The Sorcerous Scientist
"I hight Don Quixote, I live on peyote,
The preceding poem is the most famous written work of John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952). He helped make science fiction into fact, yet this dark and handsome man, born of a well-to-do Los Angeles family, made his private life "visionary" in a different way, being as involved with ceremonial magic outside of working hours as he was with rocketry research during the day. In the mid-to-late 1940s, his major accomplishments behind him, magic came to obsess him all the more.
Frank Malina, one of his colleagues at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena, has chronicled John (Jack) Parsons' contributions to rocketry. (2) In 1936, Parsons and Edward S. Forman came upon a report of a GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory-Caltech) lecture concerning the idea of a rocket-powered airplane. Parsons, though a self-trained chemist, had powers of imagination that proved to be invaluable in all of his pursuits (whether scientific or magical). He and Forman (a mechanic) had together been making small black-powder rockets.
They wanted to experiment with a liquid propellant rocket motor, so (lacking the funds) they approached Caltech. As a result, Malina (in 1936) came up with a proposal for his doctoral thesis on rocket propulsion and performance in-flight. Theodore von Karman (who headed GALCIT) gave Malina permission to collaborate with Forman and Parsons, even though the latter two were neither students nor staff members of the institute.
Even so, funds were scarce, and the three experimenters chipped in necessary funds for the materials. They conducted the tests at Arroyo Seco, behind the Devil's Gate Dam in Pasadena (very near the present-day Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a site that, unbeknownst to them, had previously been used by rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard.
The "Suicide Squad"Weld Arnold and Hsue Shen Tsien soon joined GALCIT rocket research, completing the well-remembered team. The group became known as the 'suicide squad" because of a 1937 test misfire in which a nitrogen dioxide/alcohol cloud caused a thin layer of rust to appear on much lab equipment. Henceforth, the small scale rocket motor responsible was moved from the building. The failed experiment, providentially, gave Parsons an important idea (to be recounted shortly).
In the summer of 1938, the staff decreased, leaving Malina, Forman and Parsons as remaining core members. A few months later, the National Academy of Science (NAS) Committee on Army Air Corps Research commenced study with the GALCIT rocket research group, with the express interest of finding ways to assist the takeoffs of heavily-laden aircraft by using rocketry.
A $10,000 contract was thus awarded by the NAS to Caltech to develop "jet" (actually rocket) propulsion to be used to provide "super-performance" for propeller aircraft. Liquid and solid propellant rocket engines were part of this research. Von Karman took charge, with Malina, Parsons and Forman being the major members of his staff. In 1940, Parsons was able to show the Air Corps that red-fuming nitric acid was a better oxidizer than liquid oxygen (making use of knowledge gained from the 1937 misfire). (3) This led to important later developments.
As can be seen, Parsons was already invaluable to the development of the technology that eventually got America into outer space.
The Secret Parsons
But he had a secret life, which appeared totally at odds with his public one, and it came to further dominate his life as the '40s progressed.
Jack Parsons and his wife Helen had come into contact with the Agape lodge of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis, an international magical fraternity) in Los Angeles in 1939, and had joined it in 1941. It was under the leadership of Wilfred Talbot Smith, a Britisher who had founded this particular lodge about a decade earlier, circa 1930. Smith and Parsons' wife hit it off nicely and he was soon not much in evidence around the house and the O.T.O. Gnostic Mass temple in the attic. This latter space was fully fitted out, and even had a copy of the Egyptian 'Stele of Revealing,' venerated by followers of the famous magician Aleister Crowley. It was the only such temple in the world at that time which was properly functioning.
Crowley, the world head of the O.T.O., took action that increased Parsons' stature in the Order. Circa 1943-44, he convinced Smith, via a paper entitled 'Is Smith a God?' that astrological research had shown that Smith was not a man, but actually an incarnation of some deity. Taking the hint that Crowley wanted him out, the "god" went into private magical practice, eventually with reportedly rewarding results, remaining head of the lodge in name only. Parsons became acting master of the lodge. (4) Why did Crowley in effect kick Smith upstairs? The ostensible reason seemed to be the danger that the man was turning the Order into (as Crowley put it) 'that slimy abomination, a love cult'." (5)
Actually, Crowley, who was unable to emigrate to the United States, was isolated from the only successful O.T.O. lodge in the world. Because of this frustration, bad blood resulted, despite the fact that Smith was probably the best field commander Crowley ever had.
Parsons had lost his wife to Smith, yet remained on good terms with her. He was kept busy by Order activities, one of the most important of which was the sending of money to Crowley, for both the old man's minimal upkeep and the O.T.O. publishing fund. A good percentage came from Parsons' own pocket. (6)
Crowley, who brought actual fame to the O.T.O. (which was already well-known in Masonic circles), was one of Parsons' major inspirations in life. The elderly man's accomplishments had been many: as a poet, publisher, mountain climber, chess master, and bisexual practitioner of sexual magic (or "Magick," as he termed it). Made famous by yellow journalists as the "Wickedest Man in the World," he considered his central identity to be the "Great Beast 666" as referred to in the book of "Revelation" in the Bible, though he was not leaning on that work particularly in his religious ideas.
Needless to say, Crowley felt that the Bible had misconstrued the meaning of the Beast and the Whore of Babylon, necessary elements of the succession to the Aeon of Horus, the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child.
Crowley synopsized human development thusly:
"Within the memory of man we have had the Pagan period, the worship of Nature, of Isis, of the Mother, of the Past; the Christian period, the worship of Man, of Osiris, of the Present. The first period is simple, quiet, easy, and pleasant; the material ignores the spiritual; the second is of suffering and death: the spiritual strives to ignore the material....The new Aeon is the worship of the spiritual made one with the material, of Horus, of the Child, of the Future." (7)
Renowned as the most noted master of the occult of the last century, Crowley's work is still influential (his books are sometimes stocked even in New Age bookstores).
According to most accounts, when Parsons' father died (circa the early '40s), Parsons inherited a mansion and coach-house at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, California. To the shock of the neighbors, the place became a haven for Bohemians and atheists, who were the sort of people to whom Parsons liked to rent out rooms.
The lodge headquarters was moved to this location, making use of two rooms in the house: the bedroom (which became a properly decorated temple), and a wood-panelled library dominated by an enormous portrait of Crowley.
According to a story told by L. Sprague DeCamp (most recently appearing in the June 24, 1990 Los Angeles Times, p. A35), at one point the police -- who had heard neighbors' reports of a ritual in which a nude pregnant woman jumped nine times through a fire in the yard -- came to investigate, but Parsons put them off by emphasizing his scientific credentials.
His Career RocketsReturning to the events of 1940, the explosions of many of Parsons' rockets on the test stand caused second thoughts among many involved in the government-financed project. After work by Von Karman and Malina on the differential equations involved on the theoretical side, Parsons was given permission to keep on with his tests, and a few months later the earliest "jet-assisted takeoff" rockets were created. These were the direct forerunners of the modern large solid-propellant engines.
The first American rocket-assisted takeoff (August 12, 1941) made use of a Parsons-developed solid-propellant (GALCIT 27 -- which provided a 28 lb. maximum thrust for 12 seconds). But tests showed that GALCIT 27 would explode when stored for long periods, so Parsons, Mark M. Mills and Fred S. Miller came up with a more stable fuel (GALCIT 53) in June 1942.
At the same time, others were working with Parsons' idea for a red-fuming nitric acid-gasoline engine (a liquid propellant rocket). On April 15, 1942, the first American flight of an aircraft making use of such rocket engines to assist takeoff was accomplished.
The previous month, Malina, Parsons and Forman, with the advice of von Karman's attorney, had set up the Aerojet Engineering Corporation in March 1942, for the express purpose of properly exploiting the developments that they had been making. Jack Parsons was one of the vice-presidents at the time of incorporation and helped supervise the changeover to full-scale production. (8)
Parsons' High IdealsAlso a science fiction enthusiast, Parsons met fellow fan Alva Rogers, who romanced another resident of Parsons' house. "I always found Jack's insistence that he believed in, and practiced, magic hard to reconcile with his educational and cultural background," Rogers opined. He originally thought that Parsons was just doing it to shock his friends until he saw letters from Crowley, and evidences of Parsons' funding of the guru. (9)
Parsons' magical idealism becomes clear if one peruses his writings. In the 1946 essay "Freedom is a Two Edged Sword" (newly reprinted in an anthology of the same title, published by Falcon Press) he writes of the deeper meanings of his quest:
"[The individual] must go down like Moses, into his unknown self ...into the labyrinths of the dark land. There he will meet the Mother and hear her final question, which is not a silly riddle but the most wonderful and terrible of all questions: 'what is man?'
After having lost Helen Parsons to Smith in 1944, Parsons soon fell for her younger sister, Sara Northrup (a.k.a. Betty), who was 18 year old and a student at USC. Parsons encouraged her to drop out of school and come live with him (not exactly thrilling her parents). She joined the O.T.O. and was not monogamous, since she agreed with Parsons that jealousy was a base emotion not fit for the illuminated.
Delineating such beliefs, he once wrote that "...by debasing the mother image into a demon-virgin-angel, it has denied each daughter the possibility of her fulfillment," and that "...by imputing the concepts of nastiness, dirt, shamefulness, guilt, indecency and obscenity to the entire sexual process, it has poisoned the life force at its source." (11)
He tried his hardest to live up to his philosophy, but events put him to the extremest possible test, leading as they did to his eventual estrangement from Betty.
During this period, also (circa 1945), Parsons became friends with science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, with whom he shared many interests. Details of their friendship can be found in the biographies of Hubbard.
The Scarlet WomanParsons and an associate attempted to bring about some sort of incarnation of the goddess Babalon. To understand Parsons' attitude towards Babalon, one can refer to his "Freedom..." essay:
"She will come girt with the sword of freedom, and before her kings and priests will tremble and cities and empires will fall, and she will be called BABALON, the scarlet woman....And women will respond to her war cry, and throw off their shackles and chains, and men will respond to her challenge, forsaking the foolish ways and the little ways, and she will shine as the ruddy evening star in the bloody sunset of Gotterdamerung, will shine as a morning star when the night has passed, and a new dawn breaks over the garden of Pan" (12)
Parsons performed rituals (reportedly to the background music of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff records) for 11 days in a process known as the "Babalon Working." On the second and third days he got an unwanted result, writing to Crowley that "the wind storm is very interesting, but that is not what I asked for." (13)
On the seventh day of the Working, Parsons was awakened by seven loud knocks. Getting up, he soon discovered a smashed table lamp.
Other phenomena occurred on subsequent nights, including an (alleged) attack by an entity against one of their group which knocked a candle out of the man's hand and paralyzed his right arm overnight. Parsons banished -- by gesturing at it with a magical sword -- what they took to be a seven-foot-tall, brownish- yellow light. It is rumored that he thought the apparition to be Wilfred T. Smith. (14)
On January 18, 1946, Parsons returned from a magical undertaking, finding the needed "Scarlet Woman" (Marjorie Cameron) waiting for him at the house. Parsons was overjoyed and wrote to Crowley: "I have my elemental! ...She has red hair and slant green eyes as specified." (15)
Parsons, on February 28, 1946, went out into the Mojave Desert in order to invoke Babalon, thus taking down 77 clauses of what came to be known as his Book of Babalon.
Further work at the home temple produced more instructions for an immanent ritual, the directions for which were supposedly emanating from the astral plane.
The rituals (whose objective was to produce a magical child, "mightier than all the kings of the earth") continued for two days. Parsons was confident of their effectiveness, and wrote an exultant letter to Crowley, whose response was not what would have been wished. Parsons was upset by his mentor's lack of comprehension. Crowley immediately wrote a letter to Karl Germer (who was the head of the O.T.O. in the U.S. at that time) stating that "Apparently Parsons...or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts." (16)
Crowley reorganized the lodge on the basis of these actions, removing Parsons from power.
Stormy RelationshipsParsons, Betty, and a key magical associate activated Allied Enterprises (a yacht business of theirs), the intent of which was to buy boats in the East in order to sail them to California -- where they could command a higher price.
The business had been founded some time earlier. But, as it eventually worked out, Parsons was undergoing financial hardship in the West, and went after his partners to find out why they had not shown up in California. They were nowhere to be found. He soon discovered that they were out at sea. From within a Miami, Florida hotel room, Parsons invoked Bartzabel (the spirit of Mars and war). A squall forced his associates back to port. (17)
Dade County, Florida court records reveal that Parsons filed a lawsuit. (18) The result: Parsons got two of the boats back and made an arrangement with his partners, so that they could pay him off for the third. He never saw them again. Betty continued to think well of Parsons (despite their estrangement), calling him a "truly great man." Even so, she married the other business partner. One can easily imagine Parsons' feelings about this turn of events. Both had been key people in his personal, magical and business lives.
Because of the O.T.O. disaster, Parsons changed his magical emphasis to "the Witchcraft." (19)
He sold the main house at South Orange Grove, moving (with Marjorie Cameron, whom he later married) into the coach-house on the property.
Several of the original incorporators of Aerojet sold out their stock in the company to General Tire in 1952. Frank Malina did not do so, and became, as a result, very rich. (20) It is rumored that Jack Parsons had sold his shares in the mid-1940s.
In 1949, with, surprisingly, Wilfred T. Smith as witness, Parsons took the Oath of the Abyss, to unite himself with the Universal consciousness, taking the magical name of Belarion Armiluss Al Dajjal AntiChrist. John Symonds, a biographer of Crowley, has stated that Parsons had by now become psychotic (21) (but it should be kept in mind that Symonds is a man of generally harsh judgments). On the contrary, Parsons' writings from the late 1940s and early 1950s show a sparkling lucidity.
Take, for example, this again-timely comment from "Freedom...":
"Religious groups, backed by a publicity conscious press, are constantly campaigning for the prohibition of art and literature which, as if by divine prerogative, they term, 'indecent,' immoral or dangerous.
In a 1950 Introduction to the essay, he writes: "We are one nation, and one world....We cannot suppress our brothers' liberty without murdering ourselves. We will stand together, as men, for human freedom and human dignity, or we will fall together, simians all, back to the swamp." (23)
Parsons' answer to the dilemma was magick, discussed in his essay "On Magick." "It may be stated," he writes, "that magick is the method of training individuals towards total consciousness by the stimulation of various centers of the mind and by the cultivation of field thinking. The object of this training is the manifestation of initiated leadership towards a more conscious, better integrated, and more interesting and significant social culture. In short the object of magick is the unfoldment of the individual in all the ways of love; and the enlightenment of society to accept all the commitments of this unfoldment as the necessary conditions of progress." (24)
If these are the writings of a madman, then many people are mad, including a number of those promoting the New Age way of life.
Sorcery And Science: An Explosive CombinationOn June 20, 1952, Parsons was working in the private experimental laboratory in his garage. At 5:08 p.m., the place exploded. The general opinion was that he had dropped fulminate of mercury (25). His shattered body lay within the destroyed edifice.
It has been rumored that this was the end result of building psychological pressures. Otherwise, why would he have dropped what he was said to have, when a trash can containing cordite and wrappers of fulminate of mercury was nearby? Especially since he was about to travel to Mexico to test a new explosive he had devised, which was "more powerful than anything yet invented." George Santmeyers, who had worked with him for five years on industrial projects (and did not believe in the rumors of his magical activities) did not think an accident plausible, considering Parsons' technical knowledge. (26)
But there were other theories. In Nat Freedland's book The Occult Explosion, Renate Druks, an artist and educational filmmaker (who once, at her Malibu beach house, hosted Marjorie Cameron) related an alternate version: "I have every reason to believe that Jack Parsons was working on some very strange experiments, trying to create what the old alchemists called a homunculus, a tiny artificial man with magic powers. I think that's what he was working on when the accident happened." (27)
As magical work does not usually lead to explosions, nor deal with explosives, this seems unlikely. Having lost his security clearance because of providing Israel some secrets of his wartime work, Parsons was doing movie special effects work at this time, but of the explosive variety, not the fantastical. (28)
There were rumors of self-inflicted death or even murder connected with Parsons' demise. Sources close to Parsons have suggested that there was not just one explosion, but two. It is said that Parsons and Cameron would mix dynamite and other explosives in the many vats in the lab. Why then, it has been asked, was the first explosion supposedly from under the floorboards?
This would seem to hint that a bomb had been planted there. There has been some speculation that the rumored perpetrator was neither a friend nor associate of Parsons', but rather an individual who must have had a strong motive such as revenge.
Nevertheless, if Parsons' death was not a suicide, it becomes even sadder. He and Cameron had many plans for the future, having intended to travel to Mexico and next perhaps to Spain or Israel, according to what Cameron told others. (29)
Whatever actually caused Parsons' death, and whether there was any public distortion of the truth or not, in regard to what happened next there has been no dispute. His mother, Ruth Virginia Parsons, after hearing the tragic news, committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping tablets, in front of a frightened, crippled friend who could not move to help her. (30)
Many men of genius have behaved quirkily in their private lives. Parsons' tragedy was that his brand of idealism was often 'rewarded' by betrayal. Yet, while his delvings into magic may not have been as beneficial to society as his rocketry research, they have left us with some points to consider. Frater H.H.D. introduced his contribution thusly: "By applying to occultism the scientific acumen so intrinsic to his professional research, he anticipated the ontological implications of current quantum physics concerning the nature of reality." (31) While this claim may be debatable (and similar ones have been advanced towards other modern mystics), Parsons did keep careful records of his magical work, thus allowing the generations that follow to have some chance of evaluating his magick experiments, designed to make use of alleged unknown aspects of reality.
Some have tried to make sense of it already. Kenneth Grant, a British magician, has made some -- to say the least -- astounding inferences about Parsons' Babalon Working. He writes that: '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...." (32)
Grant's associates have kept busy in this regard. Grant states that: "A Gateway for the Great Old Ones has already been established -- and opened -- by members of the [Typhonian] O.T.O. who are en rapport with this entity [Lam, an extra-terrestrial being whom Crowley supposedly contacted while in America in 1919]." Crowley's portrait of Lam has been reproduced in [Grant's] The Magical Revival....(33) Crowley's rendition, by the way, resembles the typical representation of an UFO entity.
If these suggestively "Lovecraftian" details turn out to have any merit, Parsons may have helped us contact outer space in more ways than one. At the present time, however, such ideas seem highly debatable. Certainly, neither Crowley nor Parsons were of the opinion that their work concerned extraterrestrials of the Lovecraftian or the UFO varieties (though Cameron once sighted a UFO). (34)
Yet, having turned what had been termed "science fiction" into science fact, is it conceivable that Parsons' work may someday do the same for elements of "fantasy?"
His imaginative powers had solved tricky scientific problems and thus paved the way for space travel. Yet, perhaps because of his lack of accredited training, and the fact that the scientific papers to which he contributed were often unpublished (due to wartime secrecy), his name is not to be found in the scientific "who's whos" (though a crater on the moon -- 37' N. 171' W. was in 1972 named for him). But his name has often been noted in the histories of magic.
Will further examination of the full extent of his work make him more of a name to conjure with -- a man who led the way to inner as well as outer space?
(Please read the corrections and clarifications to this article by Bill Heidrick, past Grand Treasurer General of the Ordo Templi Orientis.)
Jack Parsons: Sorcerous Scientist