John Whiteside Parsons

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John Whiteside Parsons
John Whiteside Parsons.jpg
Jack Parsons
BornMarvel Whiteside Parsons
(1914-10-02)October 2, 1914
Los Angeles, California
DiedJune 17, 1952(1952-06-17) (aged 37)
Pasadena, California
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John Whiteside Parsons
John Whiteside Parsons.jpg
Jack Parsons
BornMarvel Whiteside Parsons
(1914-10-02)October 2, 1914
Los Angeles, California
DiedJune 17, 1952(1952-06-17) (aged 37)
Pasadena, California

John Whiteside Parsons (born Marvel Whiteside Parsons; October 2, 1914 – June 17, 1952), better known as Jack Parsons, was an American rocket propulsion researcher, Thelemite, and libertarian thinker. A pioneer in solid rocket fuel research and development, he taught at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and was one of the principal founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet Corp.

Born in Los Angeles, Parsons was raised by his wealthy upper middle-class family in Pasadena, California, developing an early interest in science-fiction literature and rocketry. With school friend Edward Forman he began experimenting with rocket design, and in 1934 they united with Frank Malina to found The GALCIT Rocket Research Group, affiliated with Caltech. In 1939, they gained funding from the National Academy of Sciences to work on Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) for the military, and in 1942 founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to develop and sell their JATO technology.

After a brief involvement in Marxism, in 1939 Parsons converted to the new religious movement of Thelema, founded by English occultist Aleister Crowley. Parsons joined Crowley's Thelemite order, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and entered its Californian branch, the Agape Lodge. When lodge leader W.T. Smith was deposed in 1942, Parsons took over, and with L. Ron Hubbard embarked on a ritual to attract a Scarlet Woman. Parsons believed Marjorie Cameron to be this individual, and together they took part in the Babalon Working. After Hubbard stole Parsons' life savings, he went through various jobs but was persecuted for his former involvement in left-wing politics by the developing climate of McCarthyism. In 1952 he died in an explosion that the police ruled as accidental but which some friends thought was suicide.

Parsons' death attracted national attention, and many of his libertarian writings were posthumously published. Thelemites recognize him as one of the most significant figures in propagating the religion across North America, and he is also widely recognized for his contributions to rocketry, being the subject of several biographies and fictional adaptations.


Early life: 1914–1934[edit]

Marvel "Jack" Whiteside Parsons was born on 2 October 1914 at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.[1] His parents, Ruth Virginia Whiteside (c.1893–1952) and Marvel H. Parsons (c.1894–1947), had moved to California from Massachusetts the previous year, purchasing a house at 2375 Scarf Street in downtown Los Angeles.[2] Their marriage broke down soon after Jack's birth, when Ruth discovered that her husband had been using a prostitute; she filed for divorce in March 1915, and he returned to Massachusetts after being publicly exposed as an adulterer, with Ruth forbidding him from having any contact with his son.[3] Although she retained her ex-husband's surname, Ruth ceased to call her son "Marvel", instead referring to him as "John", whereas many other friends throughout his life knew him as "Jack".[4] Learning of their daughter's predicament, Walter and Carrie Whiteside moved to California to be with Ruth and Jack, using their wealth to purchase an up-market house at 537 South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena – known locally as "Millionaire's Mile" – where they could all live together.[5] Here, Jack was surrounded by domestic servants and soon became spoiled.[6] Having few friends, he lived a solitary childhood, and spent much time reading, taking a particular interest in works of mythology, Arthurian legend, and the Arabian Nights.[6] Through the work of Jules Verne he became interested in science fiction, and became a keen reader of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories.[6] It was this interest in science-fiction that led to the development of his early interest in rocketry.[7]

Rocketry was an early passion of Parsons'.

Aged twelve, Parsons began attending Washington Junior High School, where he performed poorly – something later biographer George Pendle attributed to undiagnosed dyslexia – and was heavily bullied for his perceived effeminacy.[8] Although unpopular, he formed a strong friendship with Edward Forman, an individual who shared his interest in science-fiction and rocketry but who was from a poor working-class family.[8] Independently, Parsons had begun to investigate occultism, and alone performed a ritual intended to invoke the Devil into his bedroom; he was so scared by the event that he ceased such activities for a number of years.[9] Due to his poor school results, Parsons' mother sent him away to study at a private boarding school in San Diego, the Brown Military Academy for Boys. Here, he was expelled for blowing up the toilets, returning to Washington Junior High.[10]

With his family, Parsons spent summer 1929 on a tour of Europe before returning to Pasadena, where the family moved into 285 North San Rafael Avenue. With the onset of the Great Depression however their fortune began to dwindle, and in July 1931 Parsons' grandfather Walter died.[11] After graduating from high school in 1931, Parsons began studying at the privately-run University School, a liberal institution that took an unconventional approach to teaching; here Parsons flourished, becoming editor of the school's newspaper El Universitano, winning an award for literary excellence, and focusing his attentions on the field of chemistry.[12] With the family's financial difficulties deepening, Parsons began working during weekends and school holidays at the offices of the Hercules Powder Company, where he was able to learn more about explosives and their potential use in rocket propulsion.[13] Independently, he and Forman continued to explore the subject in their spare time, building and testing different rockets, sometimes with materials that he had stolen from work,[14] with Parsons corresponding with the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun.[15]

Graduating from University School in the summer of 1933, Parsons moved with his mother and grandmother to a more modest house at 620 St. John Avenue, where he continued to pursue his interests in classical literature and writing poetry.[16] In the autumn he enrolled in Pasadena Junior College to study physics and chemistry, but was forced to drop out after only a term due to his financial situation.[17] His employers then sent him to work at their manufacturing plant in Pinole, San Francisco Bay, where he earned a relatively high wage of $100 a month, but he was plagued by headaches caused by exposure to nitro-glycerine. He saved up in the hope of continuing his academic studies, and began a degree in chemistry at Stanford University, but nevertheless still found it too expensive, returning to Pasadena.[18]

Marriage and the GALCIT Rocket Research Group: 1934–1938[edit]

In the hope of gaining access to the resources of the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for their rocketry programs, Parsons and Forman approached Caltech's William Bollay, who redirected them to a graduate student named Frank Malina who shared their interests and who soon befriended Parsons.[19] Together Parsons, Forman, and Malina applied for funding from Caltech, although did not mention that their ultimate objective was to develop rockets for space exploration, realizing that most of the scientific establishment then relegated such ideas to science-fiction. Caltech's Clark Millikan immediately rebuffed them, although Theodore von Kármán saw more promise in their proposal, and agreed to allow them to operate under the auspices of the university's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). Naming themselves "The GALCIT Rocket Research Group", they gained access to the university's specialist equipment, although due to the Great Depression von Kármán was unable to finance them.[20] Sharing socialist values, they operated on an egalitarian basis, with Malina teaching the others about scientific procedure and they teaching him about the practical elements of rocketry; they often socialised together, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, while Malina and Parsons set about writing a novel – never finished – with strong anti-capitalist and pacifist themes.[21]

The Arroyo Seco was the site of the group's early experiments.

Parsons had met a woman named Helen Northup at a local church dance, and proposed marriage in July 1934. She accepted, and they were married in April 1935 at the Little Church of the Flowers in Forest Lane Memorial Park, Glendale, before undertaking a brief honeymoon in San Diego.[22] Together they moved into a house at 168 South Terrace Drive, Pasadena, while Parsons gained employment for the explosives manufacturer Halifax Powder Company at their facility in Saugus; much to Helen's dismay, Parsons spent most of his wage on funding the GALCIT Rocket Research Group.[23] Funding his research, at one point he pawned Helen's engagement ring, and would often ask her family for loans.[24] At one point, Parsons received a visit from his estranged father, who had become a major in the coast artillery corps, remarried, and had another son named Charles, whom he brought to visit Parsons. The meeting had little impact on Parsons, who would only meet his father once more before his death.[25]

The Group contacted rocket scientist Robert Goddard, and although he invited Marina to his facility, he was not interested in co-operating.[26] They were instead joined by a Caltech masters student, Apollo M. O. Smith.[27] Their first motor test took place at Halloween 1936 near the Devil's Gate Dam in the Arroyo Seco, and although the motor exploded, they learned much from the experiment.[28] They continued their experiments throughout the fall of 1936, and after the fourth test was successfully completed, Kármán agreed that they could perform their future experiments on campus.[29] In April 1937 they were joined by a Caltech mathematician from China, Qian Xuesen, and several months later were also joined by a Caltech laboratory assistant, Weld Arnold, who worked as the group's official photographer.[30] Although some Caltech scientists continued to deride them for their work on rocketry, a field still stigmatized by its association with science-fiction, they became well known on campus, earning the moniker of the "Suicide Squad" for the dangerous nature of some of their experiments, attracting attention from the local press.[31] Parsons himself gained further media publicity when he appeared as an expert explosives witness in the trial of Earl Kynette, the head of police intelligence in Los Angeles who was accused of rigging a bomb to kill private investigator Harry Raymond. When Kynette was convicted largely on Parsons' testimony, his identity as an expert scientist in the public eye was established, despite his lack of a university education.[32]

In May 1938, Parsons was invited by Forrest Ackerman to lecture at the Los Angeles Chapter Number 4 of the Science Fiction League (LASFL), and although he never joined the group he did occasionally attend their talks.[33] Another scientist to become involved in the GALCIT project was Sidney Weinbaum, a Jewish refugee from Europe who was a vocal Marxist; he led Parsons, Malina, and Qian in creating a largely secretive communist discussion group at Caltech, which became known as Professional Unit 122 of the Pasadena Communist Party. Although Parsons subscribed to the People's Daily World and joined the American Civil Liberties Union, he refused to join the American Communist Party, resulting in a break down between his and Weinbaum's friendship.[34] This ideological divide coupled with the need to focus on paid employment led to the disintegration of much of the Rocket Research Group by 1938, leaving only its three founding members remaining.[35]

Embracing Thelema and JATO: 1939–1942[edit]

In January 1939, John and Frances Baxter, a brother and sister who had befriended Jack and Helen Parsons, took Jack to the Church of Thelema in Winona Boulevard, Hollywood, where he witnessed the performance of a Gnostic Mass. Parsons was intrigued, having already heard of Thelema's founder Aleister Crowley after reading a copy of Crowley's Konx Om Pax (1907). At the mass he was introduced to leading members Regina Kahl, Jane Wolfe, and Wilfred Talbot Smith. Feeling both "repulsion and attraction" for Smith, Parsons continued to attend the Church's events sporadically for a year.[36] He continued to read Crowley's works, which increasingly interested him, and encouraged Helen to do so too.[37] He came to believe in the reality of magic as a force that could be explained through quantum physics.[37] He tried to interest a number of his friends and acquaintances in Thelema, at one point taking the science-fiction authors Jack Williamson and Cleve Cartmill to a performance of the Gnostic Mass, and although they were unimpressed, Parsons was successful with a young Caltech student whom he had befriended, Grady Louis McMurtry, as well as his fiancee Claire Palmer, and Helen's sister Sara Northrup.[38] Parsons and his wife would finally be initiated into the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis on February 15, 1941, with Parsons adopting the Thelemic motto of "Thelema Obtenteum Proedero Amoris Nuptiae", a Latin mistranslation of "The establishment of Thelema through the rituals of love".[39] Commenting on Smith's errors of translation, in jest Crowley remarked that "the motto which you mention is couched in a language beyond my powers of understanding."[40] Smith wrote to Crowley, claiming that Parsons was "a really excellent man... He has an excellent mind and much better intellect than myself... JP is going to be very valuable",[41] while Wolfe wrote to the Thelemite Karl Germer to comment that Parsons was "an A1 man... Crowleyesque in attainment as a matter of fact."[42] Crowley concurred with such assessments, informing Smith that Parsons "is the most valued member of the whole Order, with no exception!"[40]

Take-off on August 12, 1941 of America's first "rocket-assisted" fixed-wing aircraft, an Ercoupe fitted with a GALCIT developed solid propellant JATO booster.

At Kármán's suggestion, Malina had approached the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Army Air Corps Research to request funding for research into what they now termed "jet propulsion". The military were interested in jet propulsion as a means of getting aircraft off the ground quickly where there was no room for a runway, and gave the Rocket Research Group $1000 to put together a proposal on the feasibility of Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) by June 1939. In this way they became the first U.S. government-sanctioned rocket research group in history.[43] Although a quarter of this funding went on repairing damage to Caltech buildings caused by their experiments, they submitted their June report, at which they showed the feasibility of the project and requested $100,000 to continue, although only received $22,000.[44] Now calling themselves "GALCIT Project Number 1", they continued to be ostracized by other Caltech scientists, and were made to relocate their experiments back to the Arroyo Seco, where Parsons focused his attention on developing an effective method of restricted burning.[44]

They were joined by Caltech mathematician Martin Summerfield, and 18 workers supplied by the Works Progress Administration, although former colleagues like Qian were prevented from returning to the project by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who ensured the secrecy of the operation and restricted the involvement of foreign nationals and political extremists.[45] The FBI were satisfied that Parsons was not a Marxist, although were concerned when a Thelemite friend, Paul Seckler, used Parsons' gun in a drunken car jacking, for which he was imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison for two years.[46] The first tests took place in August 1941, with Homer Bousley piloting a JATO-equipped Ercoupe plane at the March Fields Air Corps Base in Moreno Valley; watched by such figures as Clark Millikan and William F. Durand, it proved a success.[47] Over the following weeks, 62 further tests took place, with the NAS increasing their grant to $125,000.[48] The military ordered a flight test using liquid fuel – rather than the pre-existing solid fuel – by the Spring of 1942. Parsons and his team focused on the task, and although many of the proposed liquid formulas proved too dangerous, Malina solved the problem by replacing gasoline as an ingredient with aniline, resulting in a successful test launch of a JATO-equipped A-20A plane at the Mura Auxiliary Air Field in the Mojave Desert.[49]

The Aerojet Engineering Corporation: 1942–1944[edit]

With the U.S. having joined the Second World War, the group agreed to produce and sell 60 JATO engines to the air corps. To do so, they formed a company, the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, into which Parsons, Forman, Malina, Kármán, and Summerfield each invested $250, opening their office on East Colorado Street.[50] They soon brought Apollo Smith in as their engineer, while Parsons worked on a way of replacing the unstable black powder in the rockets, eventually discovering the use of asphalt as an appropriate alternative.[51] The air corps soon requested 2000 JATOs by late 1943.[52] Nevertheless, the company operated on a hand-to-mouth basis, and remained intertwined with the GALCIT project, with Caltech's Fritz Zwicky being brought in as head of the company's research department.[53] His new credentials gave Parsons the opportunity to travel more widely throughout the U.S., meeting with other rocket enthusiasts. In New York he met with Karl Germer, the head of the OTO in North America, and in Washington D.C. met Joseph Auslander, donating some of Crowley's poetry books to the Library of Congress.[54] He also became a regular at the Mañana Literary Society, which met at the home of Parsons' friend Robert Heinlein in Laurel Canyon. Here, he associated with such science-fiction writers as Cleve Cartmill, Jack Williamson, and Anthony Boucher, the latter of whom would use Parsons as a partial basis for the character of Hugo Chantrelle in Rocket to the Morgue.[55]

In June 1941, Helen went away for a period, during which Parsons begun a sexual relationship with her sister, Sara Northrup, encouraged to do so by the sexually permissive attitude of the OTO. Upon Helen's return, Sara asserted that she was Parsons' new wife, and Parsons himself admitted that he found Sara more sexually attractive.[56] Conflicted in her feelings, Helen sought comfort in Smith, entering into a relationship with him that would last for the rest of his life; nevertheless the four remained friends.[56] Together the two couples, along with a number of other Thelemites, relocated from Winona Boulevard to a large Craftsman style house at 1003 Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. They all contributed to the rent of $100 a month, and lived communally in what became the new base of the Agape Lodge.[57] Parsons decorated his new room with a statue of the god Pan and his collection of swords and daggers, which he hung on the walls, while he also converted the garage and laundry room into a chemical laboratory.[58] Although there were many arguments among the commune members, Parsons remained dedicated to Thelema, giving almost all of his salary to the OTO and actively seeking out new members, among whom was Forman.[59] He invited many of his colleagues to the lodge parties, but soon the group came under investigation by both the Pasadena police department and the FBI, who both came to the conclusion that they were no threat to national security.[60] Having long made heavy use of alcohol and marijuana, Parsons now habitually used cocaine and amphetamines as well,[61] and continued to have sexual relations with a large number of women, including Claire, the girlfriend of McMurtry. When Parsons paid for Claire to have an abortion, McMurtry was angered, and their friendship broke down.[62]

Crowley and Germer wanted to see Smith removed as head of the Agape Lodge, believing that he had become a bad influence on other lodge members; Parsons and Helen wrote to them to defend their mentor, but Germer nevertheless ordered him to stand down, with Parsons appointed temporary head of the lodge.[63] Parsons soon created a Thelemite journal, Oriflamme, in which he published his own poetry, but Crowley was unimpressed and the project was soon shelved.[64] In April, Helen gave birth to Smith's son, who was given Parsons' surname, being named Kwan Lanval Parsons.[65] In May, Smith and Helen left for a two-room cabin in Rainbow Valley with their baby, where Smith undertook his magical retirement.[66] Back in England, Crowley undertook an astrological analysis of Smith's birth chart, and came to the conclusion that he was the incarnation of a god, greatly altering his estimation of him; Smith however remained skeptical.[67] Refusing to take orders from Germer anymore, Smith resigned from the OTO, while Parsons – who remained sympathetic and friendly to Smith during the conflict – ceased lodge activities and resigned as its head, a resignation that Crowley refused to accept.[68] As the U.S. became aware that Nazi Germany had developed the V-2 rocket, they placed a renewed impetus on their own rocket research, reinstating Qian to the GALCIT project. They gave the group a $3 million grant to develop rocket-based weapons, with the group being expanded and renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).[69] By this point, the U.S. Navy were ordering 20,000 JATOs a month from Aerojet, and to cope with the increased demand, in December 1944 the company sold 51% of its stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company, with Parsons selling all of his stock for $11,000.[70] With this money, he would buy the lease to 1003, which had come to be known as “the Parsonage” after him.[71]

L. Ron Hubbard and the Babalon Working: 1945–1946[edit]

Now disassociated from Aerojet, Parsons and Forman founded the Ad Astra Engineering Company.[72] He continued to financially support Smith and Helen, although asked for a divorce from the latter, and ignored Crowley's commands be welcoming Smith back to 1003 when he had finished his retreat.[73] Parsons continued to hold OTO activities at 1003, but began renting rooms at the house to non-Thelemites such as journalist Nieson Himmel, physicist Robert Cornog, and science-fiction artist Louis Goldstone.[74] Soon, a science-fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard moved in to 1003; he and Parsons became close friends, with the latter informing Crowley that Hubbard was "the most Thelemic person I have ever met."[75] Although Parsons and Sara had always had an open relationship, she became enamoured with Hubbard, something that made Parsons jealous.[76] Parsons began to devote increasing amounts of time to the 'dark side' of magic, becoming interested in the iconography of witchcraft, something that concerned many fellow OTO members, who believed that he had invoked troublesome spirits into the Parsonage.[77] Parsons decided to use magical means to attract a new lover, performing a series of rituals based in Enochian magic during which he masturbated on to magical tablets, accompanied by Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. He allowed Hubbard to take part, believing that he was particularly sensitive to detecting magical phenomenon.[78]

L. Ron Hubbard became Parsons' good friend but ultimately betrayed him.

Their final ritual took place in the Mojave Desert on 18 January 1946, and on return to the Parsonage Parsons discovered that a woman named Marjorie "Candy" Cameron had come to visit. Believing her to be the "Elemental woman" that he had invoked, he began performing sex magic rituals with her. Describing this as the Babalon Working, he hoped to bring about the incarnation of a Thelemite female messiah, Babalon, onto Earth.[79] Although Crowley warned him of such an endeavor, Parsons was committed, and retreated to the desert, where he came to believe that a preternatural entity spoke to him, to provide him with the Book of Babalon, which he believed to represent a fourth part of The Book of the Law, the primary sacred text of Thelema.[80] This accomplished, Parsons set about trying to sell the 1003 for $25,000, on the condition that he could continue to live in the coach house, and he appointed Roy Leffingwell to head the Agape Lodge, which would now have to meet elsewhere for its rituals.[81]

Parsons decided to co-found a company with Hubbard and Sara, Allied Enterprises, in which he invested his life savings of $20, 970. Hubbard suggested that with this money, he and Sara travel to Miami, there to purchase three yachts that they would then sail through the Panama Canal and to the West Coast, where they could sell them on for a profit. Parsons agreed, but many of his friends thought it a bad idea. When Crowley informed him that it was an obvious confidence trick, Parsons changed his mind and flew to Miami, where he placed a temporary injunction and restraining order on them. Discovering this, Hubbard attempted to flee about his yacht, but hit a squall and was forced to return to port. Here, Allied Enterprises was dissolved, and in a court settlement Hubbard was made to promise to pay Parsons back. Hubbard and Sara subsequently married, while he went on to found Dianetics and Scientology.[82] Returning to California, he resigned from the OTO and completed the sale of The Parsonage, which was then demolished.[83]

Final years: 1946–1952[edit]

Parsons obtained employment with North American Aviation at Inglewood, where he worked on the Navajo Missile Program.[84] With Cameron he moved into a house on Manhattan Beach, where he begun to teach her more about occultism.[84] Four days after his divorce from Helen was finalized, they were married on October 19, 1946, with Forman as their witness.[85] Parsons continued to be seen as a specialist in rocketry, in March 1947 being called as an expert in a police investigation regarding an industrial explosion, and in May 1947 giving a talk at the Pacific Rocket Society at which he predicted that rockets would take humans to the moon.[86] Although he had become distant from the now largely defunct OTO and had sold much of his Crowley collection, he continued to correspond with Crowley up until the latter's death in December 1947.[87]

Parsons gained work on the program to develop the Navajo missile.

At the emergence of the Cold War, a red scare developed in the U.S. as the House of Un-American Activities began investigating anyone with perceived communist sympathies. Many of Parsons' former colleagues lost their security clearance and jobs as a result, and eventually the FBI also stripped Parsons of his clearance, leaving him unemployed.[88] He managed to earn a wage as a car mechanic and as a manual labourer at a gas station, also briefly working at the University of Southern California's Department of Pharmacology.[89] Relations had been strained between him and Cameron, and they agreed to a temporary separation; she moved to Mexico to join an artists' commune in San Miguel de Allende.[90] Alone, Parsons embarked on sex magical operations with various prostitutes, intent on performing "the Crossing of the Abyss", thereby attaining union with the universal consciousness and becoming "the Master of the Temple."[89] Believing himself successful, he authored an autobiography titled Analysis by a Master of the Temple and an essay on libertarianism, "Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword", neither of which saw publication in his lifetime.[91] He entered a brief relationship with an Irishwoman named Gladis Gohan, and together they moved to 1200 Esplanade on Redondo Beach, a building known among them as the "Concrete Castle."[92]

Through his connections, Parsons was able to have his security clearance reinstated by the Industrial Employment Review Board, who ruled that there was insufficient evidence that he had ever had communist sympathies.[93] Karman put him in touch with Herbert T. Rosenfeld, President of the Southern Californian chapter of the American Technion Society, a group dedicated to supporting the fledgling state of Israel. Rosenfeld offered Parsons a job with the Israeli rocket program, and hired him to produce a number of reports for them.[94] As the Red Scare intensified, Parsons decided to migrate to Israel, but the FBI accused him of espionage on the basis of some of the reports that he had submitted to the Technion Society. In October 1951, the US attorney decided however that the contents of the reports did not constitute state secrets and that therefore Parsons was not guilty.[95]

The Review Board nevertheless still considered him a liability, and reinstated their ban on him working for classified projects, effectively preventing him from working in the jet industry.[96] In May 1951 he founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company based in North Hollywood, and also began work at the Bermite Powder Company in Saugus, where he created pyrotechnics and explosives for the movie industry.[97] Cameron had returned to him, and reinstating their relationship, they moved to a former coach house at 1071 South Orange Grove in Pasadena.[98] They began holding parties once more that were attended largely by bohemians and members of the beat generation,[99] while he also founded a new Thelemite group known as "The Witchcraft" whose beliefs revolved around his Babalon prophecies.[100]

Death: 1952[edit]

Parsons and Cameron had decided to travel to Mexico for a few months.[101] On the day before they planned to leave, June 17, 1952, he received a rush order of explosives for a film set, and he begun work on it at his house.[102] In the midst of this project, an explosion destroyed the building during which Parsons was fatally wounded, and upon being rushed to the Huntingdon Memorial Hospital by emergency services was declared dead.[103] When his mother was informed of the events, she immediately committed suicide by overdosing on barbituates.[104] Don Harding, a criminologist with the Pasadena police force, led the official investigation, concluding that Parsons had been mixing fulminate of mercury in a coffee can when he dropped it to the floor, resulting in the initial explosion which worsened when it came into contact with the many other chemicals in the room.[105] Forman considered this likely, highlighting that Parsons often had sweaty hands and could easily have dropped the can.[106] However, a number of Parsons' colleagues rejected this explanation, noting that he had been very safety cautious and that he would never have been so reckless, but the police nevertheless closed the case.[107] Both Wolfe and Smith suggested that Parsons' death had been suicide, noting that he had suffered from depression for some time.[108] His death would never be definitively explained.[109]

The immediate aftermath of the explosion attracted the interest of the U.S. media, making headline news in the Los Angeles Times; these initial reports focused on his prominence in rocketry, but neglected to mention his occult interests. Within several days however reporters had discovered his involvement in Thelema and the Agape Lodge, and made this the emphasis of their sensationalist articles.[110] Parsons' body was cremated, and Cameron scattered the ashes in the Mojave Desert,[111] before burning most of his possessions.[112] She came to believe that Parsons had been murdered by the police or anti-zionists, and attempted to perform astral projection to commune with him.[113] There was no funeral, although the OTO held a memorial service at which Smith led the Gnostic Mass.[114]

Personal life[edit]

Although considered effeminate as a child, in adult life Parsons was known to exhibit an attitude of machismo.[115] Although he enjoyed sexual relationships with many women, Parsons never wanted children, and practiced coitus interruptus to prevent it.[116] Aside from rocketry, a key hobby of Parsons' was hunting jack rabbits and cotton tails in the desert.[115] He also enjoyed playing pranks on his colleagues, often through detonating explosives such as firecrackers and smoke bombs,[117] and was also known to spend hours at a time in the bathtub playing with toy boats while living at the Parsonage.[72]

Religious beliefs[edit]

"No philosophy, theory, religion, or system of thought can be absolute and infallible. They are relative only. One man's opinion is just as good as another's."

Jack Parsons[118]

Parsons adhered to the occult philosphy of Thelema, which had been founded in 1904 by the English occultist Aleister Crowley following a spiritual revelation that he had in the city of Cairo, Egypt, when—according to Crowley's own accounts—a spirit being known as Aiwass dictated to him a prophetic text known as The Book of the Law.[119]

On July 31, 1945, he gave a speech to the Agape Lodge in which he attempted to explain how he felt that The Book of the Law could be made relevant to "modern life." In this, which was subsequently published under the title of "Doing your Will", he examined the Thelemite concept of True Will, writing that:

The mainspring of an individual is his creative Will. This Will is the sum of his tendencies, his destiny, his inner truth. It is one with the force that makes the birds sing and flowers bloom; as inevitable as gravity, as implicit as a bowel movement, it informs alike atoms and men and suns.
To the man who knows this Will, there is no why or why not, no can or cannot; he IS!
There is no known force that can turn an apple into an alley cat; there is no known force that can turn a man from his Will. This is the triumph of genius; that, surviving the centuries, enlightens the world.
This force burns in every man.[120]

He identified four obstacles that prevented humans from achieving and performing their True Will, all of which he connected with fear: the fear of incompetence, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of hurting others, and the fear of insecurity, but he insisted that these must be overcome. He wrote that "The Will must be freed of its fetters. The ruthless examination and destruction of taboos, complexes, frustrations, dislikes, fears and disgusts hostile to the Will is essential to progress."[121]


"[Parsons] had witnessed the blinding overnight successes achieved by the government-by-terror totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. He had the foresight to see that [the United States of] America, once armed with the new powers of total destruction and surveillance that were sure to follow the swelling flood of new technologies, had the potential to become even more repressive unless its founding principles of individual liberty were religiously preserved and its leaders held accountable to them.
Two of the keys to redressing the balance were the freedom of women and an end to the state control of individual sexual expression. He knew that these potent forces, embodied as they are in a majority of the world's population, had the power, once unleashed, to change the world."

Hymenaeus Beta, current Frater Superior of Ordo Templi Orientis.[122]

From early on in his career, Parsons took an interest in socialism and communism,[123] views that he shared with his friend Malina.[124] Under the influence of another friend, Sidney Weinbaum, the two of them joined a communist group in the late 1930s, with Parsons reading Marxist literature, but he remained unconvinced and refused to join the American Communist Party.[34] Malina asserted that this was because Parsons was a "political romantic", whose attitude was more anti-authoritarian than anti-capitalist.[125] Parsons would later become critical of the Marxist-Leninist government of the Soviet Union, sarcastically commenting that "The dictatorship of the proletariat is merely temporary—the state will eventually wither away like a snark hunter, leaving us all free as birds. Meanwhile it may be necessary to kill, torture and imprison a few million people, but whose fault is it if they get in the way of progress?"[126] During the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the early 1950s, he was questioned as to his former links to the communist movement, by which time he denied any connection to it, instead describing himself as "an individualist".[127]

Influenced by Thelema, which holds to the ethical code of "Do what thou wilt", in the 1940s Parsons became a vocal social libertarian. In his article, Freedom is a Lonely Star, he championed the libertarian social views of some of the founding fathers of the United States, which were enshrined in the American constitution, claiming that by his own time these had been "sold out by America, and for that reason the heart of America is sick and the soul of America is dead."[128] He proceeded to criticise many aspects of contemporary U.S. society, particularly the police force, remarking that "The police mind is usually of a sadistic and homicidal trend" and noting that they carried out the "ruthless punishment of symbolic scapegoats" such as African-Americans, prostitutes, drunks, homeless people and socio-political radicals, under the pretense of a country that had "liberty and justice for all".[129] To bring about a freer future, Parsons believed in liberalising attitudes to sexual morality, stating that in his belief, the publication of the Kinsey report and development of the psychonautical sciences had as big an influence on western society as the creation of the atomic bomb and the development of nuclear physics, and that in the future the restrictions on sexual morality within society should be abolished in order to bring about greater freedom and individuality.[130]

Robert Anton Wilson described Parsons as an "ultra-individualist" who exhibited a "genuine sympathy for working people" and who strongly empathized with feminism.[131] He was also a zionist and was supportive of the early creation of the State of Israel, making plans to emigrate there when his military security clearance was revoked.[123] Although he commented primarily upon the situation of civil liberties and individual freedoms in his native United States, he believed that such things were of worldwide importance, and that:

We are one nation but we are also one world. The soul of the slums looks out of the eyes of Wall Street, and the fate of a Chinese coolie determines the destiny of America. We cannot suppress our brother's liberty without suppressing our own and we cannot murder our brothers without murdering ourselves. We will stand together as men for human freedom and human dignity or we will fall together, as animals, back into the jungle.[128]

Legacy and influence[edit]

In the decades following his death, Parsons would be better remembered among the Western esoteric community rather than their scientific counterpart.[132] In October 1968, Malina gave a speech at JPL in which he highlighted Parsons' contribution to the U.S. rocket project and lamented how it had come to be neglected.[133] Among the aerospace industry, a joke developed holding that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's initials of "JPL" stand for "Jack Parsons' Laboratory" or "Jack Parsons Lives".[109] The International Astronomical Union later decided to name a crater on the far side of the Moon "Parsons" after him.[134]

The occultist and author Robert Anton Wilson believed that Parsons was "the one single individual who contributed the most to rocket science".[135] He described him as being "very strange, very brilliant, very funny, [and] very tormented",[136] and considered it noteworthy that the day of Parsons' birth was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse advocated by Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witness movement.[137] Parsons' biographer George Pendle described him as "the Che Guevara of occultism".[132]

Before his death, Parsons appeared in science fiction writer Anthony Boucher's murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue (1942) under the guise of Hugo Chantrelle.[138] Another fictional character based on Parsons was Courtney James, who features in L. Sprague de Camp's 1956 work A Gun for Dinosaur.[139] A stage play about Parsons by George D. Morgan, Pasadena Babalon, premiered at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2010.[140]

Much of its content can be found at Carbonneau's website: The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons



  1. ^ Carter 2004, p. 1; Pendle 2005, p. 26.
  2. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 1.
  3. ^ Carter 2004, pp. 1–2; Pendle 2005, pp. 26–27.
  4. ^ Carter 2004, p. 2.
  5. ^ Carter 2004, pp. 2–3; Pendle 2005, p. 28.
  6. ^ a b c Pendle 2005, pp. 33–40.
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  9. ^ Carter 2004, p. 4; Pendle 2005, p. 46.
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  12. ^ Carter 2004, p. 6; Pendle 2005, pp. 57–59.
  13. ^ Carter 2004, p. 6; Pendle 2005, pp. 59–60.
  14. ^ Carter 2005, p. 6; Pendle, pp. 60–61.
  15. ^ Pendle 2005, pp. 54–55.
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  18. ^ Pendle 2005, pp. 62–64.
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  109. ^ a b Carter 2004, p. xxv.
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  111. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 300.
  112. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 303.
  113. ^ Kansa 2011, pp. 77–79.
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  115. ^ a b Pendle 2005, p. 176.
  116. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 212.
  117. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 226.
  118. ^ Parsons 2008. p. 21.
  119. ^ Beta 2008. p. x-xi.
  120. ^ Parsons 2008. p. 67.
  121. ^ Parsons 2008. p. 69-71.
  122. ^ Beta 2008, p. xi.
  123. ^ a b Beta 2008, p. ix.
  124. ^ Pendle 2005, pp. 90–93.
  125. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 122.
  126. ^ Parsons 2008, p. 11.
  127. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 293.
  128. ^ a b Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword. Author's preface.
  129. ^ Parsons 2008, p. 9.
  130. ^ Parsons 2008, p. 13.
  131. ^ Carter 2004, p. x.
  132. ^ a b Pendle 2005, p. 304.
  133. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 306.
  134. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 307.
  135. ^ Carter 2004, p. xi.
  136. ^ Carter 2004, p. vii.
  137. ^ Carter 2004, p. ix.
  138. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 230.
  139. ^ Pendle 2005, p. 305.
  140. ^ Evelyn Barge, " Pasadena Babalon: the World of Jack Parsons, on stage at Caltech," Pasadena Star News February 23, 2010. See Pasadena Babalon page at George Morgan web site (accessed August 21, 2010)


Carter, John (2004). Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons (new edition). Port Townsend: Feral House. ISBN 978-0922915972. 
Beta, Hymenaeus (2008). "Foreword" to Three Essays on Freedom (J.W. Parsons). York Beach, Maine: Teitan Press. 
Kaczynski, Richard (2010). Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (second edition). Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-0-312-25243-4. 
Kansa, Spencer (2011). Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron. Oxford: Mandrake. ISBN 978-1-906958-08-4. 
Parsons, John Whiteside (2008). Three Essays on Freedom. York Beach, Maine: Teitan Press. 
Pendle, George (2005). Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0753820650. 
Starr, Martin P. (2003). The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites. Bollingbrook, Illinois: Teitan Press. ISBN 0-933429-07-X. 

External links[edit]