Dumpster-Diving with the Manson Family
The Manson Family, at their peak in the summer of 1969, had amassed to about three dozen people. What had begun simply (in 1967) with an itinerant musician (ex-convict Charles Manson) and a few women, grew in scale and significance as Manson’s power over his followers grew.
The group started simply, with Charlie and one woman (Mary Brunner, a 23-year old assistant librarian at the University of California Berkeley). By the fall of ’67, Mary was pregnant and several more women had joined the duo on the road. By early ’68 they were living in the Los Angeles area, where Charlie had hopes of securing a record deal.
They were living in a Dutch Colonial home in Topanga Beach nicknamed the Spiral Staircase. The house had been built on a flood plane and was in poor shape — the first floor no longer livable. So the owner allowed Manson and the women to stay there while they awaited the county to condemn the property.
By this point, Manson’s group did begin to resemble a family with a father figure (Charlie), mother figure (Mary) and various siblings gathered. Mary had no real power in the Family but she certainly carried a lot of influence. Mary Brunner was an early adopter of the pro-environmental movement and she encouraged the group to abstain from meat.
Charlie was an anti-establishment figure (after all, the only establishment experiences he had were ruinously bad, such as juvenile detention and prison). His early months of freedom in 1967 (released after serving several years on a check-forging and mail theft charge) only cemented his belief that people like him were better off relying on their wits for survival. For Manson, who had an anti-social personality disorder, that meant using other people to get by.
In San Francisco, he had relied on busking or panhandling, sometimes playing music for his meals. There were also soup kitchens and free clinics. Charlie crashed on couches and in parks until Mary allowed him to move in with her. Charlie was one of many ‘manic street preachers’ throughout the Haight/Ashbury district and got to know the people around him. My cousin’s husband was a young medical student in San Francisco during the late ’60s and he frequently saw Manson loitering around the bus depot, trying to entice what were clearly young runaway girls to join him. A lot of people liked and trusted him, however. Some of these young people were living on the streets, some were prostitutes, many were drug addicts. Charlie found them food, gave them words of encouragement, slept with them when he could, and warned them of what he perceived were the dangers of the establishment including their own families. The called him ‘The Gardener’ for his ability to minister to people without, some believed, judgement.
He also witnessed many of the other people of influence in the Haight. One of those influences was The Diggers.
The Diggers were a collective of street performers who provided meals to lost souls. They held a rather anarchist view of the American capitalist system, and organized free music concerts, provided free medical care and food and engaged in various politically-minded acts of street theater. They inspired the ‘Freegan’ lifestyle in more recent years.
The Diggers often dumpster dived for their meals and just like the Manson Family, made the women do the lion’s share of this humbling work. Charlie knew some of the Diggers, witnessed some of their action, and was inspired to encourage his own women to help provide through the same means. He was also a chauvinistic sex trafficker who regularly beat his women for insubordination.
Dumpter diving is exactly what it sounds like: scavenging through trash for usable food and other goods. Grocery stores are required to discard food that is past the sellable date, as well as those with obvious blemishes (moldy produce, dented cans, opened boxes, evidence of rodent or insect infestation). To be fair, there is a lot of good food thrown out because of FDA and industry regulations, but it also means you have to literally climb inside a dumpster.
Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme’s biographer Jess Bravin wrote, “At first Lyn would only take the pickings from the top of the bins, but soon, as she saw the promise of buried treasures, she dived in. There were tomatoes between her toes, apples, pears, cucumbers, cheese, eggs — a stew of perishables all over her. ‘Wow,’ she thought. ‘It’s like being in a giant salad… You could feed the world, you really could, with America’s garbage’.” — Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme by Jess Bravin ©1997 St. Martin’s Press
Manson encouraged the dumpster diving but also kept their food budget lower by encouraging the women to stay slender. Many a man has wielded power over women by intimating that he desires a thin, waif-like physique. It’s a power trip, keeping them weak and hungry. Over the next year and a half, many of these women suffered eating disorders to keep their ‘girlish’ figures for Charlie’s pleasure.
Petty theft became the chief means of providing for their other basic needs. But while living in the Spiral Staircase house, the Family was fortunate to meet several teens who came from wealthy homes. One of those teens was Didi Shaw, the 15-year old daughter of film star Angela Lansbury.
Manson was especially fond of Didi. She gave him hope that the children of other stars would flock to him, helping him get famous. Plus, she had mommy’s credit cards. Those cards were used to buy food and clothing for several months.
After the Spiral Staircase was condemned, the Family spent several months squatting in various residences in the Topanga area before they made the very good fortune of meeting an influential man: Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys.
Dennis allowed Charlie and the women to stay with him. His generosity went above and beyond reason. Dennis provided everything that the Family desired. He paid for Sadie (Susan Atkins) to go to the dentist. He footed the bill for penicillin shots when everyone got the clap (gonorrhea). He let the Family stay at his home, eat his food, use his drugs, swim in his pool, drive his cars, fuck his friends and even gave Charlie a couple of the Beach Boys’ gold records!
Dennis believed in Charlie, and promised he’d do his best to help him find success in the music business. He introduced him to several other influential people like talent agent Gregg Jakobson, Columbia Records producer Terry Melcher, and music superstars Frank Zappa and Neil Young.
Meanwhile, Wilson virtually turned over his beautiful home to Manson’s people. Dennis even let the women take his Rolls Royce dumpster-diving. The women would forage in garbage bins behind supermarkets and restaurants, scavenging browning lettuces and droopy carrots and bring them back to Wilson’s house for their vegetarian feasts.
But within a few weeks, Charlie realized that he was jeopardizing his relationship with Wilson by living there. First, he sent several of the women north to Mendocino, to scout for new followers there. Then, he moved the rest of them to Spahn Ranch, which once had served as a backdrop for Western films and television shows but had since fallen into disrepair.
Charlie offered the owner, 79-year old blind George Spahn, free labor in exchange for a place to stay. George agreed, and later Charlie strong-armed a new follower into donating thousands of dollars to help Spahn pay back taxes due for years to the IRS.
The women continued to dumpster dive, and began preparing meals family-style. Charlie was still in charge, of course. “At night everybody gathered in a big circle in the saloon or at the back ranch house. The girls brought in dishes of food and Charlie regarded the presentation as would an experienced gourmand, commenting on the aroma and the artistry — maybe a sprinkling of flower petals on the salad, or sprigs of wild sage around the squash and rice — and the guys imitated his praise of the cooks.” — Letter from Sandra Good reprinted in Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press
But the fall of 1968 proved to be a tipping point for the Family. Again, they overstayed their welcome at Spahn Ranch and Charlie made arrangements to move everyone to Death Valley and a property owned by the grandmother of a new follower (Catherine ‘Cappy’ Gillies).
She offered to kill her grandma for Charles Manson
the life of Manson Family member Catherine ‘Cappy’ Gillies
Then, he decided to return to Los Angeles so he could find out what Wilson and his powerful friends were doing to further his record deal. It was within a week of his return that he heard The Beatles’ White Album for the first time and had an acid-induced vision of a global race war, which he called Helter Skelter.
The way he explained it to his Family was that black people would attack white people and then white people would retaliate on a mass scale. But because black people had been ‘down’ for so long, it was now their turn to ‘rise’. All white people on the planet would either be slaughtered or subjugated into slavery, but Charlie and his followers would escape the conflict by hiding in a cavern below Death Valley. The cavern was crusted with crystals, and there were flowing streams of fresh water, and pockets of clean air, and places to grow food. He also told them that he had a vision of his group growing to 144,000 thousand in number, and they would be safe and free. But after a few years, the black people in power would realize they didn’t have the skills to lead the world, and they would come to the cavern and beg Charlie to take over rule of the planet.
Charlie and his followers would then become sovereign leaders and would rule the world peacefully for the rest of their days.
He moved the Family back to Spahn Ranch in Spring 1969 although it was in even worse shape than it had been the summer before. Things started to get desperate. Food was still scarce and money seemed to burn a hole in Charlie’s hand. Some of that was due to the Family’s increasing dependency on drugs — including Manson’s.
“Manson was becoming hooked… by the time he settled at Spahn’s Ranch the Family sometimes reached up to as many as forty people, counting the hangers on. Just providing enough food became a project — you can imagine what the expenses for drugs were… By the summer of 1969, most expenses… were financed by drug deals and auto theft.” — The Myth of Helter Skelter by Susan Atkins-Whitehouse ©2012 Menelorelin Dorenay
The Family’s money woes were increasing. Mary befriended a manager at Van de Kamp’s bakery on South Figueroa, who let her have their day-old baked goods. And Charlie’s followers were also generous with their money.
“Sandra Good has reported to have given Charles Manson over $6,000… Linda Kasabian confessed to stealing $5,000 and giving it to the Family. Juanita donated over $10,000 and her van, turning it all over to Charles Manson. And poor Dennis Wilson estimated he spent close to $100,000 on Charles Manson during the several months he provided for the Family. And where did this money go? The Family didn’t pay rent anywhere it lived. The Family ate day-old food discarded from supermarkets. The Family borrowed, and later began to steal, cars when it needed them. Except for drugs, and later guns, there were no expenses at all for the Family.” — The Myth of Helter Skelter by Susan Atkins-Whitehouse ©2012 Menelorelin Dorenay
One ranch hand (Johnny Swartz) owned a four–door Ford that he let the Family use. The yellow and white long-body sedan had no back seat (the girls removed it that summer, so they could load up boxes of groceries from dumpster-diving).
By July 1969, Charles Manson was unstable, a man on the edge. On July 20th (the day of the Moon Landing), he attacked two of the women after they rolled a barrel of food down a hill and the lid broke off. “Charlie was kicking me, and I rolled over into a ball, trying to protect my body. I didn’t know why he beat me. He instilled terror toward the end there, in every single person around him. He had total control over them.” — Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share from the documentary “Manson” ©2009 The History Channel
And then just six days later, Manson sent several people to the Topanga Canyon home of Gary Hinman. Gary was a gentle and generous soul, who’d supported the Family on and off for more than a year. He gave them food and clothing. He allowed Mary to register with Social Services using his address so she could keep her son, when threatened with losing him due to the derelict conditions he had been living in with her. Gary also allowed several Family members to stay with him and opened his home to others.
To attempt to settle a debt with an influential group of bikers, Gary was pressured to give the killers (Bobby Beausoleil, Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins) money. When he refused, Charlie drove over with Bruce Davis and badly wounded Hinman across the ear and temple with a sword.
“I’m A Nasty Motorcycle Rider”
Danny DeCarlo was an outlaw biker who joined the Manson Family and later testified against Charlie and the killers.
To protect ex-convict Charlie, who would have quickly been sent back to prison for assault, Beausoleil then killed Gary Hinman. Ten days later, the Tate/LaBianca victims were targeted by Manson to ensure that Bobby wouldn’t spill the beans.
In recent years, I have found some speculation that the LaBianca’s (a married couple, business owners, living in Los Feliz) were targeted because the women might have dumpster-dived at Leno LaBianca’s chain of grocery stories (Gateway Ranch Markets) and incurred his wrath. This seems false, given that the killers drove all over the Los Angeles area for about three hours before settling in the neighborhood where the LaBianca’s lived.
The Manson Family started off by emulating the Diggers and other ‘Freegans’ of the late 60s, but they ended in murder. It wasn’t enough to get free food — they also stole credit cards, invaded people’s homes and stole items there, and robbed family members and dear friends. And their victims were robbed of money, music instruments, cars and ultimately, their lives.
You can learn more about the Manson Family and their crimes by visiting MansonFamily.net