Spahn Movie Ranch was once used as a Hollywood TV and movie set for family-friendly productions, including “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger,” but the isolated, run-down property may be best known for playing a role in one of America’s most notorious real-life crimes.
After being evicted from the cabin of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys fame, convicted murderer and cult leader Charles Manson and his followers found their way onto the Los Angeles County ranch, where they made the acquaintance of owner George Spahn.
“Spahn had owned the ranch since 1948, but by the time the Manson Family arrived, he was 81 years old and blind,” says James Buddy Day, author of Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words of Charles Manson. “George liked Charlie, and they came to an understanding that Manson and the women would work the ranch in exchange for being allowed to stay.”
According to Day, it was Susan “Sadie” Atkins, one of those convicted in the August 9, 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, who discovered Spahn Ranch sometime in 1967.
“The Manson Family moved onto the ranch gradually, first staying at a nearby church, then squatting in the empty shacks along the riding trails from time to time,” he says.
Spahn Welcomed the Manson Family's Help and Company
In a 1970 Esquire magazine article, author Gay Talese wrote that Spahn Ranch was not so much a ranch as it was “the old Western movie set it once was. The row of empty buildings extending along the dirt road toward Spahn’s shack—decaying structures with faded signs marking them as a saloon, a barbershop, a café, a jail, and a carriage house—all were constructed many years ago as Hollywood settings for cowboy brawls and Indian ambushes.”
Talese reported that Spahn liked Manson: “Manson would visit his shack on quiet afternoons and talk for hours about deep philosophical questions, subjects that bewildered the old man but interested him, relieving the loneliness.”
Claudia Verhoeven, an associate professor of history at Cornell University who teaches a course on the Manson murders, says the family helped out on the ranch, cleaning, cooking, making repairs and taking care of the horses, including renting them out to tourists.
“They also just spent time with Spahn, especially Lynette Fromme,” she says. “It’s usually said that she (and others) also had sex with Spahn, but this has been contested, including by Fromme herself.”
Day says Spahn lived in a small house near a dirt road that served as an entrance to the ranch.
“He didn’t get out much, and needed a lot of help,” he says. “The girls would take turns staying in the house with him, cooking and cleaning.” He says Fromme—aka “Squeaky”—became Spahn’s primary caretaker. “According to Lynette, George reminded her of her grandfather whom she never got to spend time with.”
Ranch's Isolation Fostered Paranoia
“The ranch really isolated the women,” Day adds. “There were no books, clocks or calendars. They became increasingly reliant on each other, which enabled their eventual feelings of paranoia and fear, all culminating in the murders.”
According to Verhoeven, in the beginning, the Manson Family’s stay at Spahn Ranch was akin to a fairly typical commune experience.
“The fact that Spahn Ranch was an old movie set did certainly accentuate certain aspects of family life, especially what they called ‘magical mystery’ touring,” she says. “Because Spahn Ranch was a film set, the setting supported the family in experimental, improvisational, make-believe living. They would play-act roles: cowboys one day, pirates the next.”
In fact, Day adds, the first few years of the commune were quite tranquil.
“All the people I’ve met have good memories of that time,” he says. “Things changed in the spring of 1969 when Manson and Tex Watson became involved in a bad drug deal involving a man they thought was a member of the Black Panthers political party. This began a spiral of paranoia, and the group became fearful of outsiders—especially the Black Panthers.”
Caitlin Rother, co-author of the book Hunting Charles Manson with Lis Wiehl, says Manson was growing more and more paranoid during this time, especially after the shooting of Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe during a Hollywood drug buy gone wrong.
“He was scared of Crowe’s people—he thought Crowe was hooked up with the Black Panthers—were going to come to the ranch and kill them,” she says.
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Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, in his 1974 book, Helter Skelter, described the remoteness of the ranch, which was burned down during a Southern California wildfire in September of 1970.
“Cut off from the rest of society, he created in this timeless land a tight little society of his own, with its own value system,” he writes. “It was holistic, complete, and totally at odds with the world outside.”
This isolation, Verhoeven says, contributed to the family’s paranoia and violence.
“The other thing that changed in the spring of 1969 was that new people started hanging around the family,” she adds. “Manson increased his contact with former convict friends, plus members of the Straight Satans biker gang began hanging around the ranch. This is the moment when more and more weapons appeared on the ranch, and also when family members became increasingly involved in criminal activities, especially theft and drug dealing. And this, in turn, led to an increased police presence on the ranch, which led to further radicalization.”
Over the course of that summer, Day says, events continued to escalate, culminating in the Tate-Labianca murders.
“After the murders, the group discovered they were under investigation for unrelated cases auto part theft, which resulted in a final murder,” he adds. “After that they left Spahn Ranch.”