Jack Parsons (1914-1952), an explosives expert, pioneer in rocket propulsion, and follower of the thelemic magic of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons, the son of Marvel and Ruth Whiteside Parsons in Los Angeles, California, on October 2, 1914. Shortly after his birth, his parents separated, and his mother raised him as John Parsons. His friends and magical associates would know him as Jack.
During his teen years he developed an interest in rocketry and explosives, and carried out a number of amateur experiments. In 1932, while still in high school, he landed a job with the Hercules Powder Company. He graduated the following year and entered Pasadena Junior College and then spent two years at the University of Southern California, though he never graduated. In 1935 he married Helen Northrup and shortly thereafter left school to take a job at the California Institute of Technology, even though he lacked the formal training that such a job usually required. He took the lead in the development of liquid-fuel propellants, and made a secure place for himself in the history of rocket science.
In 1939 Parsons discovered a book by Crowley and then met Winifred Smith, a resident of Pasadena, who also led what was then the only active chapter of Crowley’s organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), then in existence. Thus began his double life, rocket scientist by day and magical student by night. In 1941 he and his wife both formally joined the OTO. From that time forward he would be the occasional object of surveillance by law enforcement officials who were concerned with his keeping explosive materials at his home. Also, neighbors and some who had attended various events at Parsons’ home reported that he was engaged in immoral actions and black magic. As a whole, the police discounted them. In 1943, Parsons and his wife divorced, and he began a relationship with Helen’s sister Sara Elizabeth “Betty” Northrup.
In the months immediately after World War II (1939-45), Parsons began a set of independent magical operations that would become known collectively as the Babalon Workings. These workings brought him into contact with a preternatural entity and also coincided with another shift in his personal relations. Betty was attracted to a new friend of Parsons’, L. Ron Hubbard. Soon after the workings began, Marjorie Cameron came to Pasadena, and Parsons introduced her to magic work. They would eventually marry.
The results of the Babalon Workings were manifold. Parsons channeled a document, “Liber 49,” which he came to believe was a fourth chapter to Crowley’s basic magic text, The Book of the Law. As the workings became more involved, Crowley, then living out his last years in England, became concerned and sent a representative to examine the situation with the Pasadena OTO. Parsons formed a company with Hubbard and Betty to purchase boats on the East Coast and transport them to California. This company failed after Parsons and Hubbard had a disagreement and the assets were divided in a court settlement. Hubbard would later go on to found the Church of Scientology.
Parsons went through a period of disillusionment with magic and the OTO and resigned. He became convinced that the organization had proven itself an obstacle to reach its own magical goals. He began to work his magic outside of the OTO system. In 1948 he lost his security clearance at the California Institute of Technology. It was reinstated the following year, but in January of 1952, he lost it again. His involvement in magic was the stated reason for his lost status. Then on June 17, 1952, Parsons died when his home was destroyed in an explosion. The exact nature of what occurred has never been satisfactorily explained. His mother committed suicide after hearing of his death.
Parsons was a minor figure in the magical world at the time of his death. However, in the wake of the revival of interest in Crowley and magic in the 1970s, his work was rediscovered and in the early 1980s published. It has remained in print and been reproduced widely on the Internet. A first biography appeared in 1999.