Jack Parsons – a prelude

Hey all I don’t know how to tell this prelude without getting into a load of backstory. Thanks in advance for your forbearance.

To understand how Jack Parsons – our central figure in next week’s podcast episode – came to public prominence, it helps to know a little about Los Angeles in the 1930s and how it got there. Just three topics, each of which has had books written on it in their own right, will suffice. 

The Great Depression

First, let’s discuss the Great Depression. What I think you need to know is 1920 – 1929 was a boom time for the USA, in which the economy more than doubled in value. A part of the reason for this (I’m massively oversimplifying) was the Stockmarket on Wall Street, New York was allowed to operate with very little oversight. A lot of stock was, like the crash of 2008, criminally overpriced. A lot of practices, also per 2008, retroactively seen as criminally irresponsible. 

The boom years of the 1920s saw unemployment drop from over 11% to just below 3%. While wealth distribution was still unequal (a portion of society had to borrow money to pay for the basics – their debts would play a role in the depression) – many people unaccustomed to having spare change suddenly had money to invest in stocks and bonds. Millions did. Much of the wealth of the 1920s also came from retail and manufacture. Working people – whose real annual earnings increased by 40% over the 1920s – bought more. Industry produced more, making more money for businesses and putting more money in the pockets of the employees. This was a virtuous cycle – till it suddenly wasn’t. 

Over the summer of 1929 wages stagnated. Domestic spending slowed down. Production would too, but not before there was a massive oversupply of domestic goods clogging up warehouses. The stock market powered on till August, hitting an all time high. By October it was clear Wall Street couldn’t save the nation. 24th October 1929 saw record numbers of people offloading overpriced shares – 12.9 million shares changing hands on ‘Black Thursday’ …. This was the record till 16 million shares were sold at a huge loss on Black Tuesday, 29th October 1929. This caused the economy to crash into a depression which took a decade to climb out of. 15 million people would lose their jobs. Those who still had jobs took huge pay cuts. Many had to borrow money to cover their basic costs. Ultimately half the banks in America failed as these loans fell delinquent. Foreclosures became endemic. Those shares everybody bought – most of them were worthless. 

The Dust Bowl.

A dust storm ca. 1935

Second, let’s discuss the Dust Bowl in equally brief terms. The USA was much smaller in 1800 than it was by the middle of the 19th century. First in 1803, France sold Louisiana, an 828,000 square mile block of land in the middle, to the USA. The French laid claim to the land in 1699, but lost it to Spain following the Seven Years War. Napoleon took the land back, but decided a quick sale to support his ongoing wars seemed prudent. Spain sold Florida to the USA in 1819. Third, the USA picked up their Western states in 1845, following a war with Mexico. Much could be made about the Civil War, or the Homestead act of 1862 – which gave any American squatting on 160 acres of new land for five years ownership of that land;

or Manifest Destiny and the power of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley telling people to “…Go west young man”

What is important to know is not all of that land was fit to develop into farmland. Some of that land was downright dangerous. The land speculator and journalist Charles Dana Wilber would have none of that, stating in 1881

  “God speed the plow. … By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow”

Believing ‘rain follows the plow’ – literally, if you dig it, rain will come – a great many people packed up their old lives and went West. Many settled on the Great Plains- coincidentally during an unusually wet half century that seemed to back Wilber’s claim. They plowed deep into the topsoil. All that long, pesky grass which held the land together – and held in moisture in dry periods, was cleared. Life was good on the Great Plains till 1930, when the rains didn’t come. 

First the land got dry and parched – crops died – then the dust storms came. With nothing holding the topsoil down – it was carried off; from farms in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the North of Texas. In 1935 alone, 850 million tons of topsoil blew away – some carried as far north as Chicago. Reports came in from naval vessels, hundreds of miles offshore, of being engulfed by giant dust storms. Around 3,500,000 Americans were displaced – half a million left homeless. Perhaps as many as 300,000 ‘Okies’, ‘Arkies’ and various others moved to California in the hope of a new start.  

A family of ‘Arkies’ displaced from Arkansas.

The Rise of the Los Angeles Mafia, and Growing Corruption at City Hall.

Up front I should say the mob were far from being the only shifty organisation active in LA at this time – but they were massive, connected, and growing. Doing what you ask? Let me tell you….

The L.A. Mob grew out of a number of ‘Black Hand’ style gangs in the early 1900s. These street gangs coalesced into a family, similar to those in New York, Chicago and elsewhere by the late Nineteen-teens – first under a friend of early New York mafiosi Giuseppe ‘The clutch hand’ Morello named Vito De Giorgio – then after his 1922 murder, under Albert Marco. It’s of note Marco became Capo, not through strong arming so much as through his connections to corrupt politicians in City Hall. Marco used his connections as a shield for a series of illegal gin joints throughout California during the Prohibition era. He would eventually push his luck too far, getting sentenced to jail on an assault charge, then deported back to Italy. Marco was briefly replaced by a man called Joseph ‘Iron Man’ Ardizzone, who disappeared without a trace in 1931. 

He was replaced by a man named Jack Dragna – who moved the LA Mob into the future.

Prohibition at an end, he redirected mob resources into brothels, illegal gambling establishments and pawn shops. In a Los Angeles suffering from both the Great Depression and an influx of refugees from the Great Plains, the thousands of mob establishments that popped up across California – and especially Los Angeles made a killing. As with his predecessors, Dragma operated in partnership with City Hall – with added muscle from the police force. Dragma had a particularly powerful ally however – the mayor of Los Angeles, Frank L. Shaw.

With the combined forces of the mayoralty, the police and the mafia against them – a small group of concerned citizens – the citizen independent vice investigating committee (CIVIC for short) stood against the wave of brothels, pawn shops and gambling dens. CIVIC was run by a business owner named Clifford Clinton.

Clinton owned a couple of eccentric looking cafeterias (one looked like a redwood forest was growing inside it) named after himself. During the Great Depression he practiced mutual aid with his customers – all bills passed to the customer stating their host would gladly accept what little they could pay if they were down on their luck – and failing that, they could eat for free. He was also a progressive, who provided de-segregated establishments. As a concerned citizen, he paid a private investigator to look into the illegal establishments in the city, then compiled a report, detailing the hundreds of brothels, thousands of bookies. They submitted the report to a grand jury – who refused to even look at it. 

Shaw and the mob retaliated swiftly, first upping Clinton’s rates on his two cafes. They blocked his paperwork to build a third cafeteria. Suddenly his shops were inundated with vexatious lawsuits from supposed customers, who slipped on his floors or alleged food poisoning. Surprise visits from health authorities became a regular occurrence. When this didn’t stop his crusade, things took a darker turn.  

In October 1937, a bomb was set off in the Clintons’ Los Feliz home. It appears the bomb was set to blow up the kitchen at around the time Clinton, just home and very much a creature of habit, would be making a late night snack. He was running late that night and neither he, or his family were hurt. Soon after Clinton received a phone call, stating the bomb was a warning, and worse would come if he didn’t back off. The police refused to investigate the crime – claiming he bombed his newly constructed Spanish villa himself, to drum up publicity. As fascinating a character as Clifford Clinton was, we more or less leave him here –

Clinton surveys the damage

Well ok, a little more on him. He signed up to fight in World War II. In his later years he ran for the mayoralty, coming second. Concerned with hunger in the Third World, he employed a Caltech lecturer to develop an affordable protein which could be rolled out cheaply to starving masses – and set up a non-profit organisation which offered aid in 60 developing nations. He’s well worth a Google search – a lot of L.A. publications have written on his life. 

Now, to Harry Raymond. Raymond is, in some ways a more complex character than Clinton. A former cop with alleged ties to the Mafia, he was police chief for 90 days in 1933 – before City Hall fired him for not bending to their will. He was hired by Clinton as a private investigator to connect all the dots in the CIVIC report. Months after the Los Feliz bombing, Raymond was now privately continuing his investigation, when someone tried to kill him. A car bomb exploded while Raymond was in the vehicle. He survived the blast, but was left with more than 100 shrapnel wounds. This time a huge amount of publicity occurs the police have to investigate. A police officer named Earl Kynette is charged with the attempted murder. Enter Jack Parsons.

The prosecution felt they needed to know exactly what kind of bomb was used in the attack on Raymond, so they approached Caltech for an explosives expert. Caltech referred them to a young contractor working with one of their graduate students to develop a rocket. He was an autodidact with only a few months’ worth of college education, but had become extremely knowledgeable while working for the Hercules powder company. Were the prosecutors concerned by his lack of qualifications they needn’t be. Before long Parsons worked out exactly which nitrocellulose based black powder was stuffed into the pipe bomb, and how it was triggered. Parsons got hold of a Chrysler, just like the car Raymond was sitting in, and set off an identical bomb … to near identical results.  

In spite of the danger to himself, Jack Parsons was an expert witness in the case. Impeccably dressed and charismatic, he captured a lot of attention from the press – but not least of all, because he showed up with a pipe bomb, just like the one used by Kynette. At least that’s what he wanted people to believe. The defence played up his lack of qualifications, and tried to trip him up with several technical questions – but he held up to the scrutiny admirably. Not only did his evidence swing the trial against Kynette, who was convicted of the car bombing – but his stunt with the replica car bomb captured the imagination of the press. First there were the headlines ‘Explosives expert makes bomb replica’ and ‘Caltech man tells of bombs’ – then articles questioning the legitimacy of Mayor Frank Shaw. People started to question if he had ordered the assassination attempt. Police and reporters started to dig away. They found a web of connections to organised crime, and corruption. Shaw was found to be using the police to bug his political rivals and spy on them. A movement arose, calling for Shaw’s recall. 

By the end of 1938 Frank L. Shaw became the first American mayor to be recalled from the job – and Jack Parsons … an important bit part in this tale (but the subject of next week’s podcast episode) was considered a bona fide expert – in spite of his lack of a formal education. 

Next week, let’s discuss Jack Parsons – pioneering rocket scientist, famed occultist ….. and spy?

2 thoughts on “Jack Parsons – a prelude

  1. Pingback: Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part One) | Tales of History and Imagination

  2. Pingback: Prelude: Scandals of Hollywood’s Silent Era | Tales of History and Imagination

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