Storm Troopers in “The Land of the Sky”

Storm Troopers in “The Land of the Sky”
by Ted Carter
The Depression years brought some strange characters to Asheville, including William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Shirts. If you think it’s hard to think straight now, you should have tried doing it during the 1930s and 40s. The Depression had brought us back to reality from the flask drinking , Freud-quoting Zeldas of the Fitzgerald years. (Zelda died in an Asheville hospital.) Hitler and Mussolini, beasts that had crawled from the bowels of that same Depression, were mouthing their medieval, super-race theories and backing them with “Black Shirts” and “Storm Troopers” in Europe.

Folks grew so jittery over the impending disaster that when Orson Wells yelled “boo” with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, everybody went shooting off in all directions, then came shame-facedly back early the next morning.

The old America was dead. A thousand prophets arose to trumpet the new one. Father Coughlin, the radio priest, played God in politics, denouncing Communists and bankers. Towwnsend was the pied piper to the aged of the nation; Amy Simple Mc Pherson dressed her ‘Temple’ ushers like angels. (Once she dressed them up like milmaids, served ‘milk cockktails,’ then took up her collection in the milk pails, exorting the faithful to ‘Hear the rustle of the paper stuff, not the clinking of coins.’)

Huey Long had established his empire in Louisiana. He dreamed of being the first American dictator, formulaated plans to run for the presidency on a ‘share the wealth’ program.

At that time Asheville was a wide-open town, one of the most popular mountain resorts in the nation. It was often called the ‘Little Chicago of the South.’ This was ‘dry’ country but bonded liquor was easily available. Taxi drivers and bell hope delivered it. Mountain ‘splo’ from from a hundred
hollows. Law officers played their game nightly with blockade-running moon-shiners. Night life was lively. Once a leading underworld figure got into a fist fight with an elected public official. Slot machine czars lived in lordly luxury – painted ladies flourished. It was no wonder that Asheville
often attracted some unique characters.

Pelley Comes to Asheville

One of the most unusual was a slender, distinguished-looking man named William Dudley Pelley. He was a native of Lynn, MA, the son of a Methodist minister. He worked as a newspaper man and editor in MA and VT, served with the YMCA and as correspondent in Siberia. He came to Asheville about 1930, describing himself as an ‘author’ and ‘metaphysician.’ He opened Galahad College’ at the old Asheville Women’s Club building on the corner of Sunset Parkway and Charlotte Street. His publishing house was in the old Biltmore/Oteen bank building beside the
depot in Biltmore (1998 – now a restaurant). His ‘college specialized in correspondence courses. He published papers and magazines, one called Liberation, under issue of the ‘Galahad Press.’

He wrote many articles, one of which announced ‘Christ’s government,’ predicting that Christ, after 60 generations of rumors, was coming back to earth to institute a new social ordere and set up a thousand years reign of righteousness and peace.

The ‘Silver Shirts’

In his book The Door to Revelation he describes how he launched his ‘Silver Shirts’ on 31 Jan 1933, the day after Hitler took power in Germany. He organized the ‘protestant militia of America,’ naming them the Silver Shirts. This, he explained, was a great Christian militia, a body of uniformed men to fight communism The ‘Silver Rangers’ were the equivalent of Hitler’s storm troopers. He went on to explain it as a ‘peaceful movement hanging the entire economic system of the country in a colossal
corporation in which every citizen will hold a share of common stock, drawing dividends sufficient for an ample living.’ It would ‘save America from a Jewish-sponsored communist plot.’ Although Asheville was national headquarters for the ‘Silver Shirts, the movement was not strong in the area. Its publications at this time included Liberation and The Silver Ranger.
Roosevelt was attacked as ‘a tool in the hands of international bankkers.’ On 7 May 1942, the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities indicted Pelley for violation of the espionage act and much publicity was given to the ensuing litigation.

Pelley had then moved his headquarters to Noblesville, IN. A subpeona was issued for him 1 Jun 1942 and a wanted poster was put out for him by Laurence Brown, Sheriff of Buncombe County. He was apprehended and brought back to Asheville. Complete records of the ensuing trial are
preserved in Pack Memorial Library.

An Asheville Times editorial in 1934 mirrored the local attitude towards the Silver Shirts of America:

“The Silver Shirts are a ridiculous expression of social unrest and egotism. No rational person can read their grandiose pronouncements without seeing the joke of it all.
Their manifestos should receive hearty laughter rather than quaking fear… in laughing at the Silver Shirts we laugh at others who find it a menace to the republic!”

The State, August 1974

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