Charles Manson Haunt, Spahn Movie Ranch, Hell or Hollywood History?
I am really going off the beaten path today as Christa, my daughter, and I decided to have an adventure in Hollywood history this week while we were off for the holiday and the reaction of others to our destination was quite surprising to me. We went to the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch which was home to Manson and The Family at the time of the Tate/La Bianca murders.
Having spent many years of my early career working in death row and criminal law I was interested in the prosecution of the Charles Manson murder trial. I have read Vincent Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter” several times as has Christa and been fascinated by his brilliant prosecution of Manson and the girls. Well, not so much the girls who could be placed at the scene of the crime and were witnessed participants, but the fact that he could successfully prosecute Manson who though the mastermind and guilty as hell, did not physically perform any of the murders. This was beyond brilliant and being in this area of the legal field for so many years, I was so very impressed. The unfathomable mistakes by the LAPD, the loss of evidence, the egos within the department and the threats and courtroom antics of Manson and the girls all should have made successful prosecution impossible, but this man prevailed. The difficulties he was up against just floored me so I wanted to see the ranch for myself.
This year Christa and I moved to a new home that is about 10 minutes from Spahn Movie Ranch so since we had the time off we headed over there yesterday. When many of our friends found out where we were going they found it frightening and disconcerting. I was amazed at the fear and anger that still surrounds this once historic film and tv ranch. It was very disturbing to a lot of people that we chose to go. I have trouble understanding this because to me it is the people who committed the heinous crime that are guilty, not the land. I was shocked to realize that it actually made me kind of sad that this historic old place is now saddled with this public view and that its once charmed history is now forgotten and replaced by the memory of its one time murderous inhabitants. It is such a breathtakingly beautiful place. Yet, despite my feelings I very much respected how others were feeling. My mother was very upset that we went and made that very clear, friends worried about us getting hurt in some way there and others felt as though the evil was so great that they could not look at any photos we took or hear about our trip. These are very real and valid feelings for them. They care about us and this was such a horrendous crime.
Friends from Los Angeles who were here at the time of the murders tell us that this event totally changed Los Angeles. This is when people started locking their doors, getting attack dogs and security. They tell us that the Los Angeles was absolutely crazed at that time. When wildfires burned down all of the residential buildings and movie sets on the ranch in 1970 people in Los Angeles said that it was God purging the evil from the land.
In it’s heyday, Spahn was quite the magnificent place. And I’ll wager that most all of you have actually seen Spahn Ranch in its pre-Manson days. It was the location of many of our most beloved old westerns tv shows and films. It was the location for “Zorro” and “Bonanza” among so many others. It was also a place where horses, wagons, stage coaches and the like were rented by filming companies for their projects.
George Spahn bought the 500 acre ranch in 1948 from silent film actor William Hart and at that time began to rent it out for location filming. It’s almost prehistoric looking terrain, gulches, caves and trails made it perfect for Westerns. While never the “A” film location that some of the other ranches were, it was a popular filming location for the industry and served George Spahn well. The now leveled ranch has now been made part of the Santa Susana Pass National Park.
In August of 1968, 80 year old George Spahn, in fragile health and nearly blind, allowed Charles Manson and the family to move onto the ranch rent free in exchange for labor. They fed the animals, did what little cleaning was done and kept Spahn fed. Unbeknownst to Spahn it was a bargain with the devil for certain. After Charlie and the girls were arrested for the murders, Vincent Bugliosi’s investigation in preparation for trial revealed that there were at least nine other murders that took place on the ranch and that the bodies were buried all around the place. The most notable one to me was the murder of Spahn’s ranch hand, Shorty. Shorty didn’t buy what Manson was selling and just “suddenly disappeared.” Spahn was told he ran off. Bugliosi was told by witnesses that he had been shot by Manson and his body dismembered and buried there on the ranch in numerous places. Shorty’s body was found, in one piece, but lack of evidence saw no one charged for the murder. He was among many who have been found, but whose murderer, though known, could not be proven.
One of the first things Christa and I noticed as we looked over the ranch was the fact that there were a million places you could hide yourself, a body or run to if you were being pursued. Manson was very smart in his choosing of the ranch, though not so brilliant in the execution of his plan to take over the world, uncaught. It was a fugitive’s dream if he had the sense to run. Instead, when the police raided the ranch to arrest Charlie and members of the family, Charlie, who is very tiny in stature was found hiding in a kitchen cabinet under the kitchen sink.
Charles Manson and the family lived at Spahn Movie Ranch for barely over a year and in that time totally obliterated its once glowing history as a film location for great western films and tv and instead branded it for eternity as a haven for murderers and a piece of hell on Earth. A place so evil that many people still can’t bear to talk of the place.
The ranch is no longer accessible as it was during Manson’s time there. There is no place to pull off the windy two lane road and try to enter the property which is a good thing considering that many people who have managed to get onto it have been run off by a man with a rifle. Instead the best thing you can do is take photos of it from the church that stands directly across the street. When you walk across the road to the edge of the property and look down the gulch to the right, there is a definite eerie, frightening feeling. It truly feels haunted. As beautiful as it is, it is a very solemn place. Christa and I, avid Bonanza fans, recognized certain rock formations that we have seen on episodes of the show, but while that made us smile, it still couldn’t overcome the feeling that there was a pall over the place.
We talked of the movie history and of course the Manson history as we stood there on the very edge of the gulch. We discussed how you could see the different places they kept their armed lookouts, the places they drove their dune buggies, where the ranch stood, all the cult type crazies that still sneak up there for their different reasons and rituals in their sort of homage to Manson and what a shame it was that the movie sets and all that film history had been destroyed. At that very moment neither of us felt that Spahn Movie Ranch was hell. We felt it was a victim of circumstance. Then I looked down at my feet which were right at the edge of the gulch and not 18 inches away just over the edge lay a dead ram. It had almost made it up the side of the gulch and was literally about three steps from being on the level ground where I stood. I just stared at it knowing that the chances of a ram of all things, one of the most sure footed of animals, an animal often sacrificed in rituals, just dropping dead 18 inches from the top of the gulch was infinitesimal. I quietly asked Christa to come next to me and look at my feet. I knew from the look on her face that she was thinking the same thing that I was. Maybe this piece of land is cursed to be a part of hell now. Then we quietly got in the car and headed home.
Originally published December 30, 2011
New to CA, I had the unexpected pleasure of renting a home on the SFV side of Box Canyon Rd from 1961 thru 1964. Above me at the Berry (Bell) Movie Ranch was a stable owned by Irv Hamm. We rode thru those sets all hours of the day and night often carrying utensils and foods to make breakfast at dawn. It was a wonderful experience and the sights were beautiful. We once staged our own little “Western” on the Bell set. That was fun and I still have the film somewhere.
In 1962 or 1963 we rode thru the Spahn ranch and noticed a number of large box containers people were using as homes. As I recall, there was a lot of trash strewn around and we referred to it as a “Hippie Colony”. We went there only once.
In 1963, I watched the filming of “The Outrage” with Paul Newman and Lawrence Harvey at the Bell Ranch (scenes by the waterfall). It was my first experience with the movie industry and I remember thinking how long it took to shoot only one scene.
There were many more wonderful experiences in and around those movie ranches but suffice to say they were all memorable.
Tony….I am doing research on Bell Ranch…..please tell me how to contact you
A piece of land is not evil. The only thing evil in spahn ranch were the people living there.
Parts of Bonanza was also filled in Big Bear. I have grown up near Spahn Ranch my entire life. I am close to 60 years old. I hung out there as a teenager. After Manson we went there a few times to just look. Seems the Arch to the entrance of the ranch is still there or am I mistaken?
It may be difficult to wrap your mind around my theory of the “bigger picture,” but it certainly explains how Bugliosi prosecuted Manson so “brilliantly.” He had inside sources. It was his job to make the buck stop before it reached the CIA.
There were CIA connections to the Spahn Ranch, nearby Brandeis Ranch (with its ties to Boys Town, NE), and to Charles Manson himself (please listen to my interview with SRA survivor David Shurter, who believes he and others were subjected to the same MKUltra programming as Manson).
In @ 1970 Bugliosi wrote “Helter Skelter.” In 2008, Bugliosi wrote “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder”.
Both books support my theory that Bugliosi is a propagandist at the highest level. He goes after high profile targets, while deflecting attention and blame away from those even higher up (including the CIA itself)!
1st Book: Manson goes to jail for life. Everyone is satisfied. No one looks at who controlled Manson, and had access to program him during his decades growing up in jail.
2nd Book: George Bush is “prosecuted” for crimes. No one looks at who controlled George Bush.
Behind BOTH of these Bugliosi books is the CIA agenda to foment wars (Manson tries to start race wars; Bush tries to start global wars).
Yes, Bugliosi is smart. But even he couldn’t successfully prosecute Manson and Bush without a little inside help. Do you agree?
That Loan Ranger shot was taken at Iverson Ranch.
Charles Manson, Tex Watson, Steve “Clem” Grogan and Bruce Davis were convicted of murdering Shea.
i am surprised to read all the horriable things Dawn has to say about my grandfather and to hear all her knowledge about the movies that were shot at the spahn ranch facts are better then ur opinons lady
THANK YOU! I have been aware and tried to portray the truth in this article and that your grandfather was an innocent victim in this matter. The facts are unmistakable. But, to have the first hand truth from you is yet the most powerful. I am so glad you came to set the record straight not only on your grandfather, but filming as well. We must all take a moment to realize that supposition is not fact nor is rehashed rumor or circumstantial evidence (which didn’t even exist as to Mr. Spahn). I want to reiterate what I said in a previous comment, Mr. Spahn was NEVER considered a suspect of any wrong doing criminally or morally. There is no proof to any of the rumors only statements made by Squeaky and Gypsy and that is not testimony nor is there any reliable witness to any such behavior. Anyone who has read the testimony or the book will attest to the fact that these girls changed their statements like most people change their underwear.
When I was there, I could feel the beauty and all of the good things that happened at Spahn and it just breaks my heart to know that those things are lost to generations. It’s simply not fair. Just standing there, looking over the land, you can feel the history. It’s an amazing place.
Thank you again and my best to your family.
Spahn new more than he let on. He was a PERVERT and Charley knew how to please the man! SEX, lots of sex with young women and young men.
Spahn, even though he was old, he was smart. He knew all about the family and he would do what means it took to get the Unlimited SEX.
Spahn may not have known about the murders on his ranch, but he was well aware how many young people lived on his ranch and he took advantage of them all. What a CREEP!
The girls, especially Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Gypsy, were very candid with the police about the fact that they both slept with George Spahn. Especially Squeaky. She stated to Bugliosi that she would have married him if Manson told her to. Spahn, just like so many of the other witnesses, partook of the rampant sex that took place among everyone there. Charlie often chose who was to sleep with whom and if a girl was new he got her first then passed her around to others. Male and female. It wasn’t just George, it was the rule of thumb with the family there and at Barker Ranch and the home of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys where they stayed from time to time when the heat was on. That was Charlie’s rule of Free Love. As to Spahn not knowing about the murders. He did not. That much they are certain of and he was never charged with any crimes associated with the family.
Theresa and Christa: As a homicide survivor and prolific writer concerning all aspects on crime victimization, I applaud you for taking the unpopular stance of visiting and writing about it! As an adventurous sort with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, I would have hopped in the car with you! We all abhor what was done and the criminals responsible! And yes, my family would have the same reaction. In fact, they have little to no interest in any of my current pursuits. Sadly, I can’t change that… However, it takes people like you and I to forge the way for a better understanding of history in order to put in in perspective for today’s needs… It sure tops “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt! Ha!
History tends to repeat itself. If we do not acknowledge things that happened, there is a greater chance of repetition. I think it is necessary that we acknowledge these things and not hide them under a rug in order to make sure that repetition does not take place.
This was a great read. It’s still hard to believe a place that brought so many hours of enjoyment to us as we sit in our living room watching TV shows could also bring horror. I don’t know if I could walk around Manson’s ranch but I admire you for doing what you did. I agree with Christa, it’s surreal.
That it was Shirley. I can’t quite put the feeling into words. At the same time, there was absolutely no denying the beauty of the place and the good things that happened there prior to Manson and the Family.
Excellent piece, Theresa. I’ve done extensive reading about that whole series of events. Would love to have gone with you.
We didn’t have any second thoughts at all about going, Carol. We have read and studied the events so much through the years and it just had a way of making many things fall into place. I think it gave us a much greater understanding as to the tragedy that took place, though I can’t say why visiting the ranch did that. But it honestly did.
GREAT post and vividly written! I could see myself there with you and Christa. I’d go to Spahn Movie Ranch, out of curiosity, but it would likely feel spooky knowing what happened there. Add to that the crazies who would be attracted to the place (and the guy with the rifle), and it’s probably not a safe place to hang around.
It is a shame that this place, once a grand old movie set, has been forever tainted by Manson and his group.
For all those people who found it disturbing that you chose to visit this “evil” place, I wonder if they would forego the Colosseum in Rome. I think not. The difference is time; the Manson events are recent and still feel personal.
Thanks for taking me on a fascinating journey.
Thank you, Kay. After I wrote the article, it was read by a friend of mine who lived in LA at the time of the murders. She said she read it with tears in her eyes because what happened at the hands of Manson and his followers was like being raped emotionally by people here. I told her I think that any event that takes away part of our innocence is just so devastating and that’s what happened here. For her it was also hard because her daddy was good friends with Dan Blocker (Hoss on Bonanza) and she spent many happy hours with her dad and Dan wandering around the ranch while Bonanza was being filmed and to see this happen to such a sweet childhood memory was so much to bear. She loved seeing the photos and that the place (sans the buildings) has not changed yet she said she could never go back there. It’s easier for me because I was not here at the time it all happened. It’s an amazing, breathtaking place with an air of sadness that can’t be escaped when you are there for sure.
Bonanza was never filmed on the SPAHN RANCH. It was filmed near it, on Bell Ranch.
Actually the many of the location scenes were filmed at SPAHN RANCH. My research on this is confirmed on Wikipedia and also on IMDb (the industry source for tv and film information). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movie_ranch
Sorry for a second reply but I had to get the link for you for the information confirming that Bonanza was filmed at SPAHN RANCH from IMDb (The International Movie Database). http://www.imdb.com/search/title?endings=on&&locations=Spahn+Ranch,+Chatsworth,+Los+Angeles,+California,+USA
Also, I have a friend whose father was a dear friend of Dan Blocker (Hoss on Bonanza) and while a child spent many a day at Spahn Ranch with her father and Mr. Blocker while Dan was filming Bonanza. She read the article and said it brought tears to her eyes to see the photos of the ranch because she has such beautiful memories of it but after the murders, she was never allowed to go back. As an adult she can’t bring herself to return.
I am Theresa’s friend that she mentioned in her post. Just wanted to say that there were indeed location shots done at Spahn Ranch because I was there with my father more than once. It was always a treat to go on the location sets for me and doubly special for my dad as he was friends with Dan Blocker. I’m sure there was filming at Bell Ranch too but as for some of the location shots, I can verify that I was there at Spahn. Its just such a shame that the ranch had to be associated with such a horrific group of people. I was still pretty young at the time this happened but I do remember Dad saying he just couldn’t ever go there again and forbid us kids to go either. For me it tarnished such wonderful memories and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to visit there without feeling sad.
No worries, I guess the Bonanza website chose not to post SPAHN Ranch as a location.
Then again we are talking so many years ago before barbwire was a land divider and beigns that BELL Ranch and Spahn Ranch are just next to each other, Bonanaza may have been filmed on Spahns Ranch.
I only remember Lake Tahoe being the film site for Bonanaza. Ponderosa Ranch, its still there to this day as the film site for this beloved program.
I LOVE LAKE TAHOE~ I would move back in heart beat if the oppertunity arrised.
Thank you Debi. It was definitely Spahn Ranch for the Bonanza location filming per not only Debi but IMDb which is sets the industry standard and is maintained by the industry. IMDb is the ultimate authority on film and tv information. Also, Bell Ranch consisted of only five acres was simply a western street street built on the property. It was not a wide open spaces shoot area like Spahn or Iverson and is located above Spahn Ranch. It is between Iverson Ranch and Spahn Ranch. Iverson was the ultimate movie ranch in its day where most of the big A class movies were made. The original Bell Ranch was 120 acres which became Berry Movie Ranch then five acres of that property was sold to Tony Stimolo and that five acres is where he built the western street that became Bell Movie Ranch. According to the Jerry England Bell Movie Ranch website, Bonanza was not one of the westerns filmed there as it is not among their list of projects filmed at the ranch. As to why the Bonanza website named Bell Ranch is a mystery to me because, other than their site, there appears to be no other reference to this. It may have been the stigma of Spahn Ranch that kept them from naming it. It is a fan run site, not one from the production company or owners of the Bonanza thus not official by industry standards, so it may just be an error. If Bell had been a location for Bonanza it most definitely would be noted as such on IMDb. Here is the link to Mr. England’s website http://employees.oxy.edu/jerry//bell.htm and the wikipedia for Bell Motion Picture Ranch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movie_ranch#Bell_Moving_Picture_Ranch which lists what shows were filmed there. Also, I went again to the Bonanza website and noticed that the first picture they have on the locations link you gave me showing the rock formation from the Bonanza location that they are stating is Bell Ranch, is the same rock formation in the photo that I took (shown above in the blog) which is on Spahn Ranch. I think they just have their information wrong. At least to all of the most knowledgeable sources it seems that way.
I have never been to Tahoe, but hear it is just fabulous. I would love to visit one day.
I’m saddened to hear that people still speak of the ranch as if it was evil and tainted. I grew up watching many of the westerns that where filmed there and would LOVE to see one day.
Thanks for posting such wonderful pictures
Thank you Fae. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It makes me sad that the good history of the ranch seems to be getting lost because of the tragedy that took place there. That’s the reason I felt it was important to remind people that wonderful things happened there before the Manson Family inhabited it. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are from growing up with the westerns that were filmed there. I hope that part of its history is never totally lost.
Such a surreal trip. Super cool though. Great pix!
That it was. I was very affected by it.