William Dudley Pelley’s career included stints as a Hollywood screenwriter, religious mystic, UFO contactee, and would-be American führer. He also became the leader of an unusual organization. But his career did not end as glamorously as he began. Why couldn’t he achieve his ambitions?
From Journalism to Hollywood
Born in 1890, William Dudley Pelley grew up poor and self-educated. He had a knack for writing that drew him to journalism. By the time of World War I, Pelly was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. In 1918, Pelley traveled to Vladivostok, Russia, where he got a firsthand look at Bolshevism.
This encounter with Bolshevism turned him into a lifelong anti-communist. He also encountered Jews among the Siberian Bolsheviks. Some of them were Americans, and Pelley began to imagine a ‘Jewish plot’ in the Russian Revolution. So, began Pelley’s drift into anti-Semitism.
Back in the States, Pelley ended up in Hollywood. Between 1919 and 1929, he was a writer for many films. He rubbed elbows with silent stars Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Mary Astor, and Hoot Gibson, among others. Pelley also penned short-stories and novels, two of which he adapted for the screen.
Pelley’s Hollywood days weren’t all tinsel and sunshine. He had a writer’s usual conflicts with studio management. And among the studio executives were Jews who fed his anti-Semitic suspicions. But there were other things brewing in William Dudley Pelley’s mind.
This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Pelley’s Spiritual Beginnings
One night in 1928, Pelley had what today we’d call an out-of-body experience. He described it as best he could in the book Seven Minutes in Eternity. Pelley left Hollywood, and moved to Asheville, North Carolina. There he soaked-up mystical doctrines including Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and pyramid power.
He started his own magazine, The New Liberator, in which he promoted spiritualism, reincarnation, anti-Semitism, and “Christian economics”—basically the “do unto others” philosophy applied to capitalism. Pelley dabbled in telepathy, levitation, and automatic writing. He also claimed to have contact with Theosophy’s ascended masters: the advanced spiritual beings in the Himalayas who supposedly guided the destiny of the world.
His next big revelation was the emergence of Adolf Hitler as leader of Germany in 1933. Pelley saw Hitler as a kindred spirit, and a model for the role he felt destined to play in America. By now Pelley was convinced that Jews were “dark souls” responsible for most of the world’s evils.
Learn more about secret societies.
The Silver Legion and the Christian Party
So, in 1933, Pelly formed the Silver Legion of America. Its members wore silver shirts emblazoned with a scarlet letter ‘L’. By 1935, the membership of Silver Legion numbered around 15,000 nationwide. An especially active chapter of the Silver Legion held court in Pelley’s old Hollywood stomping grounds. The Silver Legion’s doctrine was anti-FDR, anti-New Deal, and anti-Jew.
Although outwardly a political movement, the legion was at heart a secret society. Membership was selective—white Christians only—and there were insignia, rituals, and oaths. Pelley promised his Silver Legion they would become the new elite in a future Christian commonwealth.
To generate mass appeal, Pelley created the Christian Party. He was its candidate for President in 1936, but got on the ballot in only one state and garnered fewer than 2,000 votes. Like his mortal enemies, the communists, Pelley rode a wave of discontent generated by the Depression. As that waned, so did his support. By 1939, Silver Shirt membership had dropped below 5,000. But William Pelley didn’t give up.
The Mystery of Murphy’s Ranch
He forged alliances with the pro-Nazi German American Bund, and even the Ku Klux Klan. He consorted with known Axis agents such as George Sylvester Viereck and Boris Brasol. Pelley had even been accused of masterminding the construction of a secret Nazi base in the hills above Los Angeles. In some versions, this secluded hideaway was to be a guest house for Hitler after he won the war and moved to Hollywood.
The secret base, or whatever it was, actually existed, though it was never completed. Its graffiti-covered ruins can be visited today, hidden off Rustic Canyon, a couple of miles from Santa Monica and the Getty Museum, and right next to Will Rogers State Park.
In fact, the property was a large house with its own water supply, power plant, swimming pool, barns, and greenhouses, all surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.
Pelley’s name is usually roped in because of claims that in the 1930s the property was patrolled by “men wearing silver shirts.” In public records, the formal buyer was a Jessie Murphy, hence “Murphy’s Ranch.” The actual purchasers and builders were a wealthy Pasadena couple, Norman and Winona Stephens. They’d bought the land using Jessie Murphy as a front. The purchase took place in 1933, coincidentally the same year as Pelley founded the Silver Legion. However, there’s just no solid evidence connecting the Stephenses to Pelley or to the Silver Legion
Leslie Fry and William Dudley Pelley
Paquita de Shishmareff, who wrote under the pen name Leslie Fry, had an abiding hatred of Bolsheviks and Jews, just like Pelley. Fry was a tireless promoter of an anti-Jewish hoax known as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
Paquita de Shishmareff had two sons, Michael and Kyrill, who shared her views. Kyrill definitely knew Pelley when both were scriptwriters in Hollywood. Kyrill might also have joined the Silver Legion.
Learn more about debunking the Elders of Zion hoax.
The End of the Silver Legion and Pelley
Pelley dissolved the Silver Legion in 1941, but remained an unrelenting critic of Franklin Roosevelt. After Pelley publicly accused the White House of lying about Pearl Harbor, the government struck back.
In 1942, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of 12 counts of sedition. Pelley received 15 years in prison, but was released in 1950.
The terms of his parole forbade Pelley from engaging in political activity. So, he repackaged his mystical ideas into a mail-order religion dubbed Soulcraft. It was basically theosophy mixed with spiritualist Christianity.
Pelley even latched onto the new flying saucer craze, and turned his ascended masters into Aryan space brothers. Pelley eventually died in 1965, never having fulfilled his ambitions of greatness.
Common Questions about William Pelley and the Silver Legion
William Pelly was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. In 1918, Pelley visited Russia, traveling to Vladivostok, where he got a firsthand look at Bolshevism. It turned him into a lifelong anti-communist.
William Pelley was a writer for many films in Hollywood between 1919 and 1929.
In 1933, William Pelley formed the Silver Legion of America. Its members wore silver shirts emblazoned with a scarlet letter ‘L’. The Silver Legion’s doctrine was anti-FDR, anti-New Deal, and anti-Jew.