Category Archives: Interesting Lives

Some life stories are too interesting not to tell.

Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

This week’s Tale is part one of a four-part series on scandals of Hollywood’s Silent film era. It’s due to run on the non-podcast weeks.

When I think of Olive Thomas and her sojourn in Paris, a tiny part of me wonders how she found the ‘City of Light’? Did she and hubby Jack Pickford, (of the superstar acting family of the era, most notably including Mary Pickford) play tourist, wandering the expansive, well lit boulevards which were masterminded by Baron Haussmann. Did they stop along the way to take in statues, fountains and historic buildings? Did they ride in a hot air balloon or cruise the Seine river by pleasure boat? Make the pilgrimage to the Louvre – the former palace rebranded an art gallery in the 1790s, or view the splendour of the palace of Versailles?

Was Olive afflicted, as so many Asian tourists allegedly are, by ‘Paris Syndrome’? A sense of culture shock which leaves one with an intense feeling of ‘Meh-ness’ at Gay Paree? 

One thing I know for certain, both Olive and Jack did experience Paris’ vivid nightlife on the night of September 5th 1920. The couple drank, and partied, and arrived at their Hotel Ritz suite, presumably the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. Jack, it is said, went straight to bed. The couple had a flight booked for London that morning, and he needed a little shut eye. Olive, not yet ready to turn in, took to writing a letter to her mother back in the USA – at least until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and made her way in the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed to hear Olive shriek “Oh My God!” and collapse as if struck dead. The unfolding event would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal, and proof that sometimes, tragedy sells. Before I get into that too deeply I really should introduce the cast? 

Paris

Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. She was sent to live with her grandparents at the age 12 when her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, to work in a department store; and married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, in April 1911. By the age of 18 she’d left Bernard, moving to New York to make her fame and fortune. Her first big break came in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. The win opened doors for her as an artist’s model – her painted image featuring in several magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) established after the model of Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She was soon dating the impresario, which in turn saw her move up the pecking order at the Follies. By 1916, Olive was appearing in films – and after she came to the attention of the film producer Thomas Ince in 1917 – she signed up to a six film a year contract with Triangle Pictures. She often played innocent, girl next door types.

Her real life was anything but girl next door – though that IS why they call it acting I guess? In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as A list as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, she would be known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second hubby Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types. The couple secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were heavy partiers, Jack especially. He was an extremely heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from a one woman man. It was rumoured he’d contracted syphilis, an STI for which there would be no effective known cure for till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943. As it was, it was reputed ‘Mr Syphilis’ as he was known in Hollywood circles – used mercury bi-chloride as an ointment on his syphilis sores as they arose. It’s worth mentioning now that mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat the condition in the mid 16th Century by Paracelsus – is highly dangerous if ingested. 

To take us through to September 6th… Olive continued to have a career – nothing Earth-shattering. She left Triangle for Selznick pictures for an eight picture a year deal. She had a string of moderately successful films, one of which – The Flapper – lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s. Something may have happened in the lead up to her and Jacks’ cruise to France however, as she was off their payroll by time the couple set sail in August 1920. Jack continued to party, drink, ingest drugs and play the field. In 1918 he created a scandal of his own when he – a Canadian born Canadian citizen volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to World War One. He volunteered knowing a number of sons of wealthy patricians were doing the same, then paying generous bribes to Naval brass to keep from getting sent off to fight. Jack was one of a number of these ‘slackers’ caught out, and named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal charges – but his image was tarnished, as was the wider Pickford families’ good name. 

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with a little more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So it was the couple left by ship to Europe in mid August 1920 – Olive possibly let go of her contract. Jack still working, but down to one or two films a year at this point. 

And, here we rejoin the tragedy at the Ritz. Olive has collapsed – a bottle of poison at her side. Jack called for a doctor, and proceeded to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding throat to try to purge the dangerous substance. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (it usually came in tablet form) thinking it was a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a pill down with a dissolved tablet left in a glass – thinking she was downing water. Mary Pickford would later claim an errant maid must’ve left some poison out after cleaning their room, in an effort to absolve Jack and save her family brand from further damage. A doctor would arrive, and pump Olive’s stomach three times, then – five hours after she collapsed – have her taken to the hospital. At this stage it was too late, Olive Thomas would pass on 10th September 1920.      

Not meaning to trivialise Olive’s tragedy, she’s just passed after all, but the waves in the wake of her passing were something to behold. The Pickfords immediately sprang into damage control mode. On the day Olive passed, Mary’s recently ex husband Owen Moore made a press announcement – hoping to stop the press muck-raking. He stated Olive was extremely unwell when the couple left for France – inferring she’d died of natural causes. Just a moderately successful 25 year old actress dying suddenly of a mystery illness we don’t feel the need to explain to you – nothing to see here folks. Please don’t poke around the Pickfords facade in their time of mourning. 

But poke around the press did. Stories emerged, whether true or not, of Olive’s night of Parisian debauchery. Was she hanging out in disreputable dens with the criminal underclass – where the entertainment ran from women bare knuckle brawling to darker-skinned men biting the heads off live rats? Did she drink rocket-fuel containing high amounts of ethanol? Were these seedy clubs being run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper claimed?

Probably not. But American papers announced this in the tradition of Yellow journalism they were then so well known for. 

But then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding – a former American army captain sentenced to six months’ prison time at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? Organising cocaine-fuelled orgies. It was rumoured his little black book had Olive’s contacts in it. 

And then, the rumours of Jack’s syphilis emerged. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive must have contracted the disease from Jack, and in a moment of despondency – taken her own life. People started to blame Jack for her death. This was followed by another rumour – that Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive – and some began to look askance at him now as a possible murderer. Questions arose about the way Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing. This wouldn’t be helped any when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow named Marilyn Miller. Marilyn herself would die young, though at that point she was recently divorced from Jack (turns out he was physically abusive to Marilyn) and on the operating table having surgery on her nasal passages. 

Public opinion soon fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by this family of dodgy Hollywood aristocrats. 15,000 mourners gathered outside her funeral. Her movies – all honesty I have no idea if she was any good as an actress, and best as I can tell next to nothing of her work survives – suddenly looked a whole lot better to the public. Her films, re-released all became blockbusters. 

When the wowsers who banned alcohol in America via tireless rallying for the 18th Amendment – followed by the Volstead Act found themselves at a loose end, Hollywood would become their next target. I won’t get into the various reasons behind this, not least of all that waspish killjoys were also racist killjoys who detested the number of Jewish folk involved in the movie industry – but for now it suffices to say the tragedy of Olive Thomas was an early parable trotted out by that crowd.  

While there is a lot of rumour and supposition in this Tale – it probably does bear to mention Jack Pickford, of who it was only ever rumoured he had syphilis – did return to Paris in late 1932. He collapsed as suddenly as Olive had, and died days later, January 3rd 1933. The cause of death, “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” This could well have been caused by his alcoholism, but it’s worth pointing out it is often caused by syphilis also. 

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)


Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Prelude: Scandals of Hollywood’s Silent Era

Hey everyone, on in-between weeks (i.e. weeks I don’t publish a podcast episode) I’m resuming blog only posts. The plan will be to run several series on those weeks. 

The on-weeks will be completely unlinked to the series. The weeks I drop a podcast episode, the subject could be anything; maybe the time Kazakhstan imprisoned a bear for 15 years for mauling campers, or the tale of a Flemish man as tall as Andre the Giant, who turned pirate after the Hapsburgs murdered his family – or the American soldier of fortune who became an Afghan prince…. You come here often, you know the kinds of things. The alternating weeks, on the other hand, may run four or 5 posts on, say, Old Hollywood scandals – Yeah, let’s start with that.

This post is part one of a five part series on old Hollywood scandals, scheduled to run fortnightly, in between the podcast weeks.  

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Lying northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on a 80 square kilometre plot, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple set up a farm on the land, but finding farming wasn’t for them, drew up plans for a community. A Prohibitionist, Harvey wanted Hollywood (the name contributed by Daeida) to be a Christian neighbourhood, free of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Harvey died four years after establishing the community, in 1891. Following her husband’s death, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took an active role in the development of the district. From the short write up I found of her, Daeida’s focus was to build a place of beauty. She died in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios moved to Tinseltown. 

The first movie to be shot in Hollywood was all the way back in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs had filmed most of the ‘five act play’ in Chicago, but headed out to Hollywood to complete the silent film. More productions would follow in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies would be settled there. The large number of sunny days each year, and great light for filming in, combined with a diverse landscape and rapidly growing population (California on the whole was a rising agricultural and industrial area at the time) made Tinseltown the ideal place to film. 

An emergent film industry, (booming in part due to the USA enjoying a large economic upswing in the nineteen-teens up to the Great Depression) was a great thing for Hollywood, and Los Angeles in general. One could imagine Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave, however. With the film industry came all manner of scandal. By 1930 the industry would be bound to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known. The code would be enforced by Will Hays, former postmaster general to one of the USA’s more scandal-ridden presidents himself, Warren Harding. The code would, in part, be felt necessary due to a number of high profile incidents involving Hollywood’s leading figures. As these figures were prevalent in the Silent Era their Tales are less well known these days – but I figured it might be fun to take a look at a few of them. 

Over the next four fortnights I intend to delve into the tales of Olive Thomas, William Desmond Taylor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and the events surrounding the death of Thomas Ince. These four really are the tip of the iceberg, but make for interesting subjects due to the levels of ambiguity in their stories. I’ll possibly run through a handful of others and cover the Hays Code itself as an epilogue if you all dig this series.. Let me know in the comments as we progress.  

I’ll have a ‘regular’ blog post, podcast episode, and Patreon bonus episode next week – but we’ll break ground on this series the week following. 

Giovanni Batista Belzoni – Tomb Raider

Hi all welcome to this month’s YouChoose topic. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones films had just turned 40 the day I was scrambling for a topic – the film released June 12 1981. Influenced by the serial films of his youth – boys-own adventures with cliffhanger endings which played before the main feature – George Lucas began spitballing the idea in 1973. While the fictional characters are interesting – just look at the picture of Charlton Heston below, as the proto-Jones character Harry Steele in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas – that line of enquiry is possibly best saved for a Tales of Movies and Imagination? In 1973 Lucas worked with fellow writer and director Philip Kaufman to develop a script, The Adventures of Indiana Smith. They discussed real life figures with more than a passing resemblance to Indy. 

Today we’re going to take a brief look at one of these characters. 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the words of the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – in his poem Ozymandias, published 1818. There’s no doubt Shelley had his own reasons for the piece – for one, it’s a not so subtle dig at the British Empire – perhaps a little smug in their defeat of Napoleon and rapidly accumulating a massive empire – ‘this guy thought he was pretty hot too’. It reflected a trend among the Romantic movement, and in Britain on the whole at the time. Orientalism, a fascination with the East, was very in vogue. Thirdly, Shelley was in competition with another poet named Horace Smith to write the best poem on Ozymandias. Smith’s poem, by the way, is mediocre by comparison.  

Finally, a giant stone bust – seven and a quarter tons of solid rock – 2.6 metres tall, over two wide had recently arrived in the UK. It had been uplifted from the Ramesseum mortuary temple; Thebes, Egypt. Like the poem, it was once part of a larger, 20 tonne statue before it broke in half, leaving it’s legs ‘two vast and trunk less legs of stone’. It’s subject, Ramesses II – a 19th Dynasty ruler of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

 Considered Egypt’s greatest king, he ruled long, at the height of the country’s power. Ramesses II, it’s fair to say, had every right to sneer – to invite onlookers to view his empire and despair. The Greeks called him Ozymandias having misheard his full title. The giant bust, also known as the younger Memnon, stood in his tomb – one of a matching pair. 

As far as I can tell we don’t know how the statue broke in half, or how long it lay in the sand. It was broken when France invaded Egypt in 1798. They attempted to steal the bust themselves – but couldn’t work out how to move it to the River Nile. The younger Memnon lay in the sand, a long way inland for the duration of the Napoleonic wars – a hole in it’s chest testimonial to it’s mistreatment by Napoleon’s army. 

In 1815 an Italian giant landed in Egypt on a whole other matter, and on being asked, undertook to steal the statue for Britain. This man, Giovanni Batista Belzoni, is our Indiana Jones. 

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, modern day Italy – November 5th 1778. One of fourteen children, he trained to become a monk, then studied hydraulic engineering. His studies were interrupted by Napoleon’s invasion of the Papal States between 1796- 98. Possibly becoming embroiled in local politics, an order was made for his arrest – so he fled. Belzoni worked in the Netherlands as a barber – his father’s profession – till the Netherlands too became too dangerous. He then packed up and fled to Britain, in 1803.

Napoleon crosses the Alps- Jacques Louis David’s painting cartooned.

While in Britain, the powerfully built, 6 foot 7 tall Belzoni found work as a circus strongman – billed as The Great Belzoni, or sometimes The Patagonian Samson 

Sidebar: (Reports of Ferdinand Magellan’s alleged 1520 encounter with a tribe of giants up to ten feet tall, in Patagonia clearly still had some currency – will probably cover this Tale at length in the future). 

He met his future wife Sarah Bane, who would accompany him on many of his adventures. With the Napoleonic wars on the wane, he left England to resume his career as an engineer – travelling to Spain, then Malta – where he met the Ottoman admiral Ismael Gibraltar (b Ismael Djebel Akhdar, who achieved some degree of fame fighting for the Ottomans in the Greek war of independence). Gibraltar served the Egyptian Sultan Muhammad Ali – an Albanian mercenary who rose through Ottoman ranks – till he had the chance to make himself Sultan of Egypt. Ali was looking to improve irrigation in the fields. Belzoni knew how to build an efficient water wheel, so he made off for Egypt, accompanied by Mrs Belzoni and their servant – a young Irishman named James Curtain.

Belzoni as the Patagonian Samson.

The water wheel in a paragraph- Belzoni arrived, and built some kind of ‘crane with a water wheel’ . It was powered by oxen, and alleged to be four times more efficient than older methods. Ali was impressed by the demonstration … at least until he asked if men could power the wheel, rather than beasts of burden. A group of locals jumped on, with James Curtain – then suddenly let go – whether out of fear or bedevilment we don’t know. Curtain held on, and was thrown by the machine, breaking a leg. If you’re a little lost as to the specifics of this machine – me too. I couldn’t find a diagram for this machine. Belzoni himself, possibly protecting his intellectual property, doesn’t adequately explain it. Whatever this machine was, it was history – Ali wanted no part in the machine, seeing the injury as a bad omen.     

At a loose end, Giovanni took up an offer from the recently appointed British Consul General to Egypt, Henry Salt… There’s a giant statue in the desert, we’ve got a short window of time to grab it before rising waters make it impossible for another year. As the removal was to be done with Sultan Ali’s approval, he jumped at the opportunity.  

The Belzonis and their party left, by boat for Luxor, 30th June 1816. On arrival, 22nd July, Belzoni was blown away by the scene greeting him. He wrote

“It is absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it. The most sublime ideas, that can be formed from the most magnificent specimens of our present architecture, would give a very incorrect picture of these ruins… It appeared to me like entering a city of giants, who, after a long conflict, were all destroyed, leaving the ruins of their various temples the only proofs of their former existence” 

And so planning for the removal of the statue began. After viewing the bust within the temple he came up with a pretty basic plan. He brought 14 heavy duty poles with him, He built a cart eight of them. The other poles would be used under the cart as rollers. Using his knowledge of levers, Belzoni manipulated the statue onto the cart – then with a large crew of local men and some strong ropes, they would drag the cart through the sand till they reached the boat – a long, difficult trek, considering the weight they were pulling. The first few steps were no big deal. Finding a trustworthy crew would prove far more difficult.

On approaching the Cacheff of Erments, with his orders to collect 80 men to help him, Belzoni was stonewalled. The Cacheff would do his best of course, but all the men were very busy. Belzoni pointed out he’d spotted many men around town not engaged in work. The Cacheff claimed without help from the prophet Muhammad himself these men wouldn’t take on the task. The statue is too heavy to move naturally. Belzoni insisted he would go find men himself then. The Cacheff promised him a crew- who no-showed the following day. 

The following day, he got another promise, then went over the Cacheff’s head to ensure they showed – and yet another no-show. He finally got his crew, referred to as Fellahs, on the 27th. With his 80 Fellahs in tow, and the magic of physics – four carefully placed levers- he got the statue onto the cart. The Fellahs dragged the bust out of the temple – Belzoni smashing two columns that were in the way – something which would horrify modern archeologists. The statue’s slow journey to the edge of the Nile had begun. 

The 80 Fellahs were doing the heavy lifting, but Belzoni – not yet accustomed to the unforgiving environment – which could get to 50 degrees Celsius – soon became quite ill. He described the daytime heat as ‘inflamed’, the nighttime winds as hardly any better. The rocks around the Ramesseum were hot to the touch and radiating heat up at him. He was ill for days, barely sleeping, and unable to hold down food. By the third day, Giovanni couldn’t even stand, and sent the Fellahs home for the day. On the 30th they were back at it, moving the statue 150 yards. 

They ran into some trouble on the 31st, hitting a spot too sandy to move the statue through, so a change of course to rockier ground was made.

 By 2nd August the statue was close to the pick up point, though now in a danger zone. Every year the Nile flooded and would remain at it’s new height for several months. The statue would be deep under water if they didn’t move it from here quickly. If stuck here they would have to wait atill next year, and have to dig it out before they resumed. At the end of 5th August work stopped with the statue a day’s work from the safety of the banks – but only a few days from the coming flood. 

The next day no-one showed up to work. Word went round the Caimakan, another of the Sultan’s bureaucrats, ordered the Fellahs “not to work for the Christian dogs any longer”, according to Belzoni. Accompanied by a Turkish Janissary, Belzoni left for the town to confront the Caimakan. 

Loud voices soon escalated to the two men coming to blows. The heavily armed Caimakan drew his sword on Belzoni. Belzoni wrested the sword away from him and pinned the Caimakan against the wall, before he could go for his pistols. He shook the Caimakan violently till he begged him to stop, and admitted the stop work order came from the Cacheff. Belzoni immediately left for the Cacheff’s home, up river in Erments – Caimakan’s sword and pistols – in hand. 

His visit with the Cacheff was far more civil. It was just after sunset when he arrived, finding a room full of guests seated for a meal. The Cacheff invited Belzoni to join him. He claimed the men couldn’t be spared from the fields at this time of year. Belzoni countered he would go and get men from the next town to finish the job. The Cacheff would lose all the honour of moving the unmovable statue, to the neighbours who completed the task. Did he want to lose face like this? Whether this argument – or an understandable fear of the furious, heavily armed giant at his table won him over – Belzoni was given his Fellahs back. They would resume the following day. 

The boat ride home was eventful. The boatman nearly crashed the boat into some rocks, and Belzoni feared they would drown. The boatman regained control at the last minute and they proceeded back to the site. 

The Fellahs returned the next day, moving the statue into safe territory. Work was paused 9th August, when Belzoni was struck with vertigo and started bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth. They returned to work on 10th August and had the Younger Memnon safe, and ready for collection on 12th August 1816. 

This was hardly Giovanni Batista Belzoni’s only adventure in Egypt. While waiting for the boat to arrive, he travelled down river, looking for other treasures. Over the following three years, employed by Henry Salt, he raided a number of tombs – removing several large treasures.  Destroying several artefacts he deemed of less value in the process. This includes the mummies he crawled over in one tomb raid, which turned to dust beneath his weight. Belzoni commented their taste was less than pleasant. 

He was the first modern explorer to enter the burial tomb of the Pharaoh Khafre. He discovered to the tomb of Tutankhamen’s successor, a man known as Ay, of whom little is known – another later pharaoh chiselling his name off all monuments. In 1817 he completed a mammoth task of clearing many tonnes of sand from the blocked entranceway to the Temple of Abu Simbel. Belzoni wrote

“From what we could perceive at the first view, it was evidently a very large place, but our astonishment increased when we found it to be the most magnificent of temples, enriched with beautiful intaglios, painting, colossal figures…” He goes on to describe, as the first person to enter this temple in at least a thousand years, it’s scale and adornments – the ceiling 30 feet high, held up by pillars five feet thick. The walls covered in art depicting wars with their Southern neighbours. 

He entered the tomb of Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. While on this mission he discovered the far more richly adorned tomb of Seti I, long buried under the sand and forgotten. In the tomb, besides all manner of treasures and a mummified bull, was an exquisite alabaster sarcophagus. Of course he stole this Egyptian treasure for his English boss – under the tacit approval of the Albanian warlord who declared himself Pharaoh..  

The Belzonis returned to Britain in 1819, where they exhibited some of their ill gotten gains. They became instant celebrities, who publicly lectured about their adventures, on a stage set out to look like an Egyptian tomb. In his show Belzoni would tell his tales of audacious engineering feats, conflicts with the locals, and grave robbing in unhealthy temperatures. He would perform stunts like unwrapping a real mummy for the crowd. Giovanni wrote a book on his adventures in Egypt and Nubia. Soon bored, however, he set off for Timbuktu. When Morocco refused him entry, he landed off the coast of Guinea, West Africa, with a plan to trek through Benin

Giovanni Batista Belzoni died December 3rd 1823 in Gwato, Benin – most likely of dysentery, though fellow adventurer Richard Francis Burton claimed he was robbed and murdered by locals. 

eden ahbez – Nature Boy (revisited).


Hey all I’m doing something a little different this episode. In the early days of the blog I wrote a piece on the Altamont Free Concert, December 6th 1969, where basically anything which could go wrong did go wrong. The show culminated with the killing of a young man named Meredith Hunter. This was one of those pieces I get to do sometimes where I started off thinking I understood what went down – and came out the other side with a radically different view on the day. I’ll save my thoughts on that – I will do a podcast episode on Altamont at some point. (Note, yes I did one in the disastrous ‘series 0’ but that no longer exists). 

Anyway a friend asked me, after I published the piece “If Altamont is kind of the end of the 60s as we imagine it – hippies and everything. When did the hippies begin?”

I had a bit of a look round, and it seemed to me, beyond the scene round the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City Nevada, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or the Beatniks … well you can go back as far as you like and find people with a hippy vibe about them. Most messianic figures; Lao Tzu, Mazdak, Siddhartha Gautama, Epicurus, Pythagoras… Jesus, all had something of the hippy about them. 

Diogenes? History on Fire’s Daniele Bolelli had him pegged as the first punk rocker. I can see that, but I’m putting in my rival claim for the hippies. St Marius, the stonemason who established the country of San Marino? Yeah, I’d argue he must have had a similar spirit. The Merrymount community of 17th century Quincy Massachusetts? There’s a similarity. 

There’s one group I came across that endlessly fascinated me, however. They owe much to William Pester, the ‘Hermit of Palm Springs’ – a follower of Germany’s Lebensreform movement, and ‘Naturmenschen’ who settled into the American wilderness in 1916 – having fled from the German draft a decade earlier. Based largely in Laurel Canyon, Southern California – the Nature Boys bear more than a passing resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s. One Nature Boy in particular fascinates me, not least of all cause he wrote one of the most haunting songs ever. Right, let’s just jump into it… hit the music. 

This week’s tale begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out for someone at the top of his lungs. The year, 1947. There was a meeting very like this, but this specific part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to move the tale on. I, possibly wrongly imagine him middle aged, a little out of breath, and pissed off he’s ruined a nice pair of shoes on this errand.  His instructions, and I paraphrase “you’ll know him when you find him: he looks like Jesus. Oh he may be running round buck naked when you show up – he does that a lot”. The ‘man in the suit’, an employee of Capitol records, is trekking through the hills of Mount Lee, California; through Griffith Park. For weeks Capitol have been looking for this messianic-looking figure – one imagines no ruined loafers, angry mountain lions, or nudity is going to stop this mission. He’s looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man. Today he’ll find him.

Our mystery man enters the tale following a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio, the future crooner was still a proto R&B musician; a decent vocalist and incredible piano player. In attendance that night a long haired white man, also a piano player, who managed to blag his way into the after-party. 

At several points in the night, the man tried to catch Cole’s attention, but was rebuffed at every advance. As a last ditch effort, he handed his payload, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet subsequently handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. It was a song, a very strange, enchanted song… Mystical, prototypical exotica, haunting and otherworldly. It struck Nat King Cole as something special. He started performing it in his live sets. His crowds, and you have to figure we are talking about a time when music was primarily made for dancing to, listening was secondary- well they listened … and they went crazy for it. 

The song was titled Nature Boy. Not unlike P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias, the protagonist meets a wise traveller from a distant land. The men speak for some time, and the wise man the ‘Nature Boy’ gives him the following advice…

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”

Brooding and exotic, at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Hauntingly poetic, Nat King Cole knew he absolutely had to cut this track… but who was the mysterious, long haired writer? With all the copyright, and publishing red tape to go through to make the record, an all points bulletin was sent out to everyone who knew everyone in Hollywood. 

After some detective work they worked out the man was eden ahbez – deliberately in lower case (ahbez believed only two words should be capitalised – God and Infinity). ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother,  and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas. As a young man he joined a dance band – I presume one of the swing orchestras which were in vogue at the time? – first as a pianist, then later a band leader. 

In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he found work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, The Eutropheon – a shop established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter. The Richters had come by their beliefs at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium; and were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The Eutropheon was a hub for many ‘alternative lifestyles’ in Laurel canyon, particularly the early bodybuilders, who had a gym nearby; socialists – the Richters themselves vocal supporters of senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 socialist party presidential candidate Eugene Debs – and the Nature Boys. abhez soon gravitated towards the latter. 

Just hanging with a dog, a plate of raw snacks and singing cowboy Roy Rogers

A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and very rustic cabins in the Palm Springs area; the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Pester himself a follower of a German 19th century back to nature movement called the ‘Naturmenschen’. They wore their hair long, and grew big, bushy beards. Whenever possible, they preferred to go nude, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed in the importance of casting off the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, more aligned with nature. Pester would pass on in 1963, before his philosophy really took off in the ‘summer of love’. 

eden ahbez was, indirectly, an acolyte of Pester’s. He joined the movement in 1941 while Pester was in jail – he was accused, first of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, jailed for having sex with a minor, till 1946.

 Back to the man in a suit. I imagine him all out of breath, clutching a contract which now looks every bit as crumpled as the paper ahbez passed to Cole’s valet.  He eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was also a tribute to William Pester. In August 1947 Nat King Cole cut the track. The finished product was incredible. Capitol, for all that effort, killed the track. It just didn’t jive with smooth pop crooner image they were creating for Nat King Cole. However, in 1948, fate threw a spanner in Capitol’s works. 

The American Federation of Musicians, led by James Petrillo, went on strike. Petrillo was a trumpeter who had become a music union organiser in 1920 – and president of the union in 1940. He’d called a strike which lasted the better part of two years in 1942, over recording royalties for session musicians – which ultimately was successful – and had some far reaching consequences. 


Sidebar: it was a factor in the demise of the big swing band era – alongside American entry into WW2 and rationing of the petrol needed to take a big band on tour in a bus etc. As such it was a building block in the creation of smaller groups – who would morph into rock and roll groups over time. It recast the singer as the band lead. Radio stations were forced to go outside their usual repertoire – leading to boom times for country and western, and R&B groups, among others. It also, sadly meant the first couple of years of bebop went unrecorded.


I guess the things which need to be understood about the 1942 – 44 strike: It started as the union recognised a musician got paid every time they performed live – but only once to record. Their work could then get played thousands of times on commercial radio stations, millions potentially on jukeboxes, or on record players in peoples’ homes – for which they would go completely unpaid. The strike secured a royalty of around 2.5% for the musicians.

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

The strike of 1948 – which ran for eleven months, was of a similar nature, but aimed squarely at broadcasters. The history of television is a Tale for another day, but this was timely – in 1947 television was an odd thing only a few thousand people were tuned into. From 1949 TV stations began to really proliferate – with the format really starting to take off in 1951. In both strikes record companies stockpiled massive amounts of music beforehand – and before the strike came to an end, had to release songs they had mothballed earlier. 

 Nature Boy was one such track, getting it’s release on March 29th 1948. It shot to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. It was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed, introducing him to white audiences. This was a mixed blessing, as it also brought him to the attention of racists who would burn crosses in his front yard – but it also elevated him to superstardom.

eden ahbez made around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards.  He gave around half the money to friends; and likely lost the rest in 1951 – when a composer named Herman Yablokoff took him to court for plagiarism. He claimed ahbez stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez stated the melody came to him “as if angels were singing it” while camping out in the mountains. Yablokoff replied the angels must have bought his record then. 

The song was later covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). George Benson laid down a funky take on the song. Marvin Gaye’s cover is ethereal. David Bowie recorded a solid version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine ahbez’s shock, had he lived, to see Gaga in her meat dress – avowed raw food vegetarian that he was.

For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. He released his own albums, which fit into the growing exotica genre popular with people who felt too old to love rock and roll, but too cool to keep buying Old Blue Eyes Sinatra’s records anymore. Journalists, just like my man in a suit, went out of their way to find and interview the messianic figure who scored the monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez often extolled the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, lived a simple life, largely in accordance with nature till his death in a car crash in 1995. 

The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”

Tales of Art and Imagination this week? Yeah, I’ll gladly take that. 

Nellie Bly: 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, desperate for advice – and worried how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. Their columnist Erasmus Wilson replied in an editorial piece entitled ‘What girls are good for’.
According to Wilson, girls were not good for terribly much. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of (some) parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you’d be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him.

The next day, a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran – a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who dropped out to help her mother run a boarding house – arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by the “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for seven years, writing mostly on fashion, high society, gardening and the like… but she also covered the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time, official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico. Looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story, they did have a challenging job for Nellie, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge without hesitstion.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her back to the station, then before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what then passed for expert doctors.

She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, she uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”.

She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy) bread, rancid butter.

The inmates were, also, not bathed enough. When they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time.

Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time, was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides the effects of being trapped in an asylum.

Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away by her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with another man. She mentions a German maid named Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What’s also pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on Bly’s case), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.

The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye, the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She recorded her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which was compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates led to a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). She documented her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly retired from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reins of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, died of pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

The Sin-Eater

Hey all, please count the following as week ten of this week’s ten week sprint. I’m taking a four week break, though the podcast will continue with two episodes ‘from the vaults’. I’m planning to be back straight after that with the next ten week sprint. 

This week, I’m keeping it short and sweet. 

I’ve wondered on occasion about Richard Munslow’s funeral in 1906. When the Shropshire farmer – and practitioner of a lost art – died, aged 73, did family members of his clients pay their respects? Was there a gathering afterwards, with food and drink? Did the assembled dare take a bite? I don’t ask to make fun of his passing – I do seriously wonder. 

There’s a riddle ‘When the undertaker dies, who buries the undertaker?’ The answer “whosoever undertakes to do so”

When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is – nobody? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. As a third generation atheist, a part of me thinks not a moment too soon. However, as someone with some level of empathy about me, I dread to think Munslow might have believed in his avocation. Did he spend his last hours terrified he was taking all of Shropshire’s collected sins to hell with him when he went? 

The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could confess their sins, a sin-eater was called in. While the body lay in state, and family and friends gathered to drink – a pastry would be placed on the deceased’s chest or face, in the belief it could soak up all their sins. A sin-eater would then enter, and eat the pastry – reciting “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” The sin-eater, not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffey, purged the dead of their sins – they believed at the cost of their own damnation. As much as Coffey strikes me as a stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.

For the families it gave them solace their relative would now ascend to heaven. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be left to wander aimlessly forever – chain-rattling and scaring the villagers half to death. The sin-eater would barely eke out a living in the process.  

Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It was poorly paid, and it carried a heavy stigma with it. If one were a sin-eater, others considered you so toxic it was extremely bad luck to even look you in the eye. As a result, most sin-eaters lived in isolation from the rest of the village, on it’s outskirts. From what I can gather, most believed their acts both sent many a sinner to heaven, and destined themselves to burn in hell for eternity. It was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, one could face punishment similar to that dished out to witches of the era. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available.  

Though the practice pretty much disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who ate others sins, not for lack of money, but because he hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. Though I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone looking much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from the locals, and had his grave restored. 

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part Two)


Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back. 

This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. 

Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.      

Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort. 

Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass. 

This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably. 

Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party. 

In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage. 

At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself. 

The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.

In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
!”

Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention. 

Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.

In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons. 

In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “…  only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.” 

Enter Ron, in late 1945.

It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.  

From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast. 

Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife. 

When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”. 

Jack and Candy soon became an item. 

The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit. 

Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money. 

All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup. 

The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947. 

In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.

A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes. 

In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately. 

Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House. 

On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.  

On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt. 

Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist. 

Ok, one more thing. 

Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.  

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part One)

Welcome folks. Sorry to do this to you – I really did want to start this tale out in the Mojave desert, following a magick man and his usurper. One chanting tribally to the God Pan, and the other pretending to see spirits so he could just go home – to the other’s wife… but we’ll come back round to that. The date is June 17, 1952. The location, the carriage house which formerly belonged to 1003 Orange Grove, Pasadena – a former stately mansion we’ll definitely talk about later. Pasadena was a neighbourhood in transition from a millionaires’ row of landed estates, to a collection of middle class ranch houses, condos and apartments. While the locals may have grown accustomed to the hubbub of diggers and graders, rollers and wrecking balls, at 5.08pm the neighbourhood would be shocked to attention by a soul shuddering explosion. 

At it’s epicentre, the basement lab in the carriage house – now a wreck of it’s former self. Two men and a woman, tenants, rush downstairs -surveying the damage and looking for the owner of the property – one Jack Parsons. After rifling through the debris they found him; horrifically wounded – he’d lost an arm. The remainder of his limbs are all badly broken. Most of the right side of his face is missing – yet he is still, barely, alive. An ambulance rushes to the scene, then tears off at break-neck speed with their patient. Parsons is treated at Huntington Memorial Hospital – where he would die 37 minutes after the explosion. Parsons’ wife Marjorie, aka Candy, couldn’t bring herself to view her husband in such a state. She would leave it to a friend to arrange the cremation. When Jack’s mother, Ruth, got the news of her son’s untimely passing – she took her own life by swallowing a bottle of barbiturates. 

While one may expect the sudden death of Jack Parsons to bring on a great mourning in the area – he was, after all a pioneering rocket scientist who helped win the war. Jet planes, missiles, the rockets which would travel to the moon all owe a massive debt to his genius. Platitudes gave way to gossip about his wildly occult lifestyle and speculations of suicide or even that he’d been killed by order of Howard Hughes. Stories began to emerge about the cult living at 1003 Orange Grove, the rituals and wild orgies. The Pasadena Independent would eulogise him thus

‘John W. Parsons, handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago … Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.’

John Whiteside Parsons, Jack to his friends is a largely forgotten figure now – but I think his tale is worth sharing. For the next two episodes let’s discuss the mad world of Jack Parsons. 

Jack Parsons was born Marvel Parsons in 1914 to Ruth (née Whiteside) and Marvel Parsons snr. When young, Jack’s father would desert the family to join the army – where he would distinguish himself in battle, move up the ranks, remarry and settle down – only to have a nervous breakdown in middle age – following a medical misdiagnosis giving him just a day left to live. From abandonment as a baby to Marvel’s institutionalisation, the two would only meet once. In his youth both he and Ruth, were joined by Ruth’s wealthy parents – who moved up to Pasadena – buying a home for them all on Orange Grove. 

Jack was a smart and imaginative child. Home-schooled till the age of 12, he read voraciously. He was an especially big fan of Jules Verne, and of the new pulp fiction magazines like the Argosy All-Story Weekly and Amazing Stories. In amongst the ‘boys own adventure’ tales of cowboys, adventurers, detectives and firemen – the science fiction genre blossomed in these periodicals. Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, for one example, were launched in these magazines. Parsons became enamoured with sci fi – especially anything to do with rockets and travelling to other planets. When he finally entered the system for high school he struggled. Many of his peers found him odd, and mocked him for looking effeminate. He made at least one good, lifelong friend in this time however, Ed Forman, the mechanically minded son of an engineer. With Forman’s father’s help, the two teenagers began making their first rockets together. They were a long way from building anything powerful enough to leave the planet or power an aircraft – but it was a beginning. 

I should quickly point out that while we take rockets for granted now – a select few companies build rockets powerful enough to put astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites in space. A handful of nations have caches of deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear tips that could end the world. Any army or large militia might have an array of deadly rockets which now leave the German V2 for dead – some even have rocket seeking rockets to shoot those first rockets out of the sky. 

A jet engine is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket…In the 1920s and 30s, hardly anyone was developing rockets. 

Those who were, for the most part, were amateur enthusiasts – often, like young Parsons, hobbyists with a love of science fiction. As aforementioned on Tales, the Chinese had rudimentary rocket-like devices – fireworks which could shoot a bamboo spear at you – and the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore used war rockets in battle. In the wake of their four wars in the latter half of the 18th century, a number of European armies built and used war rockets – but the technology was discarded as they were wildly unreliable. Other artillery – such as cannons, improved with the greater choice of available materials resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Rockets had their 15 minutes of fame, and were so last century by the 1920s. 

The Congreve rocket system based on Mysorean rockets

The Russian Nikolai Kibalchich was a serious rocketeer; writing a treatise which set much of the groundwork for future rocketry – but his work would go nowhere in his time.He wrote his treatise in 1881, while awaiting execution for building the bombs used to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II. Robert Goddard was another serious rocketeer – but he was publicly mocked out of public life as a crank by the newspapers in 1918. 

Rocketry really was a brave new frontier in these days – the way clear for clever autodidacts like Parsons and Forman. 

To sum up the rest of Parsons’ teenage years – he got suspended from his high school, attended another, where he fit in much easier (now seen as a macho bad boy who left his last school after blowing up the toilets), and went on to a semester of college. His university studies were interrupted in the wake of the Stockmarket crash of 1929 – which left Parsons’ grandfather, Walter Whiteside, broke. Walter died in 1931. His part-time job at the Hercules Powder Company – where he was handling explosives and other chemicals – soon became a full time role. In the early 1930s Jack continued to work on making bigger and bigger rockets with Forman, and communicating with other rocketeers overseas – including the German VFR. The VFR, which included one Wernher Von Braun, went suspiciously silent a few years after the Nazis took power in 1933. He also met and fell in love with Helen Northrup. The couple would marry in 1935. 

To make sense of Parsons’ life, one could look at the separate elements first… and how those elements collided with one another disastrously later. For one, his professional life took off like a rocket from the mid 1930s. The California Institute of Technology would loom large. Caltech had gone from a private college with strong ties to the Universalist Church of America in the 1890s to a teaching hub staffed by, and churning out, some of the USA’s brightest minds, by Parsons’ time. They were well equipped, and a source of great expertise. They also had some notable guest speakers. In 1935 Parsons and Forman attended a public lecture at Caltech by visiting rocketeer Eugen Sanger. After the lecture they got talking to a PhD student named William Bollay, and pitched their plan to build a liquid propelled rocket. Bollay passed on their invitation to join them, but did introduce them to another student, Frank Malina, who was very interested in their plans. In 1935 Malina convinced his doctoral advisor, Theodore Von Karman, to let him construct a rocket engine for his doctorate. He would work alongside the autodidacts Parsons and Forman. 

In the following years the group would gain a lot of attention for their wild, noisy experiments on campus. After one August 1937 experiment went awry – first a chemical spill killed the lawn, then an engine backfire filled the GALCIT building with hydrogen tetroxide – causing all metal surfaces in the building to rust over night – they were sent out into the desert – the Arroyo Seco – to experiment. They also picked up the name ‘the suicide squad’. The suicide squad took on several inductees, and gained a reputation for their parties – where cannabis and alcohol was freely available. Self funded, Parsons and Malina wrote a sci fi movie script they hoped Hollywood would pick up. Hollywood paid no attention whatsoever to their film script. 

The work of the Suicide Squad, with it’s loud noises and flame belching engines got plenty of attention from the local press however. As did Parsons himself in 1938. He was called in as an expert witness in an attempted murder by car-bombing case; the victim a private investigator named Harry Raymond. The perpetrator a police officer called Earl Kynette. Click here for the post I wrote on this case last week. This case turned Jack Parsons into a respected expert overnight. His clear charisma shone a spotlight on their work. By this point they had secured some funding via the mysterious Mr Weld Arnold, and were joined by a Chinese mathematician named Qian Xuesen. 

In 1938 the Suicide Squad began making commercially viable rocket engines. They were also joined by a Jewish refugee named Sidney Weinbaum. Weinbaum introduced several members of the Suicide Squad to a secret Communist organisation. Some of the members, like Malina, joined the party. Parsons attended several meetings – ultimately deciding Communism wasn’t for him. He did find another group at around this time, who he came to view as a surrogate family. 

The Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O for short, was then an occultist organisation centred around Sex Magick, yes the K is intentional – and very important to the O.T.O apparently. Established in the early 1900s, the group was taken over and reorganised by British occultist Alesteir Crowley. Crowley deserves a Tale in his own right, and in the least will pop up from time to time in others’ tales. On Crowley’s 1913 takeover, the order took on Crowley’s tenets from his religion of Thelema.

A crude summary of Crowley’s ethics in regards Thelema follows. Their laws can be broken down to…

  1. ‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law – a call to follow one’s own path without restraint. 
  2. ‘Love is the law, love under will’ – Thelema is governed by love magick – but love is always subservient to one pursuing their ‘will’ – or true mission. 
  3. Every man and every woman is a star – in other words, if you follow your true path in life, you are like a star. Aloof from humanity. Shining brightly for all to see.    

As best as I can tell Crowley’s beliefs were highly individualistic, and eschewed many of the conventions everyday folk felt compelled to follow. Their rituals contained a lot of chanting with roots in earlier Hermetic thinkers. Much of it not too dissimilar to the Eastern traditions people like Helena Blavatsky tapped into. They believed free love and drugs could lift one above the mere mortals, reach higher levels of magick, and get one on their way to their true mission. Crowley’s teachings also made a lot of numerology, and astrology. Yes, their philosophy feels a little Ubermensch-y. There are also clear influences to be seen in later groups.. but hell, this post is already set to run into two episodes. That conversation can wait for another day. In 1915 Crowley set up the Agape Lodge in California – returning to Europe after World War One. In January 1939, Jack and Helen Parsons got an invite by John and Frances Baxter – a gay and lesbian brother, sister duo who had become good friends with the couple – to join them at the Agape Lodge. They went.

Jack was intrigued by the evening’s proceedings. The group performed Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’. Afterwards, they mingled with the cult, including their leader, Wilfred Smith. The Parsons’ regularly attended O.T.O meetings. Although thoroughly infatuated with the group and their beliefs, the couple would take a little over a year to officially join up.

A group performing the Gnostic mass

In the meantime, Jack and Helen were joined by Helen’s half-sister Sara, also known as Betty. Betty was a minor, just 17 years old, when she moved in. This becomes important later. 

Also, in the meantime – as World War Two drew closer for the USA – the Suicide Squad approached the National Academy of Sciences committee on Army Air Corp research. If war broke out in the Pacific, the Air Force would suddenly need to land and launch big, heavy bombers from short landing strips on tiny islands. This would be difficult, unless they could speed the bombers up. What they needed was a ‘Jet propulsion system’ – that’s right jet planes. The suicide squad avoided the word ‘rocket’ for fear they would be labelled cranks and dismissed. The NAS committee thought they were anything but cranks – giving them the funds to develop these jet engines. After a number of tests run with mixed success – on one test a JATO engine blew up on re-entry, launching shrapnel everywhere. There were a couple of explosions on the ground. One time their test plane caught on fire – they eventually made a working model. Having ironed out all the bugs, the Suicide Squad suddenly had thousands of jet engines to make. Caltech was neither willing nor able to set up for industrial production – the Suicide Squad, now incorporated as Aerojet, went it alone.

A defence contract would come with all kinds of oversight. For one, the Suicide Squad and all those working for them would need security clearances. This meant the defence force going over their backgrounds with a fine toothed comb. The O.T.O had come to the attention of authorities in February 1939, when Anya Sosoyeva – a young dancer who had attended an O.T.O mass, was murdered on the grounds of Los Angeles City College. The O.T.O bore no responsibility for her killing, but reporters shone a light on the ‘sex cult’ living in the middle of an everyday neighbourhood. Wilfred Smith was at least afforded airtime to explain their philosophy, and masses to the public. 

Paul Seckler’s rampage was a whole other level of bad publicity, however. Paul and Phyllis Seckler were a couple who recently joined the O.T.O, having been recruited by Regina Kahle – a longstanding member who was Phyllis’ drama teacher. Phyllis would go on to become a high ranking Thelemite. Paul, who Parsons secured employment as a security guard at Caltech – would wind up serving a jail sentence. One night in 1942 he came out of a mass – possibly on a bad high, – convinced he needed to get away from an evil spirit. He hijacked a car, at gunpoint, from a young couple – and drove round the city till he came down. The connection to Parsons – now high up in the OTO, and having found Paul a job – did come to the attention of authorities. While he was not expelled from the company, the FBI was now looking closely at Jack Parsons and his sex magick cult. 

Sorry folks this one is going to run to two episodes. We’ll conclude the Tale of Jack Parsons next time. Next episode I’ll, probably, explain the misspelling of Babylon in the title while I’m at it – Simone    

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?