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JACK PARSONS (1914 – 1952) Rocket Scientist & Occultist

In American History, Biography, California History, Millionaires, Occult, People, Rocket Science, Trivia, Uncategorized on May 10, 2010 at 9:39 PM

Jack Parsons

 

Marvel Whiteside Parsons did not like the name he was given, but it did describe his life: it was quite a marvel.  He changed his first name to be more common, but nothing about him was conventional. 

Parsons was born into a wealthy family living on “Millionaire’s Mile” in Pasadena, California.  After graduating from a small, private high school, he shunned the upper class society of his parents. His mother divorced his father after finding out about an affair, and she turned Parsons against his dad.  

When he was 14 years old, Parsons started experimenting with fuel that could be used to propel rockets. He didn’t graduate from college but opted to work for Hercules Powder and then Halifax Explosives which was in the Mojave Desert. Professionally he went by the name “John.”   

Helen Northrup, a local girl, was the one thing that could distract Parsons from his scientific endeavors, and they married in 1935.  In his personal life, Parsons preferred to be called “Jack.”  Eventually that was the name that stuck. 

Parsons and his best friend Edward S. Forman got their kicks from experimenting with potential rocket motors in the Devil’s Gate Dam area of the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena.  They made connections at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and in 1937 they exploited those friendships to get lab space at Caltech for their experiments.  As it turns out, scientists using explosive materials don’t make good neighbors.  After an explosion that damaged some of their equipment, they became known on campus as The Suicide Squad.  After the second explosion, they were sent back to the Arroyo.  Their outdoor laboratory is where Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was founded, and the current campus is virtually on the same spot.  

Since Parsons and his colleague from Caltech, Frank Malina, lived so close to Hollywood, they channeled their experiences into a screenplay.  Their story was about some guys trying to develop rockets in California, and they didn’t try very hard to disguise the similarities between themselves and the characters.  At the end of the screenplay, Parsons’ character meets an untimely death by accidentally blowing himself up while trying to stop an experiment. Nothing came of this venture, however. 

In 1939, Parsons was introduced to the works of Aleister Crowley, an occultist writer, practitioner of black magic and founder of the religion of Thelema. Crowley’s writings resonated with Parsons, and he joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an international secret society led by Crowley.  Parsons joined the OTO’s local group called the Agape Lodge, which was based in Pasadena and led by Wilfred Smith.  Parsons assumed yet another name, “Frater 210,” but he only used it in the context of his occult practices.     

Parsons pursued both his scientific and spiritual interests with equal zeal.  In 1942 he, Forman, Malina and Theodore von Karman founded Aerojet Corporation whose first product was the Jet Assist Take Off (JATO) rocket motors.  Their immediate application was to give extra boosting power for military planes during World War II. 

With the money he was getting from Aerojet, Parsons could support his spiritual activities. He got a huge house on South Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena and relocated the Agape Lodge to the downstairs.  He and Helen lived in the largest room upstairs and turned it into a temple. The other rooms were used by Smith and many unconventional renters.  

Again, the neighbors didn’t appreciate Parsons’ activities. There was once a rumor that a naked lady was jumping through fire in the back yard, but whenever the police came to investigate such allegations, Parsons intercepted them at the door. His good looks, charming personality, sense of humor and claims of being a respected scientist at Caltech convinced them there was nothing to be concerned about.  

Drugs and illicit sex were routine.  With so many people living in such close quarters, it didn’t take long for Smith and Helen to have an affair and a son.  Parsons divorced Helen and immediately took up with her younger sister, Sara Elizabeth Northrup, known as Betty.   He convinced Betty, 11 years his junior, to drop out of USC and live with him, but they never got married.  They followed the OTO belief that jealousy was an emotion not felt by enlightened people, and even though they were committed to each other, they each had many lovers. 

In 1944, GALCIT became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Parsons is credited with being one of the founders.  After World War II, Aerojet was bought out by General Tire.  Parsons didn’t see much of a future in rocket fuel without a war, and money wasn’t a big priority for him, so he sold his stock.  For two years he worked for Vulcan Powder Company in Pasadena. 

About that time a man named L. Ron Hubbard came on the scene.  He received a medical discharge from the Navy after having been at the Pasadena Area Station Hospital.  Hubbard and Parsons met through a common interest in science fiction and became friends.  Hubbard was looking for a place to land and moved into the house despite having a wife and two kids in Washington State.  It didn’t take Hubbard long to integrate himself into the life and practices of the group, including poaching Parsons’ girlfriend, Betty.  Parsons found it very difficult to keep his jealous feelings at bay, but that didn’t seem to jeopardize his friendship with Hubbard.  

Parsons engaged in an 11-day, multi-stage, ceremonial ritual called Babalon Working to manifest the “Scarlet Woman,” fulfilling a prophecy of Aleister Crowley.  Hubbard joined Parsons in the rituals primarily acting as the scribe and recording his visions.  When a red haired woman named Elizabeth Cameron showed up at the house one day, Parsons was convinced he had successfully conjured her. 

Parsons needed income, so he and Hubbard and Betty started a new business venture called Allied Enterprises.  They were planning to buy sail boats on the East Coast and bring them to California for resale.  Hubbard contributed about $1,100 to the company against Parsons nearly $21,000.  In April 1946, Hubbard and Betty left town with the majority of Allied’s money and were found living on a boat in Miami with no intention of returning to California.  Parsons high tailed it to Florida and discovered that Hubbard had actually bought three boats.  Parsons sued Hubbard who was ordered to give Parsons two of the boats and repay the money he absconded with, which he never did.  

This was a turning point for both men.  Hubbard married Betty, although he hadn’t divorced his first wife, and when Parsons returned to California, he married Cameron.  Parsons was ready for something different spiritually, too. He separated from OTO and sold the house. 

Parsons found work at North American Aviation Company and later Hughes Aircraft. While at Hughes Aircraft, Parsons was working with Israel to design and build a plant to develop explosives and armaments.  He used his clearance to take home confidential documents.  He claimed they were old ones he was using to add to his resume, but the FBI started investigating him for spying.  This got him fired from Hughes. 

He and Cameron left Pasadena for a while but returned to live in the carriage house on the Orange Grove property he once owned.  Parsons worked as a consultant for the movies and at a gas station, and he continued to experiment with explosives at home.  

On June 17, 1952 there was an explosion which the neighbors a mile away heard.  Parsons’ arm was blown off, and he died shortly after arriving at the hospital.  He died the same way his character in the screenplay did, foreshadowed almost 15 years earlier. He was only 37 years old. His mother lived nearby, and they had always maintained a very close relationship.  She was distraught about the death of her son, and she immediately overdosed on sleeping pills and died in her chair. 

Parsons legacy included many patents for liquid and solid fuel for rockets.  A specimen of one of his solid fuel motors is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  In 1972 he was honored by having a crater on the moon name after him.  It seems appropriate that the crater is on the dark side. 

QUESTION:   What role does religion play in your life? 

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved 

Sources: 

Canter, John, Sex and Rockets, The Occult World of Jack Parsons.  Los Angeles: Feral House, 1999. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Whiteside_Parsons 

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/bb/babalon004.htm 

http://reason.com/archives/2005/05/01/the-magical-father-of-american 

http://www.aerojet.com/about/history.php

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CHRISTOPHER EVANS (1847-1917) & JOHN SONTAG (1862-1893) Train Robbers

In adventure, American History, Biography, California History, History, Horses, outlaws, People, Train Robberies, trains, Trivia, Tulare County California on March 30, 2010 at 9:15 AM

Chris Evans asserted until he died that he never robbed a train and that he only killed in self defense.  His exploits with John Sontag divided people in Tulare County: those who believed the evidence to the contrary and those, who despite evidence, were united in friendship and revenge.    

 The Southern Pacific Railroad made inroads in transportation in California, but it also made enemies. In the name of the greater good, the railroad company put progress over people, and displaced many from their property, including Evans.

 Chris Evans had an adventuresome spirit.  He worked at many different jobs as a laborer and lived in a house with a barn in Visalia. His marriage to Molly Byrd yielded seven children. 

 John and George Sontag were brothers.  John worked for Southern Pacific Railroad and was injured in an accident.  He had several broken ribs which put pressure on his lungs and a broken leg which caused a permanent limp.  He was no longer fit to work for the railroad company, so they canned him.  He lived with Evans for a while working odd jobs.  Younger brother George was also on the scene, but not as much is known about him.

 On August 3, 1892, men dressed as tramps hopped on a train bound for Fresno.  They each wore masks, had a double barrel shotgun and a revolver.  In response to an invitation to get off the train, the men opened fire.  Then they blew up the express car and absconded with over $10,000 dollars in gold and silver coins.  Accomplices who were hiding behind the nearby school house helped the robbers escape. 

 Coincidentally, the following day Evans was seen in Visalia after a long absence, and John Sontag suddenly appeared claiming to have been in the East.  The sheriffs were suspicious. They knew that George Sontag was a passenger on that train, so they assumed he was a collaborator, took him to the station for questioning, and then locked him up. 

 Trying to play it cool and not make a scene, Detective Smith and Deputy Sheriff Witty decided to arrest John next and then go back for Evans the following day.  When they arrived at Evans’ house, the law men were greeted with a spray of bullets.  Not being able to react fast enough, Smith and Witty were wounded, chased off the property and forced to leave their horse and rig behind.  

 Evans and Sontag headed for the hills.  They returned the next morning and hid with the horse and buggy in the barn.  The sheriffs came back for their transportation and set up a stake out. When they knew the outlaws were back, they started shooting into the barn.  The robbers returned fire and killed one man.  The sheriff’s bullet did hit a target, and the groans of someone dying were heard.  When they entered the barn to make an arrest, the sheriff’s horse was dying, and Evans and Sontag had escaped on foot.

 Evans and John Sontag had been the presumed perpetrators of previous train robberies, including one in Minnesota, but there was never enough proof to pin it on them.  For this so called Collis Robbery, however, they were wanted, and Southern Pacific Railroad put up a $5000 reward for each, dead or alive. 

 Thus began a ten month man hunt.  Since sentiment against the Southern Pacific was so strong and the Evans had lots of friends, the runaways got help at every turn.  Several posses followed numerous leads and often got close.  In one incident, Evans’ oldest daughter, Eva, overheard talk that a posse knew where to find her dad and his accomplice.  Eva and Evans were very close, and she wanted to do something to help.  She hopped on her horse and bravely followed the posse into the woods to warn the fugitives.  She fired a warning shot into the air that alerted the bandits.  Her plan was successful. Evans and Sontag eluded capture, and Eva returned home unscathed. 

 After being on the lam for ten months, Evans and John Sontag were exhausted, and Sontag’s railroad injuries made it extremely difficult for him to stay on the move.  They devised a plan to escape to South Africa, but they needed money. Evans got word to his wife to wire Sontag’s dad and ask for $100. 

 On June 11, 1893, the sheriffs got wind the outlaws were going to sneak back to the Evans’ Visalia home to pick up the dough.  The sheriffs were waiting and picked off the men as they approached.  During the thirty minute gun battle, both Sontag and Evans were wounded.  Sontag’s injuries were nearly fatal, and he begged Evans to finish the job.  Evans couldn’t bring himself to do it, so Sontag tried to do it himself.  He held his gun to his head, but he was too weak to pull the trigger.  He lay unconscious in a bed of straw until the sheriffs came back the next morning and carted him off to jail. He died there on July 3.

 Evans was debilitated but managed to run away.  He ended up at widow Perkins’ house and because they were friendly, she invited him in. Her son saw immediate benefit in having Evans around.  He rode to Visalia and offered to tell the sheriffs Evans’ whereabouts for the reward.  When the posse showed up at the Perkins’ home, boy Perkins carefully removed the gun from under the sleeping Evans’ pillow and invited the posse in.  Evans surrendered and was taken to jail without incident. 

 The exploits of Evans and Sontag quickly became the stuff of legend.  After one week of rehearsal, on September 19, 1893, a play opened in San Francisco reenacting their saga. “Evans and Sontag or The Visalia Bandits” played to cheering, standing room only crowds.  Audiences went wild when the real Molly and Eva Evans walked on stage to play themselves. Understudies played the roles so the women could attend Evans’ trial, but they resumed performing when the play went on tour.

 Evans was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  His life in the Fresno jail was comfortable, and he had dinner with his wife almost every night.  On December 28, a guy named Morrell brought the Evanses their dinner tray and hid two pistols under it.  Evans had a kid paid off to spread a rumor that another train robbery was about to happen, and this preoccupied the sheriffs.  Having a gun pointed at him convinced the guard to let the men walk, and after killing one man on their way out, Evans and Morrell were free.  Molly Evans had no previous knowledge of the plan and was not arrested as an accomplice.

 For a couple of months Evans and Morrell managed to stay ahead of the sheriffs. On February 13, 1894, a posse snuck up on their camp and fired three shots.  The bullets missed, and Evans and Morrell high tailed it out of there leaving everything behind.  They eluded the sheriffs for another month or so.

 The outlaws ended up at Grandma Byrd’s home in Visalia, and Evans was reunited with his family.  When the lawmen learned where the criminals were hiding, they again formed a posse and surrounded the house.  News of a possible capture spread quickly, and a crowd gathered eager to watch the events unfold first hand.  Evans exchanged notes with Sheriff Kay via Evans’ son.  His only demand was to get rid of the crowd and for Kay and one other man to come up to the house. Evans and Morrell walked out onto the porch unarmed.  Evans kissed his children goodbye and both men surrendered. 

 Evans served the rest of his time at Folsom prison.  As an inmate, he worked in the hospital and library.  He wrote a book called Eurasia about a country with a socialist government. Evans was released on parole in 1911 and joined his wife who had moved to Portland, where he died six years later.

 George Sontag was convicted for his part in the train robbery, and Morrell was convicted for his efforts in helping Evans escape from jail. Both men ended up at Folsom.  George made one unsuccessful escape attempt.  Both were eventually released. 

 QUESTION:  Would you be able to help a friend die if they asked you to? 

                                     © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

 Sources:

Maxwell, Hu,  Evans & Sontag. Fresno, CA: Panorama West Books, 1981.

 Menefee, Eugene L. and Dodge, Fred A.,  “History of Tulare and Kings Counties, California,” Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California, 1013.

 Smith, Wallace, Prodigal Sons. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1951.