How Did Charles Manson Die? Inside The Bizarre Death Of The Infamous Cult Leader

Published April 19, 2022
Updated March 12, 2024

After serving 40 years in prison, Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017 — but the strange fight over his corpse and his estate was just beginning.

Charles Manson, the notorious cult leader whose followers committed eight brutal killings in the summer of 1969, ultimately died himself on November 19, 2017. He spent nearly half a century in a California prison for the murders he was convicted of masterminding and he remained behind bars up until his death due to cardiac arrest at age 83.

Charles Manson's Death

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesCharles Manson on trial in 1970.

But even with Charles Manson dead, his grisly story kept unfolding as his twentysomething fiancee, his associates, and his family began sparring over his body. Even after Charles Manson’s death, he generated a grim circus that grabbed headlines across the country.

This is the full story of Charles Manson’s death — and the shocking incidents that made him famous in the first place.

How Charles Manson Earned His Bloody Place In American History

Charles Manson first shocked the world when members of his California cult known as the Manson Family murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others, supposedly on his orders, inside her Los Angeles home. Those gruesome killings on August 8, 1969, were the first act of a multi-night murder spree that ended with the killings of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca the following evening.

How Did Charles Manson Die

Los Angeles Public LibraryCharles Manson awaiting the verdict on March 28, 1971.

Whatever Manson’s motives for the murders, a jury eventually found that he directed four members of the Manson Family — Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel — to go to 10050 Cielo Drive and kill everyone inside: Tate as well as the others at the scene, which were Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent.

The evening after the Tate murders, Manson and his Family members broke into the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, killing them just as brutally as those they murdered the night before.

After a relatively short investigation over the course of several months, Manson and his Family were arrested, then promptly tried and sentenced to death. However, their sentences were commuted to life in prison when California outlawed the death penalty.

Charles Manson

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Manson’s 1968 mugshot.

In prison, Charles Manson was denied parole 12 times. If he had lived, his next parole hearing would have been in 2027. But he never made it that far.

Before he passed away, however, the famous cult leader garnered the attention of a young woman who wanted to marry him: Afton Elaine Burton. Her part in his story only made his final days and the aftermath of his death all the more interesting.

How Did Charles Manson Die?

At the start of 2017, doctors found that Manson was suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding, causing him to be hospitalized. Within months, it was clear that Manson was in critical condition and suffering from colon cancer.

He was, nevertheless, able to hang on until November of that year. On November 15, he was sent to a hospital in Bakersfield with all signs pointing to his end being near.

Sure enough, he died of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure in the hospital on November 19. charles Manson’s death had been brought on by the cancer that had spread to other areas of his body. In the end, the answer to the question of “how did Charles Manson die?” was altogether straightforward.

And with Charles Manson dead, one of the 20th century’s most infamous criminals was gone. But, thanks largely to a woman named Afton Burton, the full saga of Charles Manson’s death was just getting started.

Afton Burton’s Bizarre Plans

Afton Burton

MansonDirect.comAfton Burton planned on garnering legal possession of Manson’s corpse in order to charge customers to see him entombed in a glass crypt.

According to The Daily Beast, Afton Burton first heard of Charles Manson when a friend told her about his environmental activism. His rallying cry known as ATWA — air, trees, water, animals — apparently impressed the teenager so much that she felt not only a kinship with Manson but began developing romantic feelings for him once they started communicating.

In 2007, she left her midwestern home of Bunker Hill, Illinois at the age of 19 with $2,000 in savings and made her way to Corcoran, California to meet the elderly convict in prison. The pair began to develop an amicable relationship, with Burton helping manage his MansonDirect website and commissary funds, and Manson seemingly warming to her wish to marry him.

According to The New York Post, however, this engagement between two people 53 years apart was not an honest one. Burton — who became known as “Star” after forging her connection with Manson — merely wanted possession of his corpse after he died.

She and a friend named Craig Hammond had reportedly hatched a macabre plan to take possession of Manson’s corpse and display it in a glass crypt where fawning — or merely curious — onlookers could pay to see. But this plan never came to pass.

The strange scheme was largely thwarted by Manson himself, who slowly began to realize that Burton’s intentions were not what they initially seemed.

Afton Burton And Charles Manson

MansonDirect.comWhen it became clear that Manson didn’t want to sign his body over to Burton, she pivoted back to marriage. As a spouse, she’d be legally in possession of her husband’s remains.

According to journalist Daniel Simone, who wrote a book on the matter, Burton and Hammond had hatched their plan and initially tried to get Manson to sign a document that would give them the rights to his body after he died.

“He didn’t give them a yes, he didn’t give them a no,” said Simone. “He sort of strung them along.”

Simone explained that Burton and Hammond, anxious to get Manson to agree to their plan, would routinely shower him in toiletries and other goodies that were unavailable in prison — and keeping the gifts coming was precisely why Manson kept his position on the agreement nebulous. Eventually, however, Manson decided to not consent to the plan.

“He’s finally realized that he’s been played for a fool,” said Simone. “He feels he will never die. Therefore, he feels it’s a stupid idea to begin with.”

When Burton and Hammond’s first plan didn’t work, she only became more anxious to marry him, which would allow her to take possession of his body after his death.

And Charles Manson did acquire a marriage license in order to wed Burton before he died, but they never went through with it. When it expired, a statement on Burton and Hammond’s website assured invested audiences across the globe that their plan was still on track.

“They plan on renewing the license, and things will move forward in the coming months,” the statement read.

The website also claimed that the ceremony was postponed “due to an unexpected interruption in logistics,” which presumably referred to Manson’s transfer to a prison medical facility to get an infection treated. This left him secluded from visitors for at least two months.

Mugshot Taken Before Charles Manson's Death

Wikimedia CommonsA prison photo of Manson mere months before he died. August 14, 2017.

In the end, Manson never recovered, the wedding idea never came to fruition, and Burton’s plan to secure Manson’s body never reached completion. With Charles Manson’s death on November 19, 2017, Burton’s plan was left incomplete. But with Charles Manson dead, so began the battle for his body that took months to finally conclude.

With Charles Manson Dead, The Battle For His Body Begins

In the end, Afton Burton never got what she wanted, which left the status of Manson’s remains uncertain. The public’s questions quickly turned from “is Charles Manson dead?” to “what will happen to his body?”

With Charles Manson dead, several people then came forward with supposed claims to his body (as well as his estate). A pen pal named Michael Channels and a friend named Ben Gurecki came forward with claims supposedly backed up by wills made in years prior. Also vying for the body was Manson’s son, Michael Brunner.

Ultimately, however, California’s Kern County Superior Court decided in March 2018 to give Manson’s body to his grandson, Jason Freeman. Later that same month, Freeman had his grandfather’s body cremated and scattered on a hillside following a short funeral service in Porterville, California.

Only about 20 attendees, described as close friends (as well as Burton), were present for the service which was kept unpublicized to avoid a media circus. Though he was a man who incited a media circus almost every time he opened his mouth in public following the infamous murders of 1969, the final step in the story of Charles Manson’s death was a decidedly quiet, low-key affair.

After learning about how Charles Manson died, read all about Manson’s mother, Kathleen Maddox. Then, check out the most fascinating Charles Manson facts. Finally, discover to the answer to the question of whether or not Charles Manson killed anyone.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.