Mary Brunner, A Librarian From Wisconsin, Was Charles Manson’s First Recruit

Published July 3, 2019
Updated August 7, 2019
Published July 3, 2019
Updated August 7, 2019

Mary Brunner immediately fell under Charles Manson's spell. She bore his son, aided in a murder, and attempted to hijack a plane in his name.

Mary Brunner Courtroom John Randolph Haynes And Dora Haynes Foundation

John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes FoundationMary Brunner (right) in court.

Marioche. Och. Mary Och. Mary Theresa Manson. Linda Dee Moser. Christine Marie Euchts. Mother Mary.

Mary Brunner went by many names, and had nearly as many roles in the Manson Family.

From young librarian to murderess to star witness to attempted hostage-taker, Brunner’s life ran parallel with that of Charles Manson, the cult leader, murderer, and father of her child.

Mary Brunner’s Early Life

Considering her wild adulthood, Brunner’s childhood started off normally enough. Born December 17, 1943, Mary Theresa Brunner was raised by all accounts in a typical Midwestern family in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

In the 60s, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she got a job as a library assistant at UC Berkeley, and settled into life in the countercultural mecca across the bay from San Francisco.

Mary Brunner Young

John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes FoundationA young Mary Brunner, the mother of one of Charles Manson’s children.

But her quiet, stable life took a turn in 1967 when she met a man named Charles Manson, who’d just gotten released after seven years in federal prison.

They clicked instantly, and soon enough he was living with her. She’d be the first inductee into what was to become the Manson Family.

Her Man Manson

The dynamics of cult life — how people will live and die at the word of another — are completely illogical. Then again, so was the appeal of Charles Manson.

His shoulder-length bob and wild-eyed stare seem to be unmistakable hallmarks of a madman today, but he was the first of his kind. Manson was able to charm, cajole, and convince anybody to do just about anything.

Manson Being Escorted

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesCharles Manson leaves court after deferring a plea on murder charges. December 11, 1969.

He once said: “Look down at me and you see a fool; look up at me and you see a god; look straight at me and you see yourself.”

That may have been true, but he was gifted at convincing others that he really was a god. Since childhood, he was able to convince people, particularly women, to fight his battles and do his bidding.

Mary Brunner may have been the first in many ways, but she was no exception. In late 1967, Manson took Brunner and some other young women he encountered in the Bay Area — including Susan Atkins, who later admitted to killing Sharon Tate — in his black Volkswagen bus for a trip down the California coast.

On April 15, 1968, after arriving in Los Angeles, Brunner gave birth to a child: Valentine Michael Manson, named after the character in the sci-fi novel, Stranger In A Strange Land.

His mother called him “Pooh Bear.” His father allegedly cut his umbilical cord with his teeth.

Spahn Ranch And The Dynamics Of The ‘Family’

After a summer partying at the house of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, the “family” settled onto a former movie set north of Los Angeles called Spahn Ranch.

On the ranch, there was a hierarchy in place: children first (male, then female), adults second (male, then female), and Manson was above all as a sort of god.

Manson Family Scavenging For Food In A Dumpster

Michael Haering/Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryMary Brunner (second from the right) and other Manson Family members go on their daily dumpster dive, scavenging for food.

Orgies and drug use were rife, and the children’s word (and Manson’s) counted for more than anything.

Brunner played a Mother Mary role at Spahn Ranch. As one of his most mature followers, there with him from the beginning, she was a nurturing presence at the family domicile, as well as one of his most vocal advocates.

Mary Brunner And The Gary Hinman Murder

The climax of the Manson Family saga, and its violence, began with the murder of Gary Hinman on July 27, 1969. Less than two weeks later, the Manson Family would commit its most notorious crimes against Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas.

But before that apogee, there was Hinman. A PhD candidate at UCLA, hippie, activist, drug dealer, and musician, Hinman was close to the group, but not in it.

Brunner, Bobby Beausoleil, and Susan Atkins paid Hinman a visit one summer’s day. When Hinman was found slashed to death, the walls of his apartment read: “Political piggy,” next to a paw print drawn in his blood.

Manson Family At Spahn Ranch

Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryThe Manson Family at Spahn Ranch. Mary Brunner is standing behind the hammock wearing a striped tank top.

According to Beausoleil, Hinman paid the price for ripping off some bikers for bad mescaline, putting the Family in the middle. He claimed in a magazine interview that Brunner had little to do with the murders: “Mary Brunner was just scared to death. She just faded into the woodwork. She was a librarian.”

Other accounts maintain that she and Atkins smothered Hinman with a pillow to finish him off after Beausoleil stabbed him.

After the murder, she had a change of heart, starring as the key witness for the prosecution against Beausoleil. She detailed the aftermath of the murder and cleanup, noting “[Beausoleil] tried to erase that paw print on the wall” days after the murder, after maggots had begun eating away at Hinman’s corpse.

The Hawthorne Shootout And Aftermath

Mary Brunner didn’t participate in the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders, and she was granted immunity from prosecution for testifying against Beausoleil in the Hinman murder case. But when the rest of her adoptive clan faced prison for the killings, Brunner did her part to fight back.

In 1971, on the tail end of the Tate murder trial, Brunner and other Family members hatched a plan to hijack a Boeing 747 and kill one passenger every minute until Manson and the rest were released.

Mary Brunner And Catherine Share Arrive At Court

Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryMary Brunner and Catherine Share, who helped raid the Western Surplus store, arrive in court in 1971 to learn of their $100,000 bail.

Five of them raided a Western Surplus store, where they told two customers and three employees to lie on the floor. They smashed cases and brought guns out back, where another member of their clan was waiting in a van. Their goal was to seize as many guns as they could, so their hijacking could move forward without a hitch.

But one employee triggered the silent alarm, and the robbery fizzled. Brunner, suffering a wound to her hand from police officers’ gunfire, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years to life.

Paroled in 1977, Brunner cut ties with the Manson Family, changed her name, and moved to the Midwest. Now age 75, she hasn’t left much more of a trace since.

Brunner was ultimately awarded custody of her son, who was raised by her parents in Eau Claire.

Valentine Michael Manson later changed his name to Michael Brunner, further distancing himself from his notorious father.

“There’s no reason to treat me any different than the next guy, just because of my biological father….Mostly I think I get left alone more than the other person.”

Mary Brunner’s son, Michael Brunner (born Valentine Michael Manson) gives an interview in 1993 on what it was like growing up in the Manson Family.

Want to learn more about Charles Manson and his cult of followers? Read about Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford and now lives in upstate New York. Then, read about Manson’s mother, Kathleen Maddox.

Andrew Milne
A foodie, wanderlust victim, professional Francophile, and history nerd, Andrew Milne is a freelance writer who has worked at outlets like Bon Appétit and Food Network, and currently runs content at us.france.fr.