Indiana Boys School was located in Plainsville, Indiana but often referred to as ‘Painsville’ with good reason. Plainsville was a reform school. Reform, in the 1940s, meant breaking the child of their behaviors. Guards were known to be mirthfully sadistic. Charlie’s accounts of being brutalized by guards and tormented by administrators were not challenged. His usual charms and manipulations were laughed at, at Plainsville.

Being a little kid in a place like that was especially risky. Charlie claimed that he was raped and assaulted by prison guards then other inmates shortly after his arrival.

While attending the Indiana Boys School, administrators assessed Manson academically. He was diagnosed with a reading disability and tested significantly below his age level. They also observed that Charlie only did well, in school and on tests, when something was in it for him. But Manson learned one of his most useful skills at Plainsville. He called it ‘the Insane Game’ after seeing other boys zone out or get extra twitchy when they didn’t feel like cooperating. Charlie played the Insane Game for decades, in fact.

Kathleen barely visited her child during the years he spent at the Indiana Boys’ School. She’d brought her own alcoholism under control by that time, but her husband was spiraling. It’s clear she’d given up on her ability to reform her son and was relying upon the system to do so for her.

In February 1951, Charlie and two other boys escaped from Plainsville. They stole a car, drove west and enjoyed three days of freedom. They made it all the way to Utah where they robbed several gas stations. There, they were captured and sent to the National Training School for Boys in Washington, D.C.

Aunt Glenna and Uncle Bill felt badly for Charlie. They’d returned him to Kathleen’s care, after she was released from prison, believing that a son should be with his mother. Now, they tried to intervene. The Thomases met with school officials and promised to help Charlie find stable work once released and an emotional support system to thrive in society again.

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Charles Manson, age 16 or 17

At 17, Charlie was due to be freed. With weeks left of his sentence, he raped another boy while holding a razor at his throat. He was transferred to the Federal Reformatory in Petersburg, Virginia — a high-security facility. Months later, he was moved to a maximum security facility in Chillicothe, Ohio.

At Chillicothe, Manson met his first mentor. It was notable crimelord Frank Costello. Costello had once been head of the Genovese crime family in New York. He, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky formed the infamous Murder, Incorporated organization during Prohibition, responsible for the most notorious gang-related violence of that era. When Manson met Costello at Chillicothe, the gangster was serving eleven months for tax evasion. Charlie recalled, “When I walked down the halls with him or sat at the same table for meals, I probably experienced the same sensation an honest kid would get out of being with Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle: admiration bordering on worship.”[3]

Whether it was Costello’s influence or something else, for the next two years, Charlie buckled down. He improved his grades and excelled at auto repair shop, his favorite class. He even won a few merit awards. More importantly, his attitude shifted. He became quieter, better behaved. “I learned how to keep my feelings to myself,” he admitted, “because if you care too much about a part of your life and personal habits, others will take advantage of it and ridicule you.”[4]

He’d spent seven years locked up and finally, in 1954, Manson was freed.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Glenna welcomed him back to McMechen and gave him a room to stay. It didn’t last long. Charlie and Bill came to blows and when Kathleen moved to Wheeling, Charlie went to stay with her. He would not have had particularly warm thoughts for the woman who put those seven years in motion, one surmises. Kathleen still believed in the good in her son but guiltily, never tried to curb his behavior.

Charlie found work at a race track, sweeping stalls, feeding the horses. He spent Sundays with Nancy at church. She made him attend Sunday School, even though he was a good deal older than the other students. There, he would brag about his reform school exploits to the stunned teens. Uncomfortable, they shut Charlie out of their social circle.

He met Rosalie Willis, a high school girl, through her father Clarence, who sometimes placed bets at the track. The two began courting and on January 13, 1955, they were married at the Nazarene Church. Nancy held a reception for the happy couple at her home. Everyone in town assumed that Rosalie was ‘in the family way’ but she was not pregnant.

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Charles Manson and Rosalie Willis were married in January 1955

For a few short months, Charles Manson enjoyed the closest that ever resembled a normal life for him. The honeymooners rented a little house. Charlie kept working at the race track and picked up extra odd jobs around the neighborhood, while Rosalie clerked at a grocery store. Charlie made friends. He got a guitar and started to practice, sitting on the front porch in the evenings. And then Rosalie actually did get pregnant. Charlie was going to be a dad. The initial joy over fatherhood wore off as the cost of doctor’s visits and extra food mounted. Charlie slipped across the bridge into Ohio and started stealing cars to fence.

During these outings, he wound up crossing state lines — going as far as Florida on one trip. These were federal crimes. Charlie was headed for hard time.

Meanwhile, Kathleen moved to California and Charlie talked about relocating. Cousin Jo Ann (now married to a minister) tried to talk him out of it but talking Manson out of any of his hare-brained schemes was an exercise in futility. That July, he stole a ’53 Mercury and drove west with Rosalie.

The couple stayed with Kathleen in Los Angeles. Charlie found menial work to earn money and Rosalie was getting closer to her due date. He phoned Jo Ann late that summer to brag about his good fortune out west. A week later, a cop checked out the license plate on the stolen Mercury and arrested Manson.

In court, Charlie admitted guilt and tried to get out of doing time, begging instead for probation. He claimed he was so institutionalized from his reformatory years that he wasn’t always sure whether the things he did were right or wrong. The judge ordered him to undergo psychiatric tests. The doctor deemed Charlie a poor risk for probation but recommended leniency anyway.

Charlie immediately blew probation and took off with Rosalie to Indianapolis. There, on March 10th of 1956, his son Charles Manson Junior was born. Four days later, Charlie was arrested and returned to California. He was now 22 — legally an adult — and received a sentence of three years at Terminal Island Penitentiary in San Pedro. During these years, Rosalie divorced Charlie (he claims she cheated on him) and took their son back to West Virginia.

At Terminal, Charlie found a more lax penal system compared with the juvenile detention centers he’d previously served in. Administrators were no longer trying to save a wayward child. Inmates were encouraged to make their own rules, particularly those who were bright and could learn from others. While at Terminal, Charlie sought mentorship from the pimps. They coached him on how to control girls, but warned Manson to stay away from the nuttier ones. According to his biographer Jeff Guinn, “You wanted girls who were cracked, but not broken.”[5] Clearly, Charlie didn’t absorb this particular lesson very well.

Charlie also took advantage of the prison library. An early favorite was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Manson was released in the fall of 1958. While on release in Los Angeles, Charlie began pimping. Pimping cemented Charlie’s opinion of the fairer sex. He’d clearly developed a deep-seated resentment toward women and felt that not only was it his right to ‘knock them down a peg’ but that women actually required such treatment for them to function as the good Lord intended. He also got interested in becoming a talent manager. Even before the Sixties had begun, everyone in California had stars in their eyes. But Manson got an early lesson that Hollywood wasn’t quite the paradise promised, which makes it confounding why he positioned himself there again just a decade later.

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A 1956 mugshot of Charles Manson

In September 1959, Charlie was in court over a forged U.S. Treasury check he’d swiped out of a mailbox. One of his prostitutes, a gal named Leona, tearfully spoke on his behalf in court. She told the judge that she and Charlie were in love, planning to marry and expecting a baby. The judge showed mercy but Charlie had to marry the broad. A month later, Manson was arrested on the Mann Act — transporting a minor over state lines. Leona wasn’t pregnant when she testified in court by the way, but she became pregnant, giving birth September 24, 1960 to their son, Charles Luther Manson.

That summer, Charlie was in county jail, fighting his probation revocation. He was able to do so successfully on the Mann Act charge but the forgery charge stuck and he was transferred to McNeil Island in Washington State. His mother moved to Washington, to be closer to her son. Kathleen took a waitressing job and remarried, to a man named Gale Stanley Bower. She and her husband then adopted a daughter. Once she had her little girl, her visits to Charlie tapered off.

While serving at McNeil, Charlie continued his unorthodox tutelage by studying the works of L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology). Manson received over 150 hours of Scientology auditing while at McNeil, most of it conducted by his cellmate Lanier Rayner. From Hubbard’s teachings, Charlie began to understand that he was ‘an immortal spiritual being’ rather than just a half-assed criminal from a shitty background. This not only elevated his confidence, it validated his sociopathic belief that he was better than other people. Charlie sometimes claimed to be ‘Theta Clear’ which in Scientology means someone free from the reactive mind’s negative effects. Later, he would crib together the flotsam and jetsam of each of his found belief systems into his own weird philosophy. A lot of people believed in Charlie-ism. Some perhaps still do.

Manson said, “In prison there is every kind of belief imaginable. Some are good, some are bogus… If I saw a con who seemed to be on top of everything and in control of himself, I’d pursue his beliefs in an effort to see if I could strengthen myself through him… If I saw sincerity in the guys who were participating in group sessions, I’d find out which way they were headed. Though I wasn’t black, I picked up on what the Black Muslims were practicing. I did the same with the Indians. I found them solid in their beliefs so I watched them and began to appreciate their rituals and traditions. I studied hypnotism and psychiatry. I read whatever books I could find…”[6]

Manson also gained another mentor at McNeil, Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, who was in the Ma Barker gang in the ’20s. Karpis was one of several older inmates who saw potential in the young man and sought to teach him something useful — in this case, guitar lessons.

Charlie wasn’t half bad. His training wasn’t orthodox but he had talent. He was introduced to the music of the Beatles during this time and the four lads from Liverpool made quite an impression upon the man. According to Karpis, Charlie wanted to perform music, he wanted to write his own songs and he wanted to be famous. In fact, Manson wrote between eighty and ninety original tunes during his time at McNeil.

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Mugshots taken of Charles Manson between 1965–1967

As his release approached, Charlie was transferred back to Terminal Island where he met Phil Kaufman. Kaufman, a bit player in Hollywood, was in jail on a marijuana charge. He heard Charlie perform and thought him a decent singer/songwriter. He passed Manson the name of a producer in L.A. and told Charlie to give the man a call, once he was out.

As his parole date approached, Charlie knew that he would depart prison alone. Rosalie left him for another man and deprived him of his son, as had Leona. His mother had also rejected him, for another child. Was Charlie thinking about his family, as he prepared to enter society again? We don’t know the answer to that question. Prison is a solitary experience and a thoroughly institutionalized person tends to isolate themselves. As psychologist Dr. Stephen A. Diamond explained, “Institutionalized individuals don’t do well out in the world and they know that. They can’t deal with the world, so instead they try to limit the world that they can deal with.”[7] But Charlie was different than other cons.

That March, ahead of his release, Charlie famously begged not to be let out of prison. He had no idea how to support himself or what to do with his life, he argued. But prisons were overcrowded, he’d served his time and nobody cared what he did. The parole board certainly didn’t give a shit if he was reformed or a danger to others.

On March 21, 1967, Charles Manson walked out of prison for the last time. He’d spent twenty years in jails, youth detention centers and reformatories.

On that spring day, Charlie was presented with his greatest opportunity to succeed. His time was served and he’d served those last years well, educating himself, learning new skills. He was unencumbered by responsibility to his children. He was bright, knowledgeable and relatively young. He was also walking into the headiest of times, with the most freedom and possibility ahead of him. He had talent and was in literally the right place to make something of that talent, if he had worked hard and respectfully used the resources made available to him.

But something lurked inside of him, something that could not fathom anything short of success. Failure became the tipping point that would later compel this dangerous man to destroy people for the most selfish of reasons.

[1] Letter from Charles Manson reprinted in Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press

[2] Letter from Charles Manson, reprinted 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

[4] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

[5] Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn ©2013 Simon & Schuster

[6] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

[7] Dr. Stephen A. Diamond, clinical psychologist, from the documentary “Charles Manson: Fame and Scandal” ©2016 TimeWarner Cable

You can find more info about Manson, The Family and their crimes here:

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

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