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William Dudley Pelley: An American Fascist

One of the most famous residents of Noblesville, Indiana is one that locals would probably rather forget. William Dudley Pelley was an American fascist, a Christian extremist who believed the Jews were trying to “conquer the world,” the founder of a national Nazi-like political party during the Great Depression, and self proclaimed harbinger of the spiritual transformation of America. Though he died in 1965, Pelley’s legacy serves as an example of the unintended consequences of free speech: the idea that hateful, ignorant, and violent opinions are still protected opinions. William Pelley, an admirer of Hitler and an anti-Semite, tested the limits of federal tolerance and political freedom.

Video montage of the many books, pamphlets, and magazines published by William Dudley Pelley, an infamous resident of Noblesville, Indiana

 

Born on March 12, 1890 in Massachusetts, William Dudley Pelley was the son of a Southern Methodist minister turned businessman. Pelley began his career as a journalist; after World War I ended, he became a foreign correspondent in Europe and Asia, and he spent a good deal of time documenting the Russian Civil War and its accompanying atrocities. These early international experiences formed his later extremist viewpoints: he left Russia despising the new ruling Communists and Jews, who he claimed were trying to take over the world in a 1939 paper called “45 Questions About the Jews.” Pelley spent a nine year stint in Hollywood after his journalism days, writing the screenplays for The Shock and The Light in the Dark, but by 1929 the movie industry ceased to interest him, so Pelley moved to Asheville, North Carolina.

Just prior to his cross country move, however, William Dudley Pelley had an experience that would change his life. As he wrote in an American Magazine article called “My Seven Minutes in Eternity,” Pelley had a near-death experience in 1928 in which he saw the Holy Trinity, who instructed him to reshape America’s spiritual identity. He also claimed that his “seven minutes in Eternity” allowed him to levitate, incite out of body experiences, and walk through walls; the experience led him to write several metaphysical pieces which gained him attention throughout the United States. The stock market crash of 1929 pulled William Dudley Pelley into his life of politics, now informed by his alleged near death experience. In 1932 he established Galahad College and Galahad Press, the organization that published his pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines.

Video of William Dudley Pelley’s American Magazine article called “Seven Minutes in Eternity;” William Pelley had his later headquarters in Noblesville, Indiana

 

The Galahad organizations and the ideas they represented were controversial enough, but when Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Pelley was inspired to create his own political movement: the Silver Legion. The Silver Legion and its followers, the Silver Shirts, were anti-Semitic, racist, and extremely isolationist, and it wasn’t long before their policy of fear and xenophobia had spread to chapters across the United States. Pelley was at the center of it all, hosting rallies, public speeches, and mass lectures to stir up public support for the Silver Legion. All Pelley’s efforts culminated in his 1936 presidential bid. He formed the pro-fascist Christian Party and ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies were seen by Pelly as Communist plots.

Video montage of pictures featuring William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Legion; William Dudley Pelley had his later headquarters in Noblesville, Indiana

 

Fortunately, Pelley lost his bid for President. However, the new government, headed by Roosevelt, moved quickly to stamp out Pelley and the Silver Legion. One of the many casualties of the House Un-American Activities Committee (and one of the few that served a good purpose), Pelley’s Asheville headquarters were raided, his property confiscated, his followers arrested, and the man himself was brought to trial in 1940. Though Pelley opposed Roosevelt’s harsh policies toward Nazi Germany and Japan in the early 1940’s, he disbanded the Silver Legion in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. However, Pelley continued to be active in antagonizing the government, starting a new magazine called Roll Call after the Silver Legion disbanded. Roll Call proved to be William Pelley’s downfall: he was arrested in his new Noblesville headquarters near Indianapolis and charged with high treason in 1942. Pelley was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and though he was paroled in 1952, continued to face legal trouble for the rest of his life.

William Dudley Pelley died in Noblesville at the age of 75 on June 30, 1965. One of the few outspoken pro-Fascists in America at the time, Pelley organized and founded the infamous Silver Legion, published countless books and magazines about the “Jewish threat” to the country, and played on the worst fears of the American people to fuel a bid for President. Despite his radical views, William Pelley is an example of the price of free speech, an issue that was hotly debated during Pelley’s time. We must recognize hurtful opinions and do what we can to disprove them, but as was proved by the House Un-American Activities Committee later, during the McCarthy era, censorship is not the answer. One of the most infamous notable residents of Noblesville, Indiana, William Dudley Pelley certainly made his voice heard in American politics.


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