When you consider Charles Manson, the infamous and charismatic cult leader with the swastika forehead tattoo, the first words that pop into your mind probably aren’t “friend” or “mentor.” But, for a young man from Missouri, that is how he remembers Manson.
Ken Dickerson, 32, of House Springs, Missouri, says he was one of Charles Manson’s pen pals. Dickerson is a sculptor by trade and an aspiring musician who plays the guitar.
Manson was given the death penalty for his role in directing the 1969 murders of seven people including the actress Sharon Tate. His execution was converted to a life sentence when the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. Manson, 83, died of natural causes in prison in November 2017.
In the 48 years between his arrest and death, Manson communicated with a series of pen pals from California State Prison in Corcoran. He wrote numerous letters in a cursive script that could be described as “messy,” rambling about music, life and whatever crossed his mind. Manson also reached out to the world through telephone calls, all of which were recorded and monitored by the prison.
Manson’s public persona may have appeared wild and out-of-control but he talked to Dickerson about every day life like a normal, if incarcerated, person.
Though many may have written to him, Manson seemed to respond to a select few. Manson gave his friends nicknames, calling Dickerson, “Soul Soldier” or simply “Soul.” Reciprocally, Dickerson called Manson “Charlie” or “Chuck.”
Manson may have left his estate to one of these pen pals, but the matter is still to be decided in court. It has ignited public interest in both the communications from the killer and those with whom he shared his thoughts.
Dickerson was about 20 when he started writing and talking to Manson. They communicated predominantly by phone but also by mail from 2005 to 2012.
Dickerson said he became interested in Manson after he watched documentaries about the crimes, read “Helter Skelter” and Manson’s court transcripts. When he found out that Manson was interested in music and played the guitar too, he decided to write the convict.
“I’m a history dork, a history nerd. He’s a part of history regardless if you want him to be or not,” Dickerson said. “He was still alive and seemed like a person I could reach out and touch.”
First letter to Manson
“I figured the guy was getting more mail than anyone else in prison,” Dickerson said of Manson. He thought he needed to “do something a little different” to get Manson’s attention.
In the first letter Dickerson penned, he outlined his hand, put a smiley face in its center and wrote “Reach out and touch somebody,” across the top of the page. A few weeks later, he received a response from Manson.
“In the letter, he sent the hand print back but on the other side he’d outlined his foot.”
Manson demanded honesty from Dickerson in that first response.
“The first line was ‘No lies.’ I remember that clearly,” Dickerson said. “He didn’t want anyone lying to him. He would say things like, ‘If you lie to me, you’re dead to me. If I ever catch you in a lie, you’re done.’”
Despite Manson’s sinister reputation, Dickerson never felt threatened or manipulated by him. “I wasn’t threatened by him. I think the cult thing is funny because I don’t think there was a cult. I think there was just a bunch of runaway teens that needed a place to lay their heads. Charlie had good stories to tell; he took care of them and in return they took care of him. You take care of one another.”
“Manipulation is kind of a weird way of thinking about something,” Dickerson said.
He said Manson was always offering to help him with anything he needed. “I don’t think he manipulated me. For the most part, he babied me. I hated it. I’m a man.” Dickerson jokingly deepened his voice on the last word. “And a goof,” he said, with a laugh.
Mentorship and music
Manson gave Dickerson encouragement and life advice. Once, Dickerson was helping a friend of his shoot a low budget, independent film when Manson called. In the recording of that phone conversation, when he found out what Dickerson was doing, Manson jokes, “Is Tom Selleck there?”
Then, Manson counsels Dickerson to go to a bank and take out a loan to pay for the film.
In reply, Dickerson says his credit isn’t good enough to get a loan. Manson says Dickerson just needs confidence and explains that the “con” portion of “con-man” means confidence.
Getting to know Manson wasn’t about money or fame, according to Dickerson. He said their relationship was about music, art and life.
In some of the phone recordings, Dickerson plays his guitar for Manson and the prisoner critiques the music. Manson describes music as “a game” and says that Dickerson would have to reach mastery on his own. He counsels Dickerson to tune his guitar and promises to send chords.
Manson composed original music for Dickerson, jotting chords and lyrics on a postcard mailed from prison.
The lyrics Manson wrote were: “Knowings here and there. Everywhere and no where at all. Never was forever. Forever can’t go on. Come live or die. Laff (sic) or cry. No in or out, up or down but in truth you can farme (sic) a play.”
Knowings here and there. Everywhere and no where at all. Never was forever. Forever can’t go on. Come live or die. Laff (sic) or cry. No in or out, up or down but in truth you can farme (sic) a play.
Best and worst memories of Manson
Dickerson’s favorite memory of his correspondence with Manson was when he sent the prisoner photocopies of his personal sculptures. “I would tell him — it’s easy to make something look ugly. It’s hard to make something look beautiful,” Dickerson said. He said Manson replied: “I like your art, man. You got it. You got it down.”
“We never really spoke about his crimes,” Dickerson said. He would have talked about anything Manson wanted to discuss, but the convict never brought up the murders. Manson’s slightly Southern accent can be heard on the cassette tapes of their conversations, of which Dickerson has about two dozen.
“One time, we were talking on the phone, it was before I started recording all the time ... he (Manson) asked, ‘Are you recording this?’ I said no,” Dickerson said. “He goes, ‘Well, you should because it’s history.’ I guess he wanted people to record him. The prison was obviously recording him.”
Manson made frequent jokes but Dickerson said not all of them were funny. “Some of them just fell short. I would assume when you’re in prison that long ... they could make your brain turn to mush. It’s hard to be social when you’re not able to speak to other people.”
The most frightening moment Dickerson had with Manson occurred when Dickerson had a disagreement with a man who ran a website that posts letters from serial killers. Dickerson believed the man was from “Air Trees Water Animals,” Manson’s environmental group. He sent the man personal letters he had received from Manson in response to a request to view their correspondence.
But the website owner had no affiliation with “Air Trees Water Animals.” Instead, their personal correspondence was posted online for the world to read and dissect. Manson found out what had happened.
“Manson called me and asked, ‘Are you still talking to that ding-dong from Indiana?’” Dickerson said. Dickerson told Manson he wasn’t communicating with the man.
Dickerson recalled Manson saying, “Yeah, I’ve got some friends down in Florida who are looking to make a trip over there and pay him a visit. He’s going to get what he deserves and he needs every bit of what he deserves. We don’t want to cheat him out of anything.”
Manson had unique handwriting and environmentalist ideals
The convict’s voice and handwriting were so distinctive that Dickerson said, “(They) are as good as a fingerprint.” Because of all of the communications with Manson, Dickerson believes he can tell if a letter or a recording is legitimate or a fake.
Manson’s handwriting wasn’t simple to read. “He writes in cursive, (except) the delivering address. On the outside of the envelope, he prints. His letters are always in cursive and I thought it was childlike. I’m going to say sloppy. When I got my first letter, I could only make out half of it.”
Dickerson learned to read Manson’s handwriting with time and practice.
In his letters, Manson would occasionally elongate letters or run them together in strange ways. He almost always signed his name with a swastika.
A self-described environmentalist, Manson professed an interest in the natural world and animals. In one of his letters to Dickerson, Manson wrote, “Being in the hole 38 years means all the dogs that were alive when I was out are all dead...”
I wasn’t threatened by him. I think the cult thing is funny because I don’t think there was a cult. I think there was just a bunch of runaway teens that needed a place to lay their heads. Charlie had good stories to tell, he took care of them and in return they took care of him. You take care of one another.
Once, in a phone conversation, Manson detailed an idea he had for “plant bombs,” but not the explosive kind, Dickerson said. “He had an invention ... an idea for a paintball gun and the paintballs were biodegradable. Instead of paint, inside it was manure and a seed of your choice.” The idea was to make planting simple and quick.
“You can run down the side of a farm or something and spray the entire thing,” Dickerson said. “It would take you no time at all.”
Communicating with a convict
At the beginning of the phone recordings, listeners hear an announcement that the call is from a prisoner and will be monitored. The message is repeated throughout the tapes. According to Dickerson, Manson was kept in a high security housing unit.
“Most of the snitches and people who drop out of gangs are housed in the smaller unit for protection. He had to go there because he was a high-profile person,” Dickerson said. “The unit was only around 45 people instead of a huge cell block.”
Krissi Khokhobashvili, a public information officer for the California Department of Corrections, said she could not comment on any one inmate of the California system, but was willing to discuss protocols for prisoner correspondence.
When asked if it was more difficult to monitor a prolific or infamous prisoner’s correspondence, Khokhobashvili said: “No. We monitor them all the same. I can’t comment on how much mail anyone specific received or any number of phone calls made.” She said there were 117,000 California inmates last year and the Department of Corrections monitored all communications.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manual about “Inmate Contacts with the Public,” reads: “Inmates shall not initiate any personal contact with the public except as specifically authorized. This does not preclude an inmate’s courteous and appropriate response when contact is initiated by a member of the public.” Manson was contacted by many members of the public because of who he was.
Manson sent assorted gifts to Dickerson like an autographed mug shot, autographed print, autographed comic book, postcards, original music compositions and more, many of which are highly valued by collectors because of Manson’s notoriety.
Khokhobashvili said there was nothing illegal in a prisoner sending gifts or about someone selling a bona fide gift from a prisoner. However, the prisoner himself could not receive any portion of the money from those transactions. “That’s not allowed, if it was specifically for that item,” Khokhobashvili said. It would be considered operating a business.
The ‘insane game’
The Manson whom Dickerson knew was not the Manson sensationalized in media interviews, putting on a show in the court room or as portrayed in films.
“I thought it was funny — I watched a made-for-TV ‘Helter Skelter’ movie and, in it, a guy comes up to Manson and goes ‘Hey, Chuck.’ And they had Manson go, ‘Do I look like a Chuck to you?’ After I watched that, I had already been talking to him, I thought it was complete nonsense. I had been calling him ‘Chuck’ forever and he’d never said anything about it. But if you put it into a movie, all of a sudden it’s a big deal,” Dickerson said.
Robin Altman, of Denver, Colorado, wrote an honors thesis at the University of Colorado-Boulder, about Manson. In it, she details why she believes Manson acted crazy or wise when it suited him to do so.
Altman wrote: “It was at the Indiana Boys School that Charles developed what he would later call the ‘insane game,’ a defense mechanism likely developed to stave off sexual and physical abuse from the bigger boys at school. This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time.”
It seems Manson maintained this “insane game” his entire life.
In an email, Altman wrote: “One of the main marks of a psychopath is their ability to be glib and cunning. Manson’s strength was his ability to put on a show for each person with whom he interacted. He was able to tailor his behavior to suit his needs both with the insane game in school and also with his recruitment for ‘the Family.’ He presented as a father figure for some, a lover, a priest, a guru — whatever he felt would have the response he required. It’s likely that he was once again tailoring his behavior in his interactions with this pen pal and showing a side of himself that would incite the reaction he wanted out of their relationship, be it affection, sympathy, attention, what have you.”
The pen pal relationship between Dickerson and Manson did not continue until Manson’s death. Dickerson stopped communicating with Manson in 2012 after the death of a close family member and for other personal reasons.
“It was a perfect storm of everything because it wasn’t just (the death). Everything happened all at once. I pretty much had to reset my life,” Dickerson said.
The Associated Press and The Indianapolis Star contributed to this report.