Listening to history, 40 years after it was made

By Jayson Jacoby March 22, 2013 09:42 am

Most of us who regularly read history books, I’d wager, have wished mightily at some point that we could actually witness the scenes we’re reading about.

I was able recently to listen to history being made — before I was born.

Which isn’t quite as compelling, I suppose, as seeing an epochal event happen.

But this experience, though purely auditory, was awfully interesting just the same.

The subject, I’ll concede, is unpleasant. But then much of what gets into the history books is like that.

I would argue that the Manson murders of 1969 constitute the second most notorious criminal case in America in the 20th century.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy six years earlier is unchallenged at the top of that dubious list. The slayings of the president’s brother, Robert, and of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., both within a two-month span in the spring of 1968, were landmark events, as well; but they also, sadly, have come to be seen, in effect, as the latter acts of the terrible trilogy that started on that late November day in Dallas.

And of course political assassinations are part of the nation’s heritage.

(The O.J. Simpson case gets mentioned, too, but I question its staying power; even now, almost 19 years later, it seems to me to have faded considerably.)

The murders committed at the behest of Charles Manson, by contrast, arrived like some exotic and virulent strain of bacteria, all the more frightening because they seemed without precedent and, due to the motive, which was to ignite an Armageddon-like race war, almost beyond comprehension.

And they remain so, more than a generation later.

That Manson, a con man with a lengthy but otherwise unremarkable criminal record, could persuade several people in their early 20s, three of them women, to stab, shoot and bludgeon strangers in their own homes, and then write words on the walls (and in one case, a refrigerator) in the victims’ blood, remains, fortunately, a singular chapter.

Dozens of books have been written about the case but the best-seller by a wide margin is “Helter Skelter,” the 1974 chronicle co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi, the Los Angeles deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted Manson and his followers.

I own a paperback copy and have read it several times.

Despite my interest in the case, I don’t feel shortchanged because I didn’t get to watch the events that Bugliosi and his collaborator, Curt Gentry, wrote about.

By which I mean the actual murders. It would be pretty morbid, it seems to me, to wish you could have watched as helpless people were slaughtered, however clinical your interest might be. The Holocaust fascinates me, too, but I have no desire to watch sooty black smoke belching from the crematoria.

The reason I pine for a time machine is that I’d like to experience what the mood was like immediately after the murders, and during the police investigation and the trials that continued well into 1971.

I’d like to follow the case when it was news rather than history, a matter of daily front-page headlines rather than what it has become — a rare back-section filler documenting the latest rejection of a Manson killer’s plea for parole.

And so I was gratified to run across a website which, to the extent such is possible, fulfilled my wish.

The website is (Cielo Drive, in Bel Air, was the location of the first murder spree, when a trio of Manson’s acolytes killed actress Sharon Tate and four others just after midnight on Aug. 9, 1969.)

The website’s owners have digitized several interviews that detectives, and in a few cases Bugliosi himself, conducted with potential trial witnesses during the investigation.

Most of these interviews are excerpted, or at least referenced, in “Helter Skelter.”

Yet the difference between listening to the actual interviews, and reading a filtered and edited version of them, was considerably more profound than I expected.

It’s not that there were any great revelations — Bugliosi, as you’d expect from a skilled litigator, didn’t skimp on the detail when writing his 676-page book.

But what might seem to be trivialities — the muffled squeak as someone shifted in his chair, the distant hoot of a car’s horn on the Los Angeles street outside Bugliosi’s office — infused this story, so familiar to me, with an immediacy and a reality that no book, no matter how thorough, can equal.

I understood, in a way I hadn’t before, that the prosecutor really sat there, scrawling notes on his yellow legal pads, trying to understand this apparent monster, Manson, long before the grass had grown over the graves of his victims.

The inevitable flaw in almost every history book, of course, is that, unlike a novel, you already know how it’s going to turn out.

If the topic is, say, World War II, well, you understand that whatever happens on a particular battlefield, however ascendant the Axis is at a given moment, in the end the Allies win.

But when these interviews in the Manson case were taped, the outcome was uncertain. The trial was months away and neither Bugliosi nor the police knew, beyond any doubt, who had committed the murders and what role, if any, Manson had played in the carnage.

Contemporary news reports make it clear that even when the trial started, the case against Manson and his co-defendants was far from formidable. 

To belabor the wartime analogy, these tapes are akin to sitting in on a meeting between Eisenhower and Montgomery during the early spring of 1944, when Omaha Beach was merely a name printed on a map of the Normandy coast.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.