clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Pasadena Haunts of the Occultist Who Cofounded JPL

New, 9 comments

It's Cults Week at Curbed LA! Join us.

Jack Parsons (legally, John Whiteside Parsons) helped found Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and made major contributions to rocketry, but he is also remembered for his occult beliefs and generally bohemian behavior. So much of what happened in his life happened in and around Pasadena: he worked at Caltech, tried and eventually succeeded at launching rockets in the Arroyo Seco, conducted now-legendary rituals and rites in a house on Pasadena's Millionaire's Row, and also met his end in the quiet, largely monied town. We've taken a look at a few of these sites and their role in Parson's brief, busy, and storied life.

(There's plenty of fantastic writing about Parsons, his life, and his beliefs regarding magic and the occult—one example is the biography Sex and Rockets, which largely informed this post.)

Caltech: Through a chance meeting with the director of Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology after a lecture about rockets, Parsons, with his childhood friend Ed Forman, found himself with permission to use a lab at Caltech for his work; he was, by this time, solidly versed in powder explosives, largely due to a lot of ... well, blowing things up. Despite not having a degree in anything related to rockets (or anything at all; he'd dropped out of USC), documents from the time seen in Sex and Rockets show that he was listed as head guy in charge of solid rocket fuel for the GALCIT program. Unfortunately, the experiments were not well-liked on the campus. Due to their literally explosive, dangerous undertakings, Caltech students nicknamed Parsons and the group he worked with the Suicide Squad. Parsons and friends were sent back to their original test site, the Arroyo Seco, shortly thereafter.

The Arroyo Seco: This part of the Arroyo in northern Pasadena was once the site of many, many rocket launches conducted by Parsons, his friend Forman, and other rocketry enthusiasts Parsons met while using the Caltech lab. The most famous were the ones on October 31, 1936, which JPL refers to as "the first rocket experiments in the history of JPL." The first buildings in their complex were built across the Arroyo from the original site where Parsons and friends held their 1936 tests. (The above image is based on that general description.)

1003 S. Orange Grove Avenue: In 1942, Parsons and his wife moved into a house that had been built by philanthropist and major Caltech donor Arthur Flemming. According to Sex and Rockets, the Swiss-chalet-inspired property was huge, with 10 rooms in the main house, plus a three-bedroom "coach house" in the back. This home functioned as both a boarding house for "less-than-desirable" tenants and as an Agape Lodge of the fraternal/religious order Ordo Templi Orientis, famous for its connections to Aleister Crowley. (Parsons's close friend, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, was a boarder there; he left, and later took Parsons's girlfriend with him.) The property at this time also went by the nickname The Parsonage.

As times and social mores have changed, it seems now like the things that happened in the house weren't so terrible after all. No one was sacrificed on an altar, there was just a lot of unconventional (but apparently consensual) "sex magick," a good bit of drugs, and the occasional candle-adorned coffin. But disapproving neighbors called the cops more than a handful of times—this was still a fairly posh part of town and this stretch of Orange Grove was once dubbed Millionaire's Row. The police ultimately concluded that the people who frequented the house were not members of a "cult," but just a group (including a Pasadena bank manager!) interested in the bohemian and the esoteric. The original house was leveled in the late 1940s to make way for multi-family housing.

1071 1/2 S. Orange Grove Avenue: After World War II, Parsons lived here in a rented garage behind the Cruikshank estate, about a block away from where his Parsonage had once been (and still on Millionaire's Row). His security clearance was revoked following an FBI investigation for espionage; aside from the OTO-related activities that occurred at his one-time home, he was a suspected communist, and he'd also taken some classified documents at some point.

In 1952, Parsons was looking to go abroad wherever he might be able to find a job (Spain and Israel were mentioned) while also planning a trip to, reportedly, test a super-powerful explosive. While his wife Marjorie Cameron (who he believed was an incarnated goddess...) was out buying groceries for the trip one night, an explosion rocked the couple's rented home and Parsons was killed. The cause was found to be the illegal explosives he was mixing; some, including Cameron, believe that he was murdered. Authorities thought that it was either suicide or a druggy accident.
· Life as Satanist Propelled Rocketeer [LAT]
· The strangely true connection between Scientology, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and Occult Sorcery [i09]
· JPL History: Early History [JPL]
· Cults Week [Curbed LA]