MOSCOW, Idaho – Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), known as “the Great Beast 666,” is most widely remembered as a practitioner of black magic and the father of modern occultism.
His hideous reputation lives on, and has grown. In 2002, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) conducted a poll on the 100 most influential Britons of all time. Crowley came in at number 73.
Crowley has been the subject of several biographies, but none that investigate his alleged connection to British Intelligence.
“That notion was dismissed by most biographers as idle boasting,” said Richard Spence, professor and chair of the University of Idaho’s Department of History. His recently published book, “Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult,” reveals new facets of Crowley’s life and raises new questions about his character.
The book began as an article Spence wrote for the International Journal for Intelligence and Counter Intelligence in 2000. Following its publication, history buffs and occult aficionados from around the world began contacting Spence with tidbits of information and leads.
Referencing documents in British, American, French and Italian archives, Spence discovered that Crowley was connected to the sinking of the Lusitania, a British luxury liner that was torpedoed off of Ireland, killing 1,198 of the people aboard; the sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany in World War I. Crowley also helped thwart Irish and Indian nationalist conspiracies, connived with the Communist International and played a murky role in the 1941 flight of Rudolf Hess.
It is difficult to discern where Crowley the man and Crowley the public persona overlap. Spence is intrigued by Crowley’s use of the occult as cover and support for other activities.
“He was such a disreputable and even evil character in the public mind that arguably no responsible intelligence official would think of employing him,” said Spence. “But the very fact that he seemed such an improbable spy was perhaps the best recommendation for using him.”
Spence, whose dogged approach to historical research has earned him a reputation as “a frustrated detective,” began his study by securing documents from the now defunct U.S. Army Military Intelligence Division. The file revealed an American investigation into Crowley’s activities in 1918, which led to the discovery that he was an employee of the British government.
Later in his life, Crowley claimed that he came to the U.S. as a British undercover agent with a mission to infiltrate and undermine the German propaganda effort. “He did undermine that effort,” said Spence. “His writing was an over-the-top parody of saber-rattling German militarism.”
He actively encouraged German aggressiveness, such as the attack on the Lusitania, with the ultimate aim of bringing America into the war. In doing so, “Crowley followed precisely the wishes of Admiral Hall, chief of British Naval Intelligence,” said Spence.
“Crowley was an adept amateur psychologist, had an uncanny ability to influence people and probably utilized hypnotic suggestion in his undercover work,” Spence added. “The other thing he made good use of was drugs. In New York, he carried out very detailed studies on the effects of mescaline (peyote). He would invite various friends over for dinner, fix them curry and dose the food with mescaline. Then he observed and took notes on their behavior.”
Mescaline, Spence noted, was later used by intelligence agencies for experiments in behavior modification and mind control.
Measuring the degree to which his occultism was a calculated cover “gets tricky,” said Spence. “From my perspective, it ultimately isn’t all that important whether he was sincere or a grand faker. He was certainly a person who could seem one thing while actually being something quite the opposite.”
Though extremely unconventional in his behavior, “when push came to shove, Crowley had a visceral loyalty to England,” said Spence. “Because he did things that could not be publicly discussed, he could never really defend himself against these charges, though he did make attempts to redeem his reputation.”
Because of the inaccessibility of many key intelligence files, redeeming – or simply clarifying – Crowley’s reputation has been a challenge for Spence. British government documents have been particularly difficult to access. “If I was looking for agricultural statistics I could just go in and get them,” he said with a laugh. “But the more you have to hunt for something, the more satisfying it is when you get the answers. I like solving puzzles.”