Monday, January 24, 2022

Dark Angel

Every great once in a while, my regular studies and my pursuit of the strange and unusual collide, and this week has been very fortuitous. As many of you know, I am going back to school, working on an advanced degree in history, and I am putting together an academic paper on the history of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to cover this subject thoroughly you need to cover the early designers of rocketry, going back to before the Second World War, and one of the most brilliant, yet infamous, designers was John Whiteside Parsons, also known as Jack Parsons. Parsons and his friends of fellow scientists were students at Caltech in Pasadena, and in the late 1930s picked up the interesting moniker of “The Suicide Squad” due to the less-than-safe early chemical propulsion experiments they conducted. This forced them to go to the nearby canyon, the Arroyo Seco (remember this from a previous article), to conduct their work.  Their work became extremely successful and it was Parson’s designs that earned him and fellow scientists grants which helped them start up JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. 

So where does this become weird? What many do not know is Jack Parsons was the head of a lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an esoteric group of mystics that started in the 1920s under Aleister Crowley. For those of you, who are not familiar with occult studies, Crowley’s name may not ring a bell, but if you look him up, you will be surprised. Crowley was a very unusual man who was famous for his esoteric writings and studies in magick, particularly sex magick. Parsons joined the OTO in 1940 and was the head of their lodge by 1943, with the aid of Aleister Crowley, who wrote to him and gave him guidance.  If you want to know a different side of Parsons, here is an entry from the diary of Jane Wolfe, a silent film actress and disciple of Crowley:

Unknown to me, John Whiteside Parsons, a newcomer, began astral travels. This knowledge decided Regina [Kahl] to undertake similar work. All of which I learned after making my own decision. So the time must be propitious. Incidentally, I take Jack Parsons to be the child who "shall behold them all" (the mysteries hidden therein. [Liber al [vel Legis,] [Chapter] 1, 54-55). 26 years of age, 6'2”, vital, potentially bisexual at the very least, University of the State of California and Cal. Tech., now engaged in Cal. Tech. chemical laboratories developing "bigger and better" explosives for Uncle Sam. Travels under sealed orders from the government Writes poetry — "sensuous only," he says. Lover of music, which he seems to know thoroughly.

Okay, Parsons might be a little off his plane of axis, but I really haven’t gotten to the truly strange part of the story yet. Jack Parsons had an unusual house guest in 1946. A house guest by the name of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Parsons and Hubbard were known for throwing these large lavish parties that frowned upon by the older genteel folks of Millionaire’s Row, the street on which Parsons resided. Parsons and Hubbard supposedly worked on magick together in the Mojave Desert on something occultists refer to as the Babylon Project. Honestly, the more I read about their relationship, the more I am concerned about the veracity of the sources and feel that the writings are more propaganda or smear campaign on Parsons but more likely Hubbard. Hubbard will eventually run off with Parsons’ on again/off again girlfriend Sara E. Northrup (of the Northrup-Grumman aeronautics company) and they will marry in 1946. 

What happened to Parsons? In June, 1952, while working on an experiment in his home lab, an explosion went off, taking off part of his face and blowing an arm off. He was rushed to the hospital but later succumbed to his injuries. There were speculations about murder and suicide but nothing truly concrete. There was a syringe found on scene with morphine, raising suspicions that Parsons was narcotized. It was eventually ruled an accident. So, we close a chapter on the history of aviation and the Space Race with the brilliant, and disturbed, mind in rocketry, Jack Parsons. Occultist and founder of JPL, one of the greatest think tanks of scientists to this day. Hubbard? I don’t know…I think he wrote some books….

Friday, December 24, 2021

Colorado Street Bridge- Suicides and Alleged Hauntings

As I branch out of my usual norm of territory and start looking at unique locales to write and share about, I sometimes forget about places that are in our own backyard. Locations that are filled with unusual history, mystery and of course, the macabre. If one travels to LA, you may find yourself traveling through Pasadena, an old community with a flair for fine food, fantastic shopping, and of course the Rose Parade and Bowl game. But there is a darkness that surrounds this city, and that darkness comes in the form of a bridge. Not just any bridge, but a magnificent structure built in 1913 at the Princely sum of $235,000 and stretches almost 1,500 feet across the Arroyo Seco. It is a beautiful expanse of concrete and steel and speaks of a time long ago when architecture was both functional and aesthetically pleasing. But over the decades, it has acquired a different reputation, and a nickname, “Suicide Bridge”. The first suicide was Smith Osgood, a seventy-year-old resident of Huntington Park. Before leaping to his death, he slipped a note to a passerby that read

“Please telephone at once GG Wheat, undertaker, Huntington Park, to send for my body and prepare for its cremation. I am about to make the leap from your beautiful Colorado Street bridge. Farewell, beautiful Pasadena! I Loved you so well!”

By 1929, the Colorado Street was being called its new infamous moniker when its 25th victim, Mrs. Bessie G. Hayes jumped to her death. This was the year the city started looking at the issue of the suicides and even contemplated putting in nets to catch potential jumpers, but no action was taken. The turn of the decade and the Great Depression simply amplified the amounts of deaths. In 1933, there were nine jumpers, followed by ten in 1934. In 1935, there were 12. The cross section of people that took their life varied and people from all walks of life came to the Arroyo Seco to end it all. In all, it was believed that 79 people used the Colorado Street Bridge in the 1930s. Up to date, we are looking at around 150 suicides since its construction.

So why do people seek out this bridge, or any bridge for that matter? The finality of it all comes to mind. The commitment taken from the moment the feet leave the concrete. Is not that same commitment made with the pulling of a trigger or some other nefarious means? Is there something “romantic” in the lure of jumping off of a bridge such as the Colorado? Of course, somewhere along the line, someone had to attach a suicide story dating back to the 1890s in which a young Mexican girl leapt off into the canyon, thus creating a story not unlike that of a siren, luring people to this final destination. Another ghostly legend attributed to the bridge was during its construction, a worker fell from the bridge into a vat of cement and could not be rescued and so this hapless worker became the first victim of the concrete and steel expanse. That, though, is not entirely true. Charles Johnson, along with another worker, John Visco, fell when scaffolding they were on collapsed. Johnson, who fell into the vat of wet concrete was injured, but survived. Visco, sadly fell to his death and landed in the creek bed below. 

Is the famous bridge indeed haunted? Possibly, but just like any location that is linked with such notoriety, it carries its stories of specters as well. I spoke to one author who writes paranormal fiction and he commented of the intense energy that the bridge has underneath it due to the number of suicides. Another paranormal group wrote on their blog of recording EVPs of children talking and that of a woman whispering, “I’m sorry”, underneath the bridge and even stories of spectral buggies spotted in the canyon below. I myself has walked the bridge many times and can tell you that there is indeed something…interesting about the bridge. Several spirits have been reported walking the bridge, including a young man with wire rimmed glasses and a woman in flowing robes. These tales bring paranormal investigators from all over the Southern California area in hopes of gathering potential evidence for their files. 

As a final footnote, I wanted to share some statistics that you may find interesting before you become too awed with the amount of death surrounding the famous Pasadena landmark. My home town of San Diego has the famous Coronado bridge which spans the San Diego Bay. It was constructed in 1969 and has had over 400 jumpers. The Golden Gate Bridge, which was finished in 1937, has had over 1,600 suicides. The Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto, Canada, built in 1918 has had over 500. Pasadena may feel that they have a dark spot in history, but they are not alone, nor are they truly very special. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

Music to Die For

It is interesting how much music influences our mood. It makes us remember times gone by, loved ones that have passed, and of course sing along to as loud as you can, no matter how bad you sound. But can music make you want to die, and may it even lead to it? Perhaps. Originally composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress, in 1933, the original name for it was “Vége a világnak” or The World is Ending. László Jávor, a poet, penned his own lyrics to it to portray a protagonist that contemplates suicide after his lover’s death. This piece would become immortalized under the name of “Szomorú vasárnap” or Sad Sunday. It would be recorded in 1935.

In 1936, an English version of the song would be recorded by two different performers, but it would be Billie Holiday and her recording of it in 1941 that would make it famous as The Hungarian Suicide Song. A Time magazine article published in March 30, 1936 outlines the series of deaths that the song had on the public after its release. Several shot themselves while others jumped into the Danube clutching the sheet music to the song. 

I couldn’t find any references to people committing suicide due to the English version performed by Holiday but it was banned by the BBC for an extremely long time. Did the British fear the power of this emotionally depressing piece, or was it that it was published in 1941 and would be bad for morale during the war? Either way, Sad Sunday or Gloomy Sunday as it is also called, will go down in history as the song to die for. Oh yes, Rezső Seress? Committed suicide.

Sunday is gloomy,

My hours are slumberless

Dearest the shadows

I live with are numberless

Little white flowers

Will never awaken you

Not where the black coach of

Sorrow has taken you

Angels have no thought

Of ever returning you,

Would they be angry

If I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday,

With shadows I spend it all

My heart and I

Have decided to end it all

Soon there'll be candles

And prayers that are sad I know

Let them not weep

Let them know that I'm glad to go

Death is no dream

For in death I'm caressing you

With the last breath of my soul

I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

Friday, October 1, 2021

Taking the past into 2022

    When people ask me what I am most afraid of, I usually put on a smile and say something sarcastic like, “missionaries at my front door and they know I’m at home.” That usually gets a chuckle but it allows me to dodge the question. But now I am in the corner, for facing my fears sometimes inspires me to work on new things. My friends, my greatest fear is water; drowning more precisely. There is something about deep water that makes me feel uncomfortable. Years ago, when I was young, I worked in commercial fishing and traveled the Western seas, spending many hours conversing with fishermen and other sailors. I have personally known those who have perished in the dark depths of the ocean. The idea of being alone in those last moments, cold, unable to breathe as you fight for the surface and your body goes into shock from the icy water, that to me is true terror. This might explain why I will never try anything like a water escape. The concept of this to me is beyond my ability to outthink the trap. 

    But there becomes a time when your fears become your allies. 2021 was professionally very kind to me, as the world slowly opens, and we begin to venture out. I began to wonder where would I take Illusions of the Past in 2022? The answers were found with a few conversations with friends over lemonade and a visit to a museum. A while ago in San Diego, I sat at the waterfront with a friend, my feet dangling about fifteen feet above the water. Staring down at the green murkiness, my mind began to wander. I looked up and saw the San Diego Maritime Museum. Two of the prized vessels in their collection are the Star of India and the Berkeley, both notoriously known to be haunted. It is there I had my inspiration. I’m going to push my love of history and dark storytelling and empathy with the dead to a place I honestly fear to go. Welcome to my fears, soon to be yours. Bring your life preserver and your whistle, and plunge with me into The Deep. Premiering midsummer 2022. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Lady in Water

Now that I have your attention, you probably think I am alluding to some Arthurian legend, and honestly when you think about it, it certainly may. The subject I wanted to cover is the connection between water and the paranormal. Is there a connection between the two?

First off, it’s time for me to put my Harry Potter eyeglasses on and nerd out with you about water if I may. You may have grown up thinking water and electricity don’t mix very well, and you are right. In truth, though, water in its purest form isn’t a conductor, it is actually an insulator. The ions though, that is present in almost every form of water, including tap and even rainwater, are highly conductive. That is why the ‘dropping the hairdryer in the tub will kill you’ scenario comes into play. 

How may water affect the paranormal? It may not, but the ions IN the water certainly may. There has been a very strong possible connection between water and the paranormal for centuries. The first thing that comes to me is the La Llorona which is always found alongside a river or close to water. On my last vacation I had a chance to visit Stow Lake in San Francisco which is known for a spectral lady walking its shores.   And on the famous river boat the Delta King in Sacramento, there is the ghost of a young girl that walks the decks at night leaving small wet footprints for the employees to find in the early morning hours.  One of the most haunted areas in the United States is the battlefield of Gettysburg and the surrounding area, and one of the things that many of the ghost stories there have in common is water. The White Lady of Spangler’s Spring has been spotted for years and the bridges that cross the creeks and rivers in that area are known for their paranormal activity. 

The fluctuations in EMF when there is supposed activity, the draining of batteries, and even the feeling of “electricity in the air” can be noticed while experiencing this phenomenon. As we look at the paranormal and the possible connection with electricity, we also must look at things in nature that may enhance electrical currents such as water. Is there a connection between the conductivity of the water itself and the paranormal activity surrounding it? The journey into the unknown continues…

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Francis Grierson, the Musical Mystic revisited

Francis Grierson died last night. I sent DeWitt down a few weeks ago with an earnest invitation for him to come to Mission Inn as my guest, with the same thought that you have written me. It is well for the dear man to go as he has.

    The telegram stored at the Riverside Museum tells it all. A concert piano/mystic turned author, another author, and the owner of one of Southern California’s most beautiful gems, the Mission Inn. All intertwined and the final crescendo of this musical piece ends in the death of pianist. A telegram tells the end well, but let us talk of the beginning. Not of Francis Grierson, but his former self, Jesse Shepard. 

    Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard was born in Birkenhead, England in September 1848.  The following year his family moved to America, to Illinois. By 1863, his musical talent is being honed in New York and by 1869, he’s performing in the salons of Paris and London. In 1871, Shepard is residing in St Petersburg, Russia. Performing musical concerts and it is believed he will start performing seances. In October of 1874, he is performing seances with H.P. Blavatsky in Vermont.

In 1887, Jesse Shepard will come to San Diego with his friend and business manager Laurence Waldemar Tonner, and under Shepard’s design inspiration, The Villa Montezuma was built. For the two years that he lived there, this magnificent Queen Anne Victorian Mansion was filled with poetry, literature and music as Jesse Shepard became the model of high- brow entertainment in this booming Victorian town. It is also in this Palace of the Arts, Jesse Shepard will start his career in writing. His articles and essays are first published in the Golden Era, a magazine that was originally published in San Francisco but moved their publishing headquarters to San Diego in 1887.

By 1890, Jesse has left San Diego and went to Europe, meeting royalty and playing the piano for patronage. He crossed the Continent many times but it will be London which he will call home in 1896. There he is will publish Modern Mysticism under his pen name and alter ego, Francis Grierson. In 1913, Shepard/Grierson will return to the states where he will perform recitals and continue to write and lecture on Theosophy. His final home will be Los Angeles in 1920.

In March, 1927, he will have the most enthusiastic house guest, Zona Gale. Gale, having arrived at the Mission Inn, heard of Francis Grierson’s fascinating career as a musician and writer and how several times he performed at the Inn’s cloister music room. She wrote him, announcing that she would be in Los Angeles soon and begged for an audience with him so she meet him, and finishing the letter with, “I hope that I may include an hour when you will play for me.” They met March 5th, and even though it was brief, Gale was impressed with aging artist and was greatly distressed when she heard from Frank Miller upon her return to Portage, Wisconsin that due to his health, he could not perform at the Mission Inn for Easter. She urged Grierson in a letter to accept Miller’s offer.

I am deeply disappointed that Mr. Miller writes me you are not to be at Riverside for Easter. He wrote ‘Can you not back up my invitation in a way that will induce them (Grierson and Tonner) to accept?’ That service, as you know, is very wonderful. You would be Mr. Miller’s personal guests, would drive up the mountain at Sunrise in their car and would have the day there.

Gale also found that Grierson was financially impoverished and so sent him a check for one hundred dollars. As she sent the check to Grierson, she sent this letter to Frank Miller.

My Dear Friend, I have hesitated to send this letter, because sends you such letters. But I seem to have no other choice.

Because, of course, the situation haunts me. I already sent one of the circulars about Mr. Grierson to two Los Angeles friends, and to Mrs. Edward MacDowell, whom I hoped would arrange a benefit dinner for Mr. Grierson. And they may do so, I still hope. And now I am sending you a copy of this letter, the original of which goes to you, to the Author’s League, who may be able to do something. And I am sending him something small directly, as I thought to do, and hesitated to do, until this letter came.

But what I am thinking boldly is this: Whether whatever else I am able to collect might be sent to you in return for a corner in the hotel, for Mr. Grierson and Mr. Waldemar Tonner, who acts as a kind of good-angel-without-money to him, and has for years been with him. One room and the food—but most of all the Inn to roam in, and the piano to give what he has to give to whomever knows and loves—well of course this is like asking for heaven, until I know what I can get together. But will you take the chance? Let me send you all that I can assemble, and gamble with me on the outcome?

She continued in the letter telling more of Grierson’s exploits and his writing ability as well as informing him of the check to take care of his most immediate needs.

The dinner and concert was arranged for May 29th, shortly after her letter went out. Thirty people were invited for a recital from the great and mystical Francis Grierson. He spent the evening playing his piano and talking to his guests about his experiences in Europe. What happened next is best described in a letter from Tonner to Gale.

He turned to the instrument and announced that next and last piece of the evening would be and Oriental improvisation, Egyptian in character.

The piece was long, and when it seemed to be finished he sat perfectly still as if resting after the ordeal of this tremendous composition. He often did that, but it lasted too long and I went up to him—he was gone!

His head was only slightly bent forward, as usual in playing, and his hands rested on the keys of the last chord he had touched.

There had not been the slightest warning. He had seemed to be in usual health (he always had some indigestion), he had eaten well to gain strength for the evening, and he had been smiling and laughing with the company even a few moments before he passed away.

Zona Gale, upon hearing of Grierson’s passing, wrote Tonner and confessed that she thought daily how she had a hand in his death in urging the concert to happen. Gale and Miller will continue a friendship until his death in 1935. In 1938, Gale will publish Frank Miller of Mission Inn and will pass late that same year.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

I Will Create as I Speak

How old is the practice of magic? Truly ancient, if you look at the writings of the Egyptians, Greeks, and others. Everything from cups and balls to true miracles such as levitation, healing, and even raising from the dead. And with every one of those feats, there are words. I’m not talking about patter or other nonsense. I’m talking about real words that contain true power. And as cheesy as it may seem, one of the most powerful words is indeed Abracadabra. And there you are, snickering away. When you think of the word you think of magicians pulling rabbits out of hats or some such, but what if the word was much older, more sacred, than you ever imagined?

The first time the word is recorded is in the Second Century works of a Roman tutor and politician by the name of Serenus Sammonicus. Written in Sammonicus’ text, the Liber Medicinalis, who describes the word to is to be inscribed in an amulet and worn to ward off malaria. But the term itself is much older than that. The term is linked to the ancient Semitic languages. In Hebrew, the term is roughly translated as, “I will create as I speak” and in Aramaic, “I create like the word”. This phrase makes me think of John 1:1 from the New Testament, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This piece of scripture is referring to Jesus being at the beginning of creation as well as his time of earth, in which Jesus is referred to as the Word. The word Abracadabra seems to carry power with it as well. The writing of it in magical incantations was done for centuries throughout the Middle East and Europe. Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, condemned the use of the word as a talisman as well as Daniel Dafoe, writer of Robinson Crusoe, chided people for writing the word on their doorways as a preventive measure to ward of sickness during The Great Plague of London in 1665-1666. 

I still see the word written in its magical form on amulets today as well as read about it many of my esoteric texts of the occult arts. What began as an incantation of ancient knowledge very slowly became dismissed during the Enlightenment then reappearing in the mid-18th Century by magicians as a climax for tricks. I recently did a show where I asked a young lady to be a volunteer. As I handed her my wand, I asked her to speak the “magic words”. What did she say out of instinct? Abracadabra. Well done, young Miss. “I will create as I speak”.