Two boys were born in the same hospital 10 months apart, their early lives tragically similar, yet they turned out differently. What made the difference?
When Kathleen, 16 and unmarried, gave birth to him November 12, 1934, he was listed as “no name Maddox.” The place: Cincinnati General Hospital.
She married soon, but not the boy’s father—that man had already abandoned them. Kathleen’s new husband gave the child the name he would make known to millions: Charles Milles Manson.
Kathleen liked alcohol and preferred partying to parenthood. After three years, she and William Manson divorced.
Young Charley went through a series of babysitters due to his mother’s drinking, and when she and two others attempted a robbery, she went to prison and Charley went to relatives.
When his mother was released, she took him to West Virginia and tried to begin a normal life. Later, Charles Manson said the first months after her parole were the happiest of his life, even though Kathleen spent most evenings drinking.
Nine-year-old Charley often skipped school, shoplifted from local stores, and if he saw something he wanted at home, he stole that, too. He was totally beyond his mother’s control.
Kathleen was arrested for grand larceny but not convicted, and mom and the boy moved to Indianapolis. Kathleen joined Alcoholics Anonymous, where she met and married a fellow alcoholic.
Often penniless, she could not take care of Charley and so placed her 13-year-old son in the Gibault School for Boys in Terre Haute, Indiana, run by Catholic priests. Charley ran away to Indianapolis and lived by theft and burglary.
Charley was caught and sent to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska where, after four days, he and a fellow student stole a car, got a gun, and robbed a grocery store and a casino.
Two weeks later the pair were caught attempting a robbery in Peoria, Illinois and that investigation linked Charley to previous armed robberies.
This time Charley was sent to the Indiana Boys’ School in Plainfield, Indiana. Here he met the second boy, Richard.
Richard Ray Cordell was born August 28, 1935, in—yes—Cincinnati General Hospital, to Robert and Myrtle Cordell. Most people called his mother “Mae.”
When Richard came along, there were already four half-siblings in the home.
Richard’s father, Robert, ran a successful business fixing adding machines and typewriters. He sometimes took young Richard to work. But alcohol lived in this home, too. When he was drunk, Robert forced himself upon his stepdaughter, Nan, who was barely in her teens.
When Mae’s brother, Clarence Ethridge, was discharged from the Marines, he came to live with Mae and Robert. Soon Clarence was abusing Nan, too, and the two men quarreled. One night—in front of the whole family—Clarence shot Robert three times and tried to kill Mae.
Eleven-year-old Richard witnessed his father’s murder. After the trial, Mae left town for her mother’s home in Arkansas and told Richard he was on his own. The 12-year-old found a job in a laundry and sometimes turned to theft in order to live.
Richard tried to forge a check and was sent to Indiana Boys’ School at Plainfield.
The Boys’ School operated like a small town with a farm, animals, a garden, and chores. Charles Manson and Richard Cordell worked together in the kitchen.
Manson had few friends; Cordell was more open. He could type, fix small appliances, and interact well with people, having watched how his dad treated customers. Charles Manson had never known a father.
Two house parents at the Boys’ School befriended Richard, invited him to spend time with their family, and even had him babysit their children.
His granddaughter wrote later, “Their love for the Lord, each other, and even for him, was unlike anything Richard had ever seen.” He made up his mind that if he ever had a family, it would be like theirs.
The years unrolled for each boy as the years do for all of us. Sometime after his release Richard was working for Delco Remy, a division of General Motors, when he saw a girl there he liked and asked her for a date. He lied and told her he was 21, but he was only 18 at the time.
She accepted, but only if he would go to church with her. They continued to see each other, and soon Richard gave his life to Christ. The “old things” began to “pass away.”
Richard Ray Cordell married the girl, went to college, and became a pastor. When he served the Woodbine Free Will Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, attendance was over 400. An observer said, “He preached the Word of God, shared the gospel, and poured himself into the community.”
The Rest of the Story
Charles Manson? In and out of prison, he gathered other wanderers into the “Manson Family.” During a two-day rampage his cult murdered actress Sharon Tate and six others. He spent the rest of his life in prison and died in November 2017.
Richard Cordell, now in his 80s, is still living. He has served the Lord for more than 50 years.
Interestingly, Manson was also exposed to Christian influence. Kathleen’s mother loved Jesus and tried to help. The Gibault School for Boys was run by Catholic priests. Boys Town is that celebrated place established by Father Flanagan. Charley was talented musically, wrote several songs, and briefly spent time with the Beach Boys.
Two boys born in Cincinnati, in the same hospital. Both had terrible childhoods. Both turned to crime before they were teenagers. Both spent time in the same reform school.
The Difference Is Jesus
The difference: Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the source for Richard Cordell’s transformation, and for ours.
Christ’s transformation can come through people. The house parents who invited Richard into their family used their opportunity. They showed him a different way to live and planted a Christian seed that bore fruit years later.
As with Richard, transformation is often delivered by the local church. Every congregation is God’s frontline outpost in the battle for truth. The witness, example, and encouragement from other believers can and should be a powerful source of positive change.
One of the most effective agents of transformation is the Bible itself. This God-inspired Word, this Spirit-breathed set of instructions, is our companion and comfort along the way. The Old Testament brings us God the Father and Creator; the New Testament brings us Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord.
No wonder the writer says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
The scars of the past may still be visible; old habits may raise their heads from time to time. But God is at work within us, as John Newton wrote two centuries ago of his own transformation, “I am not the man I ought to be, and not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God I am not the man I used to be.”
Rod Huron, author of seven books and numerous articles, has ministered with churches in West Virginia and Ohio, and served with Toronto Christian Mission, the North American Christian Convention, and Cincinnati Christian University. Retired, he and his wife, Autumn, live in Cincinnati, Ohio.