Sunday, July 2, 2023

Doomsday Predictions Ain't Rocket Science!

 On an October evening in 1899, a boy climbed a cherry tree to trim some branches, a task given to him by his parents. While in the tree, and enjoying the New England sunset, he had a vision of traveling into space and visiting the planet Mars. He remarked in journals that “I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended for existence at last seemed very purposive.” Precisely 45 years prior, a mere stone’s throw away from the tree in which a vision of space travel occurred, a man named Solomon Parsons was preparing for a prophesied ascension of a different sort- like many around New England, he had followed the teachings of William Miller, who predicted the End Times would arrive on October 22, 1844.

Both Parsons, an obscure and eccentric pastor, and Robert Goddard- the boy in the tree who would go on to be called the Father of Modern Rocketry- lived their
experiences on what was then called Rattlesnake Hill by the settlers of what would become the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. The Nipmuc called it Tataesset, which according to some sources translates as “the place of the shaking stone”. The hill in question, generally now referred to as Airport Hill, has a very notable stone courtesy of Reverend Parsons. In preparation for the End Times, Solomon Parsons purchased ten acres of land on the hill and signed the property over to God himself. The deed for this transaction was chiseled into stone on the property, and can still be seen today not far from an unpaved road. There he also built a temple, and a hermitage, in which he lived a life in harmony with nature. He refused to kill any animal, or benefit from their death. As such he was a vegan, and refused to use leather for his shoes or saddlery. One imagines this would be difficult to perpetuate, living on a hill named after its resident poisonous snakes; and it also led to a comical folly when Parsons tried to use rubber straps instead of leather for his horse cart. Nonetheless, he stayed at the property deeded to God until his death at age 93. God's current legal claim to the land is unclear.

To the Fortean mind, a few details here seem significant. The name “Parsons” calls to mind rocket scientist and occultist John Whiteside Parsons, while the number 93 and the name “Solomon” hold much significance in the Thelemic practice he ascribed to. Jack Parsons, as he preferred to be called, was the head of the Agape Lodge, the only OTO lodge in America during the middle of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in developing rocket fuel that allowed humanity to explore the heavens beyond earth's atmosphere. These seem like coincidences, or perhaps synchronicity, until you trace Jack's family tree backwards in time and realize that he was indeed related to Solomon. Solomon and Jack are respectively descended from Deacon Benjamin Parsons and his brother, Cornet Joseph Parsons, who each came to Massachusetts in the mid seventeenth century. Joseph was one of the earliest settlers of what would become Springfield, Massachusetts, and it's worth mentioning that his wife Mary had several times been accused of witchcraft. Three centuries later, their descendant Jack would embrace the term, proclaiming in an essay “We are the Witchcraft”.

Solomon of course fell more in line with his Deacon ancestor and became a man of the cloth. His father, also named Solomon, was among the founders of the first Baptist Church in the Worcester area, while his grandfather Rev. David Parsons was the first Puritan minister in the nearby town of Leicester. It's unsurprising then that Solomon Jr would help found the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Worcester. His father owned a farm, and was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He spent much of his life struggling with the lasting effects of injuries sustained at Monmouth; this, coupled later with the loss of Solomon Jr’s son in the Civil War, informed his pacifist beliefs. He believed it to be a sin to kill any living thing, and even ejected a man from his temple for killing a rattlesnake. He was also against the consumption of alcohol, and fought against the use of sacramental wine in the church. He quit the Methodist Church and joined the Millerites, after hearing about Miller's eschatological predictions.

Miller, also the son of a Revolutionary War veteran, had enlisted in the army himself and served in the Battle of Plattsburgh. At some point during his time in the military, he fell off a wagon and suffered a head injury; thereafter he abandoned his Baptist faith and became a deist. He seemed determined to be taken seriously as a theologian, and meticulously decoded what he imagined were clues in the Bible about the precise date of the End of the World. He was wrong several times, but that didn't stop people joining by the thousands to follow his preaching. By the time he settled on the date October 22, 1844, he had followers so convinced that the end was nigh many of them gave away their land and possessions. Women shaved their heads, people donned white ascension robes, and the faithful sought out rooftops, mountains, or trees in which to sit and wait for the apocalyptic event to occur. Of course, it never did- which resulted in what is known as The Great Disappointment. Miller faded into obscurity after a helping of ridicule, while his followers found their way to communities such as the Quakers. Others formed what we now know as the Adventists. Solomon carried on at his temple, giving sermons for small crowds every Sunday morning.

Millerites awaiting Doomsday. I was unfortunately unable to find the artist who created this image. If anyone reading knows, please comment below so I can give them credit.

Goddard would face his own disappointments as he began his research and tests of his rocket designs. His methods were sound, and having earned a PhD in physics at Clark University one would suppose he'd have been taken seriously for his efforts. Such was not the case, as rocketry- and in particular, space travel- was seen as the stuff of science fiction, not science. Early rocket tests, though promising, were mocked by the press. One headline said “Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238,799 1/2 Miles!”; the same paper published an apology after the moon landing, which never would have been possible without Goddard’s early work. It's worth considering that Goddard had, in part, been inspired by science fiction, having read H. G. Wells’s War of Worlds prior to his vision in the cherry tree. The prominence of Mars in his imagination holds its own irony, as he was later made to continue his work with funding based on applications in weapons of war. Parsons and his team later faced similar conflicts of conscience; Space travel was the dream, but here on earth the powers that were only seemed interested in pushing the doomsday clock closer to midnight. Ad astra, per aspera, they say, and all the while the God of War chuckles.

Is there something about the spirit of the place, wending its way through time to inspire the young Goddard- and, by proxy, Jack Parsons? Solomon seemed very devoted to living in harmony with nature, and Goddard's early work into rocket propulsion came from the study of birds in flight in the same wooded area. He wrote a letter, at the age of 19, to St Nicholas Magazine describing how flying machines could be made emulating the natural attributes of birds; the editors declined to publish it, citing intelligent control by birds that could not be replicated mechanically. Two years later, the Wright Brothers performed their first flight, proving Goddard to be just ahead of his time. The natural setting of that hill in Worcester holds another odd irony; for a place deeded to God, it is a rather unattractive and desolate one. Urban legends over the years tell of unverifiable suicides in those woods, with a particular tree thought to be the “hanging tree”. Often places like this are given more demonic names, like Satan’s Kingdom in the western part of Massachusetts- and places like that are often more pleasant. The devil names employed come from conflating the nature god Pan with the biblical Satan, and is it any wonder Jack Parsons would perform a Hymn to Pan before each rocket launch?

On a hill called Tataesset, from which planes take off and land regularly now, a hopeful dream of a world ending seems to have spiraled through time and become a vision of worlds to come in the mind of a young man daydreaming in a tree at sunset. Time is a corkscrew, and a rubber one at that, capable of bending and meeting itself in the form of repeated names and symbols. This is true everywhere, but these astonishing themes are occulted within the tangled mess of history. It takes some work, and time, to parse it out. The more you dig, the more you find- would you believe the rights to the land on which Worcester stands were negotiated with Nipmuc leaders, who in typical colonizer fashion were given the English names Solomon and John?

It's true, and the truth as they say is stranger than fiction. It's tantalizing to think that there exists an ineffable creative force, an imaginal muse that can inhabit the land or travel through bloodlines. Reality rhymes with itself, in repeated symbols, names, and themes, often not obvious but always hard not to notice once revealed. One gets the sense by uncovering obscure historical bits and bobs like visions, daydreams, convictions and inspirations to see where they connect, the whole underlying fabric that supports what we take for granted as reality could be explained- or perhaps, it simply drives us mad. Such is the struggle. To the stars, through adversity- all the while remembering to stay grounded!

An edited version of this work appeared under the title "Doomsday Predictions Aren't Rocket Science" in the December 2022 issue of Paranormality Magazine. 


  1. The entire "space travel as religious awakening" motif is not just a recurring theme in George Adamski style UFO contact stories but also mainstream science-fiction literature with the most famous example being Arthur C. Clarke's "2001". Not much of a surprise, then, that several of the most influential rocket engineers in the history of spaceflight would be religious mystics as well.

    Neither do I think it is a coincidence that the article begins with the description of a boy climbing up a tree and feeling a higher existential calling to travel to space, since the Kabbalah conceptualises esoteric religious initiation specifically as ascent up a tree.

    1. Those are great insights! I was tempted to include some material about the esoteric significance of trees, but wanted to keep this concise and on track.