Welcome to the third installment in my examination of the notorious 1930s-era fascist William Dudley Pelley. Pelley is chiefly known in this day and age for founding the Silver Shirts, one of the most notorious fascist organizations in pre-World War II America, and his eventual imprisonment after being charged with sedition in 1942. During the first installment in this series I considered a bit of Pelley's background (with a special emphasis on his time spent in the East around the time frame of the World War I) as well as the founding, structure and goals of his Silver Shirts. In the second installment I broke down the allegations of Pelley being a Nazi collaborator as well as his extensive ties to both the pre- and post-WWII fascist underground.
In this installment I would like to begin considering in earnest one of the least examined aspects of Pelley's life: his dabblings in the occult. Many researchers treat the occult and metaphysical aspects of Pelley's life as a minor footnote in relation to his fascist activism when in fact the former consumed far more of his life than the latter. Pelley had already developed his own bizarre metaphysical system well before the founding of the Silver Shirts and he would continue to promote it to literally the end of his life. By contrast, Pelley effectively ceased publicly promoting fascism after being imprisoned in the 1940s (though he never ceased supporting the ideology). That being said, both obsessions were closely entwined in Pelley's mind throughout his life.
|Pelley with the Silver Shirts|
"On the night of his conversion experience, Pelley went to bed early and read ethnological tracts until dozing, only to be awakened early in the morning by an inner voice shrieking 'I'm dying.' He felt a physical sensation like a 'combination of heart attack and apoplexy.' This physical distress subsided as Pelley plunged 'down a mystic depth of cool blue space not unlike the bottomless sinking sensation that attends the taking of ether for anesthetics.'
"'Whirling madly' into the blue mist, Pelley closed his eyes and hoped for the quick end of the experience. Feeling hands holding him up, he opened his eyes and found himself lying naked on a marble slab in an environment reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish painting, with two men in white uniforms attending to him. The two vaguely familiar helpers told Pelley not to be afraid and not to try to see everything in the first 'seven minutes.' They instructed him to bathe in a nearby reflecting pool, which caused Pelley to lose his self-consciousness over being naked.
"One man left, and the remaining white-clad individual, 'William,' explained to Pelley that he had gone 'over' while stationed at a military camp in 1917. William told Pelley that everyone has lived hundreds of times before, because earth is a classroom where souls learn and move up the spiritual hierarchy. This hierarchy accounts for human races, which are simply 'great classifications of humanity epitomizing gradations of spiritual development, starting with the black man and proceeding upward in the cycles to the white.' Having completed his first spiritual lesson, the blue mist appeared to return Pelley to the bungalow.
"Although Pelley awakened to conscious awareness of his earthly existence, he remained in contact with the spirit world, as William continued to speak to him clairaudiently. He instructed Pelley to relax and return to the 'Higher Reality.' This time the marble portico was full of people, and Pelley realized that he knew all of them and that they were all saintly individuals, with 'no misfits, no tense countenances, no sour leers, no preoccupied brusqueness, nor physical disfigurements.' After a brief chat with these folks Pelley, again enveloped by the blue mist, returned to his bedroom, but now possessing 'strange powers of perception' to assist him in completing a specific errand on the material plane.
"Shaken by the experience, Pelley determined to regain his sense of the material world by visiting his office the next morning. He related that his employees found him to appear like a different person who stood straighter and healthier and less wrinkled. The experience also eliminated his troubling insomnia and anxiety."
(William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, Scott Beekman, pgs. 53-54)
|Maxfield Parrish's Daybreak|
As I'm sure many of my readers are aware, Pasadena was the long time home of Jack Parsons, the notorious rocket scientist and Crowley disciple who has long obsessed conspiracy culture. Parsons was barely a teenager when Pelley's mystical experience occurred, but he displayed an interest in the occult at a very young age. Pelley's experience would make him something of a minor celebrity in the late 1920s and early 1930s and Pelley's mystical teachings would continue to be propagated in the Los Angeles area by the Silver Shirts well into the 1930s. I've found nothing to indicate that Parsons was aware of Pelley, but given the closeness of Pelley's initial experience, it does not seem totally beyond the realm of possibility that Parsons was at least aware of Pelley on some level.
"Pelley decided that the 'fleshpots' of Hollywood could not help him understand his metaphysical experience, so he traveled to New York to meet with his friends there. While crossing New Mexico by train, he underwent a second experience. As he was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay 'The Over-Soul,' a brilliant shaft of white light poured down on Pelley. A disembodied presence explained to Pelley that Jesus Christ was an 'actual Personage,' and that existing churches and ministers were not only wrong about Christ's teachings, but were leading millions of people astray. The presence instructed Pelley to continue to receive clairaudient messages by utilizing the 'hidden powers' within him, and to spread the correct understanding of Christ.
"In New York, Pelley met with his friend Mary Derieux, fiction editor for the American Magazine. Deeply immersed in spiritualism herself, Derieux excitedly joined Pelley in exploring his new powers. During the summer of 1928 they spent two weeks engaged an automatic writing.
"The beings from the other side instructed them that the Music of the Spheres (a concept swiped from Pythagorus) is the very center of the mystery of universal creation. Within this universe there is no force but love; hatred and evil are merely the absence of love. These beings also explained to Pelley and Derieux that they dwelled on the 'harmonious plane' (which is the next level above the earth) and communicated with certain earth-dwelling souls to promote love and harmony.
"A large portion of these messages focused specifically on the role of Pelley in spiritual history. The voices allegedly explained to Pelley that he would apprentice in tribulation, then achieve financial independence so he might be ready for freedom and service to higher beings. He had been chosen because art is the 'handmaiden of God,' and artists like himself are the true chosen priesthood."
(William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, Scott Beekman, pg. 55)
In either late 1928 or early 1929 Pelley would write down his initial "seven minutes in eternity." It would go on to become his most successful piece of writing.
"Returning to New York, Pelley rented a room at the Commodore Hotel and, through a process he later called 'super radio,' wrote the narrative of his 'seven minutes in eternity' in less than two hours. Derieux presented the article to her boss, American Magazine editor Merle Crowell, who agreed to run the story and pay Pelley $1,500 for it. Appearing in the March 1929 issue of American, Pelley's tale of travel to other planes of reality generated a mass of mail both to the editor and to the writer. The American boasted a subscription list of over 2,200,000 people at the time, and Pelley's tale became one of the most widely read accounts of paranormal activity in American history.
"Stunned by the response to his article – the American's offices received thousands of letters concerning the 'seven minutes' – Pelley decided to move to New York in summer 1929. He rented part of a 53rd Street brownstone for himself... Pelley spent much of 1929 responding to his voluminous correspondence and participating in Manhattan séances and spiritualist meetings.
"During one of these meetings, Pelley made the acquaintance of the trance medium George Wehner. Something of a 'psychic to the stars,' Wehner carved out a very successful career for himself during the 1920s. Pelley attended séances in which Wehner served as amanuensis for such diverse celebrities as Joseph Conrad, film scenarist June Mathis, various prominent American Indians, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
"Pelley eventually began contacting many of these same people during his own sessions. He claimed that Robert Louis Stevenson provided him with an unused chapter and asserted that Joseph Conrad clairaudiently dictated an entire novel to him. Pelley published this work of fiction in summer 1929 as Golden Rubbish, allegedly to answer many of the questions readers raised in response to his American Magazine article."
(ibid, pgs. 57-58)
Pelley had become involved in the then thriving New York spiritualist movement even before his description of his "seven minutes in eternity" appeared in American Magazine in 1929. His most notably contact was with the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). This association began due to the active involvement of Pelley's friend Mary Derieux in the Society.
"As chair of the publications committee of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), Derieux provided Pelley with entry into New York spiritualist circles. These contacts garnered Pelley's exposure to current theories and writings on psychical research and undoubtedly helped him develop his own ideas. Further, Pelley's account of visiting another plane made an immediate splash in the psychical community, as it placed him squarely within the debate over the most divisive spiritualist issue of the period – reincarnation.
"Established in 1884 by, among others, physicist William Barrett and psychologist William James, the ASPR staggered through a tumultuous early career. Unlike the older English Society for Psychical Research, the ASPR faced chronic underfunding and a lack of full-time psychical researchers. Owing to financial difficulties, the ASPR was absorbed by the English society in 1889, only to reappear as an independent organization in 1909, thanks primarily to the dynamic leadership of Columbia professor James Hervey Hyslop.
"Although Hyslop died in 1920, the Society reached the pinnacle of its public success in the ensuing decade, propelled by vigorous researchers such as Walter F. Prince and Lamarkian psychologist William McDougall. A spate of best-selling books, including Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond and Baird T. Spaulding's five-volume Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East; successful speaking tours by Lodge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck; and the publicity surrounding annual international congresses help push psychical research into the headlines. In the early 1920s, even Thomas Edison became involved, spending part of his final years working on a spiritual communication machine.
"The seriousness with which psychical research was taken is illustrated most clearly by the establishment of the first university-affiliated psychical laboratory, at Duke University in 1928. Headed by J. B. Rhine, who originally moved to Duke to work with McDougall, the lab investigated scores of mediums and psychics. Rhine initially studied the question of life after death but, realizing the pitfalls of this line of inquiry, quickly restricted his focus to 'corporeal parapsychical' material (mental or subjective phenomena, including spiritualism). Rhine, who worked at Duke until 1965, published a series of best-selling books and coined the terms 'parapsychology' and 'extra-sensory perception.'
"Despite growing public awareness of the Society, psychical researchers faced increasing schisms within the movement. Issues such as reincarnation and ectoplasmic evidence divided the ASPR into warring factions. When disputes arose over the validity of trance medium (and ectoplasmic material spewer) 'Margery,' local branches of the Society left to organize themselves into independent organizations.
"Although never a member of the ASPR, Pelley found a great deal of interest in the debates swirling within the society during the late 1920s. Needing to get his business affairs in order, however, he returned to California in summer 1928. Pelley and Mina began automatic-writing sessions almost as soon as he returned to the Pacific coast. During the sessions Pelley became increasingly convinced of his own spiritual importance. Pelley related that one of his California spirit contacts noted that, in numerous previous incarnations, he had been one of those 'people who kicked up more of a rumpus on the human stage than humanity especially liked at the time, and always in some proselytizing capacity that wrought alterations in the mode of humanity's living.' This developing sense of self-importance, coupled with the urging of Mary Derieux, led Pelley to publish the account of his conversion experience."
(ibid, pgs. 55-57)
By 1930, in the wake of the success of his American Magazine article recounting his "seven minutes in eternity", Pelley began publishing his own metaphysical-centric magazine. It was was called the New Liberator and purported to promote Christ's teachings (as defined by Pelley) and the "vast machinery, operating with infinitesimal precision and accounting for every event on our present plane of consciousness." These were bold objective to be sure, but the magazine experienced financial difficulties from the onset. Eventually he worked through these difficulties after he started receiving advertisement revenue from other metaphysical organizations.
"The issuance of the October New Liberator inaugurated a short period of stability, and Pelley published the magazine on a monthly basis for the rest of the year. Pelley reorganized the editorial staff during this period, and brought Olive E. Robbins on board as business manager. Robbins, in a move that greatly aided the magazine's continued existence, managed to increase advertising revenue. The advertisements, however, proved to be something of a double-edged sword. In no position to refuse advertising dollars from any source, Pelley accepted money from a variety of shady metaphysical organizations, including the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Cruces (AMORC) and Psychiana. Although the advertising revenue was desperately needed (and Pelley agreed with significant aspects of the teachings of these groups), affiliation with such organizations did nothing to promote the acceptance (or perceived validity) of Pelley's religious doctrine.
"Established by New York advertising man H. Spencer Lewis, also known as Wishar Spenle Cerve, the AMORC represents one of several Rosicrucian groups active in the United States. All of these groups claim that their teachings are based upon writings ascribed to the mythical seventeenth century mystic Christian Rosenkreuz. Lewis, however, went on to persist that his organization's teachings actually dated from the reign of Thutmose III, circa 1500 B.C. In a sort of spiritual alchemy, the AMORC blends Christianity with Kabbalism and Hermetic theories, with the ultimate goal of transcending material form. Lewis skillfully mixed in Theosophical elements to separate his version of Rosicrucianism from his competitors (completing a circle begun with Theosophy founder Helena P. Blavatsky, who earlier swiped elements from European Rosicrucianism for her movement). During the 1930s Lewis oriented much of his teachings towards the spiritualist mecca of Mount Shasta. His 1931 volume Lemuria:The Lost Continent of the Pacific placed the Atlantis myth in the Pacific Ocean, with Mount Shasta as the continent's peak and current home of cavern-dwelling Lemurian survivors. Owing to its image as a mail-order religion, AMORC has never been respected within the esoteric religious community."
(William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, Scott Beekman, pgs. 64-65)
The AMORC is most well known in this day and age to conspiracy buffs for a certain alleged assassin who attended in single meeting of the order in either 1966 or 1968.
"On May 28, 1966, a young Palestinian immigrant fascinated with the occult had attended his first meeting of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) at the society's Akhnaton Lodge in Pasadena, and was the subject of an experiment in sensory perception, sitting blindfolded while attempting to identify objects by touch. AMORC was one of the many splinter groups that broke off from the SRIA in England; they had OTO and Golden Dawn connections, but created a distinctly American style of recruiting: direct-mail. Most people of a certain generation are familiar with those ads in all sorts of magazines with the tag 'What Secret Power Did These Men Possess?' and a P.O. box where one could send for information and began a correspondence course in mental telepathy, meditation and, eventually, magic.
"This interest continued for the next few years. In March 1968, the Palestinian was in Pasadena – where he lived with his mother, some blocks north of where Jack Parsons had lived in the 1940s and 1950s – attending a meeting of the Theosophical Society's Adyar Lodge...
"A few months later, he would be arrested for the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The Palestinian, of course, was Sirhan Bishara Sirhan."
(Sinister Forces Book I, Peter Levenda, pgs. 297-298)
|Early ads for the AMORC|
Before leaving the AMORC, its also worth noting an organization Levenda notes in the above quote: SRIA, which stands for Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. This outfit arguably has an even more colorful history than its AMORC offshoot.
"The SRIA was an occult lodge founded in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century as an outgrowth of the British lodge, the Societas Rosicruciana In Anglia (also known as SRIA). The British SRIA was the breeding ground of the Golden Dawn, which itself was the breeding ground of Aleister Crowley. Without going into too much detail about the creation and history of these orders, which is certain to bore and confuse the reader, let us summarize by saying that the head of the American SRIA was, for quite some time, one George Winslow Plummer, a devoted occultist and Hermeticist who edited a magazine of all things alchemical and Rosicrucian called Mercury. Plummer was also interested in Christian mysticism, and aligned himself with several renegade Christian churches, including something called the Holy Orthodox Church. He was also a member of Aleister Crowley's OTO, and thus fits the mold of occultists everywhere: the inveterate joiner and accumulator of dignitaries. Plummer died in 1944, and was succeeded in the SRIA by his widow, the ethereal Mother Serena, who played the organ at the church's headquarters at 321 West 101st Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the author knew her. Mother Serena later married Theodotus Stanislaus de Witow (1890-1969), who then became the Patriarch of the Holy Orthodox Church, as well as the head of the SRIA until his death in 1969."
(ibid, pg. 278)
|George Winslow Plummer (left), founder of the American branch of the SRIA|
Thus, Pelley was involved in the AMORC, an organization that gained infamy through its brief affiliation with Sirhan Sirhan in 1966/68. But beyond this, the AMORC had ties to the SRIA during the time period Peley was involved with the former. The SRIA featured members linked to both Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn and eventually became involved in the bizarre netherworld of fringe Christian churches and military orders claiming Medieval descent. What's more, Pelley was reportedly a close associate of a reputed member of the SOSJ during the 1930s, as was noted in the second installment of this series. Thus, this web of strange connections comes full circle.
Another famous occult organization Pelley became involved with on some level was the Theosophical Society. At a minimum the Society had an influence on his own theology.
"... Although Pelley steadfastly refused to admit that his teachings came from any source other than clairudient messages, he did admit his familiarity with Theosophical writings. While decrying their relegated status of Christ, Pelley noted that 'the Theosophists are nearest to the true facts about the forces operating behind life of any of the so-called theological creeds or sects.'
"Established by Russian émigré Helena P.Blavatsky (HPB), and Henry S. Olcott in 1875, Theosophy became the most successful occult system in American history. Blavatsky's bombastic writings attracted thousands of followers in America, India, and Europe. Like Pelley she claimed that her writings came to her through messages received from Ascended Masters. Blavatsky's system was a syncretic blending of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, spiritualism, Egyptian Hermeticism, Kabbalism, and occultism. Theosophy is generally Buddhist and Hindu in doctrine and Christian in morality. Her cosmology outlined the development of seven root-races of humanity, each with seven subroots. These human forms (d)evolved from a purely spiritual form to a material one, with the ultimate, emanationist end of returning to immaterialism. Like Pelley, Theosophy promoted evolution, karma, reincarnation, and after-death states.
"Pelley's debt to Theosophy cannot be underestimated, yet he frequently decried Blavatsky's contention that Jesus represented simply one of many equally important Ascended Masters. Although at least two Theosophical splinter groups developed a Christocentric cosmology not unlike Pelley's system, Pelley never mentioned either Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Society or the Arcane School of Alice Bailey in his writings. Given Pelley's voluminous appetite for metaphysical books (and the esoteric circles he moved in), it seems highly unlikely that he did not possess at least a rudimentary knowledge of these groups, particularly Bailey's group, which (like the Theosophists) was active in Los Angeles during the 1920s. Pelley's silence regarding these groups may have been an attempt to separate his movement from two theologies so similar to his own beliefs (and potentially capable of siphoning off Liberation followers).
"Pelley, like many other esoteric writers of the period, also borrowed the notion of ancient, advanced civilizations from the Theosophists (and buttressed these beliefs with evidence from the works of Isaac Newton Vail). He persisted that global cataclysms resulted in the destruction of highly developed societies in Atlantis and Lemuria. According to Theosophical teachings, Lemuria housed the third root-race (the first race to possess physical bodies, reproduce sexually, and bear responsibility for good and evil), while the fourth root-race, the last remnant of whom perished a few thousand years ago, called Atlantis home. The Atlantians are especially significant to Theosophists because they were the alleged composers of the 'Stanzas of Dyzan,' the book of knowledge upon which all world religions were based."
(William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, Scott Beekman, pgs. 74-76)
It's interesting to note that the above-mentioned Rudolf Steiner was also a member of the eventually Crowley-dominated OTO. And of course the blogosphere is awash with countless conspiracy theories concerning Alice Bailey, a long time bugaboo of the conspiratorial right. But back to Pelley.
Pyramidism would also be heavily incorporated into his theology.
"For Pelley tangible proof of the existence of these ancient civilizations can be found by studying the timeline preserved in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Pyramidists believe the passageway from the pyramid's entrance to the king's chamber is a prophetic account of the history of humanity. They discern the course of human history by dividing this time line into 'pyramid' inches. The 'pyramid' inch, slightly larger than the English inch, as one five-hundred-millionth of the Earth's axis. Using this measurement, the pyramidists determined that the time line runs from 2624 B.C. to A.D. 2001. For most of its course the time line is one inch per year, but, at the year 1909, it becomes one inch per month, thereby giving even more specific prophetic messages. Although pyramidism reaches back into the nineteenth century, Pelley developed his ideas on the matter from David Davidson, pyramidism's leading twentieth-century proponent. Pelley's views on the Great Pyramid were taken almost verbatim from Davidson's writings.
"Pelley's support for Davidson's theories derived in part from the pyramidist's claim that May 29, 1928, represented a significant date in human history. This, of course, was the night of Pelley's 'seven minutes in eternity.' Following this lead, Pelley promoted the idea that this date began the 'Time of Tribulation,' which would end on September 16, 1936. Pelley placed great significance upon these dates, as well as several other 'pyramid dates,' such as January 31, 1933 (the day Hitler took power), August 20, 1953 (the potential end of the Piscean Age), and September 17, 2001. Pelley believed the 2001 date denoted the Second Coming of Christ or, as Davidson declared, 'the final cleansing of the whole world for the full extension of the Kingdom of Heaven to all the earth.'"
(ibid, pgs. 76)
Before wrapping things up I would like to briefly consider one final group Pelley became involved with during the early days: the Mighty I AM movement.
"Established by former Chicago fortune-teller Guy Ballard and his wife, Edna, the Mighty I AM (the 'inner reality of the divine') achieved startling success during the 1930s. The Ballards' cult melded Christian Science, Unity, Rosicrucianism, and Pelley's teachings (which they borrowed freely) with Theosophy. While I AM represented the most popular diffusion of Theosophy ever attained in this country, one scholar has quite accurately persisted that the Ballards 'reduced the resulting mishmash to the mental level of the comic-books.' The cult began in 193o when Guy Ballard allegedly met the legendary Comte de Saint Germain on Mount Shasta. Ballard swiped most of Helena Blavatsky's religious system, placing Saint Germain and Jesus Christ at the top of a pantheon of Ascended Masters. While Guy Ballard developed ideas from Theosophy (and a few meetings with Psychiana's Frank. B Robinson), Edna Ballard began holding esoteric classes based on material she lifted from Pelley's League for the Liberation writings. The group peaked in the mid-1930s. At the height of its success their meetings attracted more than six thousand devoted followers. Guy Ballard's death in 1939 and a series of fraud trials against Edna, beginning the next year, spelled the end of their prominence. The I AM Foundation continues to this day, but only with a shadow of its former grandeur.
"Although the Ballards claimed that their teachings came directly from Saint Germain, they did reveal a debt to Pelley. Their writings included references to 'Christian Democracy,' citations of No More Hunger, and a decidedly Pelley-like, anti-New Deal, conservative political perspective. Part of the Ballards' appeal was the nationalistic overtones of I AM doctrine. They argued that the Masters lived in the United States (primarily in the far West), that humanity began in America, and that this country would be the vessel of spiritual light. The Ballard essentially filled the void (with admittedly much greater success) left by Pelley when he formed the Silver Shirts. Their doctrines were almost interchangeable, and the Ballards promoted a pro-American, conservative agenda very similar to Pelley's pre-anti-Semitic position. It was not surprising, then, that Pelley spiritualist followers deserted him for the I AM organization.
"As a tribute to Pelley, Guy Ballard, in his second book of I AM doctrine, even named a lesser Master 'Pelleur.' The Ballards' acknowledgment of influence, however, did not prevent them from raiding Pelley's membership for I AM converts. The Ballards attracted both rank-and-file League for the Liberation veterans and close Pelley associates. For example, Harry Seiber, the man who burned the Galahad Press's records in anticipation of the bankruptcy proceedings, left his post as Silver Shirt treasurer in the wake of Pelley's trail to become the associate director of the Saint Germain Activities."
(William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult, Scott Beekman, pgs. 110-111)
|Guy and Edna Ballard|