Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Jack Parsons Mystery

Most modern occultists know the story of Jack Parsons, rocket propulsion pioneer and leader of Agape Lodge of OTO from 1942 until his death ten years later. Parsons died in 1952 following a mercury fulminate explosion at his garage laboratory. Rumors that this explosion was a murder or suicide have been advanced over the years, but the official explanation has always been that he just accidentally dropped a vial of the highly explosive compound while working on a contract for a special-effects company.

In recent years, mercury fulminate has made an appearance on the critically acclaimed television series Breaking Bad. On the show, chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White blows up the office of a drug dealer named Tuco by throwing 50 grams of the material to the floor. An episode of the Discovery Channel television series Mythbusters set out to test whether this was possible, and the results were surprising to me and probably anyone else familiar with Parsons' story.

The busters then went big by building a replica of Tuco's office, complete with windows, desk and dummies. To prevent anyone from getting blown up in the name of mythbusting, star Grant Imahara created a robot with a throwing arm to play Walt, and programmed it to toss 50 grams of mercury fulminate (the same amount used by Walt) at a speed of 60 MPH so it would hit the floor at about the same speed the average human can throw. But there was no explosion.

Imahara then tweaked his robot to throw with "superhuman speed," and still, nothing. The gang then seriously jacked up the power and used 250 grams of mercury fulminate, and finally, the whole room came down. Unfortunately, all the mannequins perished in the explosion, leaving robot Walt, plastic Tuco and the minions dead.

What this demonstration suggests is that since throwing mercury fulminate at 60 MPH does not generate sufficient activation energy to trigger an explosion, the idea that Parsons could have blown up his laboratory by accidentally dropping a vial seems to be an implausible explanation. Perhaps there were other variables, but it's hard to say what they might have been. In the test a vial of 250 grams and a robot capable of throwing many times faster than a human being proved necessary to trigger detonation.

If the dropped vial were as large as 250 grams it would seem that the explosion would be so big that Parsons never would have survived it - as he did, dying from his injuries a few hours later at the hospital. Perhaps the temperature in the laboratory was unusually high which would increase the chemical's volatility. However, weather data from June 17th, 1952 for Pasadena, California shows that the day Parsons died was not particularly hot, with a high of 80 and a low of 57. And a dropped vial would hit the floor with much less force than if thrown, especially by a powerful robot.

So does this mean that something happened to Parsons above and beyond a simple laboratory accident? While the Mythbusters demonstration does not constitute any sort of definitive proof, at the very least it suggests that a review of the facts surrounding the official story of his death might be in order. Perhaps more is there than immediately meets the eye.

UPDATE: I did a little more digging last night. Here's a video of Bill Heidrick discussing Parsons' death. To my way of thinking, this account along with the failed Mythbusters test provides strong evidence that Parsons may have been murdered.

A key point from the video is that Parsons' wife at the time, artist Marjorie Cameron, heard two explosions one on top of the other from the laboratory. Heidrick holds out the possibility that a small explosive device may have prompted Parsons to drop the apocryphal vial, but since we now know that a drop could not have triggered the explosion the remaining possible scenario is that of a small bomb hidden among some of the volatile chemicals stored there. When you think about it, it's a pretty clever way to kill somebody you know has a stock of explosive chemicals - plant a bomb just large enough to set some of them off, which will obscure the chemical residues and so forth making the whole thing look like an accident. And the world has bought it for 50 years.

Heidrick also names a suspect - former LAPD Captain Earl Kynette, who was convicted of a bombing in 1937. A brief account of the case can be found here. As an explosives expert, Parsons testified against Kynette at his trial, and the former police captain was also released from prison shortly before the laboratory explosion took place. So he certainly had means and motive.

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Peregrin said...

Hey, great post - thanks.

When i was first reading about Parsons et al I was in uni housing with a chemistry student, also interested in the occult. In our conversations he expressed doubt over the story. However, there were plenty of other things to occupy my mind and I forgot about it - until now! :)

This is very interesting and I hope more information comes to light. Good work!

Nerd said...

Keep in mind, Parsons had been evoking the fire element quite a bit. At least that's my understanding.

Besides, is it confirmed that what he was working with was mercury fulmanate? Dude had specialized knowledge of stuff that burns very efficiently.

Scott Stenwick said...

My understanding is that investigators found chemical residue and so forth consistent with a mercury fulminate explosion, which is why that's been the official story for so long. But a bomb that served only to detonate the mercury fulminate would probably produce that result, especially for the kinds of chemical tests that were used in the 1950's.

Rose Weaver said...

This is a great post; lots of discussion on this one. As an aside, I'm a huge Breaking Bad fan and saw a video of Vince Gilligan discussing this scene with Tuco getting blown to smithereens with the supposed mercury fulminate. I bookmarked it on youtube for later reference and when I went to snag it for posting, discovered it had been deleted. It's a shame because I'd post it here as well. Vince was discussing this very issue; the fact that later research revealed mercury fulminate wouldn't explode simply by throwing on the ground the way Walter White had done so, and while he was discussing this scene, he mentioned how the idea came to mind by describing this incident with Jack Parsons.

However, he described JP in a manner that simply cracked me up... and in such a way that, unless you already knew the man and his story, you'd have no idea who Vince was talking about.

I really do wish that video hadn't been deleted. Or, if someone else reading this has seen it (and has it), they post it.

Yeah, this is a terrific post.

Scott Stenwick said...

Thanks! I was pretty surprised to find out that the official explanation for Parsons' death is in fact impossible. What I don't understand, honestly, is why nobody caught it before now.