In the third of our monthly counter-cultural musings from TSPTR, we look at the forgotten character of “LA Weird”, JOHN WHITESIDE PARSONS
Gram wasn’t the only Parsons with a penchant for the Mojave Desert. Thirty years before GP would regularly venture to Joshua Tree, John Whiteside Parsons would frequent various locations in the high desert in search of both science and magic.
“SLAIN SCIENTIST PRIEST IN BLACK MAGIC CULT” read one LA newspaper headline after his death in Pasadena on 17th June, 1952. By day John Parsons was one of America’s leading scientists, building rockets for the US government. By night he emerged from a coffin to perform sex magick rituals with his fellow practitioners. He was one of America’s greatest space pioneers, a founder of what would become the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech where the first rocket experiments took place in ’36.
Parsons seemed devoted to reconciling opposites, smashing together science and magic, the white lab coat and the black robe, fact and fiction. In the late ’30s he began frequenting nightly meetings of the Ordo Templi Orientis, also known as the Agape Lodge, an occult society that convened in LAs. The OTO was the creation of English occultist Aleister Crowley, a heroin-addicted, sexually adventuresome, God profaning master of the dark arts, who the tabloids had christened “The Wickedest Man in the World”.
At these gatherings Parsons took part in Thelemite rituals including the ‘Gnostic Mass’, a pagan take on Catholic Mass, where poetry was read, swords were drawn, wine was drank, breasts were kissed, and cakes made from menstrual blood were consumed, in a highly sexually charged atmosphere. It was here that Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema was propounded, a type of religious libertarianism that spoke of radical individualism and self-fulfilment. Parsons became especially intrigued by Crowley’s belief that sex could be an intrinsic component of magical rituals, lifting the practitioner onto a higher plane of consciousness.
Parsons treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin – both had been disparaged, both derided as impossible, but because of this both presented themselves as challenges to be conquered. If you delve deeper into Parson’s story, you’ll find encounters with era-shaping Nobel prize-winners and literary greats including Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. Scientology “prophet” L Ron Hubbard also plays a significant part in the tale, acting as Parson’s “scribe” in the ‘Babalon Working’, a dark ritual to invoke an actual Goddess on Earth.
Parsons died in ’52 in a mysterious explosion at his home laboratory. He was discovered surrounded by rocketry papers and pentagrams, occult drawings and chemical formulae. He was 37 years old. The tabloids labelled him a Satan worshipping mad scientist, as did the scientific establishment, so the story of John Whiteside Parsons was locked in the attic, hidden in the footnotes and swept under the launchpad of the US space program. But Parsons’ scientific legacy is impossible to ignore. He forced the United States government to explore a science it had previously mocked, and laid the foundation for the rockets that carried man into outer space and onto the Moon.
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