By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Manson Family is one of the best-known cults in U.S. history. Charles Manson recruited followers and eventually ordered them to kill more than half a dozen people. The NXIVM cult, including actress Allison Mack, shares some similar behaviors.
Allison Mack, best known for her role on the Superman prequel series Smallville, was recently sentenced to three years in prison and a $20,000 fine for her role in the NXIVM sex cult. Victim testimony stated that Mack recruited women to serve as sex slaves to NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, who was sentenced to 120 years, last October. Raniere pressured female followers to sleep with him and even branded his initials into them.
When most of us think of cults, it’s hard to shake Charles Manson and his devotees from our memories. In his video series Crimes of the Century: A Selective History of Infamy, Dr. Richard B. Spence, Professor of History at the University of Idaho, explained what makes a cult leader.
A Rocky Start
Charles Manson was born in 1934. According to Dr. Spence, Manson’s first brush with the law came at age seven, when he stole toys from rich children and set them on fire. He did a quick stint at a reform school at age nine and spent the next 10 years in and out of correctional institutions for petty crimes.
He learned hypnosis and guitar from another inmate before becoming a pimp in 1954. Manson made his way to Mexico to try dealing drugs in 1958, but was deported back to the United States the following year on a 10-year forgery rap.
“Now in his mid-twenties, Manson took a keen interest in mysticism and religion,” Dr. Spence said. “He devoured books on theosophy, Rossi creationism, and masonic lore, but he was especially drawn to Scientology, which he believed gave him special powers.
“In any case, Charlie had begun to think that he was special.”
Manson became a model prisoner and was granted parole in March 1967, at age 33, just before the Summer of Love. However, he skipped his first parole meeting in Los Angeles and headed to San Francisco, eventually heading to the parole office there. Rather than being bussed back to prison, he was permitted to change his parole district to San Francisco and he was assigned a new parole supervisor: Roger Smith, a doctoral student in criminology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Friends in High Places
“Normally, Smith should have been supervising anywhere from 20 to 100 parolees, but once Charlie came on the scene, his caseload gradually dropped to one: Charles Manson,” Dr. Spence said. “As a parole supervisor, Smith was remarkably lenient; he didn’t even demand that Manson get a job. But Roger Smith wasn’t befriending Manson; he was studying him.”
The two men were part of something called the San Francisco Project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Officially, it studied the relationship between parolees and their supervisors, but Smith was also involved in the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, which gave care to hippies and runaways, though its true purpose was to collect data on drug use and group dynamics.
“And who was a regular visitor at the free clinic?” Dr. Spence asked. “Charlie Manson and his ever-growing retinue of young female followers—basically, Manson and his girls were glorified lab rats handled by Roger Smith. As a federal parolee, Manson was supposed to have a job, avoid drugs and alcohol, and maintain no association with convicted felons.”
Not only did Manson ignore those restrictions, but he suffered no repercussions for doing so.
Dr. Spence said that Manson stole cars, committed credit card fraud, and dealt drugs, walking out of jail again and again with no charges sticking. This kind of absence of punishment is reserved for informants, which Dr. Spence believes Manson must have been.
Then came the cult.
“Under Smith’s watch, Charlie basically went back to pimping, with a psychedelic twist,” he said. “He quickly convinced [24-year-old library assistant Mary Brunner] to quit her job and let him move in with her; soon, she was pregnant with his child. Ex-stripper Susan Atkins and others followed.”
One was a lapsed Christian minister named Dean Moorehouse, who, along with his 15-year-old daughter, was given LSD from Manson’s suspiciously endless supply. Manson obtained formal permission to move into the Spahn Movie Ranch in 1968 with his cult. He and his followers participated in crimes, eventually working their way up to the murders of Sharon Tate and six others.
Dr. Spence believes that the killings were the straw that broke the camel’s back for Manson’s informing days. Unable or unwilling to downplay the murder of a young, pregnant actress and several others, anyone who had been bankrolling or protecting Manson finally cut him loose.
Charles Manson died in prison of natural causes on November 19, 2017.