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Who Was William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Legion?

In Part 2 of our miniseries on Hitler's American Friends from author Bradley Hart, we learn about an American organization that mirrored the Nazi's in ruthlessness, exclusiveness, and terror: The Silver Legion. 

By
Bradley Hart,
Episode #61
William Dudley Pelley

In 1933, a former Hollywood screenwriter-turned-mystic named William Dudley Pelley made a startling public announcement. During a trance four years earlier, Pelley claimed, he had received some startling news from his spiritual contacts. The world was about to be plunged into economic chaos. From that crisis, an important new world leader would emerge. Pelley would know him by his former profession: The leader in question would previously have worked as a house painter. When that leader had obtained power, the prophecy concluded, Pelley was ordained to create his own so-called Christian Militia and make preparations to seize power in the United States. With the recent rise of former painter Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany, Pelley now announced, the time had come for him to make a play on the national stage through his new organization, the Silver Legion. Over the coming years, the Legion would become one of the most bizarre — and terrifying — groups looking to emulate Hitler’s Germany in the United States.

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William Dudley Pelley’s career had been fraught with controversy long before he founded the Silver Legion. He was born in Massachusetts in 1890 as the son of a Methodist pastor. A voracious reader and writer, the young Pelley began publishing his own journal in 1909. Many of his early writings focused on the role of religion in society. He came to the view that Christianity would need to change if it were to remain relevant in the modern world. Later he turned to fiction and a career in journalism. In 1918, he embarked on an ill-timed reporting assignment in China and India with his young wife, and they were soon stranded in Japan due to wartime travel restrictions.

Yet this soon yielded a life-changing opportunity for Pelley. In mid 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered thousands of American troops into Siberia to fight Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War — a part of American history we often forget about today. To aid these soldiers, the YMCA pledged to provide humanitarian assistance, and one of the group’s primary volunteer recruiting grounds was Japan. Pelley signed up, and found himself traveling across Siberian wilderness. Along the way he filed reports for the Associated Press. In the course of the war, Pelley developed a deep-seated hatred of Communism — and the Jews he increasingly thought were behind it — that would influence his later activities.

This was a man who could clearly command a fanatical following.

After the war, Pelley returned to the U.S. and embarked on a career in the burgeoning movie industry. In 1921 he sold one of his stories to a movie studio and, after divorcing his wife, moved to Hollywood. He would end up writing or assisting on nearly two dozen films, giving him a small fortune and access to all the fun Hollywood had to offer a young, recently-divorced man. Yet the excitement was short-lived. By 1927 Pelley fell into some kind of personal crisis. He left Hollywood, moved to a small house in Altadena, and began reevaluating his life. Around the same time, he began railing about Jews in the movie industry who he thought were mistreating him. In May 1928, Pelley reported having the first of his spiritual visions. After feeling as if he was being carried through some kind of a mist, Pelley recounted waking up on a marble slab next to two men who began revealing the secrets of the universe to him.  Among these was the revelation that death was only temporary and that all human beings are reincarnated to proceed up a ladder to higher existence. Even more importantly, Pelley reported, the men told him that he would receive additional revelations in the future. The next day, Pelley said he felt better than he had in years and appeared physically younger to his friends. Over the coming months, Pelley reported having more visions and experimented with trendy spiritualist techniques including seances and automatic writing. In 1929, Pelley left California for New York and began writing about his experiences. A small circle of followers started coming to him for spiritual advice, and in due course he began publishing a journal that attracted more than 10,000 subscribers. The Hollywood screenwriter and journalist had now become a spiritual guru. In 1931, Pelley founded his own publishing company called the Galahad Press, and opened a small college in Asheville, North Carolina, to spread his teachings.

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