Charles Manson once told Northeastern professor emeritus Jack Levin, “I am the most famous person who ever lived.”
That was 2007. Levin was working on a book about serial killers and mass murder, and was interviewing Manson as part of his research. A decade later, reflecting on it a few days after Manson’s death at 83, Levin said Manson wasn’t far off.
“That’s only a slight exaggeration,” Levin said. “There are many great people who preceded Manson and were world-renowned but didn’t have the benefit of the mass media like Manson did.” Indeed, his “Manson Family” cult was covered nearly nonstop in the late 1960s and early 70s.
A sociologist and criminologist, Levin is familiar with the details.
Levin spoke with Manson over the phone while the infamous cult leader and serial killer was serving a life sentence at the California State Prison in Corcoran, California.
“When I interviewed him, he had a personal secretary,” Levin recalled with an incredulous laugh. An inmate who “adored” Manson had volunteered to be his secretary, Levin explained. The man would make appointments for Levin and Manson to speak over the phone.
Manson and a few of his fellow inmates also gave Levin a nickname, Levin said. It was after Levin appeared as a guest commentator on America’s Most Wanted.
“I guess he and some of the other inmates didn’t like what I had to say, because after that, Manson started calling me ‘Jack the Jackal,’” Levin said.
At Northeastern, Levin used to open up his “Sociology of Violence” course by asking students if they’d heard of Charles Manson. With few exceptions, nearly every student would raise his or her hand.
“Thanks to TV and the press’ thirst for murder stories, Manson stayed in the news all these decades and stayed in the minds of Americans everywhere,” Levin said.
Manson was convicted of nine murders throughout his life, but was infamous for the seven brutal killings known as the Tate-LaBianca murders, carried out by several of his followers on two nights in August 1969.
According to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who was interviewed by Los Angeles Magazine after the trial, Manson instructed a group of his followers to kill everyone at a house on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, which included actress Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Steven Parent, as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next night.
The heinous crime and the trial that followed influenced popular culture to an extent that hasn’t been seen since.
“I don’t think we could have another killer that looks like Charlie Manson,” Levin said. “He fit into the anti-establishment environment that prevailed during the 60s and 70s, and those days are gone. We could get another killer that influences young people but it wouldn’t look anything like Manson.”
That’s because Manson was perfectly of-his-time, Levin said.
His particular brand of frustrated change was exactly what those who ultimately followed him wanted. “His followers were young people who weren’t getting along with their parents, they were looking to make profound change in their lives. If they hadn’t found Manson, they probably would’ve gone to Haight-Ashbury and talked about love and peace,” Levin said, referring to a district in San Francisco that’s considered the birthplace of hippie counterculture.
During the early days of his cult influence, Manson “would talk about peace and love, too,” Levin said. He slowly transitioned to talking about “nothing else but death. But of course, by that point, his followers already thought he was a god.”
Manson likely held the same belief about himself. “He wanted fame,” Levin said. “He’d been neglected and abused growing up, no one seemed to care for him at all, then all of a sudden he’s followed into the desert by all these young people. After that he couldn’t settle for anything less than infamy.”
Levin said it’s nearly impossible to detect serial killers before they commit the acts, but they tend to have similar qualities that become clear after the fact. “He was a sociopath, there’s no question about it,” Levin said. “Most serial killers are. They kill with moral impunity; they have no empathy for their victims. Oftentimes they’re manipulative. The key here, though, is that there are literally millions of people who are sociopathic, but they don’t kill anyone. We can explain after the fact why somebody would kill and under what conditions but beforehand it’s another matter.”
One thing we can do, though, is intervene when children and young adults are troubled. “We can find red flags in children and teenagers, and when we do, we shouldn’t use them to punish those people but to help them,” Levin said.