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JOSHUA SLOCUM (February 20, 1844 – November 1909?) First Person to Sail Around the World Solo

In adventure, Biography, Explorers, History, Sailing, Sailors, Trivia, Uncategorized on May 24, 2010 at 9:19 PM

Joshua Slocum

Joshua Slocum grew up by the sea. His grandfather was lighthouse keeper on Brier Island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Canada, and his father made shoes for the local fishermen. But being close to the water wasn’t good enough.  He needed to conquer it, until it conquered him.

Slocum was one of eleven children, and his father was very strict. He couldn’t wait to find his place in the world with open space and less competition.  The obvious place to head was out on the ocean.  He tried to run away from home several times, and when he was 14 years old got hired as a cabin boy and cook on a fishing schooner.  That didn’t last long, however, and he ended up back at home.  Two years later, in 1860, his mother died in childbirth and Slocum couldn’t bear to stick around.  He and a buddy headed out for Dublin, Ireland as merchant seamen.

Slocum had found his passion and traveled the world.  He earned his certificate as a Second Mate and ultimately became a Chief Mate of British ships.  In 1865, San Francisco became his home base, and he became an American citizen. 

Slocum did not have to sail through life alone. He found his perfect first mate, Virginia Albertina Walker.  For one month in 1870, his ship was in Sydney harbor, and he met and married Walker, who happened to be an American.  She joined Slocum on his trips, and they had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports.

Slocum commanded several ships across the Pacific.  His hidden desire to be a writer was fulfilled as a correspondent for the San Francisco Bee

In 1884, the Slocum family was headed for South America when Virginia became ill and died.  Not able to care for the children on his own, Slocum left the youngest ones with his sister in Massachusetts.  His oldest son, Victor, became his new first mate. 

Two years later, when he was 40, Slocum married his 24 year old cousin, Henrietta Elliott.  She was not as enamored by life at sea as Virginia had been, perhaps because during the first year they sailed through a hurricane and the crew contracted cholera which required being quarantined.  In addition, sometime later they were stricken with smallpox, which killed three crew members, and finally, in 1887, they were shipwrecked in Brazil.

Not wanting to spend the rest of their lives in Brazil, Slocum and two sons built a boat to sail back to the U.S.  The family left on May 13, 1888 and arrived in Cape Roman, South Carolina after 55 days at sea.  They reached their final destination of Boston in 1889.  Slocum turned the stories of this trip into a book called Voyage of the Liberdade.

Now, Slocum decided, it was time for a little adventure in his life, and he set out to circumnavigate the globe alone.  He rebuilt an oyster boat named Spray and left Boston harbor April 24, 1895. He was 51 years old with 35 years of sailing experience to rely on.  He visited his family in Nova Scotia and then set out on July 3, 1895.  

His route took him across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, south along the coast of Brazil and Argentina and through the Strait of Magellan, across the Pacific to Cooktown, Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back up the coast of South America to Fairhaven, Massachusetts. 

Slocum’s sailing experience gave him the confidence to use dead reckoning instead of a chronometer to calculate longitude.  His source of food was often the ocean itself.  Flying fish would soar right onto the deck and make a tasty meal.  In the Pacific, where he had his longest stretch of solitude at sea, he subsisted on food he picked up in port: mostly potatoes, salt cod, biscuits, coffee and tea.

His quest took him through every type of weather, attacks by pirates and some close calls with other boats.  In November 1895, Slocum ran aground in Uruguay and had to take a lifeboat to shore in very turbulent water. Ironically, Slocum didn’t know how to swim.  He was tossed overboard and made three unsuccessful, flailing attempts to right the dinghy.  As his life flashed before him, he said an exhausted final prayer and tried once more.  It worked, and he was able to climb on the lifeboat and row to shore.

At 1:00am on June 27, 1898, after over three years of seafaring, solitude, and struggle, Slocum sailed into Newport, Rhode Island to complete his 46,000 mile journey.  He arrived one pound heavier than he left and was told by friends that he looked much younger. 

Slocum’s adventure made for compelling reading when he published Sailing Alone Around the World a year after his return.  The profits from his book and lectures allowed him to set down roots and buy a farm on Martha’s Vineyard.  Being rooted felt so contrary to his nature, however, that he couldn’t stay put.  He sailed up and down the Atlantic during the summer and spent the winters in the West Indies, earning money from lectures and book sales. 

Slocum’s mental stability took a downward turn as he got older.  He was convicted of indecent exposure to a 12 year old girl in New Jersey.  He spent 42 days in jail awaiting trial, and after his family begged for a leniency, the judge sentenced him to time already served.  

Income was now sparse, so in 1909, at 65 years old, he tried to reinvigorate his life by planning a new adventure in South America.  He started out on his annual trip to the West Indies in November, but he was never heard from again.  Henrietta informed the press in July 1910 that she assumed he had been lost at sea.  It was never determined what happened to him, but since he never learned to swim, he wouldn’t have been able to save himself if the boat had capsized.  He was legally declared dead in 1924. 

 QUESTION:  What’s something you love to do so much that you might write a book about your experiences?  What would it be called?

                          © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

 Sources:

http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/slgln10.txt  (Sailing Alone Around the World)

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

http://www.joshuaslocumsocietyintl.org/jshistory.htm

http://www.joshuaslocumsocietyintl.org/images/voyagemap.htm  (Map of his journey)

VIOLET GIBSON (1876 – 1956) Shot Mussolini

In Assassinations, Biography, Dictators, History, Italian History, Mental health, Mussolini, People, People from England, Trivia, Uncategorized, Victorian Women, women on May 17, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Violet Gibson

When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do.  The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not.  Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.   

Born the seventh of eight children as the Victorian era was starting to wind down, Gibson had an enviable life.  Her father was Lord Ashbourne, the lord chancellor of Ireland, a protestant. Her father’s title bestowed on her the title of Honorable. The Gibsons split their time between London and Dublin, participating fully in the parties, concerts and galas of the elite.  At age 18 the Honorable Violet Gibson was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.   

Being sick consumed a lot of her youth and as a result she was quite frail.  She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at 14, pleurisy at 16 and rubella at 20.  She displayed a violent temper early on.    

Lady Ashbourne, Gibson’s mother, became a Christian Scientist with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s religion would bring her into stronger health.  Gibson tried it out, but in her early 20s, switched to Theosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky.  She was attracted to its mission to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind. Then at 26 years old, Gibson followed her brother Willie’s lead and converted to Catholicism.  Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and it became a wedge in their relationship.    

Gibson started receiving a private income from her father at age 21, which allowed her to be independent.  In 1905 there were several deaths in the family, and her father’s term as the lord chancellor was up.  Gibson dealt with so much loss by moving to Chelsea, an artsy section of London.  She explored a bawdier side of life and became engaged to an artist at age 32.  One year later he died suddenly and Gibson had another death to grieve.   

Six times within the next year Gibson became ill with the “fever.”  The only diagnosis the doctors could offer was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”    

In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and she tried to cope by fleeing to Paris where she worked for pacifist organizations.  Later that year she contracted Paget’s disease, a type of cancer, and had a left mastectomy which left a nine-inch scar across her chest.  She worked hard as a peace activist until she fell sick again and went back to England.  At age 40 she had surgery for appendicitis and peritonitis.  Unfortunately, the surgery was not successful and she suffered from chronic abdominal pain for the rest of her life.   

While she was recovering, Gibson became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started grappling with the notion of killing and martyrdom, perhaps inspired by experiencing so much death.  In her notebook she had a quote from Pope:  “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification.  Mortification means putting to death.”   

In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with a death in the family: her brother Victor who was her favorite sibling.  This was more than she could bear.  One month later, at age 46, Gibson had a nervous breakdown.  She was pronounced insane and committed to a mental institution.   

Two years later, Gibson was released and went to Rome accompanied by a nurse, Mary McGrath.  They took up residence in a convent in a working class neighborhood with a high crime rate.  Her crisis of conscience was growing as she became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her.  Somehow she got possession of a gun.   

On February 27, 1925 Gibson went to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest.  The bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told McGrath that she wanted to die for God.  Had she been successful, she wouldn’t have had to endure the grief of the death of her mother in March 1926, one month before the Mussolini assassination attempt.      

On Wednesday, April 7, 1926 Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a Lebel revolver wrapped in a black veil, and in her left pocket she carried a rock in case she had to break a windshield to get to Mussolini.  She also clutched the address of the Fascist Party headquarters written on a scrap of envelope.  She had read in the newspaper that Mussolini would be there in the afternoon.    

Mussolini appeared as if on cue, walking through the Palazzo del Littorio, soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!”  He stopped about a foot from where Gibson was standing.  Just before the gun went off, Mussolini leaned his head back to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration, and the bullet grazed his nose.  Gibson shot again, but the gun misfired.  There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards but managed to stay standing.    

Mussolini maintained his composure and consoled the crowd saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a mere trifle.”   Gibson was immediately captured and beaten by the crowd, and the police got control of the situation and took her off just before she succumbed to vigilante justice.    

In prison, when Gibson was undergoing interrogation, she admitted that she shot Mussolini to glorify God.  She said God’s message to her was clear, and that he had sent an angel to keep her arm steady as she took aim.    

Gibson’s family, wary of the impact that her actions could have on their reputation and afraid for her future, sent letters of apology to the Italian government and congratulated Mussolini on his escape from death.    

The fate of Violet Gibson was not clear.  Her punishment hinged on whether she would stand trial as a political criminal or be declared insane.  A violent reaction to a note given to her by another inmate that read “Viva Mussolini” did not help convince the authorities of her stability. In contrast, her conversations were rational and her correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.   

Gibson had to endure a grueling regime of tests.  In addition to a full medical exam, she was subjected to 20 days of psychiatric exams. She hoped to gain her release by convincing the doctors that she was mad.  Four months after the assassination attempt, a 61 page report declared Gibson as a “chronic paranoia” and recommended she be committed to a lunatic asylum.   

To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a psychosexual portrait.  She was considered abnormal because she never expressed an inclination to start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynecological examination was ordered.  No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and self mutilation were enough evidence to declare her insane and not to try Gibson as a political criminal.   

Gibson was released to the custody of her sister to return to England.  She was committed to St. Andrews Hospital, a renowned mental institution.  Her behavior was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies.  On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scrapes of cloth she had been collecting.  A nurse found her and loosened the rope.  Gibson was unconscious but still alive.   

In January 1951, Gibson suffered from a high fever.  She was down to 84 pounds.  She managed to hang on for a few more years, and finally, on May 2, 1956, Violet Gibson died.  No one attended her burial.   

QUESTION:  Do you know anyone who has been killed by another person?  How did that affect your life?   

                                  ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved   

 Sources:   

 Saunders, Frances Stonor, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.

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