William Dudley Pelley

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William Dudley Pelley wanted poster

William Dudley Pelley (March 12, 1890-July 1, 1965) was an American Fascist and leader of the Silver Legion.

Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, William Dudley Pelley grew up in poverty as the son of a Methodist minister. Largely self-educated, Pelley became a journalist as a young man and quickly gained respect for his writing skills, his articles eventually appearing in national publications. Following World War I, Pelley traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia as a foreign correspondent. He particularly spent a great deal of time in Russia and witnessed much of the atrocities of the Russian Civil War. Pelley’s experiences in Russia left him with a deep hatred for Communism and Jews, whom he believed were planning to conquer the whole world. Upon returning to the United States in 1920, Pelley went to Hollywood, where he put his writing skills to use in the film industry. Not only did Pelley produce numerous screenplays and become a respected figure in the movie business, but he also established himself as novelist and became one of the most popular authors of the time period. Pelley eventually became disillusioned in Hollywood, however, and had practically left the film industry by 1929. In 1928, Pelley claimed to have had an out of body experience, which he detailed in the pamphlet “My Seven Minutes in Eternity.” Pelley subsequently became fascinated with metaphysics and Christianity and gained a newfound popularity with his numerous publications on the subjects.

When the Great Depression struck America in 1929, Pelley became enraptured with politics. He moved to Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1930s and founded Galahad College there in 1932, which specialized in correspondence, “Social Metaphysics,” and “Christian Economics” courses. He also founded Galahad Press, which he used to publish various political and metaphysical magazines, newspapers, and books. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany, Pelley (an ardent fascist and admirer of Hitler and Mein Kampf) was inspired to form a political movement and founded the Silver Legion, a fascist organization whose followers (known as the Silver Shirts and “Christian Patriots”) wore Nazi-like silver uniforms. The Silver Legion’s emblem was a scarlet L, which was featured on their flags and uniforms. Pelley founded chapters of the Silver Legion in almost every state in the country, and soon gained a considerable amount of followers.

Pelley was highly mobile throughout the 1930s, traversing all the regions of the United States and orchestrating mass rallies, lectures, and public speeches in order to attract Americans to his organization. Pelley’s political ideology essentially consisted of anti-Communism, Anti-Semitism, extreme patriotism, and isolationism, themes which were the primary focus of his numerous magazines and newspapers, which included Liberation, Pelley's Silvershirt Weekly, The Galilean, and The New Liberator. Pelley was also a vicious opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, and as such founded the Christian Party and ran for president in 1936 in Washington State. Pelley’s activities eventually gained him the ire of Roosevelt and his supporters, and as such charges were drawn up against the Silver Shirts in 1940. Pelley’s Asheville headquarters was subsequently raided by federal marshals, his followers there arrested, and his property seized and never returned. Pelley himself was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and charged with tax evasion.

Despite serious financial and material setbacks to his organization resulting from lengthy court battles, Pelley continued to loudly oppose Roosevelt, especially as the U.S.’s diplomatic relationships with Japan and Germany became more strained in the early 1940s. Pelley accused Roosevelt of being a warmonger and advocated isolationism, stances which gained him the friendship of fellow isolationist Charles Lindbergh. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to the immediate collapse of the Silver Legion, Pelley continued to severely attack the government with a new magazine called Roll Call, which alarmed Roosevelt, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. After claiming in one issue of Roll Call that the devastation of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was worse the government claimed, Pelley was arrested at his new base of operations in Noblesville, Indiana and charged with high treason and sedition in April 1942. In a much publicized trial, the major charges against Pelley were dropped, but he was still sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. After the long trial, a broke Pelley was unable to launch an appeal and languished in prison until 1950, when his relatives and supporters raised enough money to appeal his case. He was paroled later that year, on the condition that he never engage in political activity again. Pelley subsequently returned to Noblesville, where he founded Soulcraft Press and began publishing metaphysical and political magazines and books once again. In his political publications, Pelley frequently attacked Roosevelt’s legacy and espoused anti-United Nations, pro-segregation, and Anti-Semitic sentiments. In his final years, Pelley dealt with charges of securities fraud that had been brought against him while he had lived in Asheville. Pelley died in Noblesville in 1965 at the age of 75.

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