The Manson Family’s Most Violent Member: Susan Atkins

Last updated on April 8th, 2024 at 05:48 pm

The counterculture movement dominated the 1960s in America. Young people sought new forms of expression that highlighted their individualism and spirituality while emphasizing anti-establishment attitudes and advocating for equality.

This led to many young people experimenting with drugs and new ideologies, and sometimes this led them to dark places. Susan Atkins, a follower of the notorious Charles Manson, is a peak example. 

Susan Atkins, as photographed by Bruce Cox, 26 January 1971. The LA Times

A Troubled Childhood

Susan Atkins was born in San Gabriel, California on May 7, 1948, to two alcoholic parents. Her childhood was turbulent. By 1964 her mother had died of cancer, leaving Atkins and her brother bouncing between relatives.

Their father moved the kids to Los Banos. He then disappeared intermittently while he searched for work in the region, leaving the kids in the care of various relatives.

Left in this scenario, Atkins was in charge of her brother, taking on a job to ensure their survival as their family life fell apart. The increased responsibility took its toll as Atkins’ school performance slipped. 

Two years later, when she was 18, Susan moved to San Francisco with some friends. She became a stripper to get by and met some of the most controversial characters in California at the time.

One person who paid for Atkins’ performance while she was a stripper was Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, which still stands as a peak example of counterculture. Another soon-to-be infamous character that Atkins met was Charles Manson.

Manson performed at the house where Atkins was staying with many friends. When police later raided the house, Manson invited Atkins to come and join his new “family”. 

Falling Under Manson’s Spell

In the late 1960s, Manson started a cult that attracted dozens of young women. He fully embraced the emergence of counterculture. He first set up his operations base in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, the center of the growing hippie culture.

Adopting facets of different religions, Manson created an apocryphal theology that ensnared those around him, particularly young, middle-class women. These women were seeking a change of pace in their lives.

Manson convinced his followers that they were all the reincarnations of original Christians. He told them that the “establishment” of the modern era was the equivalent of the Roman Empire.

He equated the contemporary counterculture movement to the radical creation of Christianity under Roman Rule. He also taught his followers that Satan and Jesus would reconcile for the end of the world, judging humanity together in the wake of an apocalyptic race war. 

Susan Atkins in court with Charles Manson. 1970. The Los Angeles Times. AP

Atkin’s Joins the Family

Atkins joined this family of believers full force. She later claimed that she believed Manson was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Manson Family settled in the San Fernando Valley at a location called Spahn Ranch. Although, by 1969 they began attracting the attention of police because of the high number of runaway young women. There were also suspicions that the group was stealing cars.

Manson began to plan for the Manson Family to move, but moving the entire cult would require a huge amount of money. Attempts to raise money through drug deals or strong-arming acquaintances of the Family resulted in murders.

The String of Murders Begins

These were aimed at inciting the race war Manson prophesied. Manson killed a Black Panther in a drug deal gone wrong.

His associate Bobby Beausoleil killed Gary Hinman after forcing him to sign over his cars to the Family. He then wrote “Political Piggy” in an attempt to frame the Panthers.

The Family believed this would start the final race war. The police arrested Beausoleil on August 7 when he was found sleeping in one of Hinman’s cars. 

On August 8, the Family continued their string of violence with a quintuple homicide that would make Manson’s cult publicly infamous. Atkins and four others were assigned by Manson to go to 10050 Cielo Drive and collect money from the people there before killing them.

While the money would help the family, the mission would also be a way for Manson to enact revenge against a producer who slighted him. He wanted to instill fear in the hearts of all of Hollywood for denying him a music career. 

The Tate-LaBianca Murders

While at 10050 Cielo Drive, Atkins killed actress Sharon Tate who was married to director Roman Polanski. Polanski was out of the country working on a film. Tate was spending the night with friends, including the heir to the Folgers coffee fortune.

Atkins killed Tate herself, later recounting the violence with which she committed the act. She recalls that she was high on hallucinogens and had repeatedly stabbed Tate. She became increasingly agitated as Tate asked for Atkins to spare the child that she was 8.5 months pregnant with.

Then Atkins wrote the word “Pig” in Tate’s blood on the front door in an attempt to convince the police that they had arrested the wrong man the day before. Two days later, Atkins and others would kill two more people for the Family’s agenda. 

Tate killers Susan Atkins, Charles Watson & Patricia Krenwinkel in 1971 mughshot

The group was arrested a week later in a police raid on the ranch. Atkins admitted to her involvement in the murders to some fellow criminals in jail.

After they informed the police of Atkins’ confession, Atkins agreed to testify in exchange for the state not seeking the death penalty. Throughout the various trials, Atkins and her associates did everything they could to disrupt the trial and praise Manson.

But eventually, they were all sentenced to death. When the California Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty in 1972, their sentences were commuted to life instead. Atkins passed away in prison in 2009 of natural causes after 18 parole denials. 

References Editors. “Susan Atkins.”, March 29, 2021.

Memmott, Mark. “’Scariest Of The Manson Girls’, Susan Atkins, Dies.” NPR, September 25, 2009.

Reed, Betsy. “Terminally ill Manson follower dies in prison.” The Guardian, September 25, 2009.

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