The 13th Floor

Sex, Black Magic, Showbiz and Rocketry: The Strange Life and Death of Jack Parsons

Few people would say that science and magick have anything to do with one another. Jack Parsons would disagree with you. Co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratories and father of the modern rocket, Parsons was also a devout follower of famed occultist Aleister Crowley and best friends with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Parsons was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons, named for his father, in Los Angeles in 1914. He was called Jack at home to differentiate between him and his father, but his parents divorced in 1915 so his mother Ruth took to calling him John. Professionally though, he is best known as Jack. Parsons was a bright boy, though bullied and possibly afflicted by undiagnosed dyslexia, causing him to perform poorly in school.

Inspired by his love of science fiction, Parsons began dabbling in rocket experiments in his backyard with a school friend. At around the same time, Parsons also developed an interest in the occult. According to biographer John Carter, Parsons was 13 years old when he first summoned Satan, an incident which terrified him and cemented his love for the occult.

Parsons’ interest in chemistry and explosions continued through his teenage years when he started working part-time at a chemicals and munition plant. He dropped out of Pasadena City College in Los Angeles, mainly due to finances, but pursued friendships with engineers and chemists in the hopes of gaining access to Caltech’s labs. This worked. Despite the fact that Parsons had no formal training, his “uninhibited and fruitful imagination,” paired with a fearlessness in the face of explosions, led him to invent the first composite rocket propellant and pioneer the advancement of both solid and liquid rocket fuel.

He eventually become a co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally-funded research lab that is responsible for most of NASA’s deep space projects, including the Mars Rover. Space exploration was always Parsons’ ultimate goal, but in the 1930s, this was ridiculed by the scientific community as science fiction.

In 1939, Parsons’ friends took him to the Church of Thelema in Hollywood, where he witnessed Aleister Crowley perform a Gnostic Mass. Parsons was familiar with Crowley, a leading occultist who founded Thelema and was a leader of Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), through his copious writings. Crowley was one of the leading proponents of “religious libertarianism,” and while often called a Satanist, Crowley was more appropriately a Pagan, though he did share many of the same beliefs as Satanists: radical individualism and sexually-charged rituals thought to bring about a “higher plane of consciousness.”

Jack’s interest in Thelemic beliefs grew, as did his friendship with Crowley. Even after Crowley returned to the UK, he mentored Jack, whom he saw as being one of his more promising acolytes. Parsons believed that the magick Crowley spoke of was real, a force that could be explained through quantum physics. His wife Helen joined him in his Pagan worship, as did her sister, Betty.

Jack and Helen formed a “commune” or what might now be called an “incubator” called the Agape Lodge, an off-shoot of Crowley’s Church of Thelema (itself an off-shoot of OTO). Filled with artists, scientists, and writers, Parsons spent his days working on rockets and his nights partaking in “sex magick.” This often consisted of drug-fueled orgies, ritual chanting, and fire dancing. Drugs and nudity were de rigeur at “The Parsonage,” so much so that neighbors reported Parsons to the authorities. (The FBI and the local police department found nothing to charge him with.) Jack began a sexual affair with Helen’s younger sister, Betty. Open relationships were encouraged by the OTO, and though Jack and Helen eventually divorced, they remained friends and all lived together in The Parsonage.

One of Jack’s best-known tenants was a science-fiction and pulp stories writer by the name of L. Ron Hubbard. Jack and Hubbard quickly became very close friends. Betty and Hubbard began sleeping together and soon their relationship became quite intense, leaving Jack out in the cold. His jealousy caused him to start partaking in black magick, which many at the Parsonage believed were bringing dark spirits into the home. There were reports of poltergeist activity, ghostly apparitions, and disembodied voices.

Parsons thought that Hubbard was “the most Thelemic person I have ever met,” and had him help in an Enochian magick spell. Jack would masturbate onto “magical” tablets and parchments while Hubbard would take notes and chant. The purpose of this ritual was to bring the goddess Babalon to Earth. Babalon was described as a “bewitching redhead” who was believed to give birth to the antichrist once on Earth.

Parsons and Hubbard went out to complete the ritual in the desert, and when they returned to the Parsonage, they met Marjorie Cameron, a red-headed illustrator who was visiting. Both Parsons and Hubbard believed her to be the incarnation of Babalon. She wasn’t into the Pagan parts of the Parsonage, but she was all about free love and plentiful drugs, so she stuck around. Parsons did eventually impregnate Cameron, but she had an abortion.

The pair were eventually married, just four days after Jack’s divorce to Helen was made official. When Cameron developed catalepsy (which caused seizures similar to epilepsy), Parsons encouraged her to manipulate her seizures to achieve astral projection. Eventually their relationship petered out and she moved to an artists’ colony in Mexico.

Hubbard and Betty agreed to start a company with Parsons, which Jack funded with his life savings. The trio planned to sail around the world, but Hubbard and Betty scammed Jack and took off with the money. Hubbard and Betty tried to escape Jack on a yacht, but a squall kept them grounded. Jack attributed this to a black magick spell he cast, and the company was soon dissolved. Parsons got a few thousand dollars back, but let the matter drop when Betty threatened to bring statutory rape charges against Jack (she was underage for much of their relationship). Hubbard was already married, but he married Betty bigamously, and the pair were out of Jack’s life. This whole incident caused Crowley to dismiss Parsons as a “weak fool.”

 

As the Cold War began, the government began cracking down on communists and potential communists. Between Jack’s membership in the ACLU (then a “subversive organization”), his previous involvement with Marxists, and his current (though waning) OTO involvement caused him to lose his security clearance.

Unable to work in the government, Jack tried to go back to school so he could earn a degree and gain employment in the scientific community, but that didn’t work out, either. He ended up working a number of blue-collar jobs, like auto mechanic and manual laborer in order to eke out a living. Parsons returned to his occult interests full-time and practiced sex magick with prostitutes. After Cameron returned to discover Jack was shacked up with other women, they fought violently and she returned to Mexico. He initiated divorce proceedings.

Parsons then testified that the “moral philosophy of Thelema” was anti-Communist, and he was granted clearance to return to work on classified government projects. Jack began working on designing a chemical plant for the Hughes Aircraft Company, where he met Herbert T. Rosenfeld, who offered him a job building rockets in the newly-formed State of Israel. With the Red Scare intensifying, along with the scrutiny of the FBI, Parsons decided to take Rosenfeld up on his offer. This sent up a red flag to the American government, who believed Jack was an Israeli spy and that he had transferred classified documents overseas. He was eventually found not guilty of espionage, but after learning of his occult practices and permissive lifestyle, the government still thought he was a threat and revoked his security clearance for good.

 

Again out of work, Parsons started his own chemical company out of his home, creating pyrotechnics and fog effects for the film industry. He reconciled with Marjorie, who moved back in with Jack, and they went back to hosting raucous parties. Jack started a new Thelemite group he called “The Witchcraft,” which was a simplified version of Crowley’s Thelema combined with Parsons’ own Babalon prophecies.

In 1952, Jack and Marjorie decided to move to Israel. The US government had essentially killed any chance Parsons had to work in rocketry in the States, and in Israel he could return to his first love. He and Marjorie also wanted to start a family, and Jack was convinced that the FBI was keeping tabs on him. On June 17th, the day before the couple was set to leave, Marjorie left to run errands while Jack remained home to fill a rush order for a film crew. There was an explosion in the lab, which amputated his right arm, broke his left arm and both legs, and tore a hole in his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was declared dead. Upon hearing of her son’s death, Ruth killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates.

 

The official report states that the explosion was an accident, caused when Parsons dropped fulminate of mercury on the floor, then mixed with other nearby chemicals. Some friends believed that Parsons, who was always fastidious with his laboratories, committed suicide. Others, including Cameron, believed the explosion was a set-up and Parsons was murdered by any one of a number of shadowy cabals. One friend even suggested that Jack died in the middle of one of his black magick rituals.

Whatever the cause of his death, there is no denying that Jack Parsons was an essential part of the creation of modern rocketry. Sadly, it was twenty years before Jack’s scientific contributions were anything more than a footnote in his occult career. JPL was often known as Jack Parsons’ Laboratory in the aeronautical industry, and in 1972 the International Astronomical Society named a crater on the moon Parsons. JPL later formally recognized Parsons for his “distinctive technical innovations that advanced early efforts in rocket engineering.”

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