Every once in a while someone comes bubbling up out of obscurity to become a driving force of fear and strange beliefs. Many cult leaders seem to be like this, popping up to drawn followers like moths to the flame, and often infecting minds with aberrant belief systems. While in some cases this can turn out to be rather harmless, in others it evolves to a whole other level. One largely forgotten figure from American history started life as a popular writer, only to spiral out of control into the mysticism, the occult, and Nazi ideologies, and pose a danger to the very nation itself.
As with some of the worst monsters in history, the man known as William Dudley Pelley does not seem to have started out as particularly dangerous, venomous, or eccentric. Born into poverty in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1890, he would go on to largely educate himself, eventually becoming quite an esteemed journalist. Indeed, he would write for several high profile, respected newspapers, and also branched out into fiction, going on to earn two O. Henry awards for his short stories The Face in the Window and The Continental Angle. He would then go on a stint of missionary work with the Red Cross in Siberia, as well as covering the Bolshevik revolution for the Saturday Evening Post, only to then find his way to Hollywood, where he became a moderately successful screenwriter during the 1920s. His life up to that point seems almost like some romantic adventure, but dark times were ahead, and he was about to fly off the tracks.
By this time, Pelley had gradually already attracted a reputation as being an extreme anti-communist and also a racist, barely containing his hatred of Jews, who he thought were behind communism, but the really weird stuff began with an increasing interest in the occult and spiritualism. In 1928 he wrote an article in The American Magazine in which he claimed to have had an out of body experience in which he had gone to a spiritual, “hypo-dimensional” realm and communicated with the entities that resided there, an experience that would eventually be written as a book titled Seven Minutes in Eternity: With the Aftermath. During this bizarre experience he claimed to have spoken with interdimensional beings and actually made contact with God and Jesus Christ as well, and he said he had been granted various powers such as levitation, seeing through walls, astral projection, and psychokinesis. However, the most disturbing part of all is the disturbing message he brought back from this alleged parallel dimension.
Pelley claimed that during his surreal experience he had learned many of the secrets of the universe, and that he had been told by none other than Jesus and God Himself that he was to be the bringer of vast spiritual reform to the country, and mostly that reform was based on being white. According to him, he had been told that souls continually were reincarnated, and that the highest level one could reach was to be born as a white person. Not only this, he believed he had been given the blueprint for how to enact his great reform. He claimed that a prophecy had been revealed to him, in which a leader who had once been a house painter would rise to world power to guide the planet to its true destiny. For his part, Pelley said he had been ordained to create a vast, “Christian Militia” with which to overthrow the corrupt U.S. government, and off the back of these experiences he formed a sort of spiritual movement that attracted a startling number of followers over the years. During this time he claimed to have many more visitations by the interdimensional entities, dabbled in seances and automatic writing, and created a mystical belief system that he considered to be a perfected form of Christianity, based on elements of theosophy, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and pyramidism, which he called the "Liberation Doctrine.” Before long, Pelley was seen as a sort of guru or cult leader, even starting his own publishing company, Galahad Press, and the Galahad College to help spread his “teachings.”
Throughout all of this, his mystic ramblings were generously peppered with all manner of racist conspiracies. He believed that the world was run by Jews, like an illuminati type organization, and that President Roosevelt was actually a Jew in disguise. Indeed, he believed that Jews were responsible for many of the world’s problems and calamities, even blaming them for World War I, and he did little to mask his utter contempt and hatred for the Jewish people. This all coincided closely with the rise in power of a certain Adolph Hitler in 1933, and seeing as Pelley himself hated Jews and was getting increasingly political it was only a matter of time before he was using his spiritual, occult knowledge to support the budding Nazi movement. Considering that Hitler had once been a house painter and shared his utter loathing of the Jewish people, he fit Pelley’s deranged vision of the next world leader perfectly. To support Hitler’s growing movement, and considering the militaristic aspect of all of this, Pelley began to gather a spiritual military force, and in 1933 he formed his new organization, the Silver Legion of America, which was a sort of a fascist, para-military group, modelled after modeled after the Nazi Brownshirts, or Storm Troopers. This new direction alienated a lot of Pelley’s more spiritual followers, who were more interested in the mysticism and occult aspect of it all, but the Silver Legion nevertheless only grew in power and prominence.
The legion itself was open to anyone over the age of 18, except black Americans or Jews. They had their own distinctive uniforms, their own anthem, and they were an emerging dark group that started off small, but was soon seen as a potential terrifying force to be reckoned with. What they wanted to do was create a new “Christian Commonwealth” within the United States, in which African Americans would be slaves again and Jews would be expelled from the economy completely. It is truly frightening that, even with this extreme manifesto, they attracted an alarming number of people as they toured the country holding recruitment rallies, lectures, and public speeches, as well as raising hell in general. By 1935 the organization had an estimated 15,000 members throughout every state, although Pelley himself claimed that he had as many as 50,000. In 1936 Pelley even went as far as to run for U.S. President under the “Christian Party.” He lost, but of course in his mind this was not because his views were unpopular with the average citizen, but because of a Jewish conspiracy. The government was keeping a wary eye on this budding political/occult group, and did their best to crack down on the Silver Legion, often arresting members or seizing assets, but still they thrived.
The year 1938 saw a major push in the activities of the Silver Legion, and there would begin to be worries that a fascist takeover of the United States was actually in the works. During this time Pelley was known to travel with a large contingent of armed body guards, his own personal army, really, and he urged all members of his group to be armed and ready to launch their play for a white, “Christian America.” The group was hard at work recruiting and building a sprawling, fortified military-style compound at what is now called Will Rogers State Park, just outside of Los Angeles, California, at a place then called Murphy Ranch. It was all very alarming, and a congressional committee would call Pelley’s group “probably the largest, best financed and best publicized Nazi-copycats in the United States,” and many were bracing for the worst. Although the Silver Legion was far from the only Nazi group in the country at the time, and probably actually not even the largest, they were certainly the most bizarre and unpredictable, driven by a codex of lawlessness and violence, fueled by fanatical New Age spiritualist beliefs, and that scared people.
Pelley and his growing, rabid group of spiritualist political activists would finally see their downfall when World War II erupted. Pelley ended up disbanding the group, as they had now become official dissidents and traitors rather than just a hate group, but he certainly did not stop his rhetoric, actively attacking U.S. policy towards Germany, which reached a crescendo when he began spreading conspiracy theories that the Pearl Harbor attacks had been greatly exaggerated by the government, as well as publishing a slanderous newsletter berating the government. Pelley would then be arrested and charged with 12 counts of high treason and sedition in 1942, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, of which he only served 8.
Even after being released from prison, Pelly’s bizarre life went on. He formed a new religious philosophy and New Age movement called “Soulcraft,” which this time was all about aliens and UFOs, with a bit of telepathy and psychic powers thrown in. Of course, as with everything he did this new mystic movement was totally racist, with Pelley expounding on how black people, Jews, and Asians all had souls that came from different, inferior planets, and that white people were the true masters of Earth and from a superior alien stock. He wrote a series of completely bonkers articles and books on all of this, but he never did regain his former popularity, and although he did amass a contingent of followers Pelley died mostly forgotten in 1965, with the New York Times giving him the epitaph of “an agitator without significant following.” Good riddance, then.
It seems to be a fitting ending to such a seemingly irredeemable person, and we are left to look at it and wonder what to make of it all. William Pelley embodies the very archetype of the charismatic leader who has devolved into strange beliefs with which he has infected many others, and it is telling that he is still followed by a small minority to this day. We are left with many questions. What made this person tick? What was it that propelled them to such heights? Was there ever really any mystical aspect to it all and did he ever really believe it, or was it just fuel for his cause? In the end, Pelley had a life that is at once fascinating, repellent, monstrous, dark, and infused with questions we may never get the answers to.