On January 31, 1933, the day after Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, Massachusetts-born novelist and journalist, William Dudley Pelley, founded the Silver Legion of America, more commonly known as the Silver Shirts. At first glance, he did not seem to be on track to become a leading voice for anti-Semitism and bigotry, however by the start of World War II, his hateful rhetoric had a significant following and had become a full-fledged political movement.
Pelley spent most of his life in various regions of the country including New England and Indiana, at first as a high school drop-out working at his father’s tissue paper factory, but later running from the law as a wanted fugitive on charges of fraud and treason. In between his tissue paper making days and time spent hiding from federal authorities, Pelley spent about a decade in Asheville where he headquartered his Silver Legion of America and organization modeled off Hitler’s Brown Shirts. The movement began when Pelley experienced a spiritual transformation he later recounted in his essay for America Magazine titled, “Seven Minutes in Eternity.” The article gained him national attention and grew into a cult-like enterprise which included the short-lived Galahad college that later became a successful correspondence course, and his own Galahad Press that published his magazine, the New Liberator.
In 1936 Pelley ran for President under the “Christian Party,” however, his platform was similar to that of Germany’s Nazi Party. During his run for office, Pelley insisted the US be a “Christian Commonwealth,” that is, that the country should run like a major corporation where each newborn would be given a small share at birth, there would be no paper money, and that Jews would be forced to live on walled off reservations.
While Pelley accumulated thousands of followers nationwide, Pelley and the Silver Shirts had virtually no support in Asheville. Despite its southern location, even in the early 20th century, Asheville had a thriving Jewish community that was deeply involved in business and social life. Local law enforcement even took an active role in attempting to arrest Pelley on his fraud charges. Pelley moved away from Asheville in the 1940’s to Indiana where he was ultimately brought to justice.
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