Murder ‘superstar’ Charles Manson dies at 83

Charm offensive: “He had an aura,” Manson’s prosecutor later recalled. “This is not normal.”

What made Charles Manson so evil? He never killed anyone himself, but the murders he ordered earned him unrivalled notoriety. Are masterminds like him worse than those who do their bidding?

Charles Manson has died aged 83. Of those eight decades, he only spent two as a free man.

In his youth, Manson often did time for petty crimes. But it was the string of brutal murders in the summer of 1969, which he ordered but did not commit, that landed him behind bars for more than half his life. And it was those killings that made him, to quote one journalist, “a face-of-evil superstar symbol second only to Hitler”.

In the late 1960s, Manson set up a commune in the Californian desert. With his charisma and hippie lifestyle, he attracted a cult following mostly composed of young women. He declared that he was Christ reincarnated and preached about a coming race war.

Then, one day, he told his followers — nicknamed the “Manson family” — to visit a nearby house and "totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can". So began a series of murders that left nine dead.

The crimes shocked the world then, and continue to fascinate it now. Dozens of books have been written on the subject, as well as an opera and a musical. The singer Marilyn Manson named himself after Charles; the band Kasabian after one of his followers.

Manson was a paradox: a murderous icon who never literally committed murder. Till the end, he protested: “I never killed anyone!” This made no difference to the jury: he was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder, and remained in prison until his death on Sunday from natural causes.

Effectively, Manson was guilty of “murder by proxy”: masterminding a killing that someone else carries out. Such cases are very rare in the courts, although they are common enough throughout history. Think of vicious dictators, or people who hire hitmen.

The difference between killer and mastermind was central to the case of Adolf Eichmann. A senior Nazi during the second world war, Eichmann was caught in 1960 and put on trial in Israel. He tried to shift responsibility for the Holocaust by arguing that he was “just following orders”.

Are the masterminds really more evil than those who do their bidding?

The greater of two evils

Of course, say some. People like Manson and Hitler have charisma, which they use to convince people to kill. Not only do such people bear direct responsibility for the crimes, they can cause many more deaths than a single killer could. No wonder they become our “face-of-evil superstars”.

That is not fair, reply others. Criminal masterminds would just be crazy idiots if they had no one to follow their orders. Those who actually do the killing are just as evil as their leaders. Most of Manson’s “family” ended up with life sentences too. They deserved them as much as he did.

You Decide

  1. Do Manson and his followers bear equal responsibility for the murders?
  2. Is the public’s enduring fascination with Manson a good or a bad thing?


  1. Each write down a word that you associate with “evil”. Get your teacher to list them all on the board. Do any come up multiple times?
  2. Read about forensic psychologist Michael Stone’s scale of evil (NPR’s article in Become An Expert). Write a two-page answer to the question: “Is it useful to categorise ‘evil’ in this way?”

Some People Say...

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Attributed to Edmund Burke

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Manson’s followers killed nine people over five weeks in 1969. Their most famous victim was the Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, who was married to the renowned filmmaker Roman Polanski. All the defendants were found guilty in 1971. Manson retained a cult following throughout his life: his fans would write to him in prison and defend him in public.
What do we not know?
The killers’ motives. As the prosecution framed it, Manson convinced them that a race war was imminent, the black community would win, and he would become their leader; by pinning the murders on black people, they could kick-start the war. Manson himself dismissed this idea. Others argue that he was driven by LSD-induced paranoia and by anger over having failed to become a rock star, among other things.

Word Watch

One journalist
Read Erik Hedegaard’s full report for Rolling Stone in Become An Expert.
Dozens of books
A recent example is Emma Cline’s bestselling novel The Girls, a fictionalised portrait of Manson’s young female followers. Read an interview with her in Become An Expert.
One of his followers
Linda Kasabian says that she did not participate in the murders, but acted as a “lookout” while they happened. She testified against Manson, which saved her from prison.
Oxford Dictionaries: “A person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.”
Remained in prison
Manson was given the death sentence, but it was outlawed before he could be executed, and he received multiple life sentences instead. (Capital punishment was later legalised again.)
Just following orders
Eichmann’s argument did not save him: he was hanged. But it inspired the philosopher Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. She meant that Eichmann had gone along with the Holocaust out of a kind of stupid passivity rather than ideology. His stupidity was “banal” (meaning “ordinary”).

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