The world became a happier place last Sunday when news came that California cult leader Charles Manson had died in prison. If there was anything to be sad about Manson’s passing, it was that he died of natural causes, a luxury that most who crossed his path were never afforded.
Truth be told, bed-bug Charlie Manson spent many years in Indiana. Granted, most of those years were spent behind bars, but many Hoosiers would be amazed by the revelation that he had ties to the Circle City at all.
When news of Manson’s death hit the wires, I was contacted by WISH-TV 8/MyIndy-TV reporter Elizabeth Choi for a segment about Manson’s early connection to Indianapolis. The request came based on an article I wrote back in May of 2009. The story, shot on the grounds of Central State hospital, can be found on the WISH-TV website. Here is that story just as it appeared over 7 years ago.
Charles Manson. The very name can conjure up images of a drug addled criminal maniac from the darkest pages of our pop culture past. What most Hoosiers in the capital city don’t realize is that many of Manson’s severe psychotic disabilities are rooted here in Indianapolis.
Although born in nearby Cincinnati on Nov. 12, 1934, it didn’t take Manson long to migrate to the Hoosier state. Born to an alcoholic, prostitute mother who Manson said once “sold” him to barmaid for a pitcher of beer, Charlie’s fate seemed pre-ordained. His indigent mother could not care for him and in 1947, 13-year-old Charles Manson was sent to a boarding school run by Roman Catholic priests known as the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute. It was a strict school where punishment for even the tiniest infraction included beatings by either a wooden paddle or a leather strap. Eventually, living at Gibault got to be too much for Charles, and he ran away. He slept in the woods, under bridges, and wherever else he could find shelter.
In 1948, Manson committed his first known crime by robbing an Indianapolis grocery store. At first the robbery was simply to find something to eat, but Charlie found the cash register change in a cigar box hidden under the counter. It was just over $100, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. The first thing Charlie did was to rent a room on Indianapolis’ Skid Row, and eat as much as he could possibly handle. Now 14, Charlie actually tried to go straight for a while by getting a job delivering messages for Western Union, but he quickly began to supplement his wages by petty theft. It wasn’t long before he was broke and Charlie made the choice to steal whatever he could to accumulate a little extra money. After stealing a bicycle, Manson was arrested and the police discovered quickly that he was a runaway. The police located his mother, who brought Charlie home, but he quickly ran away again. When caught, Manson was already honing his con man skills by telling the Indianapolis juvenile officials: “I didn’t want to stay where mother lived in sin.”
The authorities fell for his con and sent Charlie to live with his aunt in a small house near the corner of West Vermont and North Exeter streets, across the street from the infamous Central State Hospital. A section of the grounds of the mental hospital at the corner of North Warman Avenue and Vermont Street was set aside as a public playground and picnic area. It also served as a hangout for local kids located just outside of the hospital’s north fence; it was within sight of Manson’s boyhood home. Charles, like all of the kids in the neighborhood, would no doubt hang out in this park. Whether or not the time spent on the hospital grounds contributed to his particular state of mental dysfunction is debatable and I’m not suggesting that psychotic disorders are somehow contagious. However, we already know that Charlie was practicing to be a con man, so it’s not a far stretch to believe that this exposure at least enabled him to sharpen his skills for his future mind control games.
During this time, he was frequently detained at the Indiana Boys’ School in nearby Plainfield. It’s been speculated that it was at the Indiana School for Boys that 5-foot tall Charles Manson was beaten and raped repeatedly for over three years. During one of these detentions, young Manson was “discovered” by a local priest, Rev. George Powers. “This particular boy seemed very lonesome, just craving attention and affection,” recalled Father Powers, now an instructor at the New York Theological Seminary. “He looked like an innocent altar boy, and he was so ashamed of his mother.”
Father Powers arranged for Manson to be sent to the famous Father Flanagan’s Boys Town near Omaha, Nebraska. The Indianapolis News ran a front page story on March 7, 1949, headlined “Dream Comes True for Lad; He’s Going to Boys Town.” It characterized 14-year-old Manson as a “dead end kid” who was getting a second chance by being sent to the “last chance” haven for wayward boys. “He won everybody over,” the priest said. “The juvenile court judge was completely taken with his personality. He had ability beyond his years to present himself; he was a beautiful kid for his age.”
Young Charlie, however, did not turn his life around. Four days after arriving in Boys Town in early 1949, he ran away, stole a motor scooter, and then a car. He was arrested while robbing a grocery store in Peoria, Illinois, and sent back to Indianapolis. Officials there, embarrassed and frustrated, sent him back to reform school in Plainfield.
For the next 5 years, Manson was in and out of the institution. He escaped from the Boys’ School 18 times in three years. In 1951 during one of these escapes, he stole a car and headed west. He robbed 15 to 20 gas stations along the way before being caught in Utah. Instead of sending him straight to prison, Manson conned his way into being sent to the “National Training School for Boys” in Washington, D.C. In 1954, psychiatrists described him as a “Slick” but “Sensitive” boy. While behind bars, in what would be his last act of violence before the Hollywood murder spree that made him infamous, Manson sodomized a young boy while holding a knife to his throat.
After his release in late 1954, Manson traveled to West Virginia where his grandmother lived. Almost immediately after arriving, he met and married Wheeling waitress Rosalie Jean Willis on Jan. 17, 1955. Rosalie quickly became pregnant and the couple had a son named Charles Jr. Again, Manson tried the straight life by getting part time jobs as a busboy and parking lot attendant. However, Manson couldn’t resist the temptation of easy money and began to steal the contents of the cars he’d been entrusted with. Eventually, he stole one of these valet cars and drove it out of state. He was caught and arrested in October 1955 and sentenced to five years. When he was released in September 1958, his wife had already divorced him. Over the next 11 years, Manson was arrested several times for theft, forgery and probation violations.
Manson left Indiana for good in mid-1950s Eisenhower America. Kids were wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps and spending their Saturdays at movie theatres watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry chase the bad guys of the old west. Drugs, Free Love, Vietnam and even Manson’s inspiration band, the Beatles, were years away when Charlie Manson fled the Hoosier state. No one could have known that this tiny, seemingly insignificant Hoosier juvenile delinquent would become the most famous serial killer cult leader this country would ever see. And those wicked con game seeds were planted right here in Indianapolis.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View, Irvington Haunts: The Tour Guide, and The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes collection. Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.