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Prankster or Manchurian Candidate?, Kerry Thornley

The Strange but True Story of Kerry Thornley

by Adam Gorightly

Kerry Thornley was born on April 17, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. A friend who knew Thornley growing up once characterized him as a “free thinking nerd.” An odd kid with odd interests, Thornley made the acquaintance of Greg Hill at CalHi School in East Whittier, with whom he soon discovered he shared similar odd interests, including a fondness for “crackpot” cults. One of their first outings together was a visit to one such cult, a flying saucer group called Understanding.

The lads also had a fondness for bowling alleys, and it was in one particular bowling alley that they discovered—or created (depending on your point of view)—the spoof religion, Discordianism.

The Bible of Discordianism, titled The Principia Discordia, was first published in the mid-60s and recounts a revelation experienced by Thornley and Hill, which led to the founding of the Discordian Society. As related in The Principia Discordia:

Suddenly the place became devoid of light. Then an utter silence enveloped them, and a great stillness was felt. Then came a blinding flash of intense light, as though their very psyches had gone nova. Then vision returned.

The two were dazed and neither moved nor spoke for several minutes. They looked around and saw that the bowlers were frozen like statues in a variety of comic positions, and that a bowling ball was steadfastly anchored to the floor only inches from the pins that it had been sent to scatter. The two looked at each other, totally unable to account for the phenomenon. The condition was one of suspension, and one noticed that the clock had stopped.

There walked into the room a chimpanzee, shaggy and grey about the muzzle, yet upright to his full five feet, and poised with natural majesty. He carried a scroll and walked to the young men.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “why does Pickering’s Moon go about in reverse orbit? Gentlemen, there are nipples on your chest; do you give milk? And what, pray tell, Gentlemen, is to be done about Heisenberg’s Law?” He paused. “SOMEBODY HAD TO PUT ALL OF THIS CONFUSION HERE!”

And with that he revealed the scroll. It was a diagram, like a yin-yang with a pentagon on one side and an apple on the other. And then he exploded and the two lost consciousness. They awoke to the sound of pins clattering, and found the bowlers engaged in their game and the waitress busy making coffee. It was apparent that their experience had been private . . . (p. 1-2, 4th edition).

During the course of their divinely inspired revelation, they were “born again” into their Discordian personas of Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst (Kerry) and Malaclypse the Younger (Greg).

Over the next few years, Omar and Mal spent endless hours researching the cryptic meanings behind the obscure symbol that appeared on the chimpanzee’s parchment. On the fifth night following “the Revelation,” Omar and Mal shared the same dream in which Eris appeared to them and declared: “I am chaos. I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms. I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh happy in anarchy. I am alive, and I tell you that you are free.” Ensuing visions revealed to Mal and Omar that the symbol—revealed to them via the chimp’s parchment—was called the Sacred Chao, and for further information they would need to consult their pineal glands.

Discordianism—for the uninitiated—is a “spoof” religion dedicated to the worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, known in Latin as Discordia, although some would contend that Discordianism is more than a mere spoof, and is, in fact, the world’s first true religion. Furthermore, the Discordian Movement has been described as a Non-Prophet Irreligious Disorganization which some claim is a complicated joke disguised as a new religion. Discordians themselves contend that it’s actually a new religion disguised as a complicated joke.

Thornley Meets Lee Harvey Oswald

While in high school, Thornley had been a Marine Corps reservist. After graduation in 1958, he spent a year as a journalism major at the University of Southern California. Deciding he wasn’t cut out for college, Thornley elected to fulfill his active two-year duty and enlisted in the Marines. He was first stationed at El Toro Marine base in southern California, and it was here that his path crossed that of Lee Harvey Oswald. Thornley spent a total of three months with Oswald, and during this period the two engaged in lengthy conversations dealing with politics, philosophy and a shared interest in Marxism.

After his three-month stay at El Toro, Thornley was shipped overseas to Atsugi, Japan, where Oswald had been previously stationed. On his boat trip over to Japan, Thornley began working on a novel about the disillusionment of a Marine serving overseas, entitled Idle Warriors. The protagonist of Idle Warriors was named Johnny Shellburn, a composite character based on Thornley, Oswald and several other Marines. While Thornley was in Atsugi, Oswald was discharged, and soon after defected to Russia. The news of Oswald’s defection caused an immediate shift in focus to Idle Warriors, as the lead character, Johnny Shellburn, now became based entirely on Oswald. In essence, Thornley was writing a book about Oswald three years before the Kennedy assassination!

After Thornley was discharged from the Marines, he moved to New Orleans where he met a couple of shady characters named Slim Brooks and Gary Kirstein (aka “Brother-in-law”) who were involved in the New Orleans underworld, and claimed to have connections with the intelligence community. Thornley had many lengthy conversations with Kirstein and Brooks on topics ranging from philosophy and politics to espionage and criminal activities. At one point, a theoretical conversation ensued about how to kill a president; in particular, President Kennedy. Although Thornley detested Kennedy, he considered this conversation, at the time, nothing more than a morbid intellectual exercise. These conversations would come back to haunt him.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson formed the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination. Thornley testified before the commission on his association with Oswald in the Marines. In 1965, Thornley published his first book, Oswald, which was basically an endorsement of the Warren Commission report, and examined how a person who had delved into left wing politics could evolve into a political assassin. Later that year, Thornley was contacted by Warren Report critic David Lifton, who had taken offense with his book, Oswald. The two arranged a meeting at Thornley’s apartment in Culver City, California, where over the course of an evening Lifton presented enough evidence to cause Thornley to do a 180-degree shift in his view of the Kennedy assassination. Thornley now believed that Oswald was innocent and that there had been a conspiracy behind the assassination.

As the 1960s progressed, Thornley got involved with the burgeoning counterculture, experimented with psychedelics, joined a free love group into mate swapping called Kerista, helped organize the Griffith Park Human Be-Ins and began formulating his own philosophy called Zenarchy.

Meanwhile, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison launched his JFK assassination probe, later depicted in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Garrison contended that a cabal of rogue intelligence agents had masterminded the Kennedy assassination and that its base of operations had been the Guy Bannister Detective Agency in New Orleans. However, before Garrison was able to bring his case to trial, both Bannister and David Ferrie, another suspect in the case, mysteriously died. At that point the key suspect in the case became Clay Shaw, director of the New Orleans Trade Mart and former CIA operative.

At the same time that the Bannister operation was active, Lee Oswald had been in New Orleans involved in various communist organizations. Garrison claimed that Oswald had been directed in these activities by rabid right-winger Guy Bannister, and had been working as an infiltrator to gather information on subversive organizations for Bannister’s operation. Garrison went on to theorize that Bannister had set up Oswald as a fall guy in the Kennedy assassination by creating the illusion that Oswald was a radical communist.

In early 1968, Kerry Thornley was indicted by Garrison as part of the New Orleans assassination conspiracy that had been directed, or so Garrison claimed, by elements of the CIA. The principal witness against Thornley was a self-proclaimed “witch” named Barbara Reid, who was a voodoo worker and bohemian scene maker in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Reid claimed that she had seen Oswald and Thornley together prior to the Kennedy assassination, although Thornley denied this allegation, insisting that the last time he’d been in contact with Oswald was when the two served together in the Marines.

Oddly enough, Barbara Reid had been a member of the New Orleans branch of the Discordian Society. Reid even went so far as to claim that she was the Goddess Eris herself! Whatever the case, Reid certainly brought a high degree of chaos into Kerry Thornley’s life, as he was now a key suspect in the crime of the century due to her testimony.

In 1966, The Second Oswald, by Dr. Richard Popkin, presented the theory that there had been multiple Oswald impersonators running around New Orleans and Dallas prior to the Kennedy assassination, portraying Oswald as a loony tune communist sympathizer, with the intent of later setting him up as an assassination patsy. When Oswald was apprehended, a photo surfaced showing Oswald at his Dallas apartment, holding the rifle that allegedly killed Kennedy. When Oswald was presented with the “backyard” photo, he insisted it had been doctored, and that he knew how the photographic alterations had been made. He charged: “That is not a picture of me; it is my face, but my face has been superimposed—the rest of the picture is not me at all. I’ve never seen it before . . . someone took a picture of my face and faked that photograph.” This led Garrison to speculate that the photo had been fabricated by Kerry Thornley and other accomplices.

Oswald researcher John Armstrong has recently uncovered FBI documents at the National Archives which purportedly demonstrate that neighbors of Oswald had identified Thornley as a frequent visitor to Oswald’s New Orleans’ apartment. The problem with these witnesses, who identified Thornley by way of photographic identification, was illustrated by a series of incidents where Garrison’s investigators went around showing prospective witnesses half a photograph in which Thornley appeared, informing them that the missing half was of Marina Oswald.

A Los Angeles Free Press staff member later identified this photo as the same one that appeared in an edition of the January 1968 Tampa Times, showing Thornley standing outside a courtroom after his extradition hearing with his arm around his wife, Cara. The negative had been flipped in the print used by Garrison’s investigators, but even his most fanatical supporters had to admit that it was the same photo that appeared in The Tampa Times. It has also been documented that Garrison investigator Harold Weisberg had photos of Thornley altered to make him appear more like Lee Harvey Oswald, which were later used to influence potential witnesses to testify against Thornley.

Thornley’s other activities, his more anarchic, Discordian ones, would also be linked to Garrison. As synchronicity would have it, an early Discordian manuscript, titled How the West Was Lost, had been reproduced after-hours on a mimeograph machine in Garrison’s office. This clandestine copying operation had occurred a couple of years before the Kennedy assassination, and was the work of Greg Hill and his friend Lane Caplinger, who worked as a typist in Garrison’s office. Later, Garrison theorized that the Discordian Society was a CIA front, an idea that Thornley—ever the surrealist prankster—heartily encouraged. Little did Garrison suspect that he was an unwitting dupe in this Discordian conspiracy by the covert use of his own office mimeograph machine.

The Illuminati “Connection”

Sometime in 1968, Thornley discovered that one of Garrison’s aides, Allan Chapman, believed that the JFK assassination had been the work of the Bavarian Illuminati, that ancient and fraternal order much ballyhooed by ring-wing conspiracy theorists (such as the John Birch Society) as a centuries-old secret society that was behind communism and damn near every other socialist-inspired ill then corrupting the world and “poisoning our precious bodily fluids.”

In response to all of this Bavarian Illuminati paranoia, Thornley—in the midst of Garrison’s probe—began sending out spurious announcements suggesting that he (Thornley) was an agent of the Bavarian Illuminati. These communiqués were sent under the auspices of the Discordian Society. The more he read about the Bavarian Illuminati, the more fascinated he became. Eventually, Thornley and his fellow Discordian conspirators started planting stories about the Discordian Society’s age-old war against the Illuminati, accusing everyone under the sun of being a member of that sinister and sneaky organization, from such politicos as Nixon, LBJ, Daley, and William Buckley to Martian invaders and various conspiracy buffs—plus members of the Discordian Society itself—which made it all very confusing and extremely hilarious.

Robert Anton Wilson—who in due time became an expert authority on the history of the Bavarian Illuminati—contributed to the formation of this Illuminati/Discordian mythos, feeding his own unique perspective and knowledge into this twisted loop of conspiratorial high weirdness. What became known as “Operation Mindfuck” was in full swing by late 1968, when Wilson—in cahoots with Thornley—composed a letter and answer in the Forum section of Playboy, which Wilson was then editing. This spurious correspondence put forth the theory that the wave of political assassinations taking place in America had been orchestrated by the Bavarian Illuminati.

Under the auspices of “The Bavarian Illuminati,” Thornley invented a Do-It-Yourself Conspiracy Kit, which included stationery containing dubious letterheads. As Wilson noted, “Omar [Thornley] would send a letter to the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade on Bavarian Illuminati stationery, saying, ‘We’re amused you’ve discovered that we’ve taken over the Rock Music business. But you’re still so naïve. We took over the business in the 1800s. Beethoven was our first convert.’” As Wilson noted in Cosmic Trigger, these Illuminati/Discordian hijinks set in motion a new mythology:

The Discordian revelations seem to have pressed a magick button. New exposes of the Illuminati began to appear everywhere, in journals ranging from the extreme Right to the ultra-Left. Some of this was definitely not coming from us Discordians. In fact, one article in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1969 consisted of a taped interview with a black phone-caller who claimed to represent the “Black Mass,” an Afro-Discordian conspiracy we had never heard of. He took credit, on behalf of the Black Mass and the Discordians, for all the bombings elsewhere attributed to the Weather Underground.

Other articles claimed the Illuminati definitely were a Jesuit conspiracy, a Zionist conspiracy, a banker’s conspiracy, etc., and accused such worthies as FDR, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenin, Aleister Crowley, Jefferson and even Charlemagne of being members of it, whatever it was (p. 64).

In a recent interview, Wilson remembered: “I appointed myself the head of the Illuminati, which led to a lot of interesting correspondences with other heads of the Illuminati in various parts of the world. One of them threatened to sue me. I told him to resubmit his letter in FORTRAN, because my computer wouldn’t accept it in English and I never heard from him again. I think that confused him.” Eventually, the operation started to run amok, as Wilson noted in Cosmic Trigger: “We were all having a lot of fun with Discordianism. None of us were aware, yet, that [it] could get out of hand.”

The Three Tramps

In the mid 1970s, revelations concerning a conspiracy of rogue intelligence agents involved in the Kennedy assassination appeared in a book by A.J. Weberman and Michael Canfield entitled Coup d’Etat in America. Weberman and Canfield brought to light the story of three tramps, who were picked up by Dallas police in Dealey Plaza following the assassination and released shortly afterward. The authors contended that these three tramps were actually intelligence agents in disguise who were part of a Kennedy assassination hit team.

Weberman and Canfield presented photographic evidence indicating that one of the tramps, known as the “old man tramp,” was actually E. Howard Hunt, renowned CIA agent who had been involved in various capers including the Watergate burglary and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

When Thornley came across this evidence, he immediately recognized Hunt as the shadowy character he’d met in New Orleans over a decade before named Gary Kirstein, a.k.a. “Brother-in-law.” This evidence opened up a floodgate of memories for Thornley. He began to suspect he’d been hypno-programmed as a substitute fall guy in the Kennedy assassination in the event that the Oswald set-up went awry, and that Hunt had been one of his “handlers.”

If Hunt was “Brother-in-law,” then who was Slim Brooks? Thornley speculated that Slim Brooks was, in reality, Jerry Milton Brooks, a former Minuteman and employee of Guy Bannister. Furthermore, Thornley suspected that Slim had acted as navigational advisor for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and had been assigned to keep an eye on Thornley during the period when he lived in New Orleans.

Only a few years prior, Thornley had considered Jim Garrison’s investigation a McCarthy-like witch-hunt; now he began to suspect that Garrison might have been on the right track. Suddenly a string of evidence—which had once seemed but mere coincidences—were now beginning to line up, one after another, to form in his mind a conspiratorial domino row, with Thornley at center stage surrounded by a web of conspirators manipulating his and Lee Oswald’s movements prior to the Kennedy assassination. Thornley began sending out affidavits to friends, law enforcement officials and politicians, outlining his conversations with Kirstein and Brooks in New Orleans during the early 1960s and how he felt he had been sucked into the JFK assassination.

One day, Bob Wilson got a letter from Thornley saying: “I am the most important man on the planet—I am the only one who knows all about the Kennedy assassination!” Due to this knowledge, Thornley insisted that his life was threatened by a sinister cabal of conspirators who wanted him silenced. Wilson tried to rationalize the situation, reminding him that there was a distinct difference between “theory” and “proof.” Much to Wilson’s surprise, Thornley now suspected him of being involved as part of an “assassination conspiracy team” and, furthermore, that Wilson was Thornley’s CIA baby-sitter, covertly employed by the Agency to keep a watchful eye on him.

Wilson insists he and Thornley actually met only once, in Atlanta in 1967. As Wilson recalls: “[Kerry] had the impression that I came to Atlanta more than once and that I had given him LSD and had removed the programming the Navy had put into him when he was in the Marines—and that I was one of his CIA handlers.” When Wilson informed Thornley that he didn’t remember any of this taking place, Thornley said that was because they had brainwashed him, too. Because of these suspicions, the two eventually ceased communications because—as Wilson explained in a recent interview—”It’s hard to communicate with somebody when he thinks you’re a diabolical mind-control agent and you’re convinced that he’s a little bit paranoid.”

In Thornley’s worldview, the Operation had come full circle, biting him square on the derrière. As Wilson ruminated in Cosmic Trigger:

Thornley’s letters to me became increasingly denunciatory. He now believed that the Discordian Society had been infiltrated very early by CIA agents (probably including me) who had used it as a cover for an assassination bureau. The logic of this was brilliant in a surrealistic, Kafkaesque sort of way. Try to picture a jury keeping a straight face when examining a conspiracy that worshipped the Goddess of Confusion, honored Emperor Norton as a saint, had a Holy Book called “How I Found Goddess and What I Did to Her After I Found Her,” and featured personnel who called themselves Malaclypse the Younger, Ho Chi Zen, Mordecai the Foul, Lady L, F.A.B., Fang the Unwashed, Harold Lord Randomfactor, Onrak the Backwards, et al. . . .

Thanks to Thornley (as well as conspiracy researcher Mae Brussell) Bob Wilson gained the reputation as some sort of CIA super-spook, as legend grew that both he and compatriot Timothy Leary were Illuminati ringleaders who had masterminded the Kennedy assassination dance party. Of course, Wilson found such nonsense outlandish and somewhat hilarious, as it was surrealistically reminiscent of just the type of conspiratorial hoax that he and Thornley had promulgated throughout the late 60s and early 70s. As Bob related: “Mae Brussell claimed I was an agent of the Rockefeller Conspiracy, and I confessed in a magazine called Conspiracy Digest that David Rockefeller came around every two weeks with gold bars to keep me well stocked . . . I thought this would help improve my credit rating, but unfortunately no one seemed to believe it, but Mae.”

Paranoia or Mind Control?

Before becoming paranoid himself, Thornley had very eloquently addressed the subject of paranoia, and often parodied groups and individuals who had created elaborate conspiracy theories which mirrored their own muddled minds. Later, he became like the very people he’d parodied, such as Garrison, for instance, who seemed to accept many a half-baked theory as long as it fit his worldview, which oddly enough included Thornley as a principal player in the crime of the century. As writer Bob Black once said to Thornley: “You used to satirize conspiracy theories; now you believe in them.” To that observation, Thornley solemnly agreed.

Thornley later came to believe (as did Bob Wilson, though in a somewhat different context) that the Discordians had swung open the doors of some spooky psychic realm—a realm with a sometimes twisted sense of humor—ostensibly inviting in a host of mad gods and hobgoblins, no doubt encouraged by the chaotic forces invoked by Eris. As Greg Hill told an interviewer during this period: “[Kerry] has recently been in a state of extreme discord. We were talking about Eris and confusion and he said, ‘You know, if I had realized that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus.’”

As Thornley delved ever deeper into his own conspiracies, an increasingly bizarre picture began to emerge. Initially, in the mid-70s—when these sinister figures first starting flitting in the shadows—Thornley came to the conclusion that he’d been “wired”—implanted with a mind control device—during his service in the Marines. Later, Thornley came to believe that this insidious mind zap had started much earlier, perhaps even before birth, and that he was a product of what he termed a “German breeding experiment”; an experiment that presumably used both he and Oswald as guinea pigs.

Thornley even came to suspect his own parents were Axis spies who had cut a deal with Nazi Occultists conducting eugenics experiments, the ultimate purpose of which was to create a Manchurian candidate. Of course, some would suggest that Thornley feigned mind control victimization and/or mental illness to conceal his role in the Kennedy assassination twister game. Jonathan Vankin wonders, in Conspiracies, Coverups and Crimes:

Is Thornley’s intricately conspiratorial autobiography an elaborate mind-game he plays with himself and anyone who’ll join in? Or is he really an intelligence agent, with a macabre cover story for his role in the John F. Kennedy conspiracy? Or … is Kerry Thornley a helpless pawn in a game beyond anyone’s comprehension, who somehow figured out what has been happening to him? (p. 5-6).

Thornley once admitted that—in some surreal way or another—he owed everything he’d become to the ominous specter of mind control, and that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For good or ill, this arcane path that Thornley had been led down (or which he believed he’d been led down) had made him, in essence, all that he was, and had not these malevolent behind-the-scenes machinations transpired, Thornley would have never written The Idle Warriors and Oswald nor would he have led such a colorful, though complicated, life. So, in this respect, mind control had been a blessing in disguise. Or, as Thornley explained in a SteamShovel Press interview:

Kerry: I harbored the conceit, up until I discovered I was a mind control subject, that I was a particularly independent thinker. And so it came to me rather hard that I owed much of my thinking and much of my independence, or what looked to me like my independence [to mind control], which was actually not independence at all. . . . I’d probably have become an Elder in the Mormon Church if I hadn’t become a mind control subject—it probably would have been the most perfectly boring life you would imagine.

Kenn Thomas: So you’ve been saved by mind control?

Kerry: [laughs] Yeah, right . . . not that I think it’s a nice thing—it’s a hideous thing for your identity to be stolen from you.

While Thornley occasionally addressed his alleged mind control in a lighthearted and/or Zen-like manner, I don’t believe that his mind control revelations were total put-ons, although at times he probably felt that all the metaphysical jokes he’d played on others over the years had come back to bite him.

After years of battling a rare kidney disease, Kerry Thornley died on November 28, 1998. Up until the very end, he believed that the kidney disease that led to his death was the result of a conspiracy.

Adam Gorightly is the author of The Prankster and the Conspiracy: The Story of Kerry Thornley and How He Met Oswald and Inspired the Counterculture, Paraview Press, 2003. (www.paraview.com/gorightly/) He is also the author of The Shadow Over Santa Susana: Black Magic, Mind Control, and The Manson Family Mythos. His articles have appeared in The Excluded Middle, Crash Collusion, UFO Magazine, Paranoia, SteamShovel Press, Pills-a-go-go, Dagobert’s Revenge, and Saucer Smear.

This article will appear in his book, The Beast of Adam Gorightly soon to be available as a kindle version from Feejee Press