So You Married a Murderer

I met with a group of wonderful ladies at a Shalom Women’s Group this week and talked about crime fiction, Sacramento’s dark history of violent crime, and some of our more notorious serial killers. We had a wonderful discussion and the attendees asked some great questions.

One question, and it’s a subject that comes up from time to time, is why women marry a man in prison?

In 2014, there was considerable media coverage of the pending nuptials of Afton Elaine Burton with an inmate in a California Prison. This inmate was serving a life sentence and while he was eligible for parole, there was very little chance he would see the sunrise in the free world within his lifetime.  This man–was Charles Manson.

A few months before his death, Burton and Manson, a convicted murderer, applied for marriage license in Kings County. They were to be wed in the visiting room at the California State Prison at Corcoran. Manson had been housed in a high security section of the prison for years and he wasn’t going to have overnight family visits in the conjugal visiting unit, often referred to as the “boneyard,” in prison slang. The license expired after 90 days and the ceremony didn’t happen for “logistical reasons.” But, what would motivate a woman to seek out a relationship with a man behind bars, knowing that there was no chance that they would live as “man and wife?”

In an interview with Afton Burton, she claimed she moved from her family home in Illinois to Corcoran, California so he could visit Manson. They began with a pen-pal relationship that grew into something more. Burton admitted that she became enthralled by Manson and followed his case for years. She believed he was innocent. There is some dispute on why the marriage never happened. She claims scheduling issues got in the way. He says it was a money-making scheme for Burton to claim’s Manson’s corpse and display it in a glass case like Lenin.

Burton is described as an intelligent, attractive woman. So, what is it about a murder behind prison walls that seems to attract women for romantic relationships?

Burton isn’t the first to fall in love with a murderer. Richard Rameriez, the Night Stalker, collected hundreds of marriage proposals while he sat on Death Row in San Quentin. In 1996, Ramirez married to 41-year-old freelance magazine editor Doreen Lioy in a visiting room at San Quentin prison.


Scott Peterson, who killed his wife and unborn child received his first marriage proposal from an 18 year old woman within hours of arriving on Death Row.

There are weddings in every prison each month and many of those are to men serving life terms. Who are the women who choose a “life partner” serving life?

In Sheila Isenberg’s book, “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” A common thread among many who choose a partner behind bars is, “Most of these women had been abused in their earlier lives, by parents, fathers, first husbands or first boyfriends,” she said. “So a relationship with a man behind bars is a safe relationship. The guy can’t hurt them. “

There was also the thrill of marrying someone notorious. There was a sense of danger and excitement. But, at any point, the woman can back away.  And their relationship is characterized in romantic terms, “The man in prison has a lot of time on his hands and can romance a woman the way most men can’t because they don’t have the time. A man in prison can put a woman up on a pedestal and pay attention to her.”

There’s also something to be said about how we, as a society glorify violence. Rather than shunning violent acts and the men who commit them, we have turned into a people who venerate and embrace violence.

Hybristophilia is arousal through being with a partner who has committed a crime. The thrill of being with somebody so infamous, not to mention the excitement of the media spotlight, may be like a drug.

The women I met this week, weren’t predisposed to marrying a serial killer. But, as the saying goes–a good man is hard to find–and, apparently he might be in prison…

VACAVILLE, CA- OCTOBER 21 2011: Chaplain Keith Knauf, center, officiates at the wedding ceremony for inmate Freddy Garcia, right, and his long-time girlfriend Marina Leuvano in the visiting room at the California Medical Center in Vacaville. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
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6 comments

  1. I can see if someone knew the inmate before they committed a crime, they might be attached to that person. But Manson? Ew and no. I don’t have enough issues to make any death row denizen a husband.

    1. Laura, it’s interesting (a bit shocking) to see how many women pursue guys like this. Hundreds of pen pals and romantic overtures. Most, never met the man and become attracted to the myth, or the danger of the relationship. Strange stuff.

  2. There are women who are attracted to the ‘bad boy”. Maybe they feel this is a safe way to fulfill their fantasies.

    1. I think you’re right on the fantasy aspect. A safe way to experiment…

  3. Do they get conjugal visits? I wouldn’t imagine so in maximum. Peculiar. I’ve had some strange boyfriends, but never thought of looking here.

    1. Until very recently, California allowed lifers to receive conjugal visits. In fact, one of the Manson family members, Tex Watson, fathered children during his incarceration. That policy has now changed–unless you have a release date (most lifers don’t yet) no overnight visits.

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