On June 17th, 1952, Pasadena, California, was hit with a massive explosion at a coach house on the old Cruikshank estate, a plot of land on Millionaire’s Row, where a large manor used to stand. The inside of the house was destroyed thanks to a science experiment gone wrong. Wrinkled up pages covered in symbols like pentagrams and text written in different languages were found among the debris. On the floor, a man’s body was discovered in a pool of blood, with half of his face ripped off. The man was the father of modern rocketry: Jack Whiteside Parsons.
Jack Parsons was the definition of a mad scientist. Born in 1914, Parsons’ innovative ideas were ahead of his time, but there was more to the rocket engineer than chemistry and physics. Despite his scientific mind, Parsons was interested in voodoo, witchcraft, spells, and other superstitious subjects. Despite his influence on the world of science, he was insane. From his rebellious childhood to his association with fellow mad-man Howard Hughes, this is the life and career of Jack Parsons.
Without Jack Parsons, it’s possible that Neil Armstrong would never have stepped foot on the moon, and American military power would be a fraction of what it is now. Unfortunately, Parsons’ global influence was overshadowed by his peculiar and scandalous hobby as a black magic cult leader. One of his followers was L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
After his death, Parsons’ reputation dwindled into obscurity, and few understood his significance for years. That is until a man named George Pendle researched the scientist and found his experiments, occultism, and odd behavior intriguing. Although he is known for being crazy, there is a lot more to Jack Parsons and his contribution to science.
In 2018, a CBS All Access series about Parsons came out entitled “Strange Angel,” based on the 2006 book of the same name, written by George Pendle. The author, who is also a journalist, was doing some research in 2002 and unexpectedly stumbled upon the mad scientist. He was immediately intrigued.
“I was doing [a story] on a guy called Kenneth Anger, an avant-garde filmmaker,” Pendle revealed to The Post. “And there was a footnote [in a biography] which said, ‘Marjorie Cameron, an actress, had been married to an eccentric rocket scientist, Jack Parsons, who has an interest in the occult.’ And I was just like, ‘Tell me more!’”
There wasn’t much information available on Parsons, so Pendle dug deeper and did some extensive research. He found out that Parsons was actually one of the founders of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, at Caltech, where the first rocket experiments took place in 1936.
Pendle’s curiosity about Parsons continued to grow, and so did the roadblocks he encountered. More than 70 years after those first experiments were conducted, Parsons’ involvement was still a sore topic for the JPL. “When I tried to interview people [there], they were just not interested,” Pendle explained. He added that their general view on the subject was, “He’s not the sort of person we want to talk about.”
John Bluth, a librarian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Library (JPL), stayed quiet about exhuming moldy old papers written by innovators that were used to fill cracks in the walls… until Pendle began his research. As he was going through the information, Pendle found a man full of contradictions. His scientific mind seems to have been diluted by his imagination (or psychedelics).
This guy basically created a whole new science and felt as strongly about rocketry as he did in his belief that he could summon mystical beings to Earth by using magical rituals and explosions. Pendle said: “What better forefather to have than this guy who was a crazed genius?”
As a kid growing up in Pasadena, Parsons had an obsession with traveling to the moon, and he consumed Jules Verne novels. It didn’t take long for his curiosity to spark a love for explosives. At 12 years old, the promising chemist would scrape the black powder from fireworks and tightly pack it into casings to fashion rudimentary rockets.
From a young age, he had a clear interest in rocket science, but he was fascinated with some taboo subjects as well. Around this time, Parsons dabbled in the occult for the first time when he attempted to contact the devil in his bedroom.
His strange interests concerned his mother, Ruth, whose rich family earned their wealth from the manufacturing business. She sent Parsons off to San Diego’s Brown Military Academy for Boys to straighten the child up. As it turned out, the plan didn’t work.
Jean Foreman, the wife of one of Parson’s childhood friends, revealed to Pendle, “He used to blow up toilets in the whole damn place.” It looks like he was destined to be a mad scientist. In 1933, Parsons enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he planned to study chemistry and physics. But by that point, the Whiteside family money had significantly dwindled, so he had no choice but to drop out.
He was also accepted at Stanford University, but, sadly, that was out of his price range too. Math wasn’t Parsons’ strong-suit, and he never earned more than a high-school diploma. However, he did go on to meet like-minded friends. By 1936, they convinced Caltech, an academic institution in Pasadena, to let him use their facilities — but not to “study, create and fly” rockets.
Young Parsons made a good impression and caught the attention of Theodore von Karman, director of GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology). On-campus, the bold and determined group became known as the “Suicide Squad” because of how they nearly escaped death during various experiments. Parsons was only 23 while all this was happening.
Thus, the GALCIT Rocket Research Group was born, which later became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was a significant achievement for a group whose members were once referred to as “crackpots” during a congressional hearing. They were put under the same umbrella as alchemists and magicians, like Aleister Crowley. Crowley was an outlandish English society figure who discussed and encouraged a blend of magic, sex, and spirituality. He was the guy who introduced Parsons to the occult.
Crowley led a secret religious society named Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which “offered very similar things rocketry does,” Pendle said. “Expanding one’s arena, pushing mankind to a greater level, of leaving the Earth for a new metaphysical world, just as rocketry said you could leave the Earth for new planets. And I think for him, there were really close parallels between occultism and rocketry.”
In 1939, Jack Parsons took part in one of Crowly’s OTO masses in LA, led by “magicians.” He quickly became captivated with the odd leader’s beliefs in hidden dimensions, as well as the religion’s unique sexual freedom. Participants were encouraged to swap partners, a good thirty years before the sexual revolution.
If it isn’t clear, this was a cult. Two years later, Parsons and his wife Helen were members of the OTO. The group was a peculiar mix of actors, opera singers, scientists, German ex-pats, and others who believed in Crowley’s teachings. They specifically, bought into his no-strings-attached “smooching.” Needless to say, this polyamorous situation didn’t make for the best relationship dynamic.
While Helen was away on vacation, Parsons got involved with her half-sister, Sarah “Betty” Northrup. Unsurprisingly, Helen was infuriated, despite the sexual freedom teachings of OTO. Crowley referred to marriage as “a detestable institution,” and that was Parsons’ argument for his inappropriate sexual desires and behavior.
Helen eventually began her own affair with Wilfred Smith, who was in charge of the Agape lodge, the group’s California chapter. Later, she divorced Parsons and tied the knot with Smith. By 1943, Crowley wanted Smith to step down; he declared Smith “a god,” and told him to tattoo “666” on his forehead, leave the Agape Lodge, walk around aimlessly in the desert, and have zero contact with any OTO members. Agape’s new leader was Jack Parsons.
According to Pendle, “Scientology’s whole structure is based on this cult that Parsons was part of.”
By this point, Parsons was at his peak. He managed to convince the government that rocketry could be useful during wartime, and he created a successful business called Aerojet. The US Army ordered 2,000 rockets from that company in 1943. Unfortunately, the success didn’t last.
Just one year later, Parsons’ association with the lodge got him into some hot water. Because of his involvement with the cult, Parsons was removed from JPL and Aerojet. By this point, the lodge was relocated from LA to Pasadena and had received much scrutiny for its unusual practices. Even though his work with rocketry wasn’t over, it never returned to its former glory on such a large scale.
Around that time, Hubbard, a science-fiction writer, swooped in and charmed the OTO members with his bright charisma, wit, and unbelievable tales. Parsons was really impressed with Hubbard, writing: “He is a gentleman. Red hair, green eyes, honest and intelligent and we have become great friends.” However, that all changed quite quickly.
Their friendship ended when Hubbard seduced Parsons’ girlfriend, Betty, and the pair began a relationship. For the first time, Parsons felt overwhelmed by a jealous rage. Hubbard ran off with Betty and brought along not just Parsons’ squeeze, but one of his worthwhile ideas.
“Parsons showed Hubbard a way – a kind of format for forming a religion,” Pendle said. “Crowley came up with this kind of structure of a mystical society. A hierarchy where you move your way up, and each time you move up a level, you find out more, but you have to pay to move up those levels. And so, I feel like Scientology’s whole structure is based on this cult that Parsons was part of.”
Parsons always did what he wanted with whomever he wanted. Betty leaving him for his “friend,” made the mad-scientist uncharacteristically jealous, and he dealt with it in strange ways. Sure, he did a lot of unconventional things, but, at this point, he seemed to be falling deep into a downward spiral.
With World War II coming to an end, and unable to devote himself to the rocket research he was so passionate about, Parsons found solace in an increasingly occult form of magic – a combination of voodoo and witchcraft. Several OTO members felt like Parsons was using spells to summon a demon to kill Hubbard.
In reality, he was trying to create a being to replace Betty… I don’t know which is more disturbing. His rituals usually involved pentagrams, obscure scripture, and masturbation, and would last longer than two hours while Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto casually played in the background. The strangest part: It just might have worked.
In 1946, his future wife, Marjorie Cameron, arrived at the lodge. She was voraciously curious about the group and, of course, its mad-scientist leader. The couple went into Parsons’ room, where they performed “sex magic rituals” and barely came out of there for about two weeks. Less than a year later, the two got married.
But things escalated and got really bad for Parsons. While he was working for Hughes Aircraft Co. in 1951, the FBI revoked his security clearance because of his connection to possible Communists. That’s when an investigation into his “subversive” behavior began. After all, access to qualified information is required when you’re making rockets for the government.
During Parsons’ passionate romance with Marjorie, the two engaged in a 12-day sexual ritual trying to conceive a “moonchild,” whatever that means. Apparently, they wanted to create a child born with mystical, magical powers of its own. Unsurprisingly, this included some strange practices.
First off, it involved a naked woman jumping through fire, and something about the astral plane- a whole other dimension that contains several world religions. I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t 100%. Eventually, the neighbors called the cops. It may surprise you to find out that the couple never had that moonchild they were hoping for.
Parsons was eventually cleared but later accused of espionage for taking documents from fellow madman Howard Hughes and was investigated by the FBI. Parsons was found not guilty, but it was the end of his science career as he knew it. He was once a leading figure in his field, but Parsons spent his last days working for the Special Effects Corp., making small explosives for movies.
He did that up until June 17th, 1952. Many speculate that a chemical slipped out of his hand, and that’s what sparked the explosion that took the mad scientist’s life. Pendle referred to his death as a “tragedy,” but mentioned how “it’s strangely fitting that the very thing which he loved killed him.”
Don’t worry. We aren’t going to just gloss over the fact that Parsons worked for another eccentric figure, the Aviator himself, Howard Hughes. Since his cult was based on the controversial beliefs of Scientology, Parsons lost a lot of opportunities and needed to find another way to make ends meet.
The Daily Dot reported that Parsons smuggled secret documents associated with some projects Hughes was working on outside of the company. This landed Parsons in some legal trouble because he worked for the Israeli government at the time. If Parsons was a mad scientist, Hughes was a mad director.
Sadly, there was no funeral for Jack Parsons. Just hours after finding out about Parsons’ death, his mother took her own life by overdosing on pills. As you can imagine, this caused a tabloid frenzy. The scientist’s reputation continued to deteriorate into obscurity until Pendle learned about Parsons and wrote his book. He wanted to shed light on the impact of this complicated man.
“I really hope that his science and occultism will be brought out of the shadows,” Pendle explained. “That he’ll be seen as this fascinating American figure that pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, created a whole new science, discovered his own path and lived the life he wanted to lead.”
Jack Parsons wasn’t the only madman of his era. Howard Hughes was a mad director, and his behavior may be more shocking than Parsons’. This is his story.