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A complex legacy

William Dudley Pelley by Scott Beckman. Syracuse University Press. 269 pages.

The first time I heard the name William Dudley Pelley, a friend of mine was telling me about an Asheville-based oral history project that he had launched. He said that while he was interviewing elderly Jews in a retirement community about their lives in Asheville during the 1930s, one of the participants exclaimed, “I remember watching that SOB Pelley marching with his Silver Shirts down Charlotte Street!” When my friend asked him who he was talking about, the excited fellow rushed out of the room and returned in a few moments with a “Wanted” poster. There was a photograph of Pelley, bedecked in his silver shirt, a dapper little man in a Van Dyke beard. Beneath the photo was an impressive list of charges, including fraud, sedition and “Un-American activities.”

Scott Beckman’s biography of Pelley might prove to be something of a revelation for the American public who remember his well-publicized trials (Washington, North Carolina and Indiana courts). Charged with sedition by the Martin Dies Committee (Un-American Activities committee of Congress) for his racist and anti-Semitic activities, Pelley was denounced, reviled and finally imprisoned. By the 1950s, the nationally known “Asheville Fascist and Madman,” was not only forgotten, his life and his writings seemed to have virtually vanished without a trace.

After his death in 1965, family members and devoted followers made some notable attempts to restore Pelly’s badly damaged reputation by reissuing some of his extensive (and less controversial) writings — especially those dealing with spiritualism, metaphysics and the significance of unidentified flying objects! Certainly, there is more to this man than his much-publicized Neo-Nazi activity in the 1930s.

Born in Lynn, Mass., on March 12, 1890, Pelley was the only son of a poor Methodist minister. Despite an unstable home life, William did well in school and quickly demonstrated a remarkable talent for writing. (He published his first newspaper at the age of 12 and was editing the weekly Springfield Homestead at the age of 19.) The utopian novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy had a profound influence on the young journalist and prompted him to write a series of articles in which he denounced churches (they did nothing to help the poor). He also repeatedly attacked capitalism and privately owned industry (which he thought should be owned by the government).

Shortly after his marriage, Pelley moved to Vermont, bought a comfortable home and incurred a number of debts. After the death of his first child, he found himself saddled with more debts (medical expenses), and turned to writing fiction as a means of supplementing his salary. He was good at it. Not only did he become solvent, he quickly developed a reputation as a promising young writer. During the next decade, he published more than 200 short stories and won several prestigious awards, including the O’Henry Award in 1920.

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Emboldened by his luck with magazine fiction, Pelley tried his luck with film scripts. Again, he was successful and wrote numerous scripts for the silent film industry, becoming a close friend of the actor Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces.” However, it is during his sojourn in Hollywood that Pelley developed a bitter resentment of Jewish studio moguls. As time went on, Pelley’s anger hardened into a form of anti-Semitism that was so intense it would become a major component of his social and political life.

On a trip to Russia and Japan, sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church (purportedly to find sites for future missions) Pelley became convinced that the world was threatened by two evils: Jews and Communism. As he traveled through Russia, Korea and Japan — parts of which had been devastated by recent wars — he became convinced that all of the misery he saw could be traced to a great Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Their ultimate goal was world dominion, and Pelley vowed that he would use his talents to rally the forces of Aryans and Christians and prepare for a holy war.

Shortly after his return to the United States, Pelly allegedly experienced a spiritual revelation that made him famous. In a pamphlet entitled “Seven Minutes in Eternity,” Pelley claimed that he was lifted from his corporal body and conversed with a “Divine Being” that revealed the future of the world to him, as well as his role In preparing for Christ’s Second Coming. Pelley claimed that he returned to his earthly form with great reluctance, but the Divine Being told him that he had a lot of work to do in Buncombe County preparing for the Apocalypse.

Pelley spent the next decade in developing a convoluted, and complex political theory, much of which he claimed was “dictated” to him by spiritual beings. Alternating between rabid rants about Jewish spies (Roosevelt was one) and social-political diatribes which defined the new era (cities would be demolished and American citizens would live in pastoral settings; blacks and Jews would be denied citizenship and would live in “restricted areas;” Pelley published hundreds of periodicals, magazines and directives. Continuing to claim to be both a telepathist and clairvoyant (he could converse with spirits and travel to heavenly spheres), he became an ardent spiritualist and often participated in séances in which he claimed to converse with Jesus, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who told Pelley that he “looked forward to shaking his hand someday.”) In conjunction with all of this, he launched a political-military organization called the Silver Legion of America (based in Asheville) and sought to align himself with Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

When the Dies Committee convened in Washington in 1939, many witnesses noted that the atmosphere bordered on paranoia. At the time there were several hundred “suspect” organizations that received subpoenas, many of which were far more militant and “un-American” than William Dudley Pelley. However, the Silver Shirt leader’s belligerence (he had ignored the initial summons) and his repeated attacks on Roosevelt and the “Jew Deal” sparked considerable anger from the Committee members. He was sentenced to 15 years and his property was confiscated. Despite numerous appeals, he remained in prison until 1950.

Pelley died on July 1, 1965. Since he had been enjoined against indulging in political affairs after his release from prison, he spent the last 15 years of his life promoting a spiritual/metaphysical organization called Soulcraft. Still an avid séance participant (and a clairvoyant), he allegedly spent much of his last years in conversing with Nostradamus, the 16th century seer and physician. According to Pelley, the two men had much in common.

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