John Shearer: Remembering the Charles Manson Case And Woodstock 50 Years Ago And How Chattanooga Followed Them

Saturday, August 10, 2019 - by John Shearer
Chattanooga newspaper clippings of Manson and Woodstock events
Chattanooga newspaper clippings of Manson and Woodstock events

As many Chattanoogans know, the middle part of this month marks the 50th anniversary of two memorable events in American history.


One – the Charles Manson murders -- was the world at its worst, while the other – the Woodstock music festival – was the world at its best in many ways, at least in terms of peace and harmony and the way great music was enjoyed.


I was only nine years old at the time and do not remember paying attention to either news-making event when they happened, although, as I mentioned in another recent story, I vividly remember the moon walk less than a month earlier.


I do recall a tragic event that took place in our neighborhood that was indirectly related to the Woodstock Festival.

That happened when I looked out the window of our house and saw an ambulance at the home of Irving Miles across the street at 129 Valleybrook Road in Hixson and learned later he had unfortunately died of a heart attack on Aug. 15, 1969.


The native of Poland and National Linen Service official was only 59 and was survived by his wife, Helen, and two sons, John and David Miles. I think I later learned from my mother, Velma Shearer, that at least one of the sons was at Woodstock and they had to track him down there to relay the sad news.


Because both of these anniversaries are being recalled in the national media, I wanted to see how they were covered in both the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press in August 1969. So I perused the microfilm collection at the Chattanooga Public Library on Friday.


What I found was that while both events were covered on the front pages of both newspapers over multiple days, the media did not know the full details of the Charles Manson murders, as he and his followers would not be indicted for weeks.


And with the Woodstock Festival a few days later, the news media did not know or convey the full significance of the event, as much of the initial coverage was on the negative aspects of it.


Regarding the Charles Manson-orchestrated killings, Chattanoogans first learned of them in print media through front-page articles in both newspapers on Sunday, Aug. 10, 1969. On both Aug. 10 and Aug. 11, the News-Free Press ran Page 1 stories from UPI entertainment writer Vernon Scott.


The headline of the N-FP story on Aug. 10, said, “ ‘Valley of Dolls’ Star Sharon Tate, Four Others Found Shot To Death.” It and the non-byline Associated Press story in the Times chronicled details about the tragic event. They both described how five people – including a pregnant Ms. Tate, noted hairstylist Jay Sebring, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger -- were found murdered on the morning of Aug. 9 by a maid in a Bel Air area home owned by Ms. Tate and husband director Roman Polanski.


The stories described ropes being around their necks, the word “pig” being scrawled on the front door apparently in blood, and telephone and electric wires being cut at the barn-style home. One identifying officer described the scene as looking like a ritualistic killing.


The Times story actually ran closer to the top of Page 1 than the News-Free Pres one and had a photo of Ms. Tate.


The stories on Aug. 11 in both papers also mentioned a second killing, this time of grocery owner Leno La Bianca and his wife, boutique owner Rosemary, in the Silverlake District of Los Angeles about 15 miles away. Their murders were discovered by Mrs. La Bianca’s son from a previous marriage on the night of Aug. 10.


While officials were not sure if the crimes were related, Mr. Scott wrote that parallels were found. In both killings, he astutely wrote, hoods were placed over bodies, words were written in blood, stab wounds were found and cords were around bodies.


He added in an obviously perplexed tone, “The motive for the strange slayings was a mystery.”


Authorities initially considered young house sitter William Garretson a person of interest, but that theory lasted only a few hours and he was soon released.


At least one Chattanooga paper had a follow-up story about the killings on the back pages a few days later, and it would actually be weeks before the cult leader Charles Manson and some of his followers, including some young women, would be indicted. In August 1969, their names were not known, although some were arrested on unrelated charges shortly after this and before being pinpointed in the murders.


Also months later, their strange story of trying to kill to create chaos and a race war was detailed.


One fact long forgotten in general anniversary stories is that several still-living pets, including a Yorkshire terrier and a small kitten, had to be removed by authorities from the Tate home, which, unlike the La Bianca residence, has since been torn down.


Neither the Times nor the News-Free Press wrote any editorials about the horrific killings, or even about Woodstock during those initial few days. The News-Free Press did write an editorial about a “sickening crime,” but it was a reference to the unfortunate shooting death of Army Spec. 4 David Duckett of Ringgold, Ga., on Ninth Street while the Vietnam veteran was home on leave.


As an aside, the arrest of a man in Ypsilanti, Mich., in connection with a possible series of killings of women there was played up as big as the Manson stories on that first day.


Chattanoogans did have plenty else going on locally and elsewhere besides the Manson-orchestrated killings and the Woodstock Festival to catch their attention.


A Red Food Store was planned for Shallowford Road and Lee Highway; Christ Church Episcopal under rector Christopher Morley, the son of the noted writer by the same name, was going to have a rock mass, a forerunner of a contemporary service; and First-Centenary United Methodist Church was looking at building a new worship facility.


Also, McCallie School co-founder J. Park McCallie was being honored on his 90th birthday; Dr. William Greer opened a dental practice on Brainerd Road; Beverly Hartshorn was Miss Chattanooga; Jimmy Hoffa’s wife, Jo, fainted during an electronic eavesdropping hearing for her husband at Federal Court in Chattanooga; and Hurricane Camille was wrecking havoc on the Mississippi coast.


The news of the Woodstock festival – or Woodstock Music and Art Fair as it was officially called -- was first found in the two Chattanooga papers on Saturday, Aug. 16.


The News-Free Press ran a UPI story at the bottom of Page 1 with the headline, “Enormous Crowd Snarls Festival Of Folk and Rock Music in New York.”


The Times on Aug. 17, more than a day after the event had been underway, had its own Page 1 headline with the words, “On the Road From Bethel and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Bowl.” Its AP story was accompanied by two photos – one of all the youngsters having to park and walk to the festival site after a larger-than-expected crowd attended, and another one of this massive crowd in the fields listening to the music.


Next to the Times story was an indirectly related story by local reporter Pat Wilcox following an interview with U.S. Rep. Bill Brock from Chattanooga about his perspectives of college students and their concerns about the world.


On Monday, Aug. 18, right after the festival ended, the News-Free Press ran another story on Page 7 under the headline, “Woodstock Music-Art Fair Comes to Soggy, Dismal End.”


It pointed out that two young men did die – one when he was trampled in an adjoining field by a tractor, and another from a drug overdose, or, as was documented years later, by an insulin-related incident.


The article said the rain made the land into a slippery brown quagmire, there were shortages of food, and the much larger than expected crowd of about 400,000 taxed other resources.


But a festival physician named Dr. William Abruzzi perhaps hinted at the way the concert would be remembered in the coming years when he said in the final UPI story in the News-Free Press, “The one thing I’ve got to say, though, is that I have yet to see any injury that has been the result of a fight. To my knowledge, there has been no violence whatsoever, which is remarkable for a crowd of this size. These people are really beautiful.”


I must admit I did not know a lot of details about Woodstock until I saw an interesting documentary about it on “American Experience” on PBS last Tuesday. 


It described how four people with different gifts ended up joining together to create the festival. The event’s original planned location in Thrillkill, N.Y., was voted down by the town council after organizers had begun work, so the four had to scramble around to find another location.


Luckily, they found a sympathetic person in dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who supported their right to have a festival and let them use his 600 acres in Bethel, N.Y., northwest of New York City and near the Pennsylvania border.


Its rolling fields created much more of a natural concert amphitheatre than the flatter other location did. But while they finally found the right site, they did not have a lot of time, and they were unable to get the facility ready with adequate fencing around the festival site.


Because of all that, they could not really take tickets. They also had to fly in the acts on helicopters due to the traffic jam ups and crowds, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller thought he might have to declare the area a disaster.


It rained several times, including one dangerous thunderstorm on Sunday afternoon. In addition, they used Wavy Gravy and others from the Hog Farm commune in an unusual-and-peaceful approach to security to avoid the violence that had taken place at other large music festivals.


They also ran out of food, although the Hog Farm group and members of the Bethel community helped provide emergency food for free.


By today’s strict and detailed standards, Woodstock might have been considered a horrible event logistically speaking.


But you know what? Something beautiful happened at that concert. The thousands of young people all came together and remained peaceful and harmonious, and some of the finest music bands in the history of music took part as performers.


And some of them – like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who were performing live together for only the second time and took the stage in the middle of the night – gave shows to remember. Other memorable music moments included Richie Havens, who performed first after no other acts had gotten to the site, coming up with the makeshift, one-word song, “Freedom.” Jimi Hendrix also woke the mostly departing crowd that Monday morning with an electric guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


Of course, there were marijuana and other drugs in plentiful supply at the event, and some of the young people decided to go skinny-dipping and even walk around nude at times, causing a few people to look down at the event.


But overall, it was considered a positive event and taught a lot about harmony at a time in American history when – like today – there was much divisiveness.


While the Charles Manson story still makes people cringe, even as society has become increasingly violent, memories of Woodstock make many people smile 50 years later and think about what is possible.

1969 Woodstock promotional poster
1969 Woodstock promotional poster

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