Seventy years ago, on June 17, 1952, Jack Parsons—rocketry pioneer, self-proclaimed Antichrist, disciple of Aleister Crowley and explosives expert, whose work helped lead to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—died in a mysterious, city-shaking explosion in his home lab in a converted coach house behind a mansion on Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena. Was it suicide? Murder? An accident? We still don’t know. What we do know is here, in this 3-part series. (For Part 1, published June 17, please click here. For Part 2, published June 25, click here.)
Aleister Crowley was a mountain climber, poet, chess player, writer and mystical magician. And he was one of the most controversial spiritual figures of the 20th century. He developed occult philosophies, practiced sex magic and called himself the Beast 666. The British tabloids called him “the wickedest man in the world.”
He was also the spiritual mentor of one Jack Parsons, the rocketry pioneer from Pasadena whose fuel inventions led to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Crowley was born Edward Alexander Crowley on Oct. 12, 1875, into a strict, Biblical literalist family in Leamington Spa, England. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society in Victorian London. In Egypt, on a trip around the world, he and his wife Rose took mind-altering drugs such as ether, and she told him the god Horus wanted to talk to him. He subsequently dictated what became The Book of the Law, the founding text of his Church of Thelema, which he believed was communicated through him by a superhuman being.
A man named Theodor Reuss told Crowley that he was publishing the secrets of a group he helped found in Germany, the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East, or OTO), a quasi-Masonic group that practiced sexual magic. Crowley joined OTO in 1912 and soon controlled it. He started an abbey in Sicily where his followers put his teachings into practice. One young college student died from encentitis from mountain spring water, and his wife told the British tabloids fantastical stories about Crowley’s “cat blood drinking cult.” This cemented Crowley’s controversial reputation.
He spent the rest of his life in England managing sects of OTO around the world—including in Pasadena—and suffering from chronic bronchitis and heroin addiction until his death on Dec. 1, 1947, at age 72. In 1967, the Beatles’ album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” included his image on the cover, resulting in him becoming a cult hero for some.
But Parsons, who died in 1952 of an explosion in Pasadena (see part I of this series here), and whose rocketry work led to the founding of JPL (see part II here), had been a loyal disciple of Crowley as early as 1939.
Do what thou wilt
In January 1939, Parsons was first introduced to OTO and on Feb. 15, 1941, he and his first wife Helen were initiated into the Agape Lodge of the OTO. OTO had a tiered degree system, and Parsons would often jump ahead and perform rituals higher than his grade.
“The libertarian spirit of the OTO made it an accommodating home [for Parsons] in the days when homosexuality was illegal; an ethos of permissiveness was not merely a lifestyle at the OTO but a part of their religious practice,” Fraser MacDonald wrote in Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket. “Parsons, who oscillated between same-sex attraction and revulsion, found the scene intriguing.”
Parsons’ OTO motto was “Thelema Obtentum Procedero Amoris Nuptiae,” incorrect Latin for “the establishment of Thelema through the rituals of love.” George Pendle noted in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons that “transliterated into the Cabbala, the initials of his motto gave him the magical number of 210, with which Parsons would take to signing all his official OTO correspondence.” 210 would later become the number of the freeway that runs through Pasadena.
Members of OTO believed “sexual ecstasy could lift one to a different plane of consciousness,” Pendle wrote. “Perhaps the most well known of the OTO’s members in local circles was Roy Leffingwell, a pianist and composer who was also known as ‘Pasadena’s Greatest Booster’ from his role as the official announcer of the city’s annual Tournament of Roses.”
By following the OTO’s philosophy of “Do what thou wilt,” relationships soon started to fall apart. In June 1941, 27-year-old Parsons began an affair with Helen’s half-sister, 17-year-old Betty, who was living with them. Shortly after that, Helen began an affair with Wilfred Smith, head of the Agape, and they had a son. (Both Helen and Betty suffered sexual abuse from their father, Burton Northrup). Jack and Helen divorced.
“Shortly before her death in 1998, Betty told her daughter Alexis that [Parsons] initiated their sexual relationship when she was just 13—two years before the Parsons were involved in the OTO,” MacDonald wrote.
In 1942, Parsons moved to 1003 S. Orange Grove, a mansion next door to Lilly Anheuser Busch that became known as both the Parsonage and Grim Gables, and turned it into a Gnostic Mass temple where they hosted OTO gatherings—including orgies and magic rituals. The mansion was the former home of Arthur Fleming, Caltech benefactor and lumber millionaire who hosted Caltech luminaries such as Albert Einstein in that house, which he built in 1899 as one of the first Craftsman houses in Pasadena.
Parsons, Betty, Helen and Smith all lived in the 11-bedroom abode along with an eclectic and debaucherous group of people, many of whom regularly swapped partners sexually. Pendle called it a “Dionysian climate of excess.”
In 1942, Pasadena police received an anonymous letter that “black magic,” “sex perversion” and other “strange goings on” were taking place at the Parsonage, so the FBI went to the house to investigate, one of many times.
“They would never find anything incriminating,” Pendle wrote. “Nevertheless the FBI did open a file on Parsons, detailing his link to a ‘love cult.’ By the end of his life, the file would stretch to nearly 200 pages.”
Parsons told police Thelema was “dedicated to the freedom and liberty of the individual” and that they “were anti-communistic and anti-fascist,” according to Parsons’ FBI file. The agents found “nothing of a subversive nature” but noted that they had heard the house was “a gathering place of perverts.”
By this point, Parsons was regularly drinking homemade absinthe, smoking cannabis and taking cocaine, amphetamines, morphine and peyote. Crowley soon banished Smith and Helen from the Parsonage and installed Parsons as head of the Agape.
Parsons put an ad in the paper for renters that said “only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or other exotic types need apply for rooms—any mundane soul would be ceremoniously ejected,” Alva Rogers, a fellow tenant, recounted in an essay titled “Darkhouse” in a 1962 issue of Lighthouse fanzine, published by the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. “This ad, needless to say, created quite a flap in Pasadena when it appeared.”
In 1942, Parsons met science fiction author, U.S. Navy officer and future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard at the Mañana Literary Society, a gathering of science fiction writers. After the war, Hubbard moved into the Parsonage. Parsons fell under the man’s spell, enamored with his wild tales of adventure around the world as a member of the Explorers’ Club, during the war with American intelligence and aboard submarines, and other fantastical tales such as lassoing a polar bear on an ice floe near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and being shot by aboriginal arrows.
Parsons taught Hubbard about Crowley’s Thelema philosophy and they fenced without masks in the main room of the house. But soon, Hubbard and Betty began a blatant affair. Parsons, who preached what could later be termed “free love” and disavowed jealousy, was jealous.
In 1944, Parsons had been pushed out of Aerojet, the company he co-founded to develop and sell Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) rockets to the military, and he was no longer affiliated with JPL. The twin pressures of losing Betty and Aerojet seemed to cause him to have a breakdown.
He began practicing black magick, witchcraft and voodoo. From December 1945 to March 1946, he performed a series of intense magical rituals called Babalon Working in an effort to conjure up an “elemental mate” using his own blood and semen, in order to then birth a “moonchild.” He chanted in the Enochian tongue, developed by 16th century alchemist Dr. John Dee, and drew pentagrams in the air. He believed he experienced supernatural phenomena, but it was likely Hubbard pulling a fast one on him. However, his future second wife Marjorie Cameron soon appeared at the Parsonage.
“He immersed himself deeper and deeper in his magic with an excitement that bordered on mania,” Pendle wrote. “His letters and notes from the time reveal his exaggerated self-esteem, racing thoughts, persistent agitation, and, in the case of Hubbard’s visions, poor judgment—all could have been signs of some form of manic episode.”
‘Obvious victim prowling swindlers’
Parsons foolishly entered into a business partnership with Hubbard and Betty called Allied Enterprises in which they agreed to pool all of their resources for the benefit of all partners. He invested nearly $21,000 into Allied Enterprises, while Hubbard added less than $1,200. Betty contributed nothing.
Hubbard proposed that he and Betty travel to Miami and buy three yachts with the pooled funds, then sail the boats back to Los Angeles to sell them at a marked-up price. Somehow, Parsons agreed. They left with his money, and he soon couldn’t keep his new Vulcan Powder Corporation going.
A telegram from Crowley read, “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick. Jack Parsons weak fool. Obvious victim prowling swindlers.” Hubbard had written to the chief of naval personnel, asking permission to sail to South America and China, according to Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah.
When Crowley told Parsons he was the victim of a con, he flew to Florida. He got a court to put a temporary injunction and restraining order on Hubbard and Betty, preventing them from leaving the country or selling the boats. The couple sailed out anyway.
In a Miami hotel room, Parsons summoned Bartzabel, apowerful demon and the god of Mars. Hubbard’s yacht encountered a storm at sea, forcing them back to port. A court dissolved Allied Enterprises and made Hubbard pay Parsons $2,900.
“Parsons agreed not to press any other charges—partly, it seems, because Betty had threatened to press charges against him over their past relationship, which began when she was under the legal age of consent,” Pendle wrote. “The episode left Parsons shattered. He flew back west. One month later, Betty and Hubbard were married.” They were divorced a few years later, as Hubbard founded Scientology.
But Hubbard succeeded “exactly where Crowley had failed,” Pendle wrote. “He would found a worldwide religion.” In 1969, the Church of Scientology released a statement claiming that Hubbard was “sent in to handle the situation” as a U.S. Navy officer and infiltrate the OTO at 1003 Orange Grove, where he “dispersed” the “very bad… black magic group” and “rescued a girl,” Betty. “Hubbard broke up black magic in America. Hubbard’s mission was successful far beyond anyone’s expectations.”
“There is no doubt that Hubbard’s arrival at the house on Orange Grove signaled a turning point in the fortunes of both Parsons and the OTO, but whether he acted at the behest of a government agency or because of personal motives is a question best left for the reader to decide,” Pendle wrote.
Pendle pointed out the similarities between Crowley’s Thelema and Hubbard’s Scientology, but noted that “while Crowley struggled throughout his life to popularize the OTO, the Church of Scientology became hugely successful. It is, in short, everything Crowley had wanted the OTO to be.”
‘Blown away upon the breath of the fire…’
Parsons sold 1003 Orange Grove and moved into the coach house on the property, and all the weirdos moved out. He soon resigned from the OTO and the Parsonage was torn down to make way for condos.
“The Parsonage had briefly been an adult playground saturated with philosophical hopes and pungent romanticism, fruit brandies and fencing, bohemians and scientists, poetry and rockets,” Pendle wrote. “Now it was gone forever.”
Parsons started attending night classes at USC and looked for a job in rocketry, now an established industry. Shortly after that, the FBI investigated his ties to Communists and the OTO, and his security clearance was revoked and he lost his job at North American Aviation. He and Marjorie moved to Manhattan Beach.
Unable to work in the rocketry field, Parsons turned to his magick and declared himself the Antichrist. His security clearance was reinstated in 1949 and he went to work for Hughes Aircraft, but the FBI soon began investigating him again for suspected espionage, though no charges were filed. (Read part 2 of this series here).
He and Marjorie moved back to Pasadena, just three doors down from the Parsonage, at 1071 ½ S. Orange Grove Ave., a coach house behind the old F.G. Cruikshank estate. He turned the ground floor laundry room into his personal laboratory, where on June 17, 1952, he allegedly dropped a tin can containing fulminate of mercury which exploded and killed him. (Read part 1 of this series here).
Marjorie scattered Parsons’ ashes in the Mojave Desert, where he used to conduct rocket tests.
A few years before his death, Parsons had written to Crowley, “Babalon is incarnate on the earth today awaiting the proper hour of her manifestation. And in that day, my work will be accomplished, and I will be blown away upon the breath of the fire.”
Which, of course, proved prophetic. If nothing else, it can surely be said that Jack Parsons lived fast and died young—and changed humanity’s relationship with the stars forever.