Charles Manson solidified his place in the public consciousness as a volatile, crazy-eyed cult leader who led his followers to commit some of the nation’s most heinous murders—but there was another, more domestic side to Manson.
Manson was also once a husband, marrying on two different occasions, and had tried to lead—at least temporarily—a traditional, quiet life with his young bride in McMechen, West Virginia, according to the new EPIX docuseries “Helter Skelter” airing Sunday nights.
Manson married Rosalie Jean Willis in 1955 and while he’d later crudely tell an interviewer he decided to get married just “to get in that p----” those who knew him at the time said he appeared to be a happy groom.
“Charlie’s grandmother throws a lovely party for them, a reception after the wedding in her house,” Jeff Guinn, author of the book “Manson: The Life and Times of Charlie Manson,” said in the docuseries.
Virginia Brautigan, a friend of the family who knew Manson growing up, attended the party with her parents.
“It was small but it was a nice time,” she said in “Helter Skelter.” “The one thing I noticed that night is I have never seen him that happy in my life.”
Willis had worked at a grocery store in the small town and had been “rather quiet and kind of reserved,” according to McMechen resident John Catlett.
“I kept to myself but I thought she was very attractive and I wouldn’t mind having her for a girlfriend,” Catlett later recalled in the docuseries of Manson’s first bride. “She was very pleasant, cordial. A very nice person.”
Catlett said Manson—who he described as a “relatively quiet” guy—“seemed to come in and sweep Rosalie off her feet and that’s the last I heard of Rosalie at the store.”
Lis Wiehl, co-author of the book “Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest For Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter” told Oxygen.com Manson and Willis met at an Irish bar.
“They fall in love and he later writes that she’s the only woman he ever truly loved and the only person he really cared about,” Wiehl said.
After tying the knot when Manson was 20-years-old and Willis was just 15-years-old, the newlyweds initially settled in McMechen and tried to start a life for themselves.
“For married couples, the way you passed the time of day in the evening is to sit out on the front stoop and as your neighbors walked by you’d chat and you’d pass the time of day and suddenly there’s Charlie Manson trying to do this,” Guinn said.
But Manson’s attempts at a normal domestic life would soon take a turn after Willis got pregnant and the couple found themselves short on money. Manson took a second job to try to support the family, but soon began stealing cars to subsidize his income, Guinn said.
As their financial problems continued, the couple decided to head out to California, where Manson’s mother Kathleen Maddox had already settled.
“He leaves McMechen with a pregnant child bride in a car he stole to go to California where he’s sure he will somehow become a huge success,” Guinn said.
Manson’s dreams of a better life abruptly ended, however, after he got arrested for driving the stolen car around Los Angeles.
Guinn called Manson an “incompetent criminal” and said his mistake had been not ditching the stolen car after the couple had arrived in California, but Manson himself would later blame Willis for his legal troubles.
“See my old lady, she said let’s steal a car and go to California and I said, ‘man, I ain’t gonna steal no car and go to California and go back to jail.’ She says we won’t get caught. We didn’t get caught, just I got caught,” he once told an interviewer according to the docuseries.
Manson was sent to Terminal Island prison. While Manson was behind bars, Wiehl said Willis lived with his mother Kathleen and often wrote Manson letters and visited him in prison with the couple’s new baby, Charles Manson Jr.
But the letters and visits eventually tapered off and Willis began to see another man, a truck driver named Jack White.
Manson’s mom Kathleen had to break the news to Manson that his wife and son had moved out of her home and that his wife was now pregnant with another man’s baby.
“He gets this news in prison and he’s very upset,” Wiehl said.
The news was so upsetting that Manson tried to escape prison in April of 1957.
“He tries to hot wire a car and doesn’t even get out of the prison parking lot,” Wiehl said. “By doing that, though he loses his chance for an early release.”
The couple divorced in 1958, but Wiehl believes Willis may have been Manson’s only true love—if he was ever capable of real love.
“Here was his one chance maybe at life to get it right, to really fall in love and to be with a woman that he cared about and it doesn’t work out,” Wiehl said.
Manson’s mother Kathleen would also later attribute the devastation Manson felt about the breakup to his later treatment of women, Wiehl said.
“I think the business with Rosalie really hurt Charles. I think Rosalie was the only woman he ever really loved and from then on he never respected women,” Kathleen once said according to Wiehl’s book.
Manson never contested the divorce from behind bars and the union ended.
Willis later remarried and her son took his stepfather’s name, becoming Jay White.
After the marriage fell apart, Manson turned his attention to his own “education” as some would call it learning from others behind bars how to be a good pimp and taking a course on Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” to learn more about how to manipulate others.
“There is a change in his development,” Wiehl said.
A Marriage Or Get Of Jail Free Card?
Manson was released from prison in September 1958 after serving about 29 months of his three-year-prison term just before his 24th birthday.
According to Wiehl, he did a number of odd jobs like being a salesman but spent most of his energy pimping.
Manson got women to prostitute—including his own girlfriend Leona Rae “Candy” Stevens, also known as Leona Rae Musser—and reaped the rewards himself.
But Manson found himself in trouble with the law again on May 1, 1959 when he was arrested for pilfering two U.S. treasury checks from the mailbox of Leslie Sever.
The checks were made out to Sever and her husband Olli, who had died more than two years earlier. Manson cashed a check for $34 made out to Leslie at a gas station and then tried to cash another $37.50 check at a local market. When the clerk questioned him, he took off running eventually finding himself once again in law enforcement custody, Wiehl said.
While being questioned by secret service agents about the checks, Manson tried to destroy the evidence, shoving one of the checks into his mouth when the agents weren’t looking.
In an attempt to get a lenient sentence in the case, Manson had other inmates write letters in his favor to the judge. When that didn’t work, Wiehl said he sent Stevens to tell his probation officer that she was pregnant and if they would let Manson go the pair could get married and have a good life.
“She repeated this same emotional plea for the judge in the courtroom where she cried and asked for leniency then they actually did get married in 1959,” Wiehl said.
The ploy initially worked. The judge was moved by letters written by Manson and Stevens and decided to suspend Manson’s 10-year sentence and gave him five years of probation instead, but Manson “wasted no time and became sexually involved with two other teenage girls and was arrested for grand theft auto and using stolen credit cards,” Wiehl said.
This time, Stevens—who was facing legal charges of her own—decided to turn against Manson and testified against him in front of a grand jury.
Manson was sent to prison and in 1964, Stevens informed prison officials that she had been granted a divorce on the grounds of conviction of a felony and extreme and repeated acts of cruelty.
Manson once again received the news of his failed marriage while he was behind bars.
“Candy was a convenient useful tool to Charlie. He used her,” Wiehl said, adding that she didn’t believe “there was any real love there.”
The marriage did result in a second son for Manson, who the couple named Charles Luther Manson.
Another Near Marriage
Manson almost walked down the aisle a third time in 2014 after a 26-year-old woman named Afton Elaine Burton or “Star” proclaimed her love for the cult leader, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Burton had moved from her hometown of Bunker Hills, Illinois at the age of 19 to be closer to Manson in California, according to The Daily Beast.
The couple took out a Kings County marriage license but the nuptials never happened.
Journalist Daniel Simone later claimed Burton had only wanted to marry the convicted felon so that she could gain possession of his corpse after he died and display it in a glass coffin, The New York Post reported in 2015.
Simone said Manson called off the marriage plans to the woman decades his junior.
“He’s finally realized that he’s been played for a fool,” Simone said at the time.
While it’s unknown how many children Manson may have fathered as part of the Manson “family’s” free love philosophy, he does have three known sons.
Charles Manson Jr., who resulted from his first marriage to Willis, later took his stepfather’s last name and became Jay White. He moved to Cadiz, Ohio, with his mother, stepfather and two half-brothers.
Those who knew him growing up described him as outgoing, fun-loving and easy-going, Wiehl said.
But his life took a turn in the small Ohio town after he had to apply for a job at a local coal mine using his social security card that bore his original name.
“This is a small town,” Wiehl said. “Word spread quickly that Jay White was actually Charles Milles Manson Jr., the son of the most notorious murderer in the U.S. history.”
Manson Jr.—who had some of his famous father’s same features and personality traits—soon became the target of bullying and those who sought him out to fight. Like Manson, Wiehl said, he liked to play the guitar and had some singing ability. He also struggled with a learning disability and had poor reading skills.
His half-brother Bill told Wiehl everyone in town had wanted to kill him because of his link to the notorious killer, even though Manson Jr. had not had any contact with his father since he was a baby.
He would go on to get married and have a son, but three weeks after his divorce was finalized in 1993, Manson Jr. shot himself in the head on the side of a highway in Burlington, Colorado, Wiehl said.
His son, Jason Freeman, told CNN in 2012 he believes his father’s connection to the infamous killer had always haunted him.
“He couldn’t live it down,” he said. “He couldn’t live down who his father was.”
Freeman would go on the become a professional boxer and mixed martial arts fighter and once won a championship title in 2009 using the moniker Charles Manson, III, Wiehl said.
He sent a photo of himself after the victory to Manson himself but he didn’t hear back from the cult leader.
“Jason kept trying to contact his grandfather and finally Manson responded by writing on Jason’s letter and sending it back to him,” Wiehl said.
The two continued to talk regularly until Manson’s death in 2017.
“From time to time, every now and then, he’d say ‘I love you,’” Freeman told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2018. “He’d say it back to me. Maybe a couple times he said it first. It took a while to get to that point though, trust me.”
While Manson and Freeman were able to forge a relationship, he also told the paper he didn’t want “to be viewed for the actions of my grandfather.”
Freeman was given control of Manson’s remains after a spirited legal battle with others who had claimed to have a right to the body.
He spread Manson’s ashes through the Sierra Mountains in California and gave some to one of his loyal followers Sandra Good. The remainder were scattered over the Gulf of Mexico in a spot off the coast of Florida, the paper reports.
Freeman believes his notorious grandfather is now in Heaven.
“It may be hard to believe for most people, but yeah,” Freeman told the paper. “We’re all God’s children, and he made mistakes in his life, but I know he was right with God before he died.”
After Manson’s marriage to Stevens dissolved, little is known about what happened to her or Charles Luther Manson—Manson’s second son—in the years that followed.
Manson was also the father of follower Mary Brunner’s son, a boy originally named Valentine Michael Manson, who was also known amongst the family as Sunstone Hawk or Pooh Bear.
He was eventually raised by his grandparents, who adopted him and changed his name to Michael Brunner, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“I think they wanted to get rid of the Manson name because of school and to make me a little more normal,” Brunner told the paper in 2019. “You know, so I wasn’t being pestered or bullied or that sort of thing, which didn’t happen much.”
His grandparents “gave me what I needed to survive and thrive, and pushed me through school and pushed me through sports and made sure I was doing the right thing,” he said.
Brunner said he had an “average” childhood growing up in Wisconsin and remained somewhat isolated from his connection to Manson—other than a time in elementary school when a classmate passed him a note saying his father was a murderer.
Brunner now has his own son and a partner who he shares a 56-acre farm with “somewhere in the rural Midwest” but declined to provide any further details about his personal life.
He never had a relationship with his famous father but after his death spent time exploring who his father was with the help of Nikolas Schreck, a singer, author and Tantric Buddhist meditation teacher who once wrote about Manson and spend hours interviewing him.
“I think the public has been fed some untruths, and this whole thing has been glorified and glammified and blown out of proportion,” Brunner told The Los Angeles Times of his father’s part in the famous slayings. “I mean, do we believe in brainwashed zombies out killing people?”
Brunner acknowledges his father had been a criminal but told the paper he didn’t think he was necessarily the evil genius he’s been portrayed as in the media.
“I would say 95% of the public looks at Charlie as this mass-murdering dog, and it’s really, obviously, just not true,” he said. “He didn’t necessarily kill.”
Manson fathered only three publicly known sons—but its possible he may be the father to more.
“Honestly, we don’t know how many children he fathered,” Wiehl said.
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