Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson


Nothing quite warms you up during the holiday season like a nice fire, a cup of hot chocolate, and a good book about some of the most brutal murders in the 20th century.

Yes, some of us have a slightly different idea of what constitutes good leisure time. Or maybe this is just more appropriate Festivus reading than Christmas reading. But who really cares, anyway. A good book is a good book. I must say, despite never having read any other books about Charles Manson, I really don’t feel the need to read any others after this. Jeff Guinn is a truly engaging writer, and the 60s really come alive in this story of death and delusion.

I found that actually to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. We can always get a much better grasp on people’s thoughts and actions when we have an understanding of what was going on in the world around them, and thanks to far more than just these murders themselves, the 60s were an incredibly turbulent time in history. Without going off on long tangents that feel irrelevant to the main point, here we can become fully immersed in the atmosphere of the time, warts and all. Whether you lived through a certain period or not, there’s a real tendency to romanticize and look back on times past as being idyllic, better than the time we’re living in now. The 60s in particular can really fall victim to this, as we envision Woodstock, peace and love, and a virtually unlimited supply of weed. How could such an environment possibly spawn such a dark dude? But there’s no nostalgia here, only raw, honest truth. This is one of those books that take you on a mental road trip back in time, but doesn’t bore you with tours about shit you don’t care about.

This fair and well-rounded approach isn’t exclusive to the 60s, but also to Manson himself. I’m not saying that the book is sympathetic to him. That would be insane. But Guinn does do what he can to explain just how such a person could grow up to become what he did. The amount of research this involves is impressive, but the book is never bogged down by dry facts. We almost want to feel sorry for the guy, at least when he was still a kid. His life was far from easy. But when it really comes down to it, nothing is an excuse. There are of course innumerable people who have had it worse and didn’t turn out to be bad people at all, and really, Manson seems like the kind of person who was just plain born bad. Disappointed as they were, his family from what we can tell didn’t seem all that surprised to hear of what he had done.

The big question for me then, is what Manson himself truly believed. He spent a lot of time telling other people what to believe, including that he was the second coming of Jesus, but did he know it was all bullshit, or was he really just that delusional? The answer doesn’t seem to be found here, and maybe it’s something we’re just not meant to know. It’s a mystery that will ensure as long as the memory of those horrible crimes.

Rather just see the movie? Check out Helter Skelter.


Mad in America


For as long as we can all remember, insane asylums (to be totally un-PC) have been a staple of horror movies. They come up as haunted locations almost as much as houses do. And there’s a very good reason for that. Because the history of mental health care in America is not only very dark, it’s shockingly so in ways you might not expect.

It’s normal to hear of old remedies for illness that just don’t make any sense. Remedies that are far worse than the illness they’re supposed to treat. But what about when torture isn’t just a result of unfortunately misguided medical practice, but the actual aim itself? Believe it or not, torture of various kinds were once thought to ameliorate mental health issues for the very fact that they were so traumatic. Shock treatment and lobotomies are of course described in detail, but near-drownings, the inducement of extreme fear, unnecessary teeth pulling, and other incredible things feature here as well. Combine this thought process with a period in history when eugenics was thought to be a legitimate thing and you have a recipe for true horror. This book isn’t a horror story in the traditional sense. It doesn’t explore the ghosts that haunt particular institutions. But it does lay out the history of mental health and describe ghosts of a more metaphorical sort, ghosts that might still haunt us today.

My only real complaint is that there’s a lack of information here about what was considered mental illness at different points in history. There’s no way that these things could have been the same that they are now. It also tends to focus disproportionately on specific illnesses, like schizophrenia, without really describing much about what these illnesses are. It’s frustrating, but doesn’t seem to make the book any less interesting.

We can only progress and move forward from learning from the mistakes of the past, and this book is full of the most unbelievable mistakes you may have ever read about. If it weren’t so damn sad it would be hilarious. As it is, it serves as a very important reminder of the past that we shouldn’t dare ever forget.

The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber

My first impression of this book is not good. It comes across as very a dry and intellectual study that discusses capital punishment on a scientific, social, historical, and psychological level. So it seems far more scholarly than accessible. It’s also undoubtedly biased. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the author’s views, but my own biased opinion is that we may get the most out of our reading experience if we’re just given the facts and left to come up with out own uncolored opinions. This is of course not to say that you can’t learn from this book. Here are your Strange Notes:

Chapter One

-In 1846 Claude Bernard discovered that carbon monoxide kills by displacing oxygen in the blood.

-The study of things that kill people is very dangerous for animals, especially dogs for some reason 😦

-Eugenicists were the first people to popularize the idea of gas for killing people, and their ideas were surprisingly popular. It hadn’t really caught on yet what a sinister idea this eugenics stuff was. Fun fact – Eugenics is where we get the word euthanasia.

-While people 100-150 years ago searched to find a more humane way of carrying out capital punishment, they didn’t want the method to be too humane, or they feared it wouldn’t work enough as a deterrent. For this and a few other reasons, lethal injection was rejected by a New York commission in 1878. Gas was considered, but it was generally thought the technology wasn’t advanced enough yet and so electrocution won out.

-Many 19th century Americans really hated poor people. They lumped them together with criminals and the mentally handicapped as problem of society best dealt with by simply getting rid of them. Preferably by gas.

-The SPCA in the early 20th century euthanized a shit ton of animals with gas in an effort to prevent the spread of disease.

-Eugenics greatly influenced the Nazis. Big shocker, there.

-Late 19th century and early 20th century society was surprisingly upsetting.

Chapter Two

-Poison gas (chlorine) was used in war for the first time by the Germans, in April 1915 in Flanders during WWI. 5000 people died. It was the beginning of chemical warfare.

-Before this, stink bombs were not just a nasty prank but a nasty weapon of war. Too nasty, apparently, for use even in the American Civil War. No, they thought it more polite to just shoot and hack their opponents to pieces. Apparently fields full of rotting corpses smelled good back then.

-The British responded to the Germans’ use of gas by their own poison gas weapons and protection such as gas masks. A goth fashion trend was born.

-The rest of the allies joined in, and suddenly this whole chemical warfare deal was in full swing.

-The British invented the gas chamber as a way to test different poison gases. Somehow, they actually managed to get volunteers to sit in the thing.

-When America joined the war in 1917, they weren’t prepared for what was being called “the chemist’s war.” They had to get their shit together quick, and everybody pitched in. They did a fabulous job. It scared the shit out of the Kaiser and he surrendered.

-After the war, the leftover gas was dumped into the ocean.

Chapter 3

-Well, the war was over and the government and the people thought they wanted to shut this deadly industry down. But the guys running it said NOPE! and fought to have it continued. Surprisingly, they won, because they argued that it would make sure nobody would fuck with America and because such new technologies can always find nifty uses during peacetime. Though I have the feeling at least a tiny bit of this had to do with them not wanting to lose their jobs. Firefighting masks were invented, bugs were fumigated, and things just marched along.

-Poison gas became so prevalent for its use as a pesticide that this was not good news for food or the environment. Propaganda told people that it was not only totally safe, but even good for you, which must have led people to wonder if they had won the war by loving their enemies to death.

-in 1921, after years of industrial use, it was suggested that lethal gas should be implemented as a humane form of execution. Nevada was the first to establish this with the Humane Execution Bill, signed on March 28, 1921. The idea was to put prisoners to death while they were asleep, and with a dose of gas so high that death would happen quickly.

-Meanwhile, a bunch of really boring political and industrial things went on with these gas companies, and the deaths they caused got overlooked because, hey, there are non-white people trying to get into the country! The horror!

-Hey, maybe we should start using this gas stuff to scare the communists that are obviously absolutely everywhere.

-None of this is making any sense.

Chapter Four

-Nevada got to try out their new execution law 5 months after it was enacted. The case was two men who shot and killed an old man. It was Chinese-on-Chinese gangster violence. Because people were totally racist and viewed Asians as “the yellow peril,” they thought this was just dandy. These became the first two guys “eligible for execution under the world’s first lethal gas statute.” Fun fact: Among the many inevitable appeals, their own lawyer appealed because he thought they had a “racially inferior mental ability” making them unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

-The gas chosen was hydrocyanic acid.

-Eventually one of the two men succeeded in having his life spared. The other did not, as well as a Mexican-American prisoner who had been condemned to death afterwards in January 1924. Then the night before the execution, the Mexican-American was also spared.

-The first execution by HCN gas took 6 minutes. There was no autopsy (unusual) because opening up his body was thought too dangerous.

-The news went around the world and soon enough reached the very interested Hitler.

-Hitler’s idol was Henry Ford. Huh.

Chapter Five

-Well, execution by gas had some bugs to be worked out. One of the things they did was to totally rebuild the shitty “death house” where the executions would take place.

-The second execution, and the first to take place in this new execution chamber, was in 1930. This time instead of gas spraying into the room, 10 cyanide eggs were dropped into sulfuric acid and water to create HCN. The execution was pronounced a success. However they were hiding that it took a while for the prisoner’s heart to stop beating.

-More states started to consider this method of execution. Arizona was the first to adopt it, in 1933. Then came Colorado, which was full of the KKK, so there was a lot of lynching there and they were ready for a change.

-Colorado’s gas chamber was state of the art, and became famous. It was probably huge in Germany.

-The first guy to get executed by gas in Colorado, William Cody Kelly, insisted he was innocent but he didn’t have the $200 it would have cost to prepare a trial transcript. There was a woman willing to help him out but they didn’t want it to get out that she was FDR’s wife’s buddy. So Kelly was screwed. It took him 30 seconds to die. They said it was the most humane execution ever, and the cheapest at 90 cents. It became famous.

-More executions happened, more states adopted the method, and more improvements were made to the system. The world paid attention, particularly, of course, Germany. This was all despite a ton of debate over how humane this method really was. A lot of people were pretty horrified.

Chapter Six

-A lot of people work for a lot of big companies and have ties to the Nazis and it’s all very shady. But I wouldn’t be surprised if shit like that was still happening now. Moving on….

Chapter Seven

-America geared up for WWII. That’s about all.

Chapter Eight

-The Nazis start using gas to “euthanize” mental patients. They progressively get more and more evil. This is of course an extremely important part of history, but I do wonder a little what the use of gas to murder people in Europe has to do with American capital punishment. The Nazis were undoubtedly influenced by this, but maybe this book should have been retitled.

-It was argued that the Americans had known all along what was being done in Germany, and the government was urged to act on this by bombing Auschwitz and/or the railroad line leading to it which carried the jews there. But they didn’t. They thought it was not practical, because air support was needed elsewhere and they didn’t want more retaliation from the Germans.

-The American chemical company IG Farben was implicated in the German gassings and fought to hide the evidence.

-American hypocrisy is not lost on us.

-Bigwigs at the American chemical companies mentioned above got in trouble at the Nuremberg trials.

-I go cross-eyed with boredom.

Chapter Nine

-So everybody was pretty icked out by all the deaths in Germany, so many countries abolished the death penalty in the 50s. America did not, but feelings toward it were mixed for various social and political reasons.

-American executions in the 50s were dramatically down from where they were in the 30s.

-A condemned criminal, Caryl Whittier Chessman, becomes famous and starts a political shitstorm with his writing. After eight stays of execution he was finally put to death on May 2nd 1960 at San Quentin prison in California. He received a reprieve, but it was too late. The execution had already begun. The world was pissed.

-On May 23rd 1960 it was announced that Karl Adolf Eichmamm, Nazi war criminal, was “arrested” (illegally, ie kidnapped) in Argentina. He was executed on May 31st 1962. Everybody was reminded of the Holocaust.

Chapter Ten

-The number of executions dwindled, as the number of states who used it. In 1967 the execution of Luis Mongue became America’s last for a decade.

-On June 29th 1972 the US Supreme Court decided that the death penalty in all forms in which it was then performed was unconstitutional. There’s a lot of detail behind this I don’t care to go into. The debate became a big thing in the 70s. 34 states responded by passing new capital punishment laws. Rhode Island became the only state with the gas chamber as its method of execution. But nobody was ever put to death and the death penalty was abolished there in 1979.

-Ronald Reagan was very pro-capital punishment and suggested lethal injection as a more humane way to do it.

-In the case of Gregg vs Georgia the supreme court had another look and decided that capital punishment in itself was not against the eight amendment. After almost ten years of nobody being put to death, Gary Gilmore ended the streak when he was executed by firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977. The guy actually demanded to be put to death.

-Texas and Oklahoma became the first states to adopt lethal injection.

Chapter Eleven

-On October 22, 1979, Jesse Walter Bishop became the first person to be executed by gas since Luis Mongue.

-States start to realize that lethal gas is a shitty way to die, and switch to lethal injection.

-Fred A. Leuchter, a consultant on execution methods, is exposed as being a Holocaust denier and Hitler fan.

-On October 4, 1994, the district court a San Fransisco ruled that execution by lethal gas was unconstitutional. They had finally realized that it caused death by suffocation and caused the victims to suffer.

Chapter Twelve

-Walter LaGrand, a German national, became the last person to be executed by gas on March 3, 1999. Germany was pissed and the International Criminal Court found in their favor.


My conclusion? That was boring as fuck. I’m relieved that it’s finally over so I can be put out my misery. NEXT!


Other strange reads: Edison and the Electric Chair, Doctors From Hell

The Worst Hard Time

This book is so beautifully written, so gut-wrenching, that despite the endless storms you just can’t look away. Timothy Egan expertly paints an intimate portrait of those who lived through the dust bowl and their families. You’ll feel connected to them and their towns across the span of these last eighty years, and you’ll feel the same relief they do when it finally ends. Because as good as this book is, it does convey the same feeling of never-ending hopelessness that living in the dust bowl would spawn. By the end you’re desperate to come up for air. There’s almost no relief through descriptions of more pleasant places and times, and it can really begin to wear on you. Though who could blame the author if his intent was to completely immerse you, as much as writing can, in what these people are feeling?

For those unfamiliar with the dust bowl it can be hard to imagine that houses piled high with dust and air that necessitated the use of masks existed in America and not in a third world country. But it happened, and it happened at the same time as the depression, compounding it into what really can be called the worst hard time. Considering that the dust bowl was a man-made disaster we must also consider that something like this can happen again, and if we’re not careful it surely will. This book is an important example of why we need to learn from the past and that the earth does not exist for us, it exists with us and despite us. A more haunting example there may not be.

Video accompaniment: The Dust Bowl – Ken Burns

In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be president of the United States. That sounds pretty normal, but this was really more of a joke – I always knew perfectly well it wouldn’t be possible, because I’m Canadian. I also don’t possess the money or the skills in any degree whatsoever. I’m not fit to run an office, never mind THE office. But my love of the US has remained. Their culture and history are incredibly rich and complex, with no end to the fascinating things there are to learn about it. That culture is the dominant one in our world today, so that also means that no matter where you’re from, this information is completely relevant. Because of their power, their politics are relevant to us all as well.

On the surface this book reads like gossipy trash. Much of the first half is devoted to information about the private lives of presidents and those close to them, and the truth about what kind of people they really were as told by secret service agents who worked very closely with them on a routine basis. The information is at times hilarious, at others infuriating, but not altogether surprising when you consider the very nature of politics. The agents quoted in the book often saw these politicians and their families in their most intimate moments, far from anything the American public would ever have the opportunity to see. It’s full of anecdotes about not only the private lives of the presidents but of assassinations, assassination attempts, and through these even an exciting gun fight or two. What I thought going in might be a fairly dry book turned out to be a hell of a fun read.

I always knew, through just plain common sense, that politicians were not all they appeared to be. That they had secrets, and they were dishonest. But this was a fairly vague concept to me, and as someone not blessed with the ability to understand politics, it was something I had few if any real examples of. This book really puts it out there in brazen detail, and it can be a lot to take in. Even those you were sure of as being at least less evil than most sometimes have the most appalling secrets. It just might turn your perceptions of the presidency upside down. It may or may not utterly destroy any illusions you had.

The second half of the book gives details about the other side of what it’s like to work in the secret service – poor management, major dysfunction, and horrifying oversights that daily risk the lives of some of the most important people on earth. The information is shocking, and it’s clear that a complete overhaul needs to be done. The book also does a very good job of trying to get to the root of all of these problems, explaining their origins, how agents at various levels of the organization feel about them, and what needs to be done to fix them. It really is hard to overstate how serious the many of the secret service’s faults are.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some first families were truly decent and fantastic people, and they’re given the credit due to them. Some are those you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The book has received criticism over its content, stating that it’s cruel to expose details of anyone’s private life for all to see. But Ronald Kessler makes valid points here defending its existence. There’s a lot of substance in this trash heap. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it. In a way I can see the argument. Bringing attention to the many loopholes in security seems irresponsible at best, however this information is important, as is the information about who the presidents and their families really are. You just can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is or that it’s even there.

And it has a pretty big lesson to teach. Just because you’ve reached the top of your career doesn’t mean you’ve reached your full potential. Many US presidents got there by incredibly dishonest means and were far from being good people. To me, this takes away much of the value of achieving that highest of positions. Really meeting your potential has to do with being the best person you can be, honestly. It’s not related to your career or money or people’s praise. Your value is independent of others noticing it. This book explains that assassins and would-be assassins feel the opposite, that you’re nobody until you’re noticed, but their mistake is the same as those abhorrent presidents, just a lot more obvious. I’m not the least bit disappointed that I could never be president (or any other well-known somebody) because I would be an awful one. My value lies elsewhere. Guilty pleasure as reading this book may feel, this lesson alone makes it worth reading. Kessler’s brutal honesty about those we trust to run the country might be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one we desperately need.

Other recommended reads: Nothing here yet!