The Silver Shirts, Pelley vowed, would wage “the ultimate contest for existence between Aryan mankind and Jewry.”
The news quickly crossed the Atlantic, hitting the United States like an ill wind. Adolf Hitler had vaulted into power, becoming Germany’s chancellor. Most Americans familiar with Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party reacted with apprehension, but one Asheville man was “inspired,” as he would later put it. William Dudley Pelley — writer, publisher, guru, self-proclaimed metaphysician and avid anti-Semite — was about to hitch his fate to the Nazis’ rising star.
Pelley was working late in his Charlotte Street office that day when his secretary brought in the evening paper. In his autobiography, The Door to Revelation, Pelley recalled how he’d seized on the front-page headline about Hitler. “I looked at the lines. I read them again. I sought to comprehend them. Something clicked in my brain!”
Pelley had been watching Hitler for years, admiring the man who’d railed against the “Jewish menace” and muscled his way into power with a cadre of brown-shirted thugs. As a few of Pelley’s compatriots milled about the office, he looked up from the newspaper and made an impassioned announcement that stopped them in their tracks.
“Tomorrow,” Pelley declared, “we have the Silver Shirts!”
And that’s how, on Jan. 31, 1933, Asheville became home to what would prove to be one of the largest pro-Hitler organizations in the United States: the Silver Legion of America (or Silver Shirts for short). Their brief and bitter story is an unusual one for Asheville, and their mercurial leader’s news-making career here is all but absent from most local histories.
That lack of attention, plus other recent disclosures about the strong but historically hidden and overlooked ties between some prominent Americans and the Nazis, makes Pelley’s story seem ripe for review. No less a personage than President Bush’s grandfather, the late Prescott Bush, has come under new scrutiny for his part in bankrolling Hitler’s rise to power. And a new book — Max Wallace’s The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich — shows how even those two American icons served as pro-German propagandists.
It’s a history that can be hard to come to terms with, Wallace told Xpress in a recent phone interview. “We look at Hitler’s Germany as a sort of lunatic operation, as the kind of thing that just couldn’t happen here,” he said. “People are embarrassed to think that Americans could have embraced this lunacy.”
It was, of course, only a brief and partial embrace. Today, Asheville displays no memorials to Pelley, no monuments or street names to mark his legacy. But amid the current wave of historical investigations of American ties to the Nazis, the special-collections division of UNCA’s Ramsey Library recently made available a set of files documenting much of Pelley’s work in Asheville. In addition, Pack Memorial Library has long housed rare Pelley materials, including most of his books and well-preserved copies of Silver Shirt newspapers. From those faded pages and yellowed news clips emerges the long-forgotten but still-intriguing story of Asheville’s New Age Nazi.
Although he achieved notoriety here, Pelley was not an Asheville native. He was born in 1890 in Massachusetts, the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher turned toilet-paper manufacturer. A restless but contemplative boy, Pelley showed a talent as a wordsmith from an early age. At 19, he launched his first magazine, The Philosopher, and he would remain a prolific publisher for the rest of his life.
In his 20s, Pelley freelanced for popular magazines, including Collier’s, Good Housekeeping and The Saturday Evening Post. Soon his writing started taking him places. Pelley covered the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in Siberia as well as historic events in the Far East. Back in the United States, he won prizes for his short stories, penned several novels, and struck gold in Hollywood, where he cranked out a series of screenplays that were made into major motion pictures.
Despite those accomplishments, though, Pelley wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing, he felt — some sense of deeper purpose. He found it one May night in 1928 when, while sojourning at a California mountain bungalow, he drifted into what he later described as an “ecstatic interlude.” For “seven minutes in eternity,” Pelley said, he left his earthly body and entered a mystical realm where he bathed in an ornate pool “among jolly, worthwhile people,” including a divine oracle who continued to speak to him from then on.
“Call it the Hereafter, call it Heaven, call it Purgatory, call it the Astral Plane, call it the Fourth Dimension, call it What You Will,” Pelley wrote in an account of the episode. “Whatever it is — and where — that human entities go after being released from their physical limitations, I had gone there that night.” Feeling reborn into a fundamentalist form of Christianity, he decided it was his mission to “give the whole race an inspiration by which it may quicken its spiritual pace.”
In search of further insight, Pelley abandoned Hollywood for a brief stint in New York City, where he networked with clairvoyants and mystics of all sorts. Frequenting Greenwich Village salons and seances, he quickly developed what was to prove a lifelong interest in a grab bag of esoterica, from channeling to pyramidism, from studies of the afterlife to extrasensory perception, weaving it all into his unique brand of Christianity.
In 1930, Pelley relocated to Asheville, where, with assistance from wealthy donors inspired by his spiritual revelations, he founded the short-lived Galahad College. Housed in the Asheville Women’s Club building at the corner of Charlotte Street and Sunset Parkway (today the site of the Zion Christian Assembly church), Galahad offered a course of study based on Pelley’s own developing philosophy. Key courses included “Christian Economics” and “Social Metaphysics.”
Meanwhile, Pelley launched a new magazine, Liberation, which featured his latest insights obtained from the “hyper-dimensional instruction” he said he received via “mental radio.” Along with flowery paeans to Jesus Christ, the newspaper featured articles with titles like “Why You Are Opposed by Invisible Persons,” “Take Your Daily Cues From the Great Pyramid” and “You Can Remember Before You Were Born!”
Galahad College folded after a couple of years, but Pelley continued to churn out his mystical manifestos. Meanwhile, he began searching in earnest for a way to parlay his supernatural interests into some tangible power here on earth. It wasn’t long before another mystic with political aspirations, one Adolf Hitler, paved the way for Pelley’s most ambitious project yet.
In 1933, grabbing onto Hitler’s coattails, Pelley shifted his focus from spiritualism to fascism. “Silver symbolizes the purity of our fight,” he proclaimed, “and the purity of our race.” The Silver Shirts, he vowed, would wage “the ultimate contest for existence between Aryan mankind and Jewry.”
Pelley’s writings, one critic declared in a 1934 New Republic article, were now “a mad hodge-podge of mystic twaddle and reactionary, chauvinistic demagogy.” Jews, Pelley maintained, were the source of all the world’s supposed evils, from Communism to “Hebrew Jazz.” In Washington, he wrote, “Jewish vampires” were pulling the levers of power through their pawn, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In kinder times, this bigoted world-view might have been wholly disregarded. But in pockets of Depression-era America, hard times had prompted a rise in scapegoating — and the Jews were a ready target. For some, Pelley’s peculiar brand of hate-mongering — still interwoven with his idiosyncratic strain of mystical Christianity — struck a sympathetic chord.
Good timing wasn’t the only way Pelley seemed tailor-made for the role of American fuehrer. Like the German leader, Pelley was a short (5 feet 7 inches) and oddly dapper man. Sporting spectacles and an angular goatee, he clad himself in the uniform he designed for the Silver Shirts: a silver or gray shirt with a scarlet “L” above the heart (to signify the “Legion”), a blue necktie, short-cut blue corduroy pants, and black leggings covering the tops of black boots. At rallies, Pelley donned a gray cap modeled after the ones worn by Hitler’s storm troopers, and he was judged a rousing (if pompous and bombastic) orator.
As he threw himself into organizing his own “SS,” Pelley was delighted to find ready recruits across the country. “It was an awe-inspiring thing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I had known that the nation was disgruntled with the encroaching caste of Jewry. I had never appreciated that it hungered for leadership like this.” Chapters of the Silver Shirts sprang up in 22 states, with the largest clusters organizing in the Midwest and on the West Coast. At its peak in the mid-1930s, Pelley boasted that the group’s membership reached 25,000; historians, however, have put the number closer to 15,000.
Establishing a quasi-military command structure, Pelley designated himself “chief” and appointed state commanders across the nation. The rank and file were grouped into 10-member “safety councils” that were instructed to meet regularly and learn to act as a unit. While a few Silver Shirt chapters conducted serious paramilitary training, most busied themselves with listening to speeches, holding the occasional public rally or march, and distributing Pelley’s many publications.
In the pages of Liberation and Pelley’s Silvershirt Weekly, the author trumpeted his plan for addressing “the Jewish problem” — a plan that bore no small resemblance to Hitler’s. The Silver Shirts, Pelley pledged, would spearhead a new “Christian Commonwealth” in the United States, which would register all Jews in a national census, then systematically reduce their role in business, government and cultural affairs, ultimately confining all Jews within one city in each state.
“We are sanctioning no programs of mob violence in dealing with this people,” Pelley wrote to his followers in 1934, “but by the same token we are not ignoramuses in regard to Judah’s plans and purposes and we will not stand for nonsense.” In fact, for all their hostile rhetoric, the Silver Shirts rarely became involved in violence, and when they did, Pelley’s followers didn’t generally fare well. Militant trade unionists and Jewish gangsters sometimes sent their own strongmen to break up Silver Shirt rallies. According to a report by the American Jewish Historical Society, for example, Minneapolis “gambling czar” David Berman and his associates forcibly shut down three Silver Shirt gatherings, “cracking heads” and effectively running the group out of town.
And though the organization brought a core of devoted activists to Pelley’s crusade, even at its peak, the Silver Shirts remained a fringe group mostly ridiculed by both the national and local press. A 1934 Asheville Times editorial, for example, openly mocked Pelley: “Asheville enjoys the rather dubious distinction of being the headquarters of the Silver Shirts. This honor was not achieved, but thrust upon the city. … We have seen the Silver Shirt movement for what it is. In laughing at it, we laugh at others who find it a menace to the Republic.”
Pelley, however, could claim genuine success in at least one pursuit: His anti-Semitic ruminations spread nationwide. Pelley’s print shop, housed in the old Biltmore-Oteen Bank building, cranked out such items as the 10-cent pamphlet What 50 Famous Men have Said About Jews and a 25-cent reprint of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a turn-of-the-century anti-Semitic forgery — already discredited by reputable scholars by the 1930s — that purported to reveal a “Jewish plot against Christian civilization.”
But the strongest salvo in Pelley’s war of words was another forgery, the so-called “Franklin Prophecy,” which he appears to have authored. The Feb. 3, 1934 issue of Liberation featured an unattributed article, provocatively titled, “Did Benjamin Franklin Say This About the Hebrews?” The article reproduced a lengthy excerpt from what it claimed was the diary of South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Purportedly written during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the “diary” entry recorded Franklin saying that while the new country must guard against religious tyranny, a more severe threat was at hand: “This greater menace, gentlemen, is the Jew!”
The entry quoted further from Franklin’s supposed screed, which urged barring Jewish immigration to the new United States: “In whatever country Jews have settled in any great numbers they have lowered its moral tone. … If you do not exclude Jews for all time, your children’s children will curse you in your graves!”
A dramatic declaration, to be sure — but a fictitious one. There’s no evidence that Franklin ever made those remarks, much less that Pinckney ever wrote them down, according to numerous subsequent historical investigations of the “Franklin Prophecy.” Still, the forgery — appropriated by Germany’s propaganda apparatus — echoed around the world.
Shell games and sedition
For all Pelley’s energy, vision and skill as a propagandist, however, he proved to be an abysmal businessman. With each new political or spiritual whim, it seemed, Pelley founded another enterprise, never pausing to solidify any of them. In the course of a mere 10 years, he incorporated Galahad College, the Galahad Press, the Fellowship Press, the Foundation for Christian Economics, the League for the Liberation, Pelley Publishers and the Silver Shirts, and founded five publications: Liberation, Pelley’s Silvershirt Weekly, The New Liberator, The Galilean and Roll-Call.
Congressional investigators later concluded that the Silver Shirts had raised some $174,000 in the 1930s through donations and publication sales. But Pelley badly jumbled the finances among his various endeavors, conducting a contorted corporate shell game that promptly mired him in legal troubles. In January 1935, Pelley was found guilty of selling worthless stock. Convicted of fraud in Buncombe County court, he was fined and given a suspended prison sentence.
Meanwhile, the federal government was also casting a wary eye on the Silver Shirts. In 1934, the House of Representatives’ newly created Special Committee on Un-American Activities sent an investigator to Asheville to seize a sizable portion of Pelley’s financial records. (Later, in 1940, the committee would call Pelley to Washington to grill him about his pro-Hitler organizing and publishing.)
Undaunted, Pelley rallied the Silver Shirts behind a madcap bid for the White House. In 1936, he ran as the presidential candidate for the hastily assembled Christian Party, whose platform resembled the Silver Shirts’ hate-filled mission statements. Pelley campaigned in 16 states but made it onto the ballot in only one: Washington state, where he garnered a mere 1,598 votes (300 less than the Communist Party candidate received).
As the United States drifted closer to war with Nazi Germany, Pelley and other American fascists pushed to keep the country neutral and openly backed the Axis powers. Meanwhile, early in 1941, Pelley decided to relocate. His legal problems in Asheville had multiplied, and worse, he’d attracted no significant local following, outside of his small circle of advisers and office staff. He was just getting his new headquarters off the ground in Noblesville, Ind. — strategically positioned amid some hotbeds of Silver Shirt activity — when the United States declared war against Germany and Japan.
Although Pelley was clearly too marginal a figure to pose any real threat to national security, President Roosevelt himself now deemed the Silver Shirt leader a menace to society. In January 1942, Roosevelt wrote FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, mentioning Pelley’s publication The Galilean and commenting, “Some of the stuff appearing therein comes pretty close to being seditious.” The president added, “Now that we are in a war, it looks like a good chance to clean up a number of these vile publications.” In a March cabinet meeting, Roosevelt went further still, ordering Attorney General Francis Biddle — a civil libertarian who’d been reluctant to crack down on dissenting publications — to move against Pelley.
The FBI raided Pelley’s offices in April 1942 and arrested him. In August, a jury of farmers and tradesmen in Indianapolis federal court found him guilty on multiple charges of sedition. The trial featured at least one laughable moment: While Pelley was on the stand, his attorney accidentally addressed the Silver Shirt leader as “Mr. Hitler.”
Further into the mystic
Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Pelley spent the rest of the war behind bars. Paroled in 1950, he returned to writing and publishing but mostly steered clear of politics. Pelley spent his remaining years in Indiana, delving further and further into mystical explorations. He founded a small, cultish group called Soulcraft and spent thousands of hours writing messages “channeled” from various deities and expounding on the divine providence of UFOs and extraterrestrials.
Despite Pelley’s ignominious descent into the dustbin of history, it would be wrong to say his influence died with him. The fraudulent “Franklin Prophecy” he fostered has found new life on the Internet via neo-Nazi Web pages and online discussion lists. In fact, Pelley was a kind of founding father of modern hate groups, as several former Silver Shirts went on to become instrumental in forging the post-World War II white-power movement. In the early 1970s, for example, Henry “Mike” Beach, a former Silver Shirt state leader, co-founded the Posse Comitatus, a violently racist anti-government group. And former Silver Shirt Richard Butler, now 85, has spent the last 30 years leading the Aryan Nations, until recently the country’s most prominent neo-Nazi organization.
In Asheville, however, the sole vestiges of Pelley’s work are stored away in libraries. And that should come as no surprise, observes UNCA history professor Milton Ready, who helped assemble the university’s Pelley collection. “He did not have a base of support here,” says Ready. “This was just a mail drop for him.” Asheville was simply too tolerant, he says, and its Jewish community too involved in business and civic affairs, for Pelley-ism to take root locally.
By the time Pelley died in 1965 at age 75, he had faded into near obscurity. There was, however, one final, fitting tribute to the man who’d stoked the fires of fascism in America. Shortly after Pelley’s death, as his body lay in state in a funeral parlor near Indianapolis, someone planted a wooden cross in the ground outside and set it aflame.