The Mystical Death of Jack Parsons
The complicated life of JPL's co-founder meant that his death was almost certain to be cloaked in conspiracy theories.
He was a friend and working colleague of Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard, the most famous names in rocketry; he co-founded JPL, the best known space research centers; and yet you might not even know his name. The reason for that is not so much that he didn't do enough to earn notoriety; it's the other things he did that cost him notoriety. Jack Parsons was certainly one of the most colorful characters in the history of the space and rocketry industry, and so it was almost a given that when he died in 1952 in strange circumstances, his true story would become lost under layers and layers of alternate claims and bizarre explanations.
There's one little disclaimer I want to put right here at the top of the show. I have a rule about not doing episodes that exploit tragedies, particularly deaths of individuals. Every other podcast does that, and I hate that they do; there are so many other topics out there that don't cause some grieving family pain when they hear yet another podcaster tried to make a few bucks off of it. Regular Skeptoid listeners know that I did a show on the conspiracy theories surrounding the tragic death of Princess Diana. That was different, because she was not only one of the best known people in the entire world, the conspiracy theories grew into a real world issue; to the point that it had to be addressed, and in fact, doing so was a service to her family — if you remember the episode, you know what I mean by that. Jack Parsons was no Princess Diana. During his lifetime he was no better known to the world than was any semi-prominent figure in a given industry, and his was rocketry; a field which has produced few household names. He couldn't have known it by the time of his death in 1952, but his legacy would grow to the point that he eventually became who we now consider the spiritual father of NASA JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California — which could be argued by some to be NASA's most productive, dynamic, and cutting edge division; certainly among its most agile. All that makes conspiracy theories about the death of Jack Parsons intensely personal to everyone on the entire planet who is inspired by space exploration, fans of the American space program especially — and, as we shall see, members of certain other communities as well.
No real human is a very simple being, and Jack Parsons exemplified this as well as anyone. Tall and dashing with a Howard Hughes style pencil mustache, Parsons cut an impressive figure; he was a genius with chemicals and explosives, yet fared badly in school and business decisions. There were at least two sides to him — one of which, the side he's best known for, is that he was a devout occultist, something you'd least expect upon seeing him — and it's the side we're going to spend the least amount of time on today. Parsons was a follower of the English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley and his esoteric philosophy Thelema, a mishmash of Egyptian gods, Eastern and Western mysticism, paganism, and just about anything else you want to mix into the pot. He became the leader of the California branch of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), the Thelemic church. To house it, he leased one of the largest mansions in Pasadena, which came to be known as the Parsonage, and rented out rooms to — as he advertised it — "only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or other exotic types need apply for rooms — any mundane soul would be unceremoniously rejected." These famously included L. Ron Hubbard (before he went on to found Scientology). The Parsonage became the setting for countless occult ceremonies, free love and sex magick escapades, astral projections, and attempted conjurings of supernatural beings. For a thorough look at these years, see either of the two top biographies of Jack Parsons, Sex and Rockets by John Carter and Strange Angel by George Pendle.
In either book you'll also learn of the other half of Jack Parson's intertwined life, that of one of the world's earliest great rocket scientists. With nothing more than a high school diploma in hand but deep experience building amateur rockets, he gathered a couple of buddies who included a CalTech grad student and got some money from the university to expand their experiments, working under the great physicist Theodore von Kármán. Rather than have their campus blown up, CalTech sent the group — dubbed the Suicide Squad — up into the arroyo behind the university in 1934. Today that spot is the location of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group went commercial and founded Aerojet Corporation in 1942, which built JATO (jet assisted takeoff) rocket motors. Then they founded JPL in 1944 which gave CalTech a lucrative government contract to advance the rapidly growing rocket industry. And then everything fell apart.
It was the era of McCarthyism, and here was a government scientist who had dabbled in Marxism and whose private life was undeniably subversive, in the view of the Cold War government. As his occult behavior came to light, Parsons was fired from Aerojet and JPL, but was not charged by the government for having communist sympathies. He took a contract with Hughes Aircraft and was designing a plant for them to make rocket fuel when he was offered a position with Israel's new rocket program. While helping him prepare a report for the Israelis, a Hughes clerk became suspicious that he might be an Israeli spy, and reported him to the FBI. He was fired from Hughes and deeply investigated, bringing all of his occult activities to light again. Parsons again escaped prosecution, however as a member of the "subversive" ACLU, he was permanently banned from working on classified projects in 1952. This left him little choice but to work privately for the entertainment industry, making pyrotechnics for movies. He did this for only a few months, until one grim day when, while filling an order in his home laboratory, he was fatally injured in an explosion, apparently of his own making. He was found still conscious, his right arm gone below the elbow, a gaping hole in his jaw, both legs and his other arm broken, and burned all over. Although transported to the hospital, he was declared dead about 40 minutes after the explosion. His last words were reported to be "I wasn't done."
From all that Donald Harding of the Pasadena Police Department could ascertain, Parsons' death was an accident, caused by dropping a coffee can in which he was mixing fulminated mercury. But not everyone was convinced, and as the legend of Jack Parsons has grown over the decades, so has interest in the alternative theories of his death. Let us now survey them
1. Was it a dramatic suicide?
There is no evidence for this, other than suggestions from some of his colleagues that he'd been depressed lately. The order he'd been working on, for the Bermite Powder Company, was a real one, and the chemicals he'd been working with were the right ones for the job. If suicide had been on Parsons' mind, he had a thousand other avenues available to him that were less destructive, less painful, and more sure. In addition, none of his friends believed that, saying that he had too many plans he was excited about — thus his final words.
2. Was he murdered by a crooked cop?
In 1938, Parsons had been called as an expert witness (on the recommendation of CalTech) in the murder trial of LAPD Captain Earl Kynette, who had killed a fellow cop with a bomb attached to his car's ignition. Kynette was convicted and imprisoned, and the charismatic young Parsons' replica of the bomb became one of the famous photographs from the high-profile trial. Kynette, possibly harboring a vendetta, was released just before Parsons' death. Had he rigged Parsons' lab to blow?
The suggestion was first made by Parsons' wife, the artist Marjorie Cameron. She asserted that the explosion had come from underneath the floorboards, possibly from explosives planted there by Kynette. Why would she know this? Because she claimed that she had found fulminated mercury under the floorboards, a place Parsons wouldn't have put it himself. Although this sounds like it was at least worthy of following up, there's a detail about her floorboard discovery that's not always given. She did not actually, physically discover the mercury; she experienced it through astral projection, and only ever mentioned it long after the fact.
And so the Kynette vendetta theory remains evidence-free.
3. Was he murdered by Howard Hughes?
Some of the conspiracy minded have suggested that Howard Hughes had Parsons murdered in retaliation for his theft of company documents and intent to hand them over to Israel. This seems improbable, as it was hardly even an incident at all. Parsons had written the documents himself, and the only thing he needed them for was some pricing information for his proposal to the Israelis. Nobody but himself and the Hughes clerk ever saw them, and she had a security clearance permitting her to see them. Parsons did admit that removing the documents from the Hughes property was an error in judgement, however he'd openly followed proper procedures, including declaring them to the security guard and showing the proper paperwork, when he did so. It also turned out that although the documents were classified, it was determined that they contained no company secrets — and in fact had already been declassified by the time of the investigation. Is it really likely that this is the incident — of everything else that happened during Howard Hughes' career — that would have been the one thing to push him over the edge and turn him into a murderer?
Variations on this conspiracy theory include that it was done by "anti-Zionists" who were angry at him for trying to pass on classified documents to Israel (which he wasn't); and that he was assassinated by some nebulous government entity to punish him for espionage, which he wasn't doing, and which the government actually handles through the criminal justice system.
4. Did he die trying to create a homunculus?
After Parsons' death, his widow stayed for a few months with a friend, the actress and director Renate Druks. Based on countless hours of conversation, Druks reported her belief that the explosion was the result of Parsons trying to create a homunculus, a small magical being with special powers. Once some of Parsons' metaphysical writings became known after his death, other people climbed aboard this wagon as it seemed in character.
However, it's a terrible theory. As stated previously, the chemicals he was found with were consistent for the job he was known to have been working on; and — so far as I know — neither fulminated mercury nor any other explosives are in the handbook for how to conjure up a homunculus.
Jack Parsons had an equally unusual relationship with his mother, Ruth. They'd even engaged in incest. When she learned that he'd been killed, she began drinking and taking sedatives, but they weren't enough. Breaking away from her friends trying to comfort her, she then took the rest of the bottle of sedatives, wailing that she couldn't stand to live without him. She died from the overdose, mere hours after her son. One can raise one's eyebrows at the oddities of Jack Parsons' lifestyle and religious beliefs, as the names of the gods and the rituals differed from those of other religions; but his were what worked for him just like all spiritual people everywhere. And his mother loved him so much that she literally could not continue living without him in her world. The story of Jack Parsons is a human story first, and deserves to be remembered as such; with no need for the graffiti of conspiracy theories or other slanders.
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