On August 13th, 1942, Judge Robert Baltzell sentenced the American writer and far-Right activist William Dudley Pelley to fifteen years in prison. His crime was aiding the German war effort and planting seeds of sedition among American troops. The jury at the trial deliberated for only three hours before finding Pelley guilty primarily through a single piece of evidence: a copy of his magazine Galilean was found in one soldier’s duffle bag. Pelley’s organization The Silver Legion, popularly known as the Silver Shirts, had been under investigation by the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) since the Silver Legion’s foundation in 1933. By the time Pelley arrived in the courtroom in 1942, the deck was stacked against him. The attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the previous year, had plunged the United States into the Second World War. As part of the war effort, the Roosevelt administration cracked down hard on dissent from America’s radical Right. In retrospect, HUAC prosecuting a little-known religious extremist with only a few thousand followers seems ridiculous. The congressmen involved in HUAC would not have seen it this way. They would have remembered that only ten years before Adolph Hitler seemed like a raving buffoon with no reasonable chance at seizing power over a major European nation. Historians in retrospect have called this “The Brown Scare,” drawing a parallel to the more well-known “Red Scare” of the early Cold War. Pelley lived in a bad time for right-wing extremism, and he paid the price for his unfortunate timing.
But William Dudley Pelley was not like the other victims of the “Brown Scare.” Unlike fellow far-right radicals like Gerald Winrod and Gerald L. K. Smith, Pelley was first and foremost a writer. He wrote fiction prolifically, both novels and short stories. He wrote screenplays for films starring Lon Chaney and Anna May Wong. He wrote almost every article for a series of short-lived magazines and covered the Russian Revolution for the Saturday Evening Press. Perhaps more fundamental were the religious differences between Pelley and his fellow home-grown extremists. While they principally espoused a traditional form of American Protestantism (or in Father Coughlin’s case, Catholic) Christianity, Pelley’s religious outlook was wholly his own. It was a bizarre blend of theosophy, spiritualism, Orientalist readings of “eastern” religion, and mystic Christianity, all aimed at removing the “Jewish” contamination from Christianity and freeing the true message of Christ. He claimed to have been taught this bizarre composite religion through a mystic vision in 1928, though the exact content of that “vision” is the subject of some controversy.
The difficulty arises from Pelley’s two accounts of what happened that night in a bungalow in the hills of Southern California. The first, published in March of 1929 in American Magazine and republished in pamphlet form as Seven Minutes in Eternity, shows little trace of Pelley’s extreme political views. Pelley mentions an interest in “ethnology” and his complaints about Hollywood’s “fleshpots” read as vaguely anti-Semitic, but only in the way a character like Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby strikes us today as somewhat gauche. The other, published as part of his 1939 autobiography The Door to Revelation, is virulently and unabashedly racist. In part, this account has a representative of heaven tell him that races are “classifications of humanity, largely determining standardized gradations of spiritual attainments…starting with the black man – the Negroid – and proceeding upward, cycle after cycle, to the brown man, the yellow man, the red man, the white man.” In other words, skin pigmentation is a visible marker of spiritual worth.
Oddly, this drastic difference between Pelley’s two accounts was ignored by his two major biographers, Scott Beekman and Leo Ribuffo. Ribuffo only cites the earlier account, ignoring the political importance Pelley attributed to it. Beekman, on the other hand, conflates the two, even at one point incorrectly attributing the “cycle after cycle” passage to Seven Minutes In Eternity, where it does not appear in any form. Contrary to both Beekman and Ribuffo, I take the differences between the two accounts to be crucial for understanding Pelley’s use of the literature of mysticism for far-right ends. By the end of the thirties, the Silver Legion had been split between members primarily interested in spiritualism and members primarily interested in the racist, anti-communist, anti-Semitic politics of the Roosevelt-era far right. While Pelley originally viewed his mystic vision as essentially apolitical, he later attempted to redefine his 1928 vision as the origin point of both his religious and political activism in an effort to unite his divided movement.
Pelley’s Original Account: Seven Minutes in Eternity
By 1929, William Dudley Pelley was in a rut. His film scripts were selling less frequently than they once had, his business ventures were failing, and his marriage had fallen apart. He still felt that he was doing good work artistically, but he found it necessary to drive out of Los Angeles to a bungalow in the hills north of Pasadena in order to concentrate. It was during one of these retreats, alone with his dog Laska, that Pelley underwent an experience that would change his life.
We can never know with certainty what happened to Pelley on the night of May 28, 1928. Before that date, Pelley had “little exposure to spiritualism and the occult,” though he was raised in a religious household; (His father was a Methodist minister). His earlier work had some spiritual themes, but all within fairly traditional Christianity; one of his film scripts featured a man given extraordinary powers by the Holy Grail. It seems unlikely, then, that Pelley would have invented this “vision” out of whole cloth. In the realm of the personal religious experience of someone now dead, we have only the writings produced in the wake of this apparently transformative experience. Fortunately, writing never was never difficult for Pelley.
Pelley emphasized the sense of physical movement in the early part of his vision; this is how he distinguished it from a dream. He wrote that “between three and four in the morning,” he felt something, “a physical sensation which I can best describe as a combination of heart attack and apoplexy.” Next, he felt himself “plunging down a mystic depth of cool blue space not unlike the bottomless sinking sensation that attends the taking of ether.” He felt removed from his body and yet at the same time describes all his sensations as bodily: after the ethereal feeling, he felt he was “whirling madly” like a plane in a tail-spin. After this “tail-spin,” he came to a stop, held by strong hands supporting his weight. Throughout this early stage, his sense of his individuality remains, represented by his continued use of sensory descriptors to relate his journey. While his first account of his vision lacks the racism of his latter version, it still closely ties spiritual identity with the physical body. At no point does he posit a radical separation between body and soul.
His descriptions for the next stage of his journey became less jumbled; Pelley had arrived in heaven (“or an intermediate station”). He gave his reader a sense of the geography of this heavenly place: a marble-tiled portico looks out on a “clear-as-crystal Roman pool,” which Pelley viewed from a marble slab. Pelley descended into the pool and felt somehow clothed by its waters. As he did so, people streamed into the patio, descending likewise into the “inexpressible turquoise” of the pool. Throughout the whole affair, Pelley was overcome by “a kindness, a courtesy, a friendliness” that felt “magnetic.” If one wanted to read this version of the mystic vision for fascist undertones, this would be a good place to look. Pelley described a world with “no misfits, no tense countenances, no sour leers, no preoccupied brusqueness or physical handicap.” While the reference is of course slightly anachronistic, Pelley’s dream of a world free of anti-social elements or the physically handicapped reads as distinctly sinister in the aftermath of Hitler’s mass murder of the handicapped, the anti-social, and the “work-shy.” Pelley’s ideal of a nation free of conflict and deformity would later form an important part of his far-right politics. As abruptly as his vision began, it ended. With “a flat, metallic, automatic sensation,” Pelley felt jolted back into his physical body, back in Pasadena, flanked by his dog, Laska. His mystic vision was over. His life would never be the same.
The Aftermath of Seven Minutes
Regardless of how one interprets Pelley’s vision, it seems clear that it exerted a profound influence on the course of his life. For one, it gave Pelley a renewed sense of hope, based on his conviction that “There is a survival of human entity after death of the body.” Using one of the stock images of mystic literature, Pelley wrote that, “a veil was torn away,” allowing him to see what was previously concealed. He had “unlocked hidden powers within myself” that he felt sure “every human being possesses” but that only a select few are able to access. In short, he felt he was “not the same man” he had been before his vision.
Continuing the sense of vivid physicality described in his vision, Pelley claimed that in the aftermath of his vision he experienced inexplicable physical changes. He lost the nervousness that had dogged him since childhood. He found he had no desire to smoke tobacco, which he had previously done to excess. More startling, Pelley claimed that his “chest began to acquire the measurements of the trained athlete and in corresponding manner (his) waist grew small.” His biceps developed in similar proportion, all, he insists, “without exercise.” Once again, Pelley did not see the physical body and the soul as radically separate; while he did believe the soul survives the death of the body, he also maintained that experiences of the soul have an important bodily component. This became especially important for Pelley later as he began to articulate his spiritual racism in his 1939 account. Like Hitler and Mussolini, Pelley reveled in an ultra-masculine ideal of beauty; his magazines are full of images of young men bulging with muscle and engaged in physical work. Pelley associated spiritual purity with physical well-being. This is one of the few ideological links between his two accounts.
In more directly verifiable terms, the experience, and the written account of it, changed the course of Pelley’s career. In 1929, when American Magazine published Pelley’s account, it was a very popular magazine that published stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, and P.G. Wodehouse and had more than two million subscribers. The actual number of readers, including those who bought the magazine on newsstands and multiple readers of each copy, was likely much higher, making Seven Minutes in Eternity “one of the most widely read accounts of paranormal activity in American history.” After this publication, Pelley’s work turned to spiritual themes, and his fiction became nothing more than a framing device for his mystic theology. In one scene in his 1929 novel Golden Rubbish, one of the protagonists undergoes a mystic vision eerily similar to Pelley’s own vision, which the narrator describes as “all things were alive in the vast heart of Light – created through it, made of its substance.” Scott Beekman calls the novel “wooden, purple, and pretentious beyond belief” before summarizing it as “simply god-awful,” and on this point I’m afraid I have to agree. While before Pelley had smuggled spiritual messages into his fiction, after 1929 his fiction seems a mere pretext for his newfound fascination with the beyond. Whatever artistry, subtlety, or charm his writings had earlier displayed (and they did not display much), his work post-conversation evinced much less.
With his interest in fiction waning, and with screenplays selling at a trickle, Pelley turned his attention to mysticism and far-right politics, with the latter taking up more and more of his time and energy throughout the thirties. In 1930, Pelley began publishing a new magazine, New Liberator, which initially focused mostly on spiritual themes and only occasionally expressed admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. In 1933, inspired by Hitler’s rise to the German Chancellorship and by the attendant “exodus of Hebews from Germany,” Pelley founded a new group, the Silver Legion of America. This group, modeled after Hitler’s own Brownshirts, was intended to serve “as the foundation for a new theocratic state” with Pelley as its leader. Soon, the Silver Legion became Pelley’s main project. By 1933, Pelley had shifted from a project of spiritual revitalization based on fiction and literary essays to a project of political domination with racism and anti-Semitism as its cornerstone.
The Silver Legion was meant to promote both Pelley’s political and religious ideas. Pelley’s racism, apart from its spiritualist trappings, was no different from that of Coughlin, Winrod, or any of the other far-right agitators of Pelley’s time. Pelley believed that Africans and African-Americans were racially inferior to Europeans and their American descendants. He decried Jews as materialistic and Un-American. Increasingly, Pelley blended spiritualist and racist elements in his rhetoric, using a zealous form of nativist Christianity as a rallying point. Still, he stopped short, until 1939, of attributing his racist attitudes to the same mystic vision that inspired his spiritualist commitments.
Pelley’s Revised Account of His Vision
By 1939, the grand plan Pelley had envisioned for a fascist takeover of the United States along the model established by Hitler and Mussolini had come to nothing. Membership in the Silver Legion, which had peaked at 15,000 in 1933, fell to a third of that number five years later. The Silver Legion was only one of many organizations competing for the attention of America’s would-be fascists, and it was far from the most successful. In 1939, when Silver Shirt membership was a fraction of its 1933 height, the German American Bund hosted a rally at a packed Madison Square Garden in which images of Uncle Sam and the American flag shared the stage with Swastika flags and paramilitary brigades. On both the local and national levels, the Legion was attracting police attention, including a police raid on the San Diego branch of the Legion. Under pressure from creditors, Pelley ordered one of his employees to burn all financial records of the Legion, leading to a conviction of fraud in 1935. In 1936, Pelley ran for President of the United States as the candidate for a third “Christian” party he himself had founded. Not surprisingly, Pelley did terribly, earning fewer than 1,600 votes in Washington state, the only state that had allowed him on the ballot. In 1939 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but instead fled, driving across the country and hiding out with various Silver Shirt associates.
To make matters worse, the organization was crumbling from the inside. Pelley had no talent for organization but was also intensely suspicious of his employees. When he testified before HUAC in 1940, he seemed to know almost nothing about how his organization was run. Pelley even accused his own associates of doing their “level best to smash (the) Silver Legion.” Worse, The Silver Shirts themselves seemed not to know what exactly the Silver Legion wanted to be. His organization was split between those who were most attracted to spiritual uplight and those who wanted to imitate Hitler’s strategies in Germany, throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish shop-keepers and holding mass rallies. If Pelley focused on spiritualism, he alienated the “action” oriented group. If he proposed political agitation, the spiritualists would accuse him of betraying Christ’s cause.
His 1939 autobiography The Door to Revelation, then, can be seen as an attempt to unite these competing factions within his movement. Pelley said that his “purpose in forming the Silvershirts… was to prepare a great horde of men to meet the crisis (of Jewish control of the government) intelligently and constructively.” At least by 1939, he saw its primary purpose as political, rather than spiritual. The implicit message of The Door to Revelation was that it was impossible to accept Pelley’s spiritual teachings without signing on as well to his racist political program.
Pelley makes it very clear that the vision described in The Door to Revelation is identical to the one described ten years earlier. In fact, he opens the chapter describing his vision with, “Seven Minutes in Eternity! … a “seven minutes” that was really two hours!” Using a time-honored trope of mystic literature, Pelley writes that time in his vision became elastic, and he was able to experience a great deal in what was from the standpoint of the physical world a very brief span of time. Drawing on this mystic trope does more for Pelley than simply lend precedence to his account; it allows him to add material to the account without compromising the well-known title. After all, the events of the first account of the vision (Pelley ascends to heaven, bathes in a pool, and meets a few kind and generous spirits) could very well fit into a seven-minute span. This new account, however, could not.
In this account, the two men that lead Pelley around the portico of heaven also reveal to him great truths of racial taxonomy. Everything in the original account is repeated here: the portico the “Grecian bench,” the “Corinthian plaster columns,” and the “immaculately pure” pool of water. However, in contrast to his earlier account, after bathing in the magical pool Pelley now claims he had a long conversation with the two men (Pelley attributes the difference in the accounts to the page limit imposed on him by the magazine, which is unlikely given that in its pamphlet form the story runs to 59 pages and includes several lengthy autobiographical deviations). Pelley depicts his interest in race as founded directly on this vision. Prior to the vision, Pelley claims he was working on “a book on the peculiarities of Races” but was unable to define precisely what races were. The men tell him that races are “classifications of humanity, largely determining standardized gradations of spiritual attainments…starting with the black man – the Negroid – and proceeding upward, cycle after cycle, to the brown man, the yellow man, the red man, the white man.” Souls ascend gradually through this spiral of spiritual purity, “their attainments in each of the major classifications being distinguished or exhibited by the colors of their skins.” Jews, he explained, were a “hybrid race…not exactly Yellow, not exactly Brown in the true sense of these skin colors.” Pelley continued his earlier theme of the intimate connection between the physical body and the spiritual self, though now converted this personal observation to society as a whole. Black nations, in Pelley’s account, were less developed socially and economically because black skin marked souls less far along in spiritual development than white ones. The racial hierarchies common to far-right extremists of Pelley’s time were spiritualized into the immutable will of God. In Pelley’s view, even modest forms of racial uplift would have been impossible. No matter what, people of European descent would always dominate the other races.
Pelley’s new account of his mystic vision also allowed him to explain personal and institutional setbacks; everything was part of a plan. In this account, Pelley’s marriage failed because its only purpose was to give physical existence to souls of incredible spiritual worthiness. Even the death of his first daughter Harriet is softened through this doctrine of reincarnation by which “there are no ‘lost babies.’” Life proceeded according to a “pattern,” “one had only to live it – to let it happen.” While the politics expressed in this account are of course radically racist, the basic message was as old as Christianity itself. If Pelley trusted in God and followed his will, everything would work itself out.
It was Pelley’s hope that his more militant followers would read these words and be reassured. Despite apparent setbacks, Pelley made clear that everything would work out according to plan. The HUAC investigations, the failed presidential run, even the internal disputes within the Silver Legion were all implicitly accounted for in God’s plan. They would have also sensed a gentle rebuke: if any of them had any intention to deviate from the Pelley line, their dissent would not be tolerated. By making racism an explicit part of his mystic vision, Pelley claimed that the legitimate leadership of the Silver Legion came directly from God. Pelley, in constant fear of elements within his organization, now placed his authority on what he saw as an exclusive basis: it was his mysticism that gave him political authority.
His more spiritualist followers would have understood as well the implications of the new account. No longer could they separate their benign spiritualism from Pelley’s commitment to racist political action. Pelley was trying to build a movement to combat what he saw as a grave threat to the safety and integrity of the United States. He was clear that “every Silvershirt must know the full extent of the conspiracy, see it in its most detailed workings, get his thinking up on a level where the size of the plot could be accredited, and if Red Communism in all its frightfulness were finally projected upon the country, be in a position to join with tens of thousands of similarly-enlightened Christians” to fight it, with force if necessary. Such a movement would only be possible with Pelley at its head because he was “thinking approximately six years in advance of the rest of the nation.” Pelley saw conspiracy in “every newspaper, every radio, every talking-picture screen,” and felt he had to construct a counter-movement that would neutralize the Jewish stranglehold over every form of media. While spiritualism would be an important component of that mission, it would be placed in the service of a mass movement against Jewish Communism and more generally against threats to white, “Christian” supremacy.
After the Fall
Whether his 1939 autobiography would have been able to unite his faltering movement is impossible to say. Shortly after its publication, Pelley became embroiled in a serial of legal trials that would lead to his imprisonment. Ironically, the terms of his parole following his release in 1950 stipulated that he refrain from any political activity. He still wrote voluminous religious tracts, now incorporating unidentified flying objects (UFOs) into his spiritual system. He continued to adhere to the spiritualized racism of his 1939 account, but without a political organization to enact his will, his racism lost its sting. In his later writings his own prophecy takes on a secondary role; he no longer depicts himself as America’s last best hope for freedom. Instead, “spacemen” who will rid humanity of their violence take a starring role. Even for someone whose theories always strained credulity, Pelley’s later writings are absurd, confused, and confusing.
William Dudley Pelley was, by all accounts, insane. He was pathologically suspicious, paranoid, hateful, and racist, all with a varnish of Saturday Evening Post cheeriness. He believed he would be remembered forever, but has been almost completely forgotten. However, I would like to suggest a virtue that Pelley has likely never been accused of possessing: pragmatism. In the face of formidable external threats and a crumbling movement, Pelley responded through the only way he knew how: he wrote. He attempted to unite his movement through books in a way he was never able to through his own organizational talents. He wanted to bring together spiritualists and fascists, mystics and thugs, to combat what he saw as the greatest ever threat to the (white) American way of life. He did this by forcing his spiritualist followers to accept his racist political program or find another movement. He forced his fascist followers to accept his authority not because he was smart, or well-funded, or even a particularly good leader, but because he had been chosen by God. While eventually (and happily) his plan to take over the United States failed, the basic idea of uniting his movement through his mystical writings was based on a shrewd analysis of the problems plaguing the Silver Legion. In this, if not in anything else, William Dudley Pelley made perfect sense.