William Dudley Pelley was born in Lynn, Massachusetts on March 12, 1890.
The Pelley family were stern Methodists of “pure English blood” who claimed descent from a Sir John Pelley, who had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. Grandfather Frederick William Pelley emigrated from England to Newfoundland in 1875 to work as a fisherman. Then he developed a waterproofing process for leather boots, which proved so successful he was able to relocate his family and his business to the United States. He made so much money that when his product was made obsolete by the development vulcanized rubber boots he was able to successfully transition to real estate.
Father William George Pelley was a thoroughly average man who would have been content to be a foreman at the boot factory. When the boot factory closed, he found himself at a loss what to do next. He bounced between jobs: preacher, grocer, cobbler, journalist, furniture salesman. These were all family businesses, with William George’s wife and son expected to provide free labor. They were also extremely unsuccessful businesses, which left the family struggling to hang on to their middle-class status. As a result William George was constantly hustling, looking for the big score that would put his family back on a sound financial footing.
Unlike his father, William Dudley Pelley wasn’t afraid to dream big. From an early age he wanted to be a great philosopher. His idol was Elbert Hubbard, the salesman, publisher, and self-appointed spokesman for the American Arts and Crafts movement. As a teenager, Pelley used his savings to buy a printing press and started a newsletter reporting on the situation in his high school. Pelley was delighted to have his words widely distributed, read, and discussed all around town. (He found the beatings he earned by mocking school bullies far less delightful.)
Pelley’s school days came to an abrupt end in 1907 when William George Pelley became a partner in the Fulton Toilet Paper Company. He relocated his family to New York, and made his seventeen-year-old son drop out of school to work for him. William Dudley turned to have a real knack for sales, closing over $250,000 worth of deals in three short years. In later years he would misrepresent those sales as money he had made for himself, but the truth is his commissions were far more modest.
With his newly earned cash Pelley started a newspaper, The Philosopher, to spread his philosophy of life. He was for clean living, self-control, and “the purity of the heart”; and called for the country to be reorganized into a Christian version of Plato’s Republic led by liberal theologians that would abolish poverty, hunger, and war. It’s pretty sophomoric stuff, exactly what you would expect from a self-important twenty-year-old with a strict religious upbringing and no real world experience.
Pelley’s writing may have been embarrassingly sophomoric, but his hustle and drive managed to impress a young woman named Marion Stone. The two were wed in 1910.
By the age of twenty William Dudley Pelley had a well-paying sales job, his own newspaper, a beautiful wife, and a family on the way. The skies ahead of this promising young man looked sunny and bright.
They filled up with clouds pretty quickly. In 1911 William George was ousted from the toilet paper company and William Dudley was fired. In 1912 the Pelley’s infant daughter Harriet contracted cerebral meningitis and die, but not before her medical treatments put the young family into crippling debt.
Pelley was down, but not out. To earn his keep he became a newspaper reporter and editor, working for papers all across New England. After a few years he settled down as the editor of Bennington, VT’s Evening Standard. Journalism was steady work, but it didn’t pay the bills. Pelley’s side hustle was writing short stories. It turns out he was an excellent mimic, able to effortlessly ape the tone and style of whatever was popular at the moment. In 1914 he sold his first story, a Western, to Street & Smith’s Popular Magazine — even though he’d never been further west than Rochester.
Pelley’s lack of life experience soon caught up to him, and his stories became dull and repetitive. On the suggestion of a friend, he decided to switch his focus from genre fiction to crafting nostalgic stories about life in small-town America. The idea of a twenty-four-year-old pining for the lost world of his childhood may seem faintly ridiculous, but the early 20th Century was a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Those changes hit small-town America hard and provided a never-ending stream of conflicts Pelley could exploit for dramatic purposes.
Pelley’s stories were often set in the fictional town of Paris, VT. In a typical story a villainous outsider comes to Paris as the vanguard of some sweeping social force that threatens to change their small-town way of life. Maybe he’s selling automobiles, or promoting a Ponzi scheme, or trying to organize a trade union; whatever his evil plan is, it almost succeeds. In the end the citizens of Paris are able to reject modernity and return to the status quo thanks to their innate American nobility, their strong Christian values, and the wise counsel of the Paris Daily Telegraph‘s handsome young editor (a blatant self-insert).
At the time, Pelley’s Paris stories were enormously popular, featured in national publications like The American Magazine, Red Book, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. These days, they’re hard to read; the language is stilted, the plots are formulaic, and the underlying message is that all change is bad. They’re little more than crowd-pleasing pabulum, the sort of bland pap that gets consumed in mass quantities but which quickly disappears down the memory hole.
Pelley’s success enabled him to quit the Evening Standard and purchase his own newspaper, the St. Johnsbury Caledonian.
A few months later an amazing opportunity fell into his lap. The Methodist Centenary Movement was looking for someone to travel across Asia, report on the spiritual state of the continent and provide an honest evaluation of their ongoing missionary work. William Dudley Pelley’s short stories, full of strong American and Christian values, convinced the Methodists that he was the right man for the job. Now, Pelley had never left New England, or shown any interest in missionary work or foreign affairs, but some opportunities are just too good to pass up. Especially when they involve world travel, first class, all expenses paid, and a generous stipend that could be used to shore up the finances of a newspaper that wasn’t selling nearly as well as its owner thought it would.
The first stop on Pelley’s world tour was Japan. He did not like it. Total immersion in a foreign culture proved to be a deeply unsettling experience and he instinctively recoiled in horror. He did not like the food, the lodgings, the language, or even the weather. He found the Japanese people to be an inscrutable enigma, and wondered whether they were even worth understanding. Even so, he admired their thrift and industriousness, which he saw as a faint echo of the Protestant work ethic. He believed the country could eventually become a great power, a stabilizing force in East Asia. Only after they converted to Methodism, of course.
The second stop on Pelley’s world tour was… well, there wasn’t one. The expanding Russian Civil War wound up disrupting travel all over Asia. Pelley was effectively stranded in Japan.
It wasn’t long before another amazing opportunity fell into Pelley’s lap. The Young Men’s Christian Association invited him to join their Red Triangle service and set up canteens for American servicemen sent to bolster White Russian troops in Siberia. Pelley jumped at the chance, not out of Christian charity, but because he saw it as a chance to become a war correspondent. His dispatches from the front lines were distributed around the world by the Associated Press.
When he finished with his volunteer service, Pelley returned to Vermont to find a mountain of debt waiting for him. In his absence the managing editors of the Caledonian had run the paper into the ground. Pelley tried to boost circulation by dragging the paper to the right, running editorial after editorial about the dangers of Communism. It didn’t work, and he had to sell the paper for a loss.
Thankfully, at the same time his literary career took off. One of his short stories, “The Toast to Forty-Five,” was selected for a place of honor in The Best Short Stories of 1918. The story is about a company of Civil War veterans who set aside a bottle of wine so that in the far future the last survivor can raise a final toast to his departed comrades. He instead decides to open and share the bottle with shell-shocked troops returning from World War I, as way of honoring the sacrifice they have made for their country. It is maudlin, sentimental, and stilted — but is still somehow affecting. It’s probably the best thing Pelley wrote.
Pelley revised another short story, “The Mother” into a full-length novel. The Greater Glory is about a young woman who spurns the shallow pleasures of the big city to pursue the more fulfilling and traditional life of a wife and mother. In the end she selflessly sacrifices everything she has to provide for the “greater glory” of her sons. It became a best-seller.
His next novel was The Fog, which follows Nathan Forge, a lower-class boy from Vermont who falls in love with a wealthy debutante. Though Forge pulls himself up by his bootstraps he is unable to win her heart or the approval of her family. He runs off to fight in the Russian Revolution and is injured, but is nursed back to health the debutante, who is now a Red Cross nurse, and the two finally fall in love. The Fog really shows the limits of Pelley’s writing: it’s full of one-dimensional characters and tortured sentences, utterly devoid of subtext and subtlety. Having said that, it was sentimental tripe with a happy ending and a best-selling author’s name on the cover. It too was a best-seller, though it didn’t move as many units as The Greater Glory.
You may notice that though The Fog is clearly a roman à clef of Pelley’s life, though it conveniently discards his wife so he can have a fling with a hot nurse. This may have been mirroring actual events in the Pelley marriage, which was rapidly falling apart. It was all Pelley’s fault. He had little interest in home and family, other than expecting his wife and children to cater to his every whim whenever he deigned to visit them.
The Fog‘s publication was apex of William Dudley Pelley’s literary career. In keeping with his previous pattern, any success had to be balanced out by an equal amount of bad luck.
This time, it was illness. In July 1922 Pelley took a swim in the polluted waters of the Passumpsic River and contracted typhoid. He was bedridden for months as the disease wracked his body. He lost a tremendous amount of weight, he lost his sense of smell, he lost the hearing in one ear, and his hair turned gray. He emerged from the ordeal a 135 lbs. shell of his former self. The most striking change was to his face, which had always been long but was now fleshless and ferret-like. Pelley started growing a Van Dyke beard to soften its contours, which only made him look like a Yankee version of Colonel Sanders.
A few weeks later he was approached by producer Larry Giffin, who wanted to purchase the movie rights to the short story “White Faith.” Pelley agreed, on the condition that he be allowed to write the screenplay. His brush with death had given him a new self-awareness, and he could see that the magazine story market was becoming more sophisticated and less interested in his work. He could also see that his mindless garbage stories were a perfect fit for the film industry, which catered exclusively to the lowest common denominator.
The end result was The Light in the Dark, a seven-reeler starring Lon Chaney Sr., E.K. Lincoln, and ingenue Hope Hampton. In the film wealthy playboy J. Warburton Ashe (Lincoln) dumps his girlfriend, coat-check girl Bessie MacGregor (Hampton). The heartbroken Bessie moves into a run-down tenement, where she catches the eye of two-bit hood Tony Pantelli (Chaney) and also some sort of wasting disease. Meanwhile, Ashe stumbles across the Holy Grail while fox hunting in England and brings it back to New York. Tony breaks into Ashe’s home to steal money to pay for Bessie’s futile medical treatments, takes the Grail, and pawns it. The police eventually recover the Grail, which has started to glow in the dark and exhibit healing powers. Tony steals it again and uses it to heal Bessie, but is arrested soon after. During his trial all three characters have a religious experience, the young lovers are reunited, and the charges against Tony are dropped. The end.
In many ways, The Light in the Dark is a typical Pelley story where characters find love and forgiveness through self-sacrifice and devotion. Pelley, though, was not happy with the final cut. He felt that a dream sequence set in Arthurian times went on for too long, and didn’t advance the plot. To make room for the dream sequence most of Tony Pantelli’s scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor. Pantelli was the heart of the film as far as Pelley concerned; if you dropped his character arc you didn’t have a story, just a bunch of stuff that happened. He also objected to the score, which featured jazzy popular music like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and was too hep for Pelley’s mayonnaise-on-white-bread musical tastes.
At least one other person shared Pelley’s assessment of the film: star Lon Chaney, Sr. “The Man of a Thousand Faces” appreciated the way that Pelley had fought for his scenes, and the two men became fast friends. Chaney introduced the writer to other members of his social circle, including “Hopalong Cassidy” star William Boyd and character actor Neil Hamilton (that’s “Commissioner Gordon” to you).
After the success of The Light in the Dark, Pelley became a prolific screenwriter. He churned out sixteen scripts over six years including a crime caper, a Tom Mix Western, a romantic comedy, a supernatural thriller, even an adaptation of The Fog. Most of these films are lost today, though based on contemporary reviews we aren’t missing much.
As Pelley’s Hollywood career took off, his marriage fell apart. It’s hardly surprising, since Pelley preferred partying with actors and actresses in New York to spending time his wife and children back home. Marion took the children and moved in with her parents in Brooklyn. Pelley rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and started banging his hot young secretary. In the evenings he churned out a third novel, Drag, about a newspaperman whose artistic ambitions are thwarted by the shrewish, frigid wife and useless children who act as a “drag” on his creativity and drive. It didn’t sell very well.
In 1926 Pelley abandoned New York to follow the rest of the film industry to Hollywood. His timing couldn’t have been worse. The industry had started to change as tastes shifted to more sophisticated fare, meaning there was less demand for mid-list hacks like Pelley and his increasingly old-fashioned brand of Christian sentimentality. It also didn’t help that the failure of Drag had given him a severe case of writer’s block.
With scriptwriting work drying up, Pelley tried his hand at other ventures. He started an advertising agency. He published a glossy gossip magazine. He dabbled in real estate. He opened an ice cream parlor and an automat. They all failed.
Pelley started showing the signs of a full-blown mid-life crisis. He used the money he had left to purchase a small house where he could smoke and drink and party to his heart’s content. He went out with a different woman every night, at least until he found a steady: former Red Cross nurse Helen Wilhelmina Hansmann, or “Mina” for short. It was fun for the moment, but not terribly fulfilling.
On the evening of May 28, 1928 Pelley went to bed early after a long evening of reading ethnological tracts (as one does).
He was wrenched awake by a tightness in his chest and a voice screaming “I’m dying!” Pelley felt like he was plunging into “a mystic depth of cool blue space not unlike the bottomless sinking sensation that attends the taking of ether for anesthetics.” He closed his eyes and waited for death. Suddenly he was grabbed by two sets of strong hands. He opened his eyes and found himself lying naked on a marble slab, being attended to by kindly men in white hospital uniforms. They told him not to worry, and to pay close attention to everything that would happen to him over the next seven minutes. After they massaged the feeling back into Pelley’s limbs, he was moved into a bathing pool. Its vitalizing waters made him feel relaxed and at peace, healing both his body and soul. Soon he found himself rising into higher realms, and saw a glimpse of Heaven itself. A brief glimpse, for Pelley soon found himself wrenched back to Hollywood Hills bungalow.
Pelley had doubts about the experience, dismissing it as a near-death hallucination. A few days later, while reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul,” a white light shone down upon him and he found himself in Heaven once again. This time, he believed.
An account of these experiences was published in the March 1929 issue of The American Magazine as “Seven Minutes in Eternity: The Amazing Experience That Made Me Over.” It is one of the first modern accounts of an out-of-body experience. The issue flew off the stands, and for a hot minute William Dudley Pelley was one of the most famous people in America.
This wasn’t Pelley’s first brush with the supernatural. As child he had a vision of the true universe hidden beneath the “veil of Eternal Mortality” and was shocked into silence. This childhood encounter with the sublime made him seek out alternative spiritual traditions as an adult. Most notably, after his return from Russia he had a brief affair with a San Francisco reporter who introduced him to Spiritualism and Theosophy, and opened his third eye so he could develop his extra-sensory perception.
Those earlier experiences were merely brief disruptions of Pelley’s routine, but these latest experiences, well, they changed William Dudley Pelley. Afterward he was a different person, calmer, kinder, at peace with himself and the world. He felt no desire to indulge in coffee, alcohol, or tobacco. At least, that’s how Pelley felt. His Hollywood friends felt differently. They thought he was the same miserable cuss he’d always been, only now he was hiding behind a facade of godliness. The best they could figure, he’d converted to some weird religion and turned into a holier-than-thou type. As proof they pointed out that Pelley still drank and smoke — though he retorted that of course he did, it was just that he no longer felt compelled to do so.
Pelley eventually cut all his ties with the motion picture industry and moved back to New York. On the train he had a third vision, more white light from above and a booming voice telling him that he had been chosen to spread the true message of Jesus Christ.
Pelley reached out to his friend Mary Derieux, who was a Spiritualist, a member of the American Society for Psychical Research, and also the editor who had purchased “Seven Minutes in Eternity” for The American Magazine. For weeks Pelley and Derieux used automatic writing to explore what had really happened during those seven minutes.
A vision of Heaven itself came into sharp focus, but wasn’t the sort of transcendental experience you might expect. It was more like a gated community or country club. Angels were free of physical, mental and spiritual defects but lived otherwise unremarkable lives. They lived in buildings of white marble, wore clothes of white linen, and drove white automobiles to work. That’s right, angels had clothes and cars and jobs.
This banal vision of Heaven was far less interesting than the other cosmic revelations Pelley received, which concerned the origins and structure of the universe itself.
Twenty-eight million years ago the Divine Mind created the universe, and placed the tiniest spark of its soul into all life. These soul fragments returned to Earth over and over again in cycles, learning and perfecting themselves so they could ascend to the higher spheres of reality.
The First Sphere of those spheres was a sort of Hell, for souls who could not divest themselves of attachments to the material world. The Third or Fourth Sphere was “Summerland,” an Earth-like realm free of all flaws (which appears to have been the “Heaven” Pelley visited). The Sixth or Seventh Sphere was a realm of pure spirit eternally communing with the Universal Soul.
These revelations were imparted by one of the men who had massaged Pelley back to health, who was either the archangel Michael or a soldier who died in World War I or possibly both. Michael was a “Spiritual Mentor” who helped lift souls to the next level. Pelley had also been chosen to be a Spiritual Mentor. He would go forth and spread the truth of the world: that there is no greater power than love. For preaching this gospel Pelley would be subjected to great trials and tribulations. In the end, though, he would prevail. He would assemble the 144,000 pure souls of the Goodly Company and prepare the world for the Great Liberation, the day when the Great Avatar, the Elder Brother, Jesus Christ himself would return and lead all mankind to salvation.
To aid Pelley in his duties, this Michael bestowed upon him the holy power of clairvoyance. This would allow Pelley to commune with Mentors in higher spheres, so they could tutor him in all aspects of spiritual life.
Whew. That’s a lot to cram into seven minutes!
Most of these ideas have been lifted from other religions and occult traditions. There’s a solid core of Christianity, supplemented by Hinduism and Buddhism as filtered through the lens of Theosophy. To that add a dollop of Gnosticism, a dash of the ongoing effort to reconcile Christianity with other world religions, and a few pinches of oddball ideas from sources like Pythagoreanism, Faithism, British Israelism, and pyramidology. (Pelley used measurements of the Great Pyramid to calculate the precise date of the Second Coming — September 17, 2001 — and other significant events.)
Pelley went forth to spread the good word. The problem was he no longer had anywhere to spread it. Derieux had been fired from The American Magazine, and her replacement wanted nothing to do with Pelley. His other magazine contacts only wanted fiction. He tried to subtly insert some of these ideas into a novel about Spiritualism called Golden Rubbish, but it flopped. He started a magazine, the New Liberator — but he launched it after the stock market crash and no one bought it.
Well, if William Dudley Pelley was anything, he was a salesman. Through brute force, personal charm, and carefully targeted pamphlets he managed to scrape together a small following. There was a small group of hardcore believers, mostly Spiritualists who Pelley had personally converted. They were augmented by a larger but less-committed group of housewives who were curious about what awaited them in heaven. There were also numerous hangers-on, mostly people who had lost everything in the Great Depression and were trying to hedge their bets by praying to every god they could find.
To expand his reach, Pelley allied with several other Spiritualist groups to form The League for the Liberation. The League provided weekly study materials to church groups, to teach them how to fight the works of the Devil and his Communist minions here on Earth. The lessons often introduced concepts from Pelley’s weird brand of Christian Spiritualism. That proved off-putting to most mainstream Christian groups, and the League soon folded. That was okay. Pelley had got what he really wanted: his partners’ money. He diverted resources from the League for the Liberation to fund his relocation to Asheville, North Carolina. A wealthy follower had gifted him a large plot of land to be turned into a spiritual retreat.
Pelley had bigger plans, and instead founded a full-blown Bible college. Galahad College opened on July 5, 1932 with a mission of using psychic research to “combat the menacing crime wave” and “instill the principles of Christ in the American industrial sphere.” The nine-week intensive course cost $150, and consisted of recycled materials from the League for the Liberation. It covered:
- the Ethical History of the world from creation through Lemuria and Atlantis all the way to modern times;
- using Social Metaphysics to separate the forces of light (Christianity) from the forces of darkness (Communism);
- how the forces of darkness and Communism could be defeated through Public Stewardship;
- how to reorganize the government along the lines of Christian Philosophy;
- Cosmic Mathematics;
- and how to develop your inner psychic abilities through Spiritual Eugenics.
Enrollment for the first semester was disappointing, so in-person lectures were dropped and replaced with a correspondence school. That increased the number of students, but not by much.
The College’s meager revenues were poured into Pelley’s new imprint, Galahad Press, which resumed publication of the New Liberator. This time it found a more receptive audience.
If you’ve listened to this podcast before, this might seem familiar. A downwardly mobile white male has a mid-life crisis and starts preaching a new religion that puts him back on top of the social hierarchy. Against all expectations he gathers a small following of the disaffected and credulous. Everything goes well for a few years, and then it all crashes and burns in spectacular fashion.
That’s exactly what’s going to happen. But old on to your hats, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president, Pelley was concerned. He knew Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was Communism in disguise and would destroy the United States. For the first time he asked the Spiritual Mentors not for spiritual guidance, but political guidance. They told him to look to Europe for inspiration.
Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933.
The very next day William Dudley Pelley founded the Silver Legion of America.
It was a paramilitary organization specifically modeled after the Sturmabteilung wing of the Nazi party — the SA, or Brownshirts. Membership was open to anyone over the age of 18 who could scrape together $10 for the annual dues and pass a rigorous background check to ensure that they were white, Christian, and solvent. (You were also required to list the exact hour and minute of your birth, so Pelley could prepare a detailed horoscope.) There was also a $6 fee for the official uniform, which consisted of blue corduroy pants, a tie, and a silver shirt with a scarlet “L” on the breast that stood for love, loyalty, and liberation.
The Silver Legion’s goal was to make the United States a “true democracy, sensitive to the dictates of a sovereign people.” Members pledged to “respect and sustain the sanctity of the Christian Ideal, to nurture the moral tradition in Civic, Domestic and Spiritual life and the culture of the wholesome, natural and inspirational in Art, Literature, Music and Drama; to adulate and revere an aristocracy of Intellect, Talent, and Characterful Purpose in the Body Politic; to sponsor and acclaim aggressive ideals and pride of Craftsmanship rather than the golden serpent of profit, that the lowliest individual may aspire to a life of fullest flower; to exalt Patriotism and Pride of Race, and in the interest of progress and evolution, to recognize the integrity of every nation and seek to perceive his place in the Fellowship of Peoples.”
Those are some lofty goals. How did the Silver Legion plan to accomplish all this?
Well, first they had to overthrow the government. They would prefer to win elections and do it from the inside, but if they had to resort to violence they were fine with that.
On the ruins of the old, they would establish a “Christian Commonwealth” was somehow capitalist, communist, fascist, socialist and theocratic all at the same time. Private property would be abolished, and the government would nationalize all industries. The government would then be reorganized as a corporation. All white Protestant males without a criminal record would be issued a share in that new corporation, and given an opportunity to earn more shares through national service. Each year these shares would earn dividends, providing a universal basic income to shareholders. Any funds unspent at the end of the year would be reclaimed by the government.
Also, while they were at it, Jews would be herded into ghettoes and then exterminated. Blacks would be re-enslaved. Catholics… well, they would figure out what to do about the Catholics and other white trash later.
William Dudley Pelley had founded America’s first explicit Christofascist organization.
Pelley had always been right-wing, but you may be wondering how he went from zero to Hitler in three seconds flat. The answer’s simple: he was always like this. I’ve just been hiding little details from you for maximum impact.
It’s hardly surprising that Pelley was racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. He couldn’t help but be a man of his times, and well, that’s what the times were like. Even so, there were early indications that Pelley’s hatred went above and beyond. The Pelley family was inordinately proud that they had “neither blood taint nor soul taint” — meaning that the family tree had no trace of lesser races like the Scottish, Irish, or Welsh; and also that their Methodism was pure, free of the taint of lesser religions like Judaism or Catholicism or Unitarianism.
Pelley might have remained passively racist if it hadn’t been for his trip to Asia. Dealing with other races and cultures for the first time turned him into a raving white supremacist. At best, he believed non-whites like the Chinese and Japanese were mere children, only pretending to be civilized. At worst, he believed blacks were literal animals.
His Asian adventure also turned him into an anti-Semite. White Russian troops were horribly anti-Semitic, and their hatred spread to the international forces aiding them. Pelley himself was converted by a Red Cross surgeon who told him that 276 Jews from the Upper East Side had planned the Bolshevik Revolution, and produced a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as evidence. Pelley bought the story hook, line, and sinker.
These new beliefs soon began spilling over into his fiction in subtle ways. As an example, the caddish, materialistic Anglo-Saxon playboy in “White Faith” only needs a small nudge in the right direction to be redeemed, while protagonist Tony Pantelli must undergo a grueling ordeal to atone for the twin sins of being a petty criminal and also Italian. The antagonist is a Jewish pawnbroker whose attempts to destroy Christianity by creating a fake Holy Grail are only foiled because he accidentally finds the real Holy Grail.
Pelley blamed his declining fortunes in Hollywood on Jewish studio executives who were either only interested in money, or actively trying to undermine the Christian foundations of American society with depraved and degraded art. He knew this to be true because he had been briefed by anti-Semitic elements within the U.S. State Department, who also told him that Jewish financiers engineered the Teapot Dome scandal to facilitate their takeover of the American economy.
These racist and anti-Semitic beliefs were only intensified by further revelations of the Spiritual Mentors. Non-whites were actually “the beast-progeny of the ape-mothers,” spirits of evil who had been placed on Earth to show white men how not to live. Jews were the worst of the lot, literal demons in human form bent on degrading the human soul. They weren’t even real Jews — real Jews, like Jesus, were blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans. These demons stole their Jewish identity and revised the Bible to cover up the theft.
The Jews still sought to destroy the modern-day descendants of the Aryans: the Germans, the English, and the Americans. Jewish “money barons” tried to destroy America by starting the Revolutionary War, and when that didn’t do the trick they started the American Civil War. Further attempts to destroy the country had included founding the Federal Reserve and the League of Nations. Just in case those failed, they were secretly bankrolling the godless Communist hordes. One way or another, they would purge the material world of the last pure Aryan souls.
Christofascism was not exactly an immediate hit. Almost half of League for the Liberation members and Galahad College students recoiled in horror when Pelley showed his true colors. They wanted to fight the Devil, but if what the Silver Legion was preaching was love it was a strange sort of love. Many of the defectors drifted off to Guy Ballard’s Theosophy-inspired “I Am” movement, which we should really cover at some point. Ballard himself had started out in the League, only to leave it when he began his own explorations of Theosophy.
By the end of the year, there were only 800 dues-paying Silver Shirts. Pelley shuttered or rebranded his other operations to focus all of his attention on the Silver Legion. The League for the Liberation was finally dissolved. Galahad College became the educational arm of the Silver Legion, the Liberation Fellowship. Galahad Press churned out Pelley’s racist, treasonous pamphlets, and the New Liberator spread the bad word.
For every student he lost, Pelley gained thirty more. By 1935 there were 15,000 dues-paying Silver Shirts, with local chapters in 22 states. The had about another 60,000 hangers-on, and estimated they had several million sympathizers. Noted admirers included Dr. John R. Brinkley, a populist demagogue who became famous for inserting goat testicles into human scrotums, and poet Ezra Pound, who had been given an issue of the New Liberator by a friend who thought it was ironically awful and didn’t realize just how anti-Semitic Pound was.
Pelley had forged one of the largest fascist organizations in the United States.
At the local level, the Silver Legion was a force to be reckoned with. Their real strength was their ability to work with other fascist organizations and hate groups like the Order of ’76, American Vigilante Intelligence Federation, the American White Guard, and the Ku Klux Klan. They got along particularly well with the German-American Bund, who purchased Pelley’s hate literature in massive quantities — a clever way to secretly funnel Nazi funds to a potential ally. As a result the Silver Legion could raise large numbers of jackbooted thugs at a moment’s notice, and bring them to bear on any hot button issue. Silver Shirts could be found threatening professors for teaching about Communism, vandalizing Jewish department stores, and staging marches down main street to impress locals with their strength.
At the national level, though, the Silver Legion was a shambles. It had committees and departments devoted to Public Enlightenment, Patriotic Probity, Crime Erasement, and Public Morals. It had commanders and chairmen and even a “Secretary of Jewry.” Most of that bureaucracy was for show, though, because the final say for all decisions rested with the National Commander, William Dudley Pelley, whose dictatorial whims could not be overruled by any of the Legion’s duly elected officers.
Pelley and his personal charisma were the driving force for the Silver Legion’s success, and also the biggest factor holding the Silver Legion back. To put it mildly, other fascist leaders like Fritz Julius Kuhn and “Jayhawk Nazi” Gerald B. Winrod just didn’t like him. They were happy to collaborate with Silver Shirts at the local level, but were wary of dealing religious maniac who seemed like he was trying to steal their followers. (Probably because he was.) As a result American fascist groups remained fragmented and disorganized.
The Silver Legion never actually did all that much. The talked a big game and occasionally conducted paramilitary training exercises, but they never seemed to have a real game plan for taking over the country. Step 1 was fascism, and Step 3 was profit.
It didn’t help that when the Silver Shirts did take action, they tended to overextend themselves.
In early 1934 San Diego regional leader Willard Kemp convinced himself that Mexican Communists, abetted by Jewish agents in City Hall, were going to pour over the border on May Day and take over America. Kemp decided to strike first by taking over city hall, executing the mayor and the city council, and declaring martial law. He and his 200 subordinates retreated to a ranch near El Cajon, and hired two Marine Corps drill instructors to train them for the coming war. The instructors soon realized what the Silver Shirts were up to, and reported their students to the authorities.
The feds infiltrated the camp and discovered the plot went deeper than they realized: the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department was in on the scheme, and sympathizers on local military bases were selling the Legion guns and ammunition. They managed to shut down the San Diego cell, but they had trouble making charges stick to Kemp, and Pelley had plausible deniability. You see, to avoid paying dues to Pelley’s national organization Kemp had had incorporated his cell as a separate company, the Silver Legions of America, California. There were technically no direct ties between that and regular Silver Legion of America.
Pelley could have used the dues Kemp was withholding. He knew how to sell a product, but had no idea how to run a business. That became abundantly clear when Galahad Press ran out of money in early 1934. The irony was that Galahad Press was the only one of Pelley’s ventures that actually made money, so he was constantly moving money out of its accounts to support other Silver Legion activities. Thanks to poor accounting he lost track of how much money the press had in its accounts had and started bouncing checks. His creditors promptly sued.
Pelley’s first move was telling: he finalized his divorce from Marion, and married Mina Hansmann. Not out of love, but out of a desire to prevent her from testifying against him in court.
Pelley tried to solve his problem by pulling an Alex Jones, but refusing to send a representative to the trial only led to a default judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor. He tried to circumvent the judgment by starting a new company, Skyland Press, transferring over Galahad’s remaining assets to Skyland, and then having Galahad declare bankruptcy. He also had Galahad’s financial records burned for good measure, though it was unlikely any forensic accountant could have made heads or tails of his poorly kept books.
There was a problem with this strategy: Galahad wasn’t a private company. Pelley had been selling stock in the press to New Liberation readers for years, and had been promoting it as a solid investment right up until the moment the company folded. After, even. By raiding Galahad’s assets, he was defrauding the company’s stockholders. There was also the slight matter that Pelley had been selling stock in a company that wasn’t properly registered with the state…
After a long and confusing trial Pelley was convicted of securities fraud. The penalty included a steep fine, a total ban on selling securities in North Carolina, and a suspended sentenced of two years hard labor.
The Silver Legion had started to fray around the edges while Pelley was distracted by the trial. Pelley, who was not allowed to cross state lines as part of his parole, could do little to prevent it from starting to unravel. Many of Silver Shirts were quickly snapped up by other movements like the German-American Bund. The organization needed a renewed purpose, something that would bring an influx of new members. Fiery editorials in the New Liberator clearly weren’t doing the trick. Pelley needed something that would help spread his word nationally.
The Hitler of America
So he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
It was a not a decision made lightly — no, it was the fulfillment of divine prophecy. Calculations based on the measurements of the Great Pyramid led Pelley to believe there would be a significant of some sort on September 16th, 1936 — mere weeks before the election. Further research led him to realize that on June 9th, 1936 the government would declare a bank holiday to shore up the nation’s failing banks. This would create a new financial panic, leading to a worldwide uprising against Communism. In the United States the Silver Shirts would quickly defeat the forces of evil establish their Christian Commonwealth on September 16th.
Now, you might wonder why, if Pelley knew that he was going to become the dictator of America in September, meaning the November elections weren’t even going to happen, he was even bothering to run for President. The answer is simple: he needed to get the word out to bring in recruits, so he would have an army to fight the forces of Satan and his Jew Commie minions.
On August 16th, 1935 Pelley founded the Christian Party of America to fight “for Christ and the Constitution.” In spite of the Christian branding it was primarily a fascist party, as evidenced by its use of a forge and a torch for its symbols. Pelley was their candidate for President, of course, with Willard Kemp to be his Vice President.
To say that the Christian Party was poorly managed is an understatement. Thanks to his criminal conviction, Pelley was barred him from appearing on ballots in his home state of North Carolina, where he might have put on a decent showing. Nationally, organizers were only able to get the party on the ballot in one state: Washington. Everywhere else they were reduced to running an expensive write-in campaign.
Pelley made a serious go of it, mailing out as much hate literature as Skyland Press could churn out. For the most part, his campaign materials were full of slanderous personal attacks on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, it turns out was a secret Commie Jew whose real name was “Rosefeld.” He was leading the country to “the Synagogue of Satan” by buying off the poor and disenfranchised with his “Jew Deal.” Once FDR had destroyed the American work ethic and turned us into a nation of compliant sheeple, he would declare himself dictator of the country and eventually Super-Dictator of the World State. You wouldn’t find any of these facts in the establishment “Jewspapers” because they were in on the scam.
Now, Roosevelt wasn’t too happy about all of this. He wanted to strike back at the Christian Party and the Silver Legion, and strike back hard. Democratic Party advisors counseled him to ignore the attacks, pointing out that any response would only serve to legitimize Pelley and his allegations. FDR had to grit his teeth and bear it.
There was no bank holiday on June 9th, 1936. There was no worldwide revolution on September 16th. And on November 3rd, Pelley came in dead last in the election, with a grand total of 1,598 votes out of some 44,000,000 cast nationwide. His impact was so negligible the Christian Party didn’t even show up in most vote tabulations, instead being lumped into the “other” category way down at the bottom. It turns out many of the voters Pelley was trying to appeal to had instead voted for Father Coughlin’s similarly minded Union Party… which still only managed to get 892,378 votes, or less than 2% of all those cast nationally.
Pelley was forced to confront the fact that maybe pyramidology wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Ha! I’m kidding. He instead declared that the forces of Jewry, Communism, and the Antichrist were so powerful that they could defeat the power of prophecy. In essence, he switched is eschatology from pretribulationism to posttribulationism. Now, the forces of darkness would have to destroy the world in order for the forces of light to sweep it clean and establish a new “Dictatorship of Christ” where only the word of the Lord would be law and “nobody else’s opinions will count in the slightest, or their feelings be considered.”
His presidential campaign may have failed, and his pyramidology may have been useless, but Pelley achieved his primary goal — getting a new influx of Silver Shirts, mostly people who had been suckered in by his weak rebranding as a Christian Nationalist organization. He set a new goal for the organization: “a million Silver Shirts by 1939.” It was a wildly unrealistic goal; to meet it the Silver Legion would have to enroll 1,200 new members every single day for two years. At least it gave local organizations something to strive for.
Once again, the Silver Legion proved more than capable of growing at the local level and making small alliances with other hate groups. At the national level, though, Pelley was still an impediment to any sort of lasting growth. He kept pushing his religious beliefs on others, and trying to take over their organizations.
He was also a liability on the international level. With Europe set on a long slow path to war, you might have thought the Nazis would be interested in William Dudley Pelley and his organization. And they were! They thought he might be a useful ally if they ever went to war with the United States. They even approvingly redistributed his anti-Semitic hate literature through their propaganda wing, the World Service. However, they never provided any official support to the Silver Legion. They had been warned away by Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund, who told them that Pelley was a religious nut and a loose cannon.
Unable to get assistance from the most powerful fascist state, Pelley turned his attention to the second most powerful — Japan. Drawing on his Asian escapades, he claimed he had a spiritual affinity with the Japanese people and that as a child a voice from heaven had told him, “When you grow up you are to be the instrument for stopping a great war between your country and Japan.” The Japanese didn’t buy it. They were quite familiar with Pelley’s opinions about non-whites and knew he didn’t actually mean what he was saying. Besides, they were already trying to create a fifth column within the African-American community and openly allying themselves with a racist would have been counter-productive.
Pelley then turned his attention to Native Americans. His attempts were appallingly bad. He wrote articles where he called himself as “Chief Pelley of the Tribe Silver” and plead his case in broken English like a Hollywood stereotype. Native Americans, he said, were descended from Atlanteans and therefore on a higher spiritual plane than the other non-white races. As a result they were being persecuted by Bolshevik Jews in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He promised to free the Natives from the reservations, if they would then help him pack those reservations full of Jews. Needless to say, Native Americans weren’t interested. His only significant convert was a mixed-race attorney from Portland, Elwood A. Towner, who called himself “Chief Red Cloud” and appeared at fascist meetings wearing an Apache war bonnet decorated with swastikas. Towner was the Q Shaman of his day, and no one took him seriously.
By 1939, three years of tireless hustling had expanded the Silver Legion by 5,000 members, or about 0.5% of their stated goal. It turns out, people just weren’t buying what they were selling. Their meetings and marches were always being picketed by anti-Nazi demonstrators, and those protests often boiled over into violence. Most notably, in Minneapolis a small army of Jewish gangsters managed to completely drive the Silver Shirts out of the city. Most embarrassingly, in Sharon, PA a tiny group of superannuated World War I veterans managed to beat the tar out of the local Silver Legion chapter.
Pelley continued to try and spread his word, but eventually he went too far. In October 1938 he published a new pamphlet, Cripple’s Money, where he claimed that the money being raised for polio victims at the Warm Springs Foundation for Crippled Children was actually being diverted into FDR’s own private accounts. That was a step too far for FDR, and he ordered J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to start building a libel case against Pelley and the Silver Legion. Once again, Democratic Party advisors talked the president off the ledge, arguing that a trial would just give the Pelley a public forum to spread his ideas.
The FBI had already started its investigation, though. FDR may not have wanted to see its results, but the House of Representative’s Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities did.
Let’s get one thing straight: the House Un-American Activities Committee, better known as the Dies Committee after its chairman, Martin Dies (D-TX), was as loathsome and abhorrent as every other House Un-American Activities Committee. They spent most of their time investigating “threats to America” that were anything but, like the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and the Campfire Girls.
Even a blind dog can find a bone every so often. Once German tanks started rolling into Poland, it was inevitable that the Dies Committee would turn its attention to home-grown fascist and pseudo-fascist organizations. I mean, at least the ones they disapproved of. Father Coughlin and the Christian Front, for instance, got a free pass.
These investigations often backfired, in exactly the way FDR’s advisors thought they would. George Deatherage of the head of the pro-Nazi American Nationalist Federation, once declared, “Every time I am called before the Committee, it is the best publicity I can get, and then my mail just buries me.”
Sometimes they were successful. In November 1939 they managed to take down the German-American Bund, leading to indictments of its leaders for misappropriation of funds, libel, and failure to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
As Dies and his cronies finished up their investigation of the Bund, they turned their attention to William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Legion of America. They did not think their investigation would take long; it was pretty clear to them that Pelley was just a huckster, using fascism and esoteric religion to drain the wallets of the gullible.
Pelley panicked. He needed to know what the Dies Committee was looking for so he could hide it deeper in his tangled web of companies and their spaghetti accounting. He sent a loyal Silver Shirt, David Mayne, to Washington to do some lobbying. He also tried to secretly insinuate a Skyland Press employee, Frasier S. Gardner, onto the committee’s staff. The Committee wasn’t fooled by Mayne or Gardner, and Pelley’s attempted subterfuge only made them angrier. In August 1939 they tried to compel Pelley to testify before them by issuing a subpoena.
Pelley responded by going on the run, never staying in one place long. He continued to make brief public appearances, mocking the committee and even suing them for defamation when they called him a “racketeer.” Like Deatherage, he found the public sparring was good for the Silver Legion, and its membership once again began to swell.
Going on the run did have a few downsides. A judge in North Carolina revoked Pelley’s parole for his securities fraud conviction and issued a warrant for his arrest. It turns out ducking a Congressional summons falls outside the bounds of “good behavior.” Also, he still wasn’t supposed to leave the state without permission.
In spite of all this, Dies was not in any hurry to track down Pelley or shut down the Silver Legion. Well, at least not until January 1940, when congressman Frank Hook (D-MI) went to the press, claiming to have letters written from Pelley to Mayne that would reveal he had secret allies on the Dies Committee, including Dies himself. Hook was a vocal critic of the committee, and thought the letters would shit it down once and for all.
Dies wasn’t going to take that lying down, and compelled Mayne and Gardner to testify before the Committee. Mayne broke down on the stand and confessed that the letters were forgeries that he himself had written. Gardner, who had denied having any ties to subversive organizations on his job application, was forced to admit his ties to the Silver Shirts under oath and was convicted of perjury. Pelley, though, remained impossible to find.
Well, at least until February 6th, 1940 when made a dramatic and unscheduled appearance in Washington, DC. His timing was well-chosen: he had waited for a moment when Dies was ill and bedridden, and the rest of the leadership were unavailable due to prior commitments. The remaining Committee members scrambled to prepare themselves for his Pelley’s testimony.
Pelley testified in front of the Committee on the 7th, 8th, and 10th of Feburary. He confessed to his association with Mayne and Gardner. He condemned FDR, praised Hitler, and spouted anti-Semitic propaganda. He said he had 25,000 Silver Shirts ready to make him the “Hitler of America.” He claimed to have been approached by Nazi agents and to have rebuffed their offers of financial assistance. He even claimed to have been investigated by the FBI and cleared of any wrongdoing, which the bureau vociferously denied.
On the final day of testimony, the Committee could take it no longer. They became hostile, denouncing Pelley as a fifth columnist, racist, and anti-Semite. Pelley responded by saying he was only fighting Communism, and praised the Dies Committee and its good work hunting down subversives. In fact, he said, he was so pleased with the Dies Committee that he was going to shut down the Silver Legion for good. Acting chairman Joe Starnes (D-AL) responded that the Committee cared nothing for his approval or compliments, and gaveled the session to a close.
As Pelley left the Capitol Building, he was arrested on the outstanding North Carolina warrant. He was extradited back to the state and spent two months in jail before he could scrape together his $10,000 bail.
Meanwhile, the Dies Committee was wrapping up its investigations. They produced a parade of witnesses revealing Pelley’s ties to the Bund, the Order of ’76, the KK, the Christian Mobilizers, the Christian Front, and the Crusaders. The most damaging witness was Dorothy Waring, a former secretary of Pelley’s and an agent of the committee’s. She testified to some of Pelley’s maddest delusions, that he had secret allies inside the government that would make him “dictator of the United States” so he “put into effect the Hitler program.” In the end, the Committee concluded that the Silver Legion was “probably the largest, best financed, and best publicized” fascist group in the United States, now that the Bund had been dismantled. They passed their accumulated evidence over to the Department of Justice.
There was almost nothing left to prosecute. After Pelley was released from jail, he announced he was disbanding the Silver Legion, selling Skyland Press, and relocating to Noblesville, IN. Pelley’s motivation for the move seemed mysterious at the time, but it seems he just wanted to get out of town and chose Indiana because he was having an affair with his secretary, who was from Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, back in North Carolina he was tried in asbentia and found guilty of multiple parole violations. Pelley avoided prison by avoiding the state for the rest of his life, forfeiting his $10,000 bond and living as a wanted fugitive in Noblesville.
Pelley wasn’t done with fascist politics just yet. He tried to make alliances with other right-wing organizations: the Christian Front, Social Justice, the Knights of the White Camellia, the America First Committee, the National Union for Social Justice, Mothers to Keep America out of War. All of these alliances failed, because no one them wanted to deal with someone as toxic as Pelley.
At this point Pelley’s publishing empire was in disarray. No one was buying his newspapers or pamphlets unless they were specifically trying to provide financial support to a fellow traveler. No one was actually reading anything he wrote. That’s probably for the best, because his publications were still unabashedly anti-Semitic, anti-FDR, and pro-Hitler.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s formal entry into World War II, government censors ordered Pelley to submit everything he was publishing for inspection prior to distribution. They quickly discovered a copy of one of his magazines, The Galilean, where he claimed that FDR was lying about Pearl Harbor: the Japanese had completely destroyed the pacific fleet, that the attack was “divine justice” for the sins of the nation and Americans should just surrender; and that the New Deal had driven the country into bankruptcy. This was the last straw for the government. A copy of The Galilean was found in a soldier’s duffle bag, and the government decided it was done playing nice with William Dudley Pelley. On April 4th, 1942 Pelley was arrested charged with treason under the 1917 Espionage Act, for “making false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military.”
It goes without saying that the 1917 Espionage Act is an unconstitutional piece of garbage, designed purely to let the Federal Government trample all over your hard-won civil rights. But once again, blind dog, meet bone.
Pelley fought it tooth and nail, of course. He filed dozens of defense motions, including a laughable attempt to get his indictment invalidated because the grand jury didn’t have any women on it. He subpoenaed notable Hitler fans and anti-Semites like aviator Charles Lindbergh, Major General George Van Horn Mosely, Senator Rush D. Holt, and Representative Jacob Thorkelson to testify on his behalf. Few of them showed up to testified: Lindbergh did but seemed confused as to why he was there, and Thorkelson said he didn’t know Pelley but felt it the trial was a gross violation of his First Amendment rights. The main thrust of his dense was that he was no traitor, just a simple country newspaperman, with some odd but sincerely held religious beliefs. Of course, he also tried to turn the trial into a referendum on the U.S. Government, which he claimed as run by a vast Jewish Communist Conspiracy.
In the end, the prosecution was able to easily hang Pelley with the rope he had generously provided. The jury clearly viewed him as a modern-day Benedict Arnold, and he was sentenced to fifteen years hard time in United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute. And that’s where he would stay, with one brief exception.
In 1942 the Federal Government put together an ambitious case, United States v. McWilliams, that attempted to try every proto-fascist leader in America as part of a vast pro-Hitler conspiracy attempting to overthrow the government. It was an enormous stretch, but FDR and special prosecutor William Power Maloney seemed to prefer having one big attention-getting trial over dozens of smaller ones. Defendants included Pelley, Winrod, and Deatherage; anti-Semite Lois de Lafayette Washburn of the American Gentile Protective Association; and the leadership of the German-American Bund.
There were enormous problems with the case. Small trials may not have been flashy or attention-getting but they were generally slam dunks. McWilliams did not have any sort of concrete evidence of a vast conspiracy, and had to rely on a shaky foundation made up of circumstantial evidence and fridge logic. The prosecutors tried to paper over these cracks by rushing through their presentations, creating the impression that this was a show trial — which it totally was.
There was also the problem that the thirty defendants had thirty defense lawyers, who refused to cooperate with each other because that would provide prima facie evidence of a conspiracy. As a result even the simplest motion became a complicated headache, and the trial dragged on forever. It started in April 1944, and by November prosecutors had only called 39 of 100 witnesses. The defense hadn’t even started to present its case yet. And there were thirty of those cases to present!
In any case, all that hard work proved to be moot. The presiding judge died of a heart attack in November. The defense finally became unanimous on one thing — that they refused to continue the case under a new judge. A mistrial was declared, and though the government tried to re-file charges they were eventually shut down by the U.S. District court for failure to give the defendants a speedy trial.
United States v. McWilliams did manage to accomplish one thing. It assembled every major fascist sympathizer in American in one place, where they could talk and chat and exchange ideas and forge alliances and make plans about what they would all do after they got out of jail.
Freeing Pelley from prison became sort of a cause célèbre for ultra-nationalist and right-wing political groups. Initially they did not have success, but times were changing. World War II wound down after fascism was defeated, and the Cold War against Communism started. Once Pelley could be re-cast not a Hitler sympathizer but as a misguided anti-Communism, the movement started to gain traction.
He was ultimately paroled in 1950, after having served eight years of his fifteen year sentence. North Carolina immediately tried to get him extradited so he could finally servetime for his 1935 fraud conviction and his 1940 parole violation, but no one else could be bothered to help. They thought Pelley was a broken man, a useless spent force In many ways, he was. He had no Silver Shirts to do his bidding, no League of the Liberation to lap up his theology, and he was barred from participating in politics by the terms of his parole. Heck, he couldn’t even write about politics.
So he found religion again. Not a new religion, mind you. He just took his old “Seven Minutes in Eternity” and League of the Liberation stuff, all of the Christian Commonwealth stuff he’d written for the Silver Legion, and stripped out all the pro-Hitler stuff and some of the anti-Semitism. He left in most of the racism.
Now, I say it wasn’t a new religion, but it did have some new elements. You seen, on June 24th, 1947 something had happened that had opened Pelley’s mind to new possibilities, not just in the spiritual realm, but in the vast expanse of the universe that lay outside of our solar system. That something was Kenneth Arnold’s first sighting of a flying saucers near Mount Rainier.
William Dudley Pelley had become a UFO cultist, and it’s frankly astounding how little revision his religious ideas required to accommodate aliens and spaceships.
It all starts with the Elohim, “the spirits that were the stars.” They arose some 50 million years ago on a small planet orbiting Sirius. After achieving a high level of spiritual development the Sirians sent emissaries to Earth where they interbred with the locals, leading to the rise of man and providing a spiritual missing link to explain the evolution. Of course, they also interbred with animals to create a host of animal-headed abominations, the Nephilim. When the Nephilim population got out of hand, the Sirians melted the polar ice caps to drown them in a Great Flood.
That saved the pure white souls remaining on the planet, but locked them into their physical forms and prevented them from ascending to the higher spiritual realms. The abominations were eventually reincarnated into the lesser races, you know, the blacks and Asians and Jews, who still strove to destroy the pure ones. Their emissaries included Napoleon, Lenin, and Stalin.
The Spiritual Mentors, including Jesus, were just more star guests, trying to break the cycle and free their progeny from the prison of the material world.
The best way this could be accomplished was by refining one’s psychic powers. These were tied to the pineal gland, of course, and could be activated via sex but that was a bit demeaning. Instead, it was preferable to attune yourself to “the enticements of love without the devitalizing effects of passion.” Eventually you would be able to read minds, make others do your bidding, and even raise the dead. Pelley’s were already quite refined, as he could astrally project and bilocate, though he did have a head start since he was now apparently the reincarnation of Saint Peter.
Eventually once enough people had developed their psychic powers this would culminate in World War III. The Chinese, who were the descendants of the ancient Lemurians, would rise up and crush the Jewish cabal that secretly ran the world, starting with the Soviet Union and eventually ending in Israel. Then a white “Pan-Aryan Federation” headed by America would crush the remaining Muslim countries and force the Chinese into their naturally subservient state. And then we could all evolve into the perfect utopia mirroring that of the Sixth Plane Ethereality, and then we would all bugger off back to space. This would all happen in 1956, or maybe 1959. The Great Pyramid was apparently unsure about the date.
Pelley started a new imprint, Soulcraft Press, to distribute his work. He provided books, magazines, even audiotapes detailing this strange mishmash of science, fiction, and religion. His timing couldn’t have been better. In the 1950s the public had a hunger for UFOs, parapsychology, and the spiritual and Pelley’s Soulcraft provided all three. His biggest supporters came from a splinter group of George Adamaski’s “Royal Order of the Tibet,” which similarly mixed elements of Theosophy with Space Brothers, though Adamski’s were from Venus and not Sirius. It made some sense — Adamski had started out following Pelley’s League of the Liberation lectures, before drifting off into orbit of another Pelley-inspired religious leader, Guy Ballard.
He published another novel, The Road Into Sunrise, which was essentially a spiritual successor to Golden Rubbish but now with spaceships. He published As Thou Lovest, a biography of Jesus Christ full of new details about how he was really an Aryan, how he had invisible friends from outer space, and was sent by aliens to destroy the Jews. In his spare time he worked on “Univision,” a weird set of glasses that combined ultra-violet light and piezo-quartz lenses that would allow the wearer to see discarnate souls through television screens, like Roddy Piper’s 3-D glasses in They Live. In his down time he pursued his true passion, conducting seances with the spirits of the rich and famous.
Over the years he received post-mortem revelations from George Washington, William Lloyd Garrison, William Seward, James Fenimore Cooper, Horace Greeley, Mary Baker Eddy, and Henry Ford. Most spirits had utterly banal revelations, essentially testimonials about how great Soulcraft was and how the public should run out and buy more pamphlets. Other had more useful information to impart. Mark Twain told him the government had been secretly funding the Communist menace. Henry Ward Beecher told him the Commies were secretly bankrolling the Civil Rights movement. Nostradamus told Pelley he was great, and he would live to be a hundred years old.
Nostradamus was wrong. William Dudley Pelley died of a heart attack on July 1st, 1965. During the pre-funeral viewing, parties unknown planted an eight foot cross in front of the funeral home and set it ablaze.
Pelley probably would have liked that.
Pelley may be gone and forgotten, but his ugly legacy continues to live with us today. His Soulcraft writings are still being circulated by his descendants and disciples, and continue to influence UFO cults from the Church of Scientology to the Church Universal and Triumphant. Old copies of his Silver Legion tracts are still being circulated as anti-Semitic propaganda by neo-Nazi groups. Former Silver Shirt members went on to found the Posse Comitaus, the Aryan Nations, and the Sovereign Citizen movement. Every generation someone rediscovers his conspiratorial rantings and becomes a convert.
Let Pelley and his legacy be a constant reminder to all of us that yes, it can happen here.
Pelley’s best friend in Hollywood was Lon Chaney Sr., “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Chaney is best known for his riveting performance in the silent 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, one of the first Universal Horror films. He’s not the first Universal Horror actor to appear on the show: we’ve covered Rondo Hatton (“The Creeper”) in Series 1’s “Monster Without a Mask,” and Burnu Aquanetta (“The Ape Woman”) in Series 8’s “Burning Fire, Deep Water.”
Soulcraft’s version of the spirit realm was heavily influenced by late 19th Century Spiritualism and other adjacent movements, including Theosophy and John Ballou Newbrough’s Oahspe. Pelley wasn’t the first person to be influenced by the Oahspe, and he won’t be the last. Notable fellow travelers include Raymond A. Palmer from our ode to the Shaver Mystery, Series 11’s “A Warning to Future Man.”
That’s not the only Palmer connection, either. One of Soulcraft’s chief disciples was George Hunt Williamson, whose early work on flying saucers was frequently published in Palmer’s magazines. That puts him in the rarefied company of fellow UFOlogist Gray Barker, from our previous episode “Worse Than Frankenstein.”
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