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That time Charles Manson came to Boys Town

That time Charles Manson came to Boys Town

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In the old photo, a teenage boy smiles as he grips a judge’s hand.

“Charles Manson, 14, a ‘dead end kid’ who has lived in an emotional ‘blind alley’ most his life, is happy today,” reads the Indianapolis News story from March 1949. “He’s going to Boys Town.”

Today, few Omahans know that Manson, the infamous cult leader convicted of orchestrating the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in California, spent a brief stint at Father Edward Flanagan’s children’s home. Details of his time here are scarce. Manson ran away after just a few days.

But Lawson McDowell, a 66-year-old local author and retired director of network operations at Union Pacific, spent more than a year corresponding with the imprisoned Manson, researching his historical fiction book, “Before He Became a Monster: A Story of Charles Manson’s Time at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town,” published in 2013.

On Sunday, McDowell will speak about Manson’s time in Omaha, the 1969 murders and subsequent trial as part of a presentation hosted by the Douglas County Historical Society.

“I write mainly for myself, but also to educate anybody that wants to learn,” he said. “I wanted to write about (Manson) just to let people know that he’d been here in town and left.”

McDowell’s book tells the story of how Manson came to stay at Boys Town and what happened during his time there, blending real and imagined events. The episode is shrouded in uncertainty, and Manson himself gave cryptic answers to some of McDowell’s questions.

What is certain is that Manson’s admittance to Boys Town was meant to turn his life around.

Manson’s mother was a heavy drinker and unstable caregiver, who at times found herself in trouble with the law. Her son spent much of his early life in one city or another, living with relatives or in group homes.

Eventually, he was caught stealing and ended up in the Indiana juvenile court system. In 1949, the Indianapolis News ran a story outlining the 14-year-old Manson’s troubled childhood. The boy, it read, had expressed a desire to become Catholic and had been daydreaming about the home in Omaha.

“I think I could be happy working around cows and horses. I like animals,” Manson told the court.

At his hearing, an Indiana judge encouraged him: “Maybe you’ll have that farm yet and be a real farmer, son. You just try hard and learn the things they teach.”

It wasn’t to be. Manson’s stay at Boys Town lasted all of three days, said Kara Neuverth, Boys Town spokeswoman. (In his book, McDowell writes Boys Town told him five days. Manson himself, he writes, couldn’t remember.)

Manson is not considered a Boys Town alumnus, Neuverth said. He never made it out of orientation.

“He took off and that was kind of the last of it,” she said.

In a letter to the Journal Star, a newspaper in Peoria, Illinois, Manson claimed he ran away from Boys Town, stole a car in Lincoln and continued to Idaho and later Peoria, where police caught him in more than one break-in.

But when McDowell heard from a friend that Manson had, in fact, spent time at Boys Town, he wanted to know more. So he decided to ask the man himself.

In 2009, McDowell began writing letters once a week to Manson in Corcoran State Prison, asking him if he’d be willing to talk about his time in Omaha. The letters went unreturned for more than six months, until McDowell began including photos of Union Pacific trains. Manson, McDowell learned, is interested in railroads.

One night, McDowell said, he received a call from a man who identified himself as an associate of Manson. McDowell explained what he wanted to know, and arrangements were made for him to speak with Manson through a telephone service for inmates.

Off and on for more than two years, McDowell chatted with Manson. They talked about Omaha, about Manson’s past and about the 1969 murders. True, McDowell wanted to know more about Manson’s experiences at Boys Town, but he also wanted to vet the inmate, who, for decades, has drawn attention for odd behavior.

“I was scared to deal with him because of his reputation and all,” McDowell said. “But he surprised me in how intelligent he is, and how thoughtful he is in some things.”

Manson remembered his time in Omaha fondly and vividly, McDowell said. He could recall, for example, the name of a nun who confiscated his cigarettes and specific architectural details about the Boys Town campus. Overall, McDowell said, Manson gave the impression that he appreciated what the children’s home had tried to do for him.

So why run away? McDowell asked, over and over. Manson, he said, never gave a clear answer.

After a while, McDowell grew tired of Manson’s phone calls. He wrote his book, piecing together what he learned from their conversations. He sent Manson a copy.

McDowell stopped taking Manson’s calls, ready to put the story behind him. He shifted gears after the Manson book, writing “Ginny Cooper’s War” about the construction of the Enola Gay at what is now Offutt Air Force Base.

Today, McDowell saves memories of his correspondence with Manson in a manila folder. It contains postcards addressed and signed in Manson’s messy handwriting, their envelopes stamped by the California prison.

Ask McDowell how he feels about Manson, and he’s clear: “I am not a Manson fan,” he said. He believes the man, now 82, is a career criminal who deserves to be in jail.

But, at McDowell’s presentation Sunday, he plans to share his take on Manson’s crimes, one he knows isn’t always popular with those convinced of the man’s guilt.

He thinks there’s more to the story.

Charles Manson in Omaha

What: Lawson McDowell will speak about Manson’s time in Omaha and discuss the 1969 murders and trial as part of the Douglas County Historical Society’s Second Sunday Series.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: 5730 N. 30th St. Metropolitan Community College Building 10

Admission: Free for historical society members and $5 for nonmembers. To RSVP, call 402-455-9990 or email Members@DouglasCoHistory.org.

blake.ursch@owh.com, 402-444-3131, twitter.com/blakeursch_owh

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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Related to this story

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Charles Manson, the hippie cult leader who became the hypnotic-eyed face of evil across America after orchestrating the gruesome murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969, died Sunday after nearly a half-century in prison. He was 83.

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