Bunko and The Process: Backdrop on The Manson Family

Few know what or who were the Bunko Squad on big city police forces. They investigated swindles. The word probably derives from bunkum– meaningless claptrap or completely hollow, false assertions. The duties of the Bunko Squad in the 1930s evolved into dealing with “phony religion,” as it was termed back then. This was considered a particular type of swindle/fraud.

Harper, 1966, reflecting the 1960s phony guru crowd pre-Haight. Strother Martin plays a conman in his Temple of the Clouds.
Harper, 1966, reflecting the 1960s phony guru crowd pre-Haight. Strother Martin plays a conman in his Temple of the Clouds. The image wasn’t too far from the truth of how “metaphysical love” cults presented themselves.

The term Bunko Squad was dropped in the 1960s. Fraud didn’t become more defined; investigation became more refined for various types of swindles. However, for “religious fraud,” how to even define it anymore? Fronts for trafficking like that portrayed in Harper were obvious but weren’t too easy to expose. Guru religions had been sprouting everywhere from beatnik culture. Who were sincere, deluded or swindling? You can be deluded and not committing Fraud.

When the free and easy antiestablishment movement broke wide open in 1967, the average Joe (especially the young) were actively looking for alternative religions and philosophies. Naturally, the Haight-Ashbury became the center of this. Yet fraud always hinged on bilking money. The Haight was the center of a culture that didn’t even have money. The “hippie religions” that incubated there were sincere, but a strange admixture of self deception.

Curt Rowlett, himself once a mid-level member in an occult religion, describes the Haight in Labyrinth 13:

“Radical politics, free love, new spiritual values, and an ‘anything goes’ mentality were the standards for the day in the Haight and all seemed to be linked by a common thread: the desire to break away from the mental programming of commonly accepted belief systems of the preceding generations which seemed to have become useless and untrue.

“There appeared to be no middle ground regarding the hippie movement and the Haight phenomenon itself. To ‘ordinary’ people, those involved with the hippie counterculture were either viewed with amusement or seen as frightening or insane. Accordingly, the attitudes of Americans regarding the ‘hippies’ ranged from joyful support all the way to intense hatred.

“The Haight seemed to move on its own wings, creating its own style of dress and grooming, original musical sounds, and even a community newspaper called The San Francisco Oracle, and in many of the Haight’s stores, along with posters, incense, beads, pipes, and other paraphernalia, were books that focused on Native American shamanism, the European occult, and pagan philosophies, Eastern religion and metaphysics, with Zen Buddhism being the prevailing religious leaning of the hippie movement. Indeed, many aspects of the ‘occult’ and other mystical schools of thought were being revived and studied by a whole new generation.”

The glut of new religions resulted in a quagmire. How to  identify true, sincere religious philosophy and bunko scam religions? Well, if no money was involved it would seem hard to pinpoint Fraud. Also, with crime soaring from petty to militant crimes, going after Hindu fakirs from Poughkeepsie wasn’t high priority.

One of the most significant cross streets in history now. The Haight became the center of Flower Power because of its association with Golden Gate Park.
One of the most significant cross streets in history now. The Haight became the center of Flower Power because of its association with Golden Gate Park and the Human Be-In.

In the 1970s, the Moonies were probably the last religious group that disturbed America to the point it was heavily investigated for its conduct and the sincerity of its leader, Sun Myung Moon. When Moon was called before the judge and declared that his revelations came from Jesus, the learned jurist leaned over and asked:

“How did you know it was Jesus?”

Moon replied: “From his pictures.”

There is great truth in that exchange with the judge.

The “hippie religions” of the late 1960s, in particular how they congealed in the Haight, were the product of minds steeped in established interpretations of the cultures they grew up in. Knowing Jesus by his pictures is the perfect example. Our idealized image of Jesus is the flaxen haired Norseman in the long, soft tunic. Is this the real Jesus, however? Is this the image of a Galilean Jew of 2000 years ago? If one is seeking truth and substance, one must indeed ask such a question.

Robert DeGrimston, founder of The Process was by far the most organized leader to believe he was Jesus come back (in a metaphysical sense) and cater to the cultural image of Jesus.
Robert DeGrimston, founder of The Process, was by far the most organized leader to believe he was Jesus come back (in a metaphysical sense) and to cater to the cultural image of Jesus.

The answer is, of course not. It is our European symbol of a stoic, gentle leader. Appealing, handsome, but pure and untouchable. It is this image that was marketed, perhaps very sincerely by some so-called hippie religions. But in doing so the religious leaders revealed to what shallow extent they truly considered the substance of truth. It was presentation. It was opera. It was cultural theatre. Is there truth in this?

One group has come to epitomize the amalgam that was “Hippie Religion”: The Process Church of the Final Judgment. Apocalyptic, metaphysical, Christian, occult, dramatic. In truth, The Process was more of the Beat than anything hippie. It began in 1964 in affluent Mayfair, London, and was too arcane to be truly something popular. They also developed the belief they would represent the 144,000 to be saved in the Book of Revelation– thus they weren’t out to convert the world. The Process initially sought its members from more affluent well-to-do people.  Altogether it looked like what the bunko squads used to look for– phony religion bilking money.

However, The Process was not phony. It was begun by Robert DeGrimston Moore and his wife, both of whom were disenchanted Scientologists when Scientology was only a psychoanalysis group. DeGrimston thought too much wild speculation was behind Hubbard’s theorizing. He was more for a defined process of enlightenment. They attracted about 30 followers as their religion developed and called it The Process.

As its origins imply, they had no scriptures and their views and process were not well defined in print. The group had enough money, however, to retreat to the Bahamas and then eventually they went to Xtul, Yucatan, for a year. Here The Process religion was truly formed. This was the desert sojourn. DeGrimston wrote the Xtul Dialogues. Later he would write the Logics and the details of the religion would take on its mature and confusing tenets: the worship of 4 gods, all from Judeo-Christian concepts, with occult symbolism, and the preaching of apocalypse, which was quite vogue in era of dystopia (1960s-1970s). As the 144,000 they would beat the rap to come with their process.

In 1967 they came to New Orleans, just before the counterculture’s flower power would bloom far away in San Francisco. The antiestablishment movement was still largely Beat, with Nehru collar preachers behind funky glasses, so that The Process’ medieval appearance — black tunics and red or purple surcoats– was astonishing to Americans. Add the long hair (in imitation of biblical patriarchs) and then symbols of the cross mixed with those of the occult (such as the Goat of Mendes) and people were sure they were devil worshipers.

Pentagrams and the Goat of Mendes, heavy duty Occult symbols, didn't mix well and eventually the goat was dropped.
Occult symbols (the Goat of Mendes) and Christian theology didn’t mix well and eventually the goat was dropped.

DeGrimston’s odd tenets didn’t help. Being influenced by Eastern philosophy’s views that one must unite opposites in order to create a reconciled, complete whole, he used this with Christian theology. Thus The Process had 4 gods. Jehovah – Lucifer – Christ – Satan. Not only was this neo-polytheism in the modern world, which seemed horribly archaic, two of their gods were names for which westerners reserve for purest evil.

In Unity of Christ and Satan, DeGrimston wrote:

“Christ said ‘Love thine enemies.’ Christ’s enemy was Satan and Satan’s enemy was Christ. Through Love enmity is destroyed. Through love Saint and Sinner destroy the enmity between them. Through love, Christ and Satan have destroyed their enmity and come together for the End. Christ to Judge, Satan to execute Judgment. The Judgment is wisdom, the execution of the judgment is love.”

Apparently these revelations came in Xtul, where DeGrimston came to believe he was the re-incarnation of Jesus destined to find the 144,000 to be saved from judgment day.

Eastern philosophy overlaid on Christian and biblical concepts. Interesting. In the West these opposites cannot be reconciled, and one cannot facilitate the other. Metaphysical, of course; the Beat was. But how deep? DeGrimston remained practical and coifed himself like Jesus– something quite inviting– rather than anything “opposite” and quite repelling. The Process wanted to grow. They eventually even catered to biker gangs, not only for the notoriety but also for the protection as the counterculture blossomed. DeGrimston was also sure that the biker gangs would be the shock troops in the coming apocalypse.   DeGrimston-messianic2

The Process obviously still kept it’s apocalyptic, exclusive attitude. It was a natural step in logic that they felt they could spot the 144,000 which would make up the Processeans who would survive Judgment soon to come. It was a strange lodge of Beat-Hippies with lots of opera and lots of borrowing and assuming.

Its ultimate demise, however,  was due to the fact that its once high profile was the result of fad. But even more so it died because it wasn’t hippie and it wasn’t Haight. It had been welcomed in the Haight. Anything exotic was. They forsook New Orleans and came to the center of it all; an elaborate elite seeking religion in the epicenter of the exact opposite.

More and more the Haight was putting off the erudite claptrap and attitudes of the Beat for a new freeliving lifestyle. It is this lifestyle more than hippie philosophy that would eventually delight the mainstream and set the tenor of the 1970s. The 1970s was not philosophy. It was attitude. The Process with its baroque flamboyance, medieval façade, and confusing paganism was horribly obsolete and crumbled by 1975, the era of gritty urban realism, militant brigands robbing banks and race contention.

Gathering of the Tribes, Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park.
Gathering of the Tribes, Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park.

The Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, January 1967, was probably the last example of pure Beat influence in the early counterculture under the tutelage of its airy philosophers. Just months away the Summer of Love would initiate a movement of music and youth. It must have been such a potent atmosphere in the Summer of 1967 that it was palpable. For a newly released Charles Manson, who soon made it to Haight post Be-In, it was enough to inspire him to believe that the hippie movement was doomed because “all it was about was music.” Having been in prison he didn’t realize that Processean and Beat philosophy wasn’t coming into vogue with the Summer of Love. It was going out.

Music more than mysticism would become the force of the counterculture, as Woodstock would show. It would come back to the west coast at the Altamont. The goal wasn’t reform civilization anymore, the goal was to do “your own thing.” By 1969 The Haight was not the place for hippies or for a complex, erudite Beat religion. When George Harrison of the Beatles finally visited this year, he was disappointed. He said the Haight was nothing but a bunch of dropouts.

The hippie movement was pressing on to the rural areas; ironically some of its free living attitudes pressing into the other direction: into the fiber of middleclass culture. By contrast, The Haight was being destroyed by every malcontent and loser gravitating to a place where being a bum was acceptable.

In many respects The Process and the hippie religion of The Haight was the product of an insulated, luxurious society that took many things for granted. Its revolution was in putting them together in unusual ways, but like a house built of non-fitting legos there was only the superimposition of disproportion.

Manson's driver's license. This is how he looked in the summer of 67.
Manson’s driver’s license. This is how he looked in the summer of 67.

Charles Manson, however, had little knowledge of the counterculture. But the little conman saw that this was a season of opportunity. He also saw that his former petty pimping and auto theft was small time compared to what was possible now. He was perfectly positioned. He boasted of being a survivor in the streets. “When you have a problem, you call moms. I go to an alley and get a carjack.” When he was released he saw that the fad was to take to the streets and to be outcasts and dropouts. How many of these kids really knew how to survive? He certainly did.

Charles Manson, August 69, on an unrelated charge of car theft. Despite popular perception, Manson did not coif himself like Jesus until he had the huge publicity of the trial.
Charles Manson, August 69, on an unrelated charge of car theft. Despite popular perception, Manson did not coif himself like Jesus until he had the huge publicity of the trial.

The Process was garishly preeminent in 1967. It is from The Process that he created his pitch. But Charles Manson could not afford nor did he have the luxury of The Process. Yet there is no question that Manson crudely re-chiseled Processean theory. But to what purpose? To go from petty ex-con to sincere prophet or sincere profit? He no doubt liked the appearance of insulated power that The Process had in a dump. He had read socialist philosophy in prison. He could see this was a time of social upheaval. What was his goal? A high paying scam religion or a music career?

Frankly, Manson was more likeable and approachable than the aloof and preachy DeGrimston. He could speak to the “kids” on their level against an establishment, which he sincerely didn’t like. He was voluble, personable and quite humorous. He began building a “family.” He could free wheel it for a while in this easy rider culture that he was genuinely enormoured with while he decided on guru or rock star. He collected females first and set himself to pimping for free. In an era of free love, the girls didn’t realized what they were being set up for.

Despite his complete control of The Family, Manson did not attempt an elaborate guru appearance. There was no Jesus Manson until the massive publicity of the trial. He gave alternative names to his followers, like The Process did (they also called themselves The Family), but they weren’t elevated names like Brother Abraham and Father Elias. They were names fit for Eric von Zipper’s bikers– Squeaky, Capistrano, Country Sue, Snake, and Clem. He was a skid row drug dealer in a dilapidated movie set, with wild eyed kids enchanted at his ability to survive and preach something appealing– counterculture. It wasn’t profitable. He must have had something else in mind. He had potential but so far he showed no real vision.

What was wrong?

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