Claudia Verhoeven, associate professor of history at Cornell University, talks about her week of research at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive on the Charles Manson trial in the 1970s, and how, after beginning her career as a Russianist interested in the cultural/intellectual history of 19th century Russia, she is now retraining herself in the context of American history in order to incorporate Manson into her courses on Legal History: Great Trials and the history of European terrorism.
Episode 001: Claudia Verhoeven
[00:00] [music] Russ Mason: [00:08] Hi. I’m Russ Mason along with fellow TV News archivist, Skip Pfeiffer, and we’re joined today by Cornell history professor, Claudia Verhoeven, who’s been here all week viewing national news coverage from our collection of the 1970 Charles Manson trial. Claudia will explain how this research fits in with her broader academic interests, and we’ll also hear a few sound bites from some of the news segments she’s viewed while she’s been here. We began our conversation with Claudia by asking her to introduce herself.
Claudia Verhoeven: [00:42] I am an associate professor of history at Cornell University. I received my PhD from UCLA in 2004 in Russian History, and I was hired at Cornell as a Russianist. My main research area is the history of terrorism and other forms of political violence. My first book is a micro/reception/cultural history of the first failed attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander II in Russia that occurred in 1866. And so I look at the response to that assassination, and how out of that response emerged a modern concept of terrorism.
[01:25] I’ve looked at other cases of terrorism in Russia and then began to co-edit “The Oxford Handbook of the History of Terrorism,” which covers the globe from the ancients to the present. So I’ve looked at terrorism in lots of different cases, taught courses on the history of terrorism, and try to differentiate it from other kinds of violence or when is it non-state terrorism, when is it state terror, when is it partisan warfare, when is it…I don’t know, all kinds of violence. I’m broadly interested in the history of violence. Recently, I’ve began to look at modern American history in order to investigate the Manson murders.
Russ: [02:11] So as we’re talking, today is Friday, you’d been here since Monday, right? Claudia: Yeah. Russ: So you’ve had five days. How big a block of time have you been able to look at over those five days?
Claudia: [02:23] For the Manson coverage, I’ve really been able to look at everything. There’s a lot of material here, but of course, many of this news segments are only a minute to two minutes long. I’ve covered everything from August ‘69. The coverage goes until last week, basically. [laughter] The stuff that’s of most immediate interest to me is ‘69 through ‘71 when the trial ends.
Russ: [02:51] As Claudia pointed out, some of the news reports about the Manson trial were nothing more than brief updates. As, for example, this one from February 16th, 1970, read by NBC news anchor David Brinkley.
David Brinkley: [03:05] A judge in Los Angeles said the Sharon Tate murders have indeed produced a lot of publicity, but he still thought Charles Manson could get a fair trial, and so the trial will proceed.
Russ: [03:17] Over the years, any number of Vanderbilt professors have used our material in the classroom to help their students appreciate what was going on particular event that they’re focused on. So I’m wondering, is that one of the ways you want to use this research? Is to incorporate them into some of your classes?
Claudia: [03:37] Oh, yes. Absolutely. And in addition to just doing all the research, I did request to put in an order for a number of clips that I’ll bring home and integrate into my teaching. And there’s tons of interesting stuff. One especially interesting moment in the Manson trial is when President Nixon, who is trying to gain support for a new crime bill, and he’s giving a speech in Denver. He launches a kind of attack against the media and the way the media glorifies criminals and so forth. He comes out and makes a comment about Manson, that Manson is glorified in the media, and he says, “Here’s a man who was guilty of a number of murders,” and he forgets to include the word alleged. [laughter]
Russ: [04:28] Let’s listen to that sound bite from President Nixon’s press conference which took place on August 3rd, 1970 in Denver, Colorado.
President Nixon: [04:40] I noted for example the coverage of the Charles Manson case when I was in Los Angeles. Front page every day in the papers. It usually got a couple of minutes in the evening news. Here is a man who was guilty directly or indirectly of eight murders without reason. Here’s a man yet who as far as the coverage was concerned, appeared to be rather a glamorous figure.
Claudia: [05:06] That leads to just a complete circus in the courtroom in Los Angeles where the defense lawyers of course immediately make a motion for a mistrial because if the president of the United States says that you’re guilty, how can you still receive a fair trial? And so there’s great coverage here of the Nixon speech, of the lawyers responding to it, and so forth. All of these issues about the politics of the case I’m really interested in, and hope to integrate into the lecture the next time I teach it.
Russ: [05:36] Skip Pfeiffer began working at the Vanderbilt TV News Archive in 1973, first as an indexer, and then for the past 30 plus years as an abstractor of evening news broadcasts. It’s these abstracts that enable researchers like Claudia to find precisely what they’re interested in viewing within the archive’s collection, which contains nearly 50 years of national news programming. As we continue our conversation with Claudia Verhoeven now, Skip has a question for her.
Skip Pfeiffer: [06:09] I had read that you teach your course on the history of law about trials and that Manson fits in this. Could you tell briefly what this really interesting course sounds like and how Manson fits in.
Claudia: [06:22] Great. This is a course, it’s called History of Law: Great Trials. I developed it with my friend and colleague Holly Case who was at Cornell, but she recently moved to Brown. Neither one of us is a legal historian, but because of the assassination attempt that I investigated in the Russian context, which was followed by a trial. So I’ve looked pretty closely at a great trial. So I was interested in this. We were just talking one afternoon and we thought, “It would be interesting to do a course on great trials.” So we developed it. The first trial that we cover is Socrates. The most recent iteration of that course, it goes all the way up to Pussy Riot. So I’ve taught the Manson murder trial in the context of that case as a great, spectacular trial. I’ve taught the Manson murders also in other context, but it’s probably most effectively taught in the context of the history of great trials.
Russ: [07:37] What is it about the Manson trial in particular? There must be so many trials that you could have picked. Is there something about the Manson trial that particularly intrigued you?
Claudia: [07:47] Yeah. It is a famous trial. It was spectacular. It was always described as bizarre and burlesque. It attracted so much media attention at the time, which I’ve now been able to see, especially looking at the footage here in the Archive.
One of the reasons why it became such a famous trial is because the defendants “misbehaved” so spectacularly. They did not recognize it as a legitimate court of law. They were following the examples of other trials that were going on at the time such as the Chicago Seven or Eight conspiracy trial where some of the defendants there were acting quite outrageously in order to put society on trial. And so the Manson defendants were following in the footsteps of these defendants. One of the things that I’m interested in as a historian of political violence, especially irregular violence, is how revolutionaries or radicals, how they stage themselves in the space of the courtroom.
Skip: [08:55] Could you speak as to how your foray into American history led you to TV News Archive?
Claudia: [09:02] A couple years ago, I started on this research, and I was in LA looking at the records at the LA superior court. I knew there was a TV news archive at UCLA. Somehow, I didn’t get around to working there. They do have the local news that I plan to look up. Anyway, I just didn’t make it to it. So I went back to Cornell and I just started doing searches online and then I found you. I thought this is great. First, of course I tried to order a couple things from Cornell. I realized the material is so vast that it’s better to come and look at it in person and really take the time for it. Again, so that I can get a feel for the context in which the news was reported.
Skip: [09:46] Do you have any idea how many number of items you’ve looked at so far and where you might go next after TV News in the Manson stuff? Claudia: [09:57] Well, yeah. You mean how many separate segments I looked at? Skip: [10:03] Yeah. Claudia: [10:04] I don’t know. I didn’t count them, but I did over the course of this week collect up to 50 pages, single spaced of notes. So it’s quite a bit. Skip: [10:14] That is quite a bit. Claudia: [10:19] Again, I want to do the local news television. I need to do much more research of newspapers and magazine. I did the “LA Herald” when I was in LA last time, but I want to do all the major newspapers. So now, I know, after being here, who were the reporters who did this story. Most of them are dead by now, not all of them. So I want to know what other work did they do. I would like to interview them. I would like to look into the people who did the drawings, the courtroom sketches, that reporting. It’s really the beginning of my detective work.
Russ: [10:57] It was really a different world back then, because people followed the Manson trial when they got home. Unlike, say, O.J., for example, where all the cable networks carried it live as it happened, and the cameras were in the courtroom. Here, like you say, all you have are the artists.
Claudia: [11:22] The judge ordered that there were no photographers allowed. Every time that Manson and the so-called Manson Girls do their…It’s not really a perp walk, but whenever they’re brought into court, there’s a small army of photographers out there trying to get a glimpse. It’s clear that the reporting is very interested in what kind of expression do they have on their face, what kind of clothes are they wearing, are the optimistic, and so forth. But then, the court room doors shut, and that’s it. They can’t get in there.
[11:50] There’s only one example of a short interview with Manson in the courtroom, but that’s a different courtroom. That’s a courtroom in Santa Monica, not downtown LA. You have these courtroom sketches. I had seen some of the sketches, because again, they appear in TV documentaries. You can download them off the Internet. I’ve used them for my classroom. For example, there’s a famous sketch when Manson jumps over the defense table and lurches at the judge to attack him. He’s flying in mid-air. You can get those on the internet, but I had no idea how many of these sketches there were. They caught everything, and so the way that those function on the news, I didn’t realize that either, that they function almost as a comic book or a cartoon or indeed a film that’s being shown while the reporter narrates the events of the day.
Russ: [12:45] Here is reporter Don Oliver’s description from NBC’s October 5th, 1970 news segment on Manson’s attempt to attack the judge.
Don Oliver: [12:54] Manson screamed, “I will have you removed if you don’t stop. I have a little system of my own.” Then, he jumped up and hurled himself over the defense table in the direction of the judge. Guards leaped on top of him, and as they struggled to take him out, Manson again shouted, “You think I’m kidding? In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.”
Claudia: [13:15] The Russian terrorists in the 19th century, for example, tended to see the space of the courtroom as one of the few places within the Russian Empire where they could speak freely about their politics. They would use the courtroom as a place to amplify their political messages. But in a sense, because there the courtroom had some independence from the political regime, they thought that the courtroom had a certain legitimacy. By the time it got to the mid-20th century, especially in the context of these radicalized ’60s, many radicals and revolutionaries no longer recognized the legitimacy of the courtroom. So their behavior gets more and more outlandish. If you just look at this one trial in isolation, it looks as if they’re just crazy and bizarre, but there actually is a tradition to the kind of theatrics that they are pulling.
Skip: [14:13] We had talked briefly about the Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times. You’ve been talking about looking at the full broadcast from those days to see what other news items are. Are you getting a sense of what this time period was like?
Claudia: [14:30] Yeah, a little bit, but my knowledge of this period, I know something about it but I think it’s superficial in the sense that I was not trained as an American historian. I’m training myself as I work on this project. So last year, I did quite a bit of reading about the Black Panther Party, read memoirs and so forth. Basically, I can watch these newscasts and I can navigate it. I can recognize many of the topics, but I don’t have in-depth knowledge about it. It’s a learning experience for me. There’s a learning curve involved.
Russ: [15:13] Now, it’s time for some fun, thanks to Skip’s next follow-up question to the one he just asked Claudia about whether watching so many news segments from the ’70s had helped her get a feel for the Zeitgeist of that time period. When the archive first started recording the national news in 1968, it was decided it would require too much effort to edit out all the commercial breaks every day. And in any case, there might be some future interest in them as students or researchers look back at any given era. So before we get to Skip’s next question, let’s take a quick trip back to those days to hear a few sound bites from some of those old commercials, including a few cigarette ads, which were subsequently banned from the airwaves at the end of 1970.
Male Presenter: [15:54] Now, for the first time, one-touch sewing is here on the sewing machine of the ’70s, the new Golden Touch and Sew machine by Singer. Lee Marvin: [16:13] Hi, I’m Lee Marvin just brushing up on my judo and enjoying my favorite smoke, Pall Mall. Male Presenter: [16:17] Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch. Male Presenter: [16:20] Let’s face it. You can feel uneasy about your bathroom. Maybe it doesn’t seem completely clean or fresh enough. That’s why Lysol made Disinfectant Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner. Female Presenter: [16:34] I’ve never seen it before. Male Presenter: [16:36] In many cold tablets and capsules there may be an extra something. Drowsiness, not too good when you have work to do. But here’s a no-drowse decongestant lozenge, Sucrets Cold Decongestant Formula. Female Presenter: [16:49] It’s like bathing in the moistness of an early morning dew, a feeling borrowed by Calgon and converted into Calgon bath oil beads. A heavenly potion of youthful oils and softeners that soak away dryness, take away time, and leave you feeling soft as the dawn’s early light. Male Presenter: [17:08] NBC nightly news continues brought to you by Kent cigarettes. Light up a Kent, and let the good taste happen. What a good time for a Kent.
Russ: [17:20] And so, as we rejoin the conversation now, Skip is asking Claudia what she thought of the commercials that she watched while doing her research.
Skip: [17:29] You mentioned seeing some of the commercials in there. TV News collects the commercials in there, which could be a study in itself but indicate something about the time, although the commercials, as we talked about, are pitched more to an older audience. You’ve seen some of the classic commercials that most people have never seen.
Claudia: [17:51] Again, they’re great. They’re all about ingesting various products. [laughter] It’s cigarettes, it’s pills. [laughs] I do think it’s really important to look at the cultural context. This is also because the research I did for my work on 19th century Russia, of course there was no TV news, so I looked at newspapers. I always looked at the coverage of the immediate case. Maybe I actually started looking more at the context because there wasn’t a lot of reporting initially about the assassination attempt. That is to say when the assassination attempt first happened, there was tons of coverage. Then because the investigation was so secret, they put a lid on it. There was very little, and so I had to start looking at other things and to see, are there perhaps other stories on completely different topics where nevertheless, they are secretly talking about the investigation. So there I also started to look at advertisement and became very interested in the sense for the culture that advertisement gives you. I haven’t looked at that enough yet, but I found it [laughs] interesting to say the least that it was all about pill popping and smoking.
Skip: [19:15] What we’re learning is that in the process of historical research, you get spun off into other areas. Claudia: [19:23] Absolutely. Skip: [19:26] So in your course on trials, you could go from Socrates to the 20th century. Claudia: [19:34] Yeah. Skip: [19:34] I’m sure you have more trials you can add to that at some point.
Claudia: [19:39] We’re keeping a file from trials that we should have covered, but didn’t. For example, here, in one of the news segments, one of the issues was there was so much publicity about the Manson trial. So much negative publicity that the defense lawyers were extremely concerned that Manson defendants, that they couldn’t get a fair trial.
So the lawyers will make repeated references to other cases when there was an enormous amount of publicity that obstructed a fair trial. So then they mentioned cases like the Sheppard case, which I guess everybody knew about, but I didn’t know about it. So that opens up a new window, and then that would be the kind of case that then we would add next time to the course. One of the purposes of the course indeed is to look at cases within their immediate historical context, but to really have these cases talking to each other across time, so that you can get broader issues about the history of law.
Skip: [20:40] I’m very interested in the process you’ve gone through. I’ve learned a lot about the research process and how you’ve gone from more staid Russian history, which was your original, into terrorism and in the European context and now into Western civilization and its trials leading up to Manson.
Claudia: [21:05] I always thought that there were some similarities between the Manson case and the topic of my first book. That is because in both of these cases, the 1860s in Russia and then the 1960s in America, and in other areas of the world were I think very similar. These were periods of extreme cultural blossoming of political radicalization with great Utopian hopes that then, at some point, either spiral out of control or the things begin to degenerate into violence so that the assassination attempt that I looked at in the Russian case is also…emerges from a student movement with great hopes for political reforms and so forth.
You see the same thing in the 1960s in the American and the European context, where the student movement produces in the American context the Weather Underground. In Germany, The Red Army Faction, in Italy the Red Brigades, all these left-wing terrorist organizations. The Manson case belongs in this context, but of course, it’s a much less explicitly, political case. It’s as everybody says, it’s a much weirder and bloodier case.
Skip: [22:47] Could you just speak to our audience as to where the Manson figures are now?
Claudia: [22:50] Oh, the Manson figures. Well, the principals are all still in jail. That’s Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. Susan Atkins died in jail a few years ago. Charles Watson is also still in jail. Some of the other members of the family like Lynette Fromme, who was convicted for the attempted assassination of President Ford, she was paroled. So in any case, they’re in jail. Many of them were originally sentenced to death, but then the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty so their sentences were commuted to a life in prison with the possibility of parole. They keep coming up for parole, but then are denied. Except for Leslie Van Houten, who recently, it was recommended that she be paroled, but that recommendation was overturned by the governor of California.
Russ: [23:47] Okay, well…thank you, Claudia. Claudia: [23:48] Thank you. Russ: [23:50] If you get back to Cornell and want to send any of your students or other faculty members in our direction. Claudia: [23:57] Yes. I hope that more people come and make use of the wonderful archive. Russ: [24:03] Thanks so much. Claudia: [24:04] Thank you.
Russ: [24:05] That concludes our conversation that Skip Pfeiffer and I had with Cornell University Associate Professor of History, Claudia Verhoeven, following her five days of research here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, which she characterized as an incredibly productive and interesting week for her. We hope you’ll watch for future News Knowledge podcasts and follow us on our @vutvnews Twitter page. I’m Russ Mason, and on behalf of all of us at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, we thank you for listening.