This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 13 No 3 (June 2019)
Dr Richard Spence, a history professor and author of Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult (published by Feral House), is an expert on intelligence and the occult.
In this interview with New Dawn magazine, Spence details his years of research into the little known connections between intelligence agencies, spies, and occult activity. Dr Spence explains the ties between occultist Aleister Crowley, rocket scientist and dissident Jack Parsons, British spymaster Maxwell Knight, along with author and priest Montague Summers.
Crowley, described by the British press of the time as “the wickedest man in the world,” founded the spiritual philosophy Thelema and led the occult fraternal organisation Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). He remains at the centre of conspiracies.
CHARLIE NASH (CN): You’ve written a book about Aleister Crowley and his connections to British intelligence, but for readers of New Dawn who haven’t read the book, could you tell us a bit about Crowley’s alleged intelligence connections and what you found from your research?
RICHARD SPENCE (RS): Aleister Crowley would make allusions, or in some cases direct comments, about being involved with intelligence. He would mention specifically the admiralty’s intelligence and the name of a particular official who had been connected to that during the First World War, a fellow by the name of Captain Guy, or earlier, Commander Guy Gaunt. Gaunt, whenever asked about this, would waffle on the question or say that he knew nothing about what Crowley was talking about. And it’s fairly easy considering his dubious reputation and lack of any kind of documentary evidence, like a spy card, or something to back that up. Most people would dismiss that as an act of either desperation or a fantasy he had.
I was actually working on a subject about another person, another spy, who was active in and around New York City during the First World War, and one of the things that I was looking for was any possible cross-pollination. It’s always interesting to see who’s put in the same place at the same time, or even the same room.
In the States, you can get through the Freedom of Information Act older FBI files, which at the time was called the Bureau of Investigation. You can also access a kind of semi-defunct agency that functioned at the time, as part of the US Army – the Military Intelligence Division. One of the interesting things is that the Military Intelligence Division in the United States during the First World War was the agency that handled domestic counter-intelligence. Handily, for us historians, all of the MID’s pre-1941 records were declassified many years ago, and they’re available in the national archives.
Keep in mind here we’ve got this guy Crowley running around New York at the same time, and he’s claiming to have been connected to British intelligence, and the guy I’m looking at has some connections in the same period… Is there a possibility? Is there anything to it? I decided, partly out of curiosity, to send off to the national archives to see if the MID files had anything on Crowley, and lo and behold they did, and I got the file. This is from July 1918, and it deals with Aleister Crowley, English subject. The key elements say, “Subject has been camping on Esopus Island, Hudson River, and was brought to the attention of this office by subject’s connections with Madeleine George, an actress in New York City, who had been formally investigated by the Department of Justice on charges of being a German spy.” Now the key part is what follows: “It was determined that Aleister Crowley was an employee of the British government but at present in this country on official business of which the British Counsel, New York City has full cognisance.” Skip down a couple of lines, “It was found that the British Government was fully aware of the fact that Crowley was connected with German propaganda and received money for writing anti-British articles.”
That was kind of interesting… The British Consulate was reluctant to say anything about it because they wanted to prevent the Americans from arresting him. They said, “Leave him alone,” and they did.
CN: That proves Crowley had a connection with intelligence?
RS: One of the things you’ll find if you’re looking for people dealing with intelligence, almost never is that ever explicitly stated. No, people don’t carry spy cards, people don’t walk around with cards saying, “I am a spy,” that would be a bad thing to do. In the entire realm of intelligence, the single guiding principle, at least in terms of any kind of active operations, is secrecy. These are agencies which are essentially dedicated to concealing their own secrets and discovering other people’s secrets, so they do not operate openly. There’s no sort of general list of everybody who is an agent for this agency or another one.
The other thing which goes along with secrecy is the compartmentalisation of information, which means only people with an important and legitimate reason to know what this person is doing would be aware of that. In a sense, this is the closest thing you’re ever going to get to an admission from any kind of official that, ‘This person is an agent for us’. He’s an employee of the British government, and in this country on official business, which is known to us, and this official business is connected to him writing what appears to be treasonous propaganda, and we want you to leave him alone. When Crowley eventually returns to the UK, after the war, there’s not the slightest indication of any problems. He waltzed through the whole thing. He came back and went about his business. It was just before Christmas, and he went to his aunt’s house. He had a Christmas dinner and everything was fine until the British press caught on he was in the country, raised a stink about what he had been doing in New York, and then he very quickly left for France.
Here’s the type of thing you have to imagine. You have an individual who arrived in America on the Lusitania on Halloween, in 1914, and he spent the entire war in the States, returning again in late 1919, and during that time he had indeed worked quite openly as a German propagandist. He had written articles, rather scathingly and insulting anti-British articles, for a publication in New York called the Fatherland. You might figure that when Crowley returned home there would’ve been some issue. But there’s none. The other thing is that to get back home in 1919 he had to go to the same British consulate that a year before said, “He’s okay leave him alone,” and he essentially had to get his passport renewed, because the passport that he carried with him when he came in 1914 was no longer valid. If a British official in New York simply wanted to keep him out of the country, they could’ve done so. They could’ve arrested him when he arrived. Instead, he goes to the consulate, they give him a new passport, and he goes home. There’s no problem until it becomes a public issue that he’s there, in which case he quietly moved across the channel until things died down.
Crowley was a controversial figure, he was a lousy businessman, he always seemed to be short of money, yet one of the things to notice is that he’s never without some money to live, and he’s never without food, and he’s never without associates. He’s not just lucky. There are people looking out for him, and some of those are his followers, and some of them I think were mysterious forces at work in that case. But he tends to get in trouble if he starts talking about these things because another rule in intelligence is that you keep your mouth shut. Basically works this way: You never say what you did for us, and we’ll never talk about what you did for us, and that’s the way the situation ought to be. The British consulate in New York is saying this guy is doing official business. What official business? If you look at Crowley’s visible activities, he’s going camping on Esopus Island, he’s up at Montauk Point, or he’s consorting with his ‘Scarlet Woman’, and seems to be doing a lot of nothing, other than travelling around, consorting with some other occultists. And yet he’s on official business from the British government. So, the mere fact that you cannot visibly see that business gives you an idea.
RS: After a while you learn what to look for, and remember you’re dealing with a realm which is not intended to be obvious. None of this should be apparent to someone who is looking from the outside. That is the last thing a spy is supposed to do, to act like a spy. That defeats the entire purpose. I think people get these ideas very often from films in which spies tend to be quite obvious, but there’s always supposed to be some sort of cover to what it is that they’re doing. Anyone who is an intelligence operative in the field needs some reason to be where they are, other than the fact that they’re a spy. You have to have an excuse to be in this particular place at the time. That’s why journalist is a great cover, missionary is a great cover, explorer is a great cover, and in the same way, occultist can be a great cover. I think it even works well in this case because people say, “Aleister Crowley can’t be an intelligence asset because he’s just too weird, he’s too controversial in some way.” Well actually, in that way, it almost qualifies him for the job. “This person cannot possibly be a spy” is the very thing that qualifies them to be a spy.
CN: Crowley wasn’t the only occultist who was alleged to have connections with intelligence. There are allegations that Jack Parsons was also connected to an intelligence agency. What do you think about Parsons?
RS: For anyone who’s not acquainted with him,Jack Parsons is generally known for two things. Most commonly he is known as a rocket scientist. He was a kind of natural genius in the area of propulsion and explosives, and responsible for the creation, pretty much, of solid fuel rocket engines. He was one of the daddies of the American space program. That’s why he has a crater named after him on the dark side of the Moon. He was also connected to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, GALCIT [Caltech Aerospace] – the whole background to American rocketry in the space program. But simultaneously he was a devoted practitioner of the occult, in particular as defined and refined by Aleister Crowley. The two of them, of course, were associated for a period of time. Parsons came to believe that he was Crowley’s successor. The other thing about Parsons that people would know is he’s blown up in his lab in the early 1950s.
One of the things that began to intrigue me, and it started with Crowley, but then the more I began to look around the number of people you run across who were connected to intelligence in one form or another and had some sort of interest or connection to the occult… This isn’t just one of those things that’s an oddity. It’s almost commonplace. There is a serious overlap between the two realms, and I will admit that I’m not sure why that overlap exists. I can only tell you that it is there. You tend to find occult is all over the place.
Consider the context of that period. You’ve got Parsons, who is connected with JPL and the aerospace industry. He has a security clearance because he’s working on classified projects, and he’s working side by side with other people who are involved in classified projects. And in his spare time he is trying to encourage these people to join him in his occult activities. Would it be insane to imagine that Jack Parsons was working for someone in an effort to compromise and recruit American scientists, or people working in classified areas of aerospace? It’s a reasonable suspicion.
Parson’s association with Crowley’s OTO is the thing that lost him his first security clearance. He was eventually able to get it back, which is fairly interesting, and then he lost it again. He lost it the second time – I think he was working for Hughes Aircraft – because for inexplicable reasons he decided to take home classified documents from a project he was working on, and that’s just one of those things you don’t do. Anybody in that circumstance would have been terminated from the project. I can’t see Parsons ever came up with a good explanation as to why he did that. Was it to take home for his own satisfaction? Was it with the intent to deliver them to somebody else?
Afterwards, he’s become unemployable in the aerospace field. There’s talk he’s going to Mexico to set up a fireworks factory, and the idea he had been invited by the Israeli government to come to Tel Aviv and help them develop their missile program. I’ve seen that stated, I’ve never seen anything from the Israeli end that might support it. Of course, you’re not going to get Mossad or someone to say, “Yeah we tried to recruit this guy.” Those are the type of things you don’t talk about.
There’s a third possibility. Are all those really blinds for the fact that what you’re going to do is go to Mexico, then pretend you’re going to Israel, but end up in Moscow? That is what I think some people on the American end were afraid of. You’ve got a guy who’s certainly a religious and social dissident… I mean Parsons had penned this thing called Manifesto of the Antichrist, in which he stated that he was opposed to all existing governments and wouldn’t submit to their authority. That makes him a problematic employee. And then you have someone who had briefly flirted with the Communist Party back in the late ‘30s, and at the JPL was associated with people who were past or present members of the Communist Party. This, by the way, was also a period, the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when a secret program known as the Venona Project was becoming increasingly aware that it was infested with Soviet agents. Lots of them. I mean the Manhattan Project was infiltrated. You have to place the whole thing with Parsons and his activity in that time frame to understand how people saw it. Their fears were not entirely irrational. They might have been wrong, but it wasn’t irrational to have those suspicions.
Parsons was a genius. He would have been the perfect guy to go after if I was a Soviet agent or recruiter operating in California at that time. There would be great advantage to that, and I would be very much surprised if no Soviet approached him… It’s a possibility that has to be considered.
CN: What do you personally think happened?
RS: His wife believed he was murdered. She believed it wasn’t an accidental explosion. I’m an agnostic on that point because while Parsons knew his way around explosives probably better than most people, maybe anybody, accidents happen. That to me would still seem to be the most likely explanation. But, it’s an interestingly timed accident, and if someone, let’s say, wanted to make sure their opponents can’t use him, well there’s only one way to be sure of that. I don’t think it’s the most likely explanation that Parsons was murdered, but again, I think it is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.
CN: Where does British spymaster Maxwell Knight fit into things?
RS: Maxwell Knight. Here’s another guy also involved with intelligence, and that’s what connects him to Crowley. Aside from whatever may have connected them in terms of intelligence work, they also shared a common personal interest in the occult sphere. I think that’s often important to draw people together. Knight’s a strange character. He’s a guy that starts out in the ‘20s, ostensibly as a kind of fascist. I think at one point he’s the chief of intelligence for one of the fascist organisations. By the ‘30s his organisation is infiltrating and spying on the Right in Britain. That’s one of the things he tends to be quite successful at, putting his eyes and ears inside things like the Right Club. These were essentially pro-fascist organisations in Britain that were suspected, and quite rightly in most cases, of being vehicles for German, and to some degree Italian, intelligence operations. A place where the Nazis could find fellow travellers who could be recruited for one purpose or another.
You’ve got a guy who essentially starts out apparently working for these organisations, who then a decade or so later is now spying on very similar organisations. This always brings up the fascinating point about where their true loyalties actually lie. Do they have any?
The codename Maxwell Knight used, or one of them, was ‘M’, and there is a connection in the ‘30s. Someone using the codename M was supplying information to the Vatican about Crowley and other people’s activities. They’re supplying it to a fellow by the name of Father Joseph who was attached to the Vatican in the late ‘30s and essentially ran a kind of minor intelligence operation that was very interested in keeping track of certain individuals and occult activities. He was very interested in Crowley and other people, and he was getting these reports from England, from a British source. There’s some discussion about who this M actually was… the first conclusion you would jump to is that it must be Maxwell Knight. Why? Because Maxwell Knight was known to use the cover name or identifier M, and it would make sense that Knight had some acquaintance through Crowley, through interest in the occult… Crowley might have been someone he was keeping track of. Maxwell Knight seemed to be the kind of logical candidate for this particular M because the connections were there. The occult connections, his involvement with intelligence, the fact that Crowley was connected to unsavoury characters, or appeared to be, on both the left and the right… So he could have been M. I’d give you a 95 percent assurance, however, that it wasn’t Maxwell Knight.
CN: Who do you think M was?
RS: Montague Summers. Montague Summers was also British, and a man with a fascination with the occult, but apparently from the other side. Montague Summers wrote a series of popular books on occult subjects like werewolves, vampires, and witchcraft. Montague Summers was a peculiar character. He at one point had been ordained in the Anglican church and then had been defrocked for the reasons that priests often get defrocked. He apparently had an acute interest in young boys, and that got him kicked out of the Church of England. But then he was re-ordained, if my memory serves me correctly, in one of those kind of fringe… Not the regular Roman Catholic Church, but the Old Catholic Church, one of these semi-dissident bodies that still maintains connections to Catholicism.
From the standpoint of Montague Summers, witches, vampires, werewolves, and that kind of thing are bad. He doesn’t see anything positive in them. But notice there’s still this common interest. His interest in the occult may be from exposing its negativity, whereas Crowley is more of a proponent in some respects of its positive aspects, but outside their stage personas they hung out together. You have people who can indeed put Montague Summers and Crowley in the same room together. They don’t seem to have been fast friends, but they would talk. There was a common bond between them, and that’s why I think Montague Summers was M.
Here you have another occultist or someone who was immersed in it, serving another purpose. The other thing that tends to reinforce this, and I got this from a fellow who was the descendant of Montague Summers’ personal secretary: When Summers died, which was around the same time or a little after Crowley did in ‘47, the story goes that after Summers’ death some men showed up and took a bunch of his papers, and when the secretary asked, “Who are you, and why are you taking these papers?” the answer was, “We’re from the government.” That’s a little interesting anecdote.
I think that Maxwell Knight is the most obvious candidate for M, but sometimes the most obvious answer is not the correct one.
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