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Charles Manson was a legend in his own time, and a rumor in his hometown.
Illustration by Sean McCabe
In Cincinnati, as in most places, we like to crow about our famous natives. Entertainers, athletes, anyone with at least a modicum of national renown. Even the celebrities who inspire more eye-rolling than chest-thumping—former Reds owner Marge Schott comes to mind, and Jerry Springer—make the list of names worth dropping.
Except one. We tend to skip his name, perhaps because it’s more notorious than any this side of Hitler. Or maybe because many Cincinnatians, even lifelong residents, don’t know he was born here. But, indeed, Charles Manson, leader of the group convicted of slaughtering seven people in the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, is a local boy. Those who do know also usually know his local legends, which turn out to be as untrustworthy as the man himself.
First, the truth. He was born on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati General Hospital (now UC Medical Center). His mother, Kathleen Maddox, just 15, had moved here from Ashland, Kentucky, that summer to marry William Manson, according to the marriage license issued on August 21. At the ceremony she was pregnant with another man’s baby, who was christened Charles Milles Manson, taking on the surname of his mother’s new husband. It’s long been suggested that the three lived together for a short time in Over-the-Rhine.
Not much more about their lives in Cincinnati is known, even by Jeff Guinn, author of the new, exhaustively researched biography Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Through extensive research, Guinn sheds new light on the killer’s childhood, but frustratingly, adds little to what we know about his Cincinnati years.
“I don’t think anybody knows anymore,” Guinn says. According to his book, Kathleen Manson spent her time here looking for fun in seedy Cincinnati bars—so much time, in fact, that in April 1937, William Manson filed for divorce, subsequently making it public that the child was not his. Kathleen and Charles moved back to Ashland to live with her mother before settling in Charleston, West Virginia, to be near Kathleen’s sister’s family. In Guinn’s 500-page biography, Cincinnati is never mentioned again.
As for the Manson legends that linger, some come from Charlie himself. In interviews he has recalled that, while still a toddler, his mother traded him to a bartender, presumably in Cincinnati, for a pitcher of beer. True?
“Never, never, never,” says Guinn. “Am I being emphatic enough about that?”
He also has claimed that his mother was a prostitute. “There is no evidence that she was except Manson’s own statements, and those usually turn out to be lies,” says Guinn. “It’s hard to believe she was a working prostitute and was never arrested once.”
Not that Kathleen was a model mom. When Charles was 5, she and her brother went to prison for armed robbery—though they were armed only with a bottle of ketchup, which they hoped their victim would mistake for a gun barrel poked in his back. After her release, she improved her life and tried to help her incorrigible son.
A local Manson myth that endures despite public denials from the institution itself is that he attended Walnut Hills High School. Guinn documents that Charlie did not attend any schools after the age of 9, when he began living in a series of boys’ homes and reformatories. The only school he attended was in West Virginia.
Another popular legend alleges that in the 1960s Manson lived in Mt. Adams, then Cincinnati’s hippie hotspot. Chances are slim, however; he had no family here, and no reason to visit. Though redolent of flower power, Mt. Adams didn’t have the countercultural panache to draw seekers all the way from California, where Charlie, released from prison in 1967, was building his “Family” and trying to land a record contract.
According to the Mt. Adams apocrypha, Manson frequented City View Tavern on Oregon Street where he would down shots of tequila then threaten to jump off the tavern’s deck. An alternate version holds that he actually did jump. The tavern stopped serving tequila to stop Manson from coming in, and the policy remains intact to this day.
“That is a true story,” says Silas Evans, who has owned the tavern with his partner, Debra Henning, for 24 years. He says they heard it from the previous owner. As for why the tradition continues long after Manson’s imprisonment, Evans says, “Tequila is something that makes people do stupid things. And not serving it, that keeps the story interesting. People always come in and ask if it’s true and we just say yes.”
Guinn is doubtful, noting that Manson remained in the west after his release and that he disapproved of alcohol. “During those hippie halcyon days, [Manson] preached that no one should ever drink because he said it was unnatural,” Guinn says.
The persistence of these legends suggests that, rather than be abashed by the Manson connection, there are some Cincinnatians who savor the unsavoriness he provides in our somewhat tame celebrity lineup. While we’re proud that Doris Day and George Clooney project our wholesome image to the nation, Manson brings the crazy. More than that, he still means something: Nobody calls Nick Lachey a symbol of his times. Charlie’s legacy lives on—a dark, unlikely nugget in the Queen City’s crown.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue