Charles Manson, the intellectual author of a series of 1969 murders so hideously brutal and pointless that nearly five decades later his name is still synonymous with slaughter, died over the weekend. Of natural causes, they say, though I never thought anything about him was natural — including the chilling moment I crossed his path 44 years ago.
It was summer of 1973, between my sophomore and junior years of college, when I was working as an intern in the California Department of Corrections. The head of the state Health and Welfare Agency, which oversaw Corrections, was gearing up to run for governor, and he wanted regular positive press releases from all 32 or whatever it was departments he controlled. So I spent a lot of time visiting prisons to look for success stories that could be turned into press releases. (“Only 22 stabbings at San Quentin last month!”)
One of my visits was to the euphemistically named California Medical Facility in Vacaville, home to the hard-core-craziest inmates. Prison administrators, told an intern was coming from Sacramento, inevitably assumed I was some kind of hippie turn-’em-all-loose advocate. (No matter that I was exactly the opposite.)
So my visits always began with a visit to the prison office that investigated internal crime, where I’d be shown photos of various shankings and beatings. From there, I’d be taken to a security cell block, where the inmates could be counted on to scream abuse and threats at any visitor. I always tried not to make eye contact with the inmates or gaze at them like they were animals on display in a zoo, because that prodded them to new levels of frenzy.
The Vacaville security wing, where most of the inmates were genuinely out of control, was the worst I’d ever visited, and I was really making a point of gazing straight ahead. But as we got about midway through through the cell block, the correctional officer escorting me said, very casually, that’s Charlie Manson over on your left.
That was just too much for me to resist. I tried to keep my head pointed straight while swiveling my eyes toward him, but my face moved a little bit, and we locked eyes. His face remained impassive, but he slowly unfurled a middle finger in my direction.
Yeah, he was behind bars and there were two or three big correctional officers on the block floor, but it nonetheless felt like an icicle through my heart. I thrilled with silent relief as we exited the other end of the block. I am always careful in telling this story. The first time, I said that Charles Manson had thrown me a finger, and the person I was talking to said in horror, “Oh my God? Whose was it?” Discussions of Manson create their own ghastly context.
I had one other near-brush with the Manson Family that summer. I visited the state women’s prison in Frontera, which (at least at that time) was almost entirely populated with low-security inmates were who locked up for drug charges or writing bad checks. Most of them were housed in dorm-style areas rather than single cells.
My tour was conducted not by a correctional officer but an inmate, who after we wandered a bit, asked if I wanted to go over to the prison’s single real cell block, where a handful of medium-security inmates were kept. We entered and walked its length to where it ended in a cinder-block wall with a barred door in it.
“That’s the maximum security area,” my guide said. “The only ones back there are the three Manson women. No one knows what goes on back there, but it's kind of weird.”
“What do you mean, weird?” I asked. She took me over to the cell right outside the door and repeated my question to the woman inside.
“The COs don’t enforce the lights-out time back there,” she said of the correctional officers. “I guess they think its not worth the hassle, because those women are nuts. They stay up all night, and you hear these strange noises, and sometimes witchy cackling.” She paused, then added: “And one time, I heard bagpipes.”
“Bagpipes?” I said. “Bagpipes,” she repeated, then shrugged. I wonder if they'll be playing tonight.