Posted on: May 2, 2015

The story of a rocket scientist called Jack Parsons in mid-20th century California is one of the weirdest tales I’ve ever come across.  Bizarre doesn’t even begin to explain it.  Science has thrown up many colourful characters over the centuries, and Jack Parsons must surely rate as one of the strangest.  His life story is weird, surreal, frightening, and not to say tragic and sordid.

Marvel Whiteside Parsons  was born on 2 October 1914 in Los Angeles.  His parents split up when he was a baby, after his mother, Ruth, had found out that Parsons Snr had been visiting prostitutes.  From then on she refused to address her son by his given name, and called him John, eventually becoming Jack.  Young Jack wasn’t a great success at school.  His grades were average, and he was the victim of bullying, often being accused of being weak and effeminate.  Jack sought escape in science fiction stories, and took to knocking up his own space rockets in the family back yard.  He also had a fascination with the Occult, and was said to have once tried invoking the Devil in his bedroom.  He would swing from manic bursts of creative energy, and prankster buffoonery, to periods of deep melancholy, said to be inherited from his father, who had ended his days in hospital with severe clinical depression.

His obsession with rockets led him one day to walk into the California Institute of Technology and ask for help.  Perhaps recognising something special about this odd young man, he got it.  His work led him to him and his colleagues getting a reputation for flamboyant courage.  They were nicknamed “the Suicide Squad” for their recklessness.  He was a founder member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and JPL was sometimes jokingly referred to as Jack Parson’s Laboratory.  His work on rocket-motor fuels eventually led to him having a crater on the dark side of the Moon (appropriately enough) being named after him.  He has been described as “the father of rocketry”.

So far so good, but it was to be Jack’s obsession with the Occult which would lead to his undoing.  Parsons was fascinated by Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Great Beast”, and would invoke Crowley’s Hymn To Pan before every rocket flight.  Well everyone has their little quirks.  He read all of Crowley’s books, and wrote to the old monster, addressing him as “most beloved father”.  In 1939 he was invited to attend a Gnostic Mass in Hollywood, a ritual that had been invented by Crowley as a rejection of Christianity.  He also became an active member of the local branch of the Thelemic Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), their motto being “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law”.  (Not to be confused with the generally accepted Pagan philosophy of “Do What Thou Wilt – As Long As It Harms No One”).

Crowley had sacked the head of the group, Wilfred Talbot Smith, and Parsons was only too happy to take his place.   The aim of the group was to lead the world into a new age, and obliterate Christianity in the process.   Along with his wife Helen, Parsons threw open his house – nicknamed The Parsonage – as a sort of temple, a Lodge, to free love and Black Magic.  The FBI showed a keen interest in what was going on at this little den of iniquity, and Wheatley-esque tales abounded of rampant drug abuse and  naked pregnant women jumping through hoops of fire.  When the Pasadena Police Department received news that children were being sexually abused at the house, Parsons explained that his Lodge was dedicated solely to “religious and philosophical speculation”.

Lurid tales of Parson’s complicated sex life continued to be a cause of concern though.  He had a menage-a-trois with his wife Helen and her 17-year-old sister Sara.  There were also rumours that Parsons had an unnaturally close relationship with his own mother, and even the family dog wasn’t safe!  He was also a heavy drinker, and user of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, mescaline … you hum it son, I’ll play it.  Meanwhile, Helen had a baby by Wilfred Talbot Smith, and back here in England Crowley drew up the man’s astrological chart, and concluded he was in fact a god. (Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up).

Towards the end of World War 2, Parsons befriended L Ron Hubbard, who would eventually found the hugely controversial Scientology movement.  Parsons seemed to get constantly starry-eyed about people, and Hubbard was no exception.  He dreamily wrote to Crowley that he believed Hubbard was “in direct touch with higher intelligences”.  Hubbard likewise had a bit of a thing about Crowley, and called him “my very good friend”**.

Together, Parsons and Hubbard decided to embark on a ritual called “the Babalon Working”, which was designed to usher in a new age of free love, and smash down the walls of time and space in the process.  Which all sounds uncomfortably reckless, particularly for a world which was still reeling from six years of bloodshed anyway.  The ritual involved the two men chanting, drawing Occult symbols in the air with swords, dripping animal blood on runes, and masturbating.

Parsons and Hubbard began the ritual in 1946, but it all fell apart in a depressingly mundane way, when Hubbard ran off with Parson’s young mistress, Sara, and Parson’s life savings.  Back here in England, a dying Crowley heard all about this with dismay, and sent a strongly-worded telegram to the States roundly calling Parsons “a weak fool – obvious victim prowling swindlers”.  It was to be the beginning of a decline for Parsons, from which he would never recover.

After Hubbard and Sara’s departure, and his divorce from wife Helen, Parsons became obsessed with ghosts and poltergeists, and even tried to rustle up a new girlfriend for himself by attempting to summon up an elemental.  He was distracted by a more flesh-and-blood version called Marjorie Cameron.  He transferred all his devotion to her, and wrote a volume of poetry for her entitled ‘Songs For The Witch Woman’, in which he fantasised about her dancing with a goat.  Years later Marjorie would hook up with Kenneth Anger, cult film-maker, and author of a series of books called ‘Hollywood Babylon’, which lifted the lid off Hollywood’s seedier side.

It wasn’t just his private life that was going through a transformation though.  The scientific community around him was too.  In the post-1945 world, in which the Cold War was getting a grip on people’s minds, there was no room for dangerous mavericks like Jack Parsons.  The antics of the “Suicide Squad” would no longer be tolerated.  It was world of deep fear and paranoia.  The American authorities were obsessed with Communism, and were in no mood to indulge anyone who didn’t keep to a narrow path.

Parsons found himself out of work.  He took menial jobs to get by, including as a hospital orderly and a car mechanic.  One of his jobs was preparing explosives for the film industry, and it was thought that this was how he met his end.  He died in his home laboratory at Pasadena on 17 June 1952, at the age of 37, in an explosion which was thought to have been caused by mercury fulminate.  Jack’s death was horrific.  His body was literally ripped open.  Skin peeled off his face exposing his skull.  Conspiracy theorists refuse to believe it was an accident, and think he was murdered.  Occultists believe a demon may even have come for Parsons’s soul.  Who knows?  It was an awful way for someone to meet their death.

One OTO member wrote about Parsons and Hubbard’s Babalon Working: “the working began in 1945-46, a few months before Crowley’s death in 1947, and just prior to the wave of unexplained aerial phenomena now recalled as ‘the Great Flying Saucer Flap’* … Parsons opened a door and something flew in”.  If he did open the door, he paid a truly terrible price for it.

*The summer of 1947 saw the Kenneth Arnold flying saucer sighting over Mount Rainier, and the Roswell mystery, all within a couple of weeks of each other.  As such, 1947 is often regarded as the year that the modern UFO phenomenon was born.

**In his book ‘The Church of Fear: Inside The World Of Scientology’, John Sweeney points out the similarity between the Church of Scientology’s sign, that of a cross and the star, and compares it to Crowley’s Tarot card design.  Incidentally, Sweeney gets full Brownie points from me for describing Crowley as “the Occultist and Silly Twit”.



“Bizarre doesn’t even begin to explain it.” – You’re not wrong!

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