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Politics and the Occult

People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.


It was a case study in how rumors start. At the beginning of an anxious summer in 1968, in a nation that had just experienced the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, writer and raconteur Truman Capote made strange pronouncements about a link between the killings. Since the 1966 publication of In Cold Blood, Capote had become sought after as an expert on the criminal mind, and on June 21, 1968, he was making one of his first appearances on NBC’s Tonight Show. From a live studio in New York City, he told host Johnny Carson of a chilling hypothesis: The assassination of both leaders was part of an occult–political conspiracy, the aim of which was to ignite a violent overthrow of the American government.

Within the writings of Theosophy’s Madame Blavatsky, Capote explained, “was a theory of how you could undermine the morale of a country and create a vacuum for revolution by systematically assassinating a series of prominent people.” The murderers themselves, he surmised, may have been brainwashed sleeper agents, of the sort found in The Manchurian Candidate. As a tantalizing bit of proof, Capote noted that Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, had requested (and received) from his jailers Blavatsky’s 1888 tome, The Secret Doctrine.

The writer’s remarks got picked up in newspapers and magazines, launching stories that the Russian madame had written a “Manual for Revolution,” now being used by leftist guerrillas in America. The ultraright-wing John Birch Society, in what must have been its one and only political alignment with the chic New York writer, purchased full-page ads in California newspapers decrying the long-dead Blavatsky as a force for violent revolution.

Capote’s theory was almost total imagination. There was no “Manual for Revolution,” nor had any such idea ever appeared in Blavatsky’s writing. It was correct that Sirhan had requested Blavatsky’s exegesis of occult philosophy and lost civilizations, The Secret Doctrine. He had also requested a far more obscure 1922 Theosophical text, Talks On: At the Feet of the Master. The latter was a series of commentaries by a leading English Theosophist, Charles Webster Leadbeater, on an earlier work, At the Feet of the Master, by the young Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti.* Nothing in any of the books even hinted at political violence or the overthrow of governments. In particular, the Leadbeater and Krishnamurti volumes proffered homily-like messages of self-sacrifice and humble living, no more challenging to worldly powers than the sermons of the Publick Universal Friend had been generations earlier.

The Blavatsky–Sirhan affair was, however, typical of how ready people were to believe in whispers of an occult conspiracy behind world events. And such credulity was not entirely without reason. In modern Europe, seers and men of magic had been known to advise the powerful. In the years leading up to World War I, the Russian imperial court was famously enthralled and repelled by the presence of the Siberian mystic–healer Grigori Rasputin, who wielded enormous personal influence over the czarina. To the magus’s enemies, who eventually murdered him, Rasputin was a debauched charlatan with an unnatural hold over royal affairs (though this wasn’t so much the case that the czar would heed his most prophetic advice—to keep out of the war).

Arcane influences were not confined to foreign courts alone. America, too, saw a man of veritable occult tendencies at the highest levels of power—yet this figure was as dramatically different from the shadowy Rasputin as his home state of Iowa was from Siberia. He was a corn breeder, an intellectual searcher, and a farmer—a man Jimmy Stewart could have played had his life ever come to film. His career illuminates connections between modern occultism and politics that, in their way, were more remarkable—if less salacious—than anything fantasy could conjure.

“He’s Not a Mystic”

By the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Franklin Roosevelt had cut ties with his then vice president, John Nance Garner. The tough-talking Texan had opposed Roosevelt’s pursuit of an unprecedented third term. Behind the scenes, the president determined that a new running mate had to be a true-blue supporter of the waning New Deal, someone who could rally disparate constituencies from big-city unionists to heartland farmers. He opted for a man who had initially joined his cabinet as a Republican but had since become a hero to liberals: the farm-bred, intellectually driven Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. “He’s honest,” FDR said of the Iowan. “He thinks right. He’s a digger.”

It couldn’t be done, argued Democratic National Committee Chairman Jim Farley. Wallace was just too, well, weird. He had been a Theosophist, for God’s sake—and was known for his interest in astrology, reincarnation, Eastern religions, Native American mysticism, and occultism. While professorial in demeanor and possessed of scrubbed Midwestern looks, Wallace could shock Washington dinner-party habitués by describing how he cured his headaches by rubbing a Tibetan amulet on his forehead.

Farley recalled a tense exchange in his memoirs. “The people look on him as a mystic,” Farley complained to the president.

“He’s not a mystic,” Roosevelt snapped. “He’s a philosopher. He’s got ideas. He thinks right. He’ll help the people think.”

In fact, Wallace did have ideas—extraordinary ones that helped save American agriculture during the Great Depression. The third-generation editor of a family-run farm journal, Wallaces’ Farmer, and also the son of the secretary of agriculture in the Republican Warren Harding’s administration, Wallace knew how to get things done on a farm. When farmers’ incomes plummeted at the start of the Roosevelt presidency, Wallace pushed major innovations, such as high-yield seed, soil conservation, planting rotations, and curbs on overproduction. His reforms were credited with saving thousands of family farms during the Great Depression. To historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Wallace was “the best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had.” Wallace was a success in business too. His talents for biogenetics and crop hybridization made the ardent New Dealer a wealthy man through the launch of a seed company familiar to many people who had never set foot on a farm: Pioneer Hi-Bred.

In political and private life, Wallace’s success seemed to arise from the unconventional broadness in how he defined himself. He wasn’t a farmer or a businessman, a publisher or a politician, a Republican or a Democrat. He was, above all, a seeker. “Fundamentally,” he told a friend, “I am … a searcher for methods of bringing the ‘inner light’ to outward manifestation and raising outward manifestation to the inner light.” He freely connected his metaphysical interests to his public work: “Religion is a method whereby a man reaches out toward God in an effort to find the spiritual power to express here on earth in a practical way the divine potentialities in himself and his fellow beings.”

FDR got his man. The farmer–seeker–statesman won the convention’s approval, even as some grumbled that Wallace was too liberal and too strange. After FDR’s reelection, Wallace seemed to have greatness in reach. He developed a reputation as the New Deal’s Renaissance man and the administration’s philosopher-in-residence. He maintained a frenetic speaking schedule and, through his public appearances and personal popularity, held together critical elements of the New Deal coalition, ranging from Southern blacks to Midwestern farmers to Northeastern intellectuals. He was even discussed as a potential successor to FDR.

But it was Roosevelt’s final vice president and the man who replaced Wallace—Harry Truman—who instead became a household name, while few today remember Henry A. Wallace. And in this turn of events, Jim Farley’s initial misgivings about the farm-belt mystic may have been correct.

A Searcher for the Infinite

Wallace freely called himself a “practical mystic.” His interest in esoteric philosophy came as the result of a long and considered journey, and he often seemed baffled that others could not respect the seriousness of his search.

As a young man growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, he left the Presbyterianism of his youth to journey through the various occult and metaphysical systems, from Theosophy to Native American shamanism. In high school in the early 1900s, he hungrily took in William James’s classic of comparative religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience—a volume marked by the deep interest with which the philosopher viewed New Thought, mental healing, and other metaphysical strains. Wallace read Ralph Waldo Emerson and took a particular interest in the work of the twentieth-century metaphysician named for him: Ralph Waldo Trine, author of the inspirational best seller In Tune with the Infinite. Trine’s idea of the mind as a material, creative force deeply touched the young Wallace. But it was Theosophy that placed the deepest mark on his expanding worldview.

Around 1919, when Wallace was entering his thirties, he attended a meeting of the Des Moines Theosophical lodge. And by 1925 he had become active in the Liberal Catholic Church, a movement closely linked with Theosophy and founded by one of its most colorful and controversial leaders, the English author Charles Webster Leadbeater. The Liberal Catholic Church was designed as an alternative to the Anglican and Catholic Churches: It practiced traditional Christian liturgy and the Mass but permitted worshippers the freedom—very much in the vein of Theosophy—to acknowledge and pursue truths in all the world’s religions. The church’s doctrine noted: “There is a ‘communion of Saints’ or Holy Ones, who help mankind, also a ministry of Angels.” This cracked open the door for belief in the hidden Masters spoken of in Theosophy. For several years, the Liberal Catholic Church was Wallace’s spiritual home—he performed elements of the service, wore vestments, and helped organize its Des Moines branch. He left by 1930, after the reemergence of one of many scandals over Leadbeater’s intimacies with underage boys.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Wallace also joined Freemasonry, in which he attained all but the order’s highest rank. In the early 1930s, he entered a serious study of astrology, trying to determine if heavenly phenomena could predict the weather for farmers. In a way, his inquiry wasn’t terribly foreign to the world of farmer’s almanacs in which he was raised. Many planting almanacs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured lore on how the moon and planets affected weather patterns and included zodiacal information on the earth’s position amid the constellations. In some respects, Wallace’s inquiry into the occult—as into new farming methods—represented a deepened study into all that existed around him while he was growing up.

Indian rituals were another subject of fascination. In 1931 he grew close with a “medicine man”—a white Minnesotan poet and composer named Charles Roos. Roos studied Indian mysticism, of which he considered himself a master. Through Roos, Wallace began to believe that he might have had a past life as an Indian brave, a theory he determined to explore. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, invited the respected agriculturalist to his Hyde Park home for a getting-to-know-you session. Wallace was thrilled to accept. “There was, however, another reason the invitation delighted him,” wrote Wallace biographers John C. Culver and John Hyde, “and Roosevelt would have been flabbergasted by it. He saw the trip as an opportunity to explore American Indian religion and search for a past life in which he and Charles Roos roamed together as warriors.” And, indeed, Wallace did spend some time with elders of the Onondaga tribe in the environs of New York’s Burned-Over District, northwest of Hyde Park. The tribal elders apparently confirmed his past-life recollections and initiated him into their mysteries, including in the use of “true Indian tobacco,” wrote Culver and Hyde.

But all of this was a prelude to Wallace’s brief, though intense, involvement with the Russian émigré, artist, and mystical philosopher Nicholas Roerich. It began in full in 1933, the year that marked Wallace’s ascendancy to Roosevelt’s cabinet. It was a relationship that produced bracingly original political ideas—and that would later haunt and damage Wallace’s political career beyond recovery.

“Dear Guru”

Nicholas Roerich was many things: a spiritual writer and philosopher, a Theosophist, a distinguished set designer who collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky, and a modernist painter whose work captured Russian churches and Buddhist monasteries in a way that revealed stark similarities between the composition of Western and Eastern holy sites. He was also a self-styled cultural ambassador who appeared on the New York scene in the 1920s, where he attracted a great deal of attention and patronage, including from Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who met with him in 1929. Roerich had an intriguing idea for establishing a worldwide treaty to protect cultural sites and artifacts during war. He designed a three-ringed flag intended to fly above great monuments to signal their being off-limits to bombers and invaders, in the fashion of the Red Cross insignia.

Most historians and journalists scornfully recall Roerich as a makeshift mystic and con artist who managed to get Roosevelt, Wallace, and others to bankroll his schemes. But the Banner of Peace flags and the Roerich Pact, as the proposed treaty was known, attracted widespread attention among serious people, like Wallace, and represented a prescient, even pioneering, effort at international law. For Wallace, the treaty took a mystical principle—unity among the world’s religions and artistic expressions—and sought to apply it on the political stage. At the high-water mark of Roerich’s influence, FDR commissioned Wallace to sign the Roerich Pact on behalf of the United States, which Wallace proudly did at a White House ceremony on April 15, 1935, with FDR and signatories from several Latin American nations looking on. While other nations followed suit, the treaty was acted on only spottily.

Wallace’s relationship with Roerich brought out a less attractive side of the agriculturalist, however. As though in rebellion against his straightforward Midwest persona, Wallace displayed a weakness for the kinds of secrecy and spiritual theatrics found within the European occult—traits that Roerich reveled in. The pale Russian often scowled before cameras in Oriental robes and a Fu Manchu–style beard, resembling the Hollywood image of a mystic. (In fact, Roerich’s tales of his faraway Asian travels are often rumored to have influenced the popular novel and Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, which depicted a mythical land of Shangri-La tucked deep in the Himalayas.) In the early 1930s, Roerich bestowed on his friend Wallace an initiate name, “Galahad”—after the Arthurian knight—and Wallace then used his nom de mystique to sign dramatic, imagery-laden letters to Roerich.

“Dear Guru,” began one of the most oft-quoted and enigmatic, in 1933, “I have been thinking of you holding the casket—the sacred most precious casket. And I have thought of the New Country going forth to meet the seven stars under the sign of the three stars. And I have thought of the admonition ‘Await the Stone.’ ” Imbued with the insider jargon of the Roerich circle, Wallace’s letters could sound like scenarios from the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Wallace’s love for mythical terms and code words spilled over into White House correspondence to FDR. This 1935 note from Wallace to Roosevelt probably ranks as one of the oddest interoffice memos in White House history:

I feel for a short time yet that we must deal with the “strong ones,” the “turbulent ones,” the “fervent ones,” and perhaps even with a temporary resurgence, with the “flameless ones,” who with the last dying gasp will strive to reanimate their dying giant “Capitalism.” Mr. President, you can be the “flaming one,” the one with an ever-upsurging spirit to lead into the time when the children of men can sing again.

On one such occasion, FDR was reported to remark, “By God! What’s the matter with Wallace?” An undersecretary joked, “I don’t dare let a Theosophist in to see Henry—he’d give him a job right away.” Wallace cooled suspicions by breaking with Roerich in the fall of 1935, just months after the signing of the Roerich Pact. The mystic and his son had turned a White House–funded agricultural expedition to Mongolia into an international charade in which Roerich proved more interested in political skulduggery than gathering strains of drought-resistant grass. For inscrutable reasons of his own, Roerich managed to pick up an armed band of White Russian Cossacks on the Mongolian frontier, whom he led on a traverse of Russo–Asian borderlands, alarming Soviet, Chinese, and Japanese authorities. The ill-defined detour got Roerich branded as everything from a White Russian spy to a general pest meddling in Eurasian hot spots. White House colleagues were relieved when Wallace finally ordered the mission to an end and cut all ties with Roerich.

The Eye and the Pyramid

The last thing Wallace wanted was for his spiritual interests to cast a shadow over his cabinet duties. But slowly that shadow began to fall, even while his political influence continued to rise.

In his own oral histories of the White House years, Wallace proudly took credit for calling to Roosevelt’s attention the little-known image of the eye and pyramid on the back of the Great Seal of the United States and suggesting that it be used on currency. From America’s founding up through the New Deal era, the Great Seal had been used mostly for treaties and other official government business and was an unfamiliar ceremonial insignia when it first caught Wallace’s attention in 1934. He considered its Latin maxim,Novus Ordo Seclorum—New Order of the Ages—as translatable to New Deal of the Ages. At the signing of the Roerich Pact, Wallace spoke of the need for a “spiritual New Deal,” one that “places that which is fine in humanity above that which is low and sordid and mean and hateful and grabbing.” Roosevelt, himself a Freemason, was not uncomfortable with portentous symbols and grand imagery. Wallace recalled that when he raised the issue of using the image, Roosevelt

was first struck with the representation of the “All-Seeing Eye,” a Masonic representation of The Great Architect of the Universe. Next he was impressed with the idea that the foundation for the new order of the ages had been laid in 1776 but that it would be completed only under the eye of the Great Architect.

According to surviving records, FDR personally supervised the placement of the heraldic imagery on the back of the dollar bill in 1935, handwriting instructions to reposition the “pyramid” side (the seal’s reverse) in front of the “eagle” side (the seal’s obverse) so that the eye and pyramid would appear first when reading the bill from left to right. Thus most Americans, intentionally or not, were left with the impression that the mysterious pyramid and its heralding of a “new order” were the foremost symbols of the American republic, rather than the more ordinary eagle and shield.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Morgenthau was displeased with the whole affair. He suspected Wallace’s “strange mystical drives,” as he recalled in his memoirs, and questioned his motives. “It was not till later,” an unhappy Morgenthau recalled in Collier’smagazine in 1947, “that I learned that the pyramid … had some cabalistic significance for members of a small religious sect,” by which he meant the Roerich circle. Morgenthau was actually mistaken in connecting the eye and pyramid to Roerich. But it was the kind of judgment that was taking hold and falsely cementing the belief that Wallace was a propagandist for esoteric causes.

After Wallace’s nomination for the vice presidency, rumors arose about the “Dear Guru” letters, and members of the Roerich circle may have been responsible for several that were leaked to the press. But the White House managed to keep the matter quiet, suggesting behind the scenes that no such correspondence was trustworthy—especially coming from Roerich, who at that point was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The matter died and Wallace avoided embarrassment. He was a popular vice president, but by 1943 he began to face political losses. As head of the Board of Economic Warfare, Wallace wanted guarantees of fair wages and working conditions for foreign workers producing the raw materials for America’s munitions industry. It was another early attempt at international lawmaking, this time pertaining to global labor standards. But foes in the administration and Congress fought the measures, and Wallace’s initiative floundered when Roosevelt failed to back him. Sensing a more conservative national mood in 1944, Roosevelt was willing to let his vice president twist in the wind. Conservatives and political bosses wanted Wallace off the next presidential ticket, and Roosevelt issued only the most tepid of defenses. While Wallace was greeted with thunderous cheers at the 1944 nominating convention in Chicago, political insiders maneuvered against him. The Missourian Harry Truman was nom inated in Wallace’s place. When a somewhat bewildered Truman approached Wallace to ask whether the two men could still be considered friends, Wallace smiled and replied, “Harry, we are both Masons.”

The years that followed were punishing ones for Wallace. Although he was awarded the enticing consolation of becoming secretary of commerce in the final Roosevelt administration, Wallace first saw the job’s power reduced and then he lost it after FDR’s death, when Truman removed him. Embittered by the experience and alarmed at the decline of New Deal influence in the White House, Wallace determined to mount a progressive challenge to Truman’s reelection. In 1948, he ran for president under the ticket of the leftist Progressive Party. Democrats feared that Wallace could rally the New Deal faithful and steer the election away from Truman, perhaps introducing a real third-party force into national politics. But for Wallace the whole episode amounted to one last political loss when his “Dear Guru” letters finally came to light.

“Am I in America?”

The jaunty right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler—widely read in newspapers through the Hearst syndicate—had managed to obtain a cache of Wallace’s letters, probably from the hands of the jilted Roerich’s followers. Pegler used them over a period of months in 1948 to steadily bury the liberal icon, routinely goading the former vice president with names like “Old Bubblehead” and “drooling mystic.” Wallace unintentionally assisted Pegler’s efforts by refusing to confirm whether he had penned the letters to Roerich, which served only to deepen suspicions that Wallace had something to hide.

To worsen matters, Wallace’s upstart Progressive Party was heavily staffed by members of the Communist Party U.S.A., an open secret that seemed lost on no one but the candidate himself. When Wallace spoke around the nation, he sometimes attracted hostile crowds, especially in the South, where members of his integrated campaign staff were harassed, beaten, and in one case even stabbed. To admirers, Wallace remained a liberal lion: He refused to address segregated crowds, openly violated Jim Crow laws, and often slept in the homes of black supporters. He stood up to audiences that jeered him or pelted him with tomatoes and eggs and sometimes needed an armed guard to walk up to rostrums amid shoves and boos. “Am I in America?” he once challenged a riotous crowd in 1948. For all the physical bravery of his campaign, however, his candidacy fizzled.

Afterward, Wallace continued to travel internationally and maintained correspondence with world leaders. But mostly he retired from public life at his experimental farm, called Farvue, in Westchester County, New York. Some may have imagined it to be the place where Wallace was most comfortable, amid his plants and books. For Wallace, though, esoteric philosophy and intellectual searching were never retreats from life but ways to see justice carried into the world. Looking back on his spiritual explorations, he said, “Karma means that while things may not balance out in a given lifetime, they balance out in the long run in terms of justice between individuals, between man and the whole. It seems to me one of the most profound of all religious concepts. To that extent, I’m everlastingly grateful to the Theosophists.”

Seven Minutes in Eternity

It would be comforting to conclude that the intellect and integrity of Henry A. Wallace represented the occult’s chief expression in American politics. But at the same time as Wallace made his political rise, his career was paralleled by that of another man of mystical leanings—but one with far darker intent. He was one of the nation’s most notorious hate leaders: an avid admirer of Hitler, the organizer of America’s prototype neo-Nazi order, a literary influence on the anti-Semitism of poet Ezra Pound, and a popular writer who reported receiving “hyper-dimensional instruction” from “Spiritual Mentors.” He met them during an out-of-body experience in 1928, which he wrote about for a large and enthusiastic audience. In fact, if this man hadn’t become a neo-Nazi, he might have been remembered as one of the liveliest metaphysical authors of the twentieth century. Instead, his name—William Dudley Pelley—is remembered today only on the grimmest fringes of white supremacy, a movement that he helped style.

Pelley was the rarest of political animals: a hatemonger with actual talent. Before his turn to fringe politics in the 1930s, he was a prolific journalist and successful short-story writer. First in 1920 and again in 1930, he won the O. Henry Award for short fiction. For this largely self-taught son of a minister, sent early to work during a hard-knock childhood in Lynn, Massachusetts, it was a remarkable achievement.

Most of Pelley’s short fiction centered on the struggles and quiet nobility of life in his mythical hamlet of Paris, Vermont—an idealized, pathos-free version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. His later turn to anti-Semitism and racialist politics was visible in his writing only in flippant asides or oddly couched phrases—the kind of soft bigotry or ill humor that was sufficiently common at the time to be overlooked, if not for what was to follow later. His 1930 O. Henry Award–winning short story, “The Continental Angle,” which appeared in August 1929 in the Chicago Tribune, described the ordeal of a Germanic bakery owner facing bigotry and “cheap patriotism” during a tide of anti-German attitudes at the start of World War I. Portraying a Prussian shopkeeper as the victim of hate in 1929, when the nationalist tide had begun to rise in Europe, suggested an unusual sympathy.

Pelley’s career went beyond the printed page. He spent the 1920s as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, penning a string of studio vehicles at the height of the silent-film era. In Pelley’s high mark as a screenwriter, two of his films featured horror pioneer Lon Chaney. In 1922’s The Light in the Dark, the changeling actor played a heart-of-gold hoodlum who steals the Holy Grail in order to heal an injured girl. Better remembered is The Shock from 1923, for Chaney’s performance as a crippled hit man compelled to reevaluate his life. The screenwriter and actor became good friends for the rest of the decade.

Pelley’s public profile took an immense leap in March 1929 with the publication of a hugely popular article on the cover of The American Magazine: “Seven Minutes in Eternity—the Amazing Experience that Made Me Over.” Pelley depicted a quiet spring night in 1928 in which a near-death experience transported him to the regions of the spirit world. As he described it, the evening began ordinarily enough—that is, if your idea of ordinary includes falling asleep over a book on “ethnology” in an isolated California bungalow with only the company of a massive police dog. Between three and four A.M., the dozing Pelley let loose a “ghastly inner shriek”: I’m dying! I’m dying!, as he plunged through “cool, blue space.” The fall was followed by a frantic whirling, similar, he recalled, to when he had been in an airplane over San Francisco that went into a tailspin and almost crashed into the Golden Gate. Just as suddenly, “someone reached out, caught me, stopped me.” It was two people—“two strong-bodied, kindly-faced young men in white uniforms not unlike those worn by internees in hospitals.” They laid him naked on a “beautiful marble-slab pallet” and began to massage and talk reassuringly to him.

This was Pelley’s first encounter with the “Spiritual Mentors” who tutored him, as they would many times in the years ahead, on karma, reincarnation, and the realities of the afterlife. Only later would their ideas turn political. Revived by the “cool, steadying pressure of my friends’ hands,” the nude Pelley was gently directed to bathe in a soothing marble pool. The magical waters seemed to remove his sense of nakedness, and he then strolled through the illuminated Roman porticos of the Higher Realm, where he encountered “saintly, attractive, magnetic folk … no misfits, no tense countenances, no sour leers, no preoccupied brusqueness or physical handicap.” How happy everybody seems! he inwardly exclaimed. Suddenly he was surrounded by a “swirl of bluish vapor” and he floated up, once more launched through space. He then heard a mechanical click in his body—“the best analogy is the sound my repeating deer-rifle makes when I work the ejector mechanism”—which signaled his return to his physical form. The writer shot up in bed and yelled: “That wasn’t a dream!”

Pelley told readers that the experience had remade him into a more peaceful, loving person whose sharper edges had been smoothed by his contact with his spirit brothers. In the months ahead, he said, his nerves calmed, he stopped smoking (until the higher Mentors told him that tobacco helped free his subconscious), he was kinder to editors, business associates, and neighbors. Weirdly enough, all of them—and even total strangers—seemed mysteriously to want to help him.

If not quite the first, “Seven Minutes in Eternity” was certainly the nation’s most influential tale of near-death experience. Given that The American Magazine reached over 2.2 million subscribers, Pelley’s article, surmised historian Scott Beekman, “became one of the most widely read accounts of paranormal activity in American history.” In effect, it introduced the near-death narrative into mass culture, where it later became a mainstay of daytime television and best-seller lists.* The article generated tens of thousands of letters from readers anxious to learn more. And no wonder: As a piece of writing, Pelley’s account towered above the day’s typically hackneyed narratives of metaphysical journeying. With its heavenly Mentors in a Romanesque portico reassuring a stunned earthman, the story of “Seven Minutes in Eternity” seemed to prefigure the reassuringly familiar aliens and life-affirming metaphysics of a Star Trek episode. Would only it had the same happy ending.

Somewhere between Pelley’s out-of-body experience and the triumph of the fascist ideologies of the 1930s, something in the writer’s outlook became terribly, tragically twisted. His gifts for crafting a memorable phrase were abruptly refocused on producing some of the darkest anti-Semitic tracts in American history. The vehicle for his hatred was a mystico-political magazine he founded, Liberation. And he did more than just write: By 1933, acting under “clairaudient” instructions from his cosmic Mentors, Pelley started the Silver Shirts, a paramilitary neo-Nazi order that served as a template for some of the worst hate groups of the twentieth century.

What had happened to the man who spent “Seven Minutes in Eternity”?

“Something Clicked in My Brain!”

To behold the large photograph of Pelley’s face as it appeared with his American Magazine piece, one would never imagine the career in front of him. The writer of “Seven Minutes” looked trusting, mild, relaxed, with gentle features and softly graying hair—so much the image of a small-town druggist from one of his Paris, Vermont, stories. Within a few years, however, Pelley appeared transformed: Photographs showed his goateed face squinting and scowling and his diminutive five-foot-seven-inch frame decked out in a paramilitary uniform of pantaloons, a silver shirt, and a leather band strapped across his chest. By 1939, his icy visage on a sheriff’s WANTED poster in North Carolina—where he was convicted of securities fraud—reveals a contrast that is so dramatic, so Jekyll-and-Hyde in nature, that it would have intrigued the master of disguise himself, Lon Chaney.

A few hints to the Pelley mystery appear in material that had been cut from the article-length version of his astral adventure and that Pelley later restored in his “unabridged” (though actually carefully and selectively edited) book-length version. In the longer version, Pelley professed fascination with “racial urges” and how they shaped history. He groused, even in the published article, over “unfriendly bankers” and “the swarming millions of Asia.” Pelley later disclosed—though it is difficult to tell when he is revealing his past attitudes versus projecting his later ones backward—that during his trip to the higher realms the Spiritual Mentors explained the true nature of human races: “They’re great classifications of humanity epitomizing gradations of spiritual development, starting with the black man and proceeding upwards in cycles to the white.”

As the 1930s began, Pelley led something of a double life. Best known as the author of “Seven Minutes in Eternity,” he became a kind of Spiritual Mentor himself, publishing mystical magazines and newsletters and running Galahad College, a small metaphysical school in Asheville, North Carolina. But, as directed by the Mentors, he explained, he was also studying the career of Adolf Hitler—with fascination and awe. In 1932, Pelley reported a clairaudient message from his Higher Mentors: “We are presenting through you and your fellows of Our Order the complete delineation of a New World Society, politically, sociologically, and religiously …” When Hitler secured the German chancellery on January 30, 1933, Pelley recorded in his memoirs, “Something clicked in my brain!” On January 31, he sprang into action. Pelley transformed the large mailing lists of his magazines and his correspondence courses into a radically different enterprise: the Silver Legion of America, a paramilitary order that would weigh in on “the ultimate contest between Aryan mankind and Jewry.” Some of his spiritual students fled, others remained, and many newcomers joined for the new line that Pelley, or the “beloved Chief,” was now peddling: hatred of Jewry and support for Hitler.

The Silver Shirt Legion’s popularity was centered mainly on the West Coast. It engaged only sporadically in armed training—though notably so in its San Diego chapter. More typically, the Silver Shirts served as a vehicle for pro-Hitler rallies and Pelley’s fringe campaign for the White House. The group also developed into a clearinghouse for Pelley’s string of propaganda publications—professionally produced hate sheets that blamed all the world’s ills, from the Lincoln assassination to Pearl Harbor, on the wiles of international Jewry. The most shocking element of Pelley’s magazine Liberation was the sheer relentlessness of its hatred. Its “humor” is best summed up in one of Pelley’s proposed Christmas cards in 1937:

Dear Shylock, in this season

When we’re all bereft of reason,

As upon my rent you gloat,

I would like to cut your throat.

In 1934, Liberation had attracted its most famous subscriber: the modernist poet Ezra Pound. The long, tortuous path of Pound’s own anti-Semitism and his support of fascist ideology appear to have taken a leaf directly from Pelley. Apparently in an effort to dissuade Pound from his growing attachment to racialist conspiracies, one of Pound’s literary friends and interlocutors, the Jewish modernist poet Louis Zukofsky, sent him a Pelley article alleging that a cabal of Jewish bankers had instigated the American Civil War. The effect, however, was the opposite of what Zukofsky had intended. Instead of seeing the absurdity of it, Pound delighted in the article, praising Pelley in letters back to Zukofsky as a “stout felly” and rhetorically asking if “all bankers is jooz?” For Pound, it was a turning point: “With two exceptions,” wrote historian Leon Surette in his masterly study Pound in Purgatory, “this is the earliest occurrence of overtly anti-Semitic remarks I have found in Pound’s correspondence or publications.” A further reference to Pelley’s Civil War theory emerged in one of Pound’s famed Cantos. “It seems reasonable to conclude,” Surette wrote, “that Zukofsky unwittingly set Pound on the course of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory by sending him Liberation in early 1934.”

Prophet of Hate

By the mid-1930s, the Silver Shirts reached a peak membership of about fifteen thousand. Pelley had become sufficiently infamous to serve as the model for novelist Sinclair Lewis’s American dictator, Buzz Windrip, in It Can’t Happen Here. In the pages ofLiberation—whose subscriber list may have run as high as fifty thousand—Pelley repeatedly hammered the Roosevelt administration for its support of England, declaring that the president was a puppet of the “house of Judah” and calling him a scheming, Dutch-descended Jew. Pelley finally pushed a button that Roosevelt would not ignore. In a 1939 pamphlet, “Cripple’s Money,” Pelley wrote that the polio-stricken president was personally pocketing money raised through his Warm Springs Foundation for Crippled Children (and, of course, sharing it with his Jewish puppeteers). Roosevelt asked Attorney General Frank Murphy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about prosecuting Pelley for libel. But the plans were dropped for fear that Roosevelt would be subpoenaed to testify.

At the dawn of World War II, however, with the nation reeling from Pearl Harbor and Pelley praising Hitler as “the outstanding statesman–leader of the world,” the federal government was ready to strike. “Now that we are in a war,” Roosevelt wrote Hoover in January of 1942, “it looks like a good chance to clean up a number of these vile publications.” In April the FBI raided Pelley’s offices, and by August a circuit court in Indianapolis sentenced him to fifteen years in federal prison on eleven counts of sedition.

The government had made Pelley an example in a general mop-up of racist cults and paramilitary movements at the start of the war. He was likely seen as an easier target than better-known Axis sympathizers such as the “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, who had far more followers and political connections. The Pelley prosecution was a warning shot—and it seemed to work. Coughlin was soon silenced, the Ku Klux Klan continued a precipitous decline, and several other religio-political organizations, such as Arthur Bell’s conspiracy cult Mankind United, faced federal prosecution or fell under intense scrutiny.

The cult leader Bell narrowly escaped prosecution for sedition after telling followers that U.S. planes disguised as Japanese Zeros had bombed Pearl Harbor under orders from the “Hidden Rulers of the World.” In a 1999 paper, historian and religious scholar Philip Jenkins keenly surmised that some of the very visible support for the war effort coming from Psychiana’s Frank B. Robinson may actually have been a political calculation designed to keep his own controversial organization off the FBI’s watch list.

As the war wound down and America faced a new foe in Communism, the controversy around Pelley ebbed. In early 1950, friends and supporters—recasting their jailed chief as a pioneering foe of Bolshevism—secured his release on parole. He had served about seven and a half years. Legally barred from political activity, Pelley spent the rest of the decade creating a massive output of channeled writings from his higher messengers, which he called the Soulcraft teachings. Moving with the times, Pelley saw the burgeoning phenomenon of UFOs as evidence of divine intelligences—or “Star Guests.” For the remaining years of his life, the “beloved Chief” crafted an astral–Spiritualist religion based on cosmic messages from interstellar guides.

In 1965, at age seventy-five, Pelley died quietly of heart failure in Noblesville, Indiana. His passing was marked by an anonymous cross-burning on the lawn of the funeral home where he lay. It would appear that the prophet of hate went to his grave a largely forgotten man.

But Pelley’s brand of paranoid pseudopatriotism touched the imaginations of other mystical sects that also attempted to “save” America under the guidance of hidden powers. The largest was the Chicago-based “Mighty I AM” movement, which offered a mélange of teachings from “Ascended Masters” who extolled prosperity, ultrapatriotism, and mystical awakening. As will be seen, the group gained and quickly lost wide popularity during the 1930s under the leadership of a husband–wife team, Guy and Edna Ballard. The Ballards’ efforts, in turn, served to influence the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Under its guru, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, CUT gained notoriety in the late 1980s, when church members dug an elaborate network of underground chambers near Yellowstone National Park, stockpiled weapons and provisions, and awaited American–Soviet nuclear Armageddon.

By far the grimmest legacy of the career of William Dudley Pelley was the influence he left among America’s emerging hate groups. The Silver Shirts were an identifiable starting point for the careers of at least two figures whose names became synonymous with violence and bigotry later in the twentieth century. Henry L. Beach, a former Silver Shirt chapter leader, cofounded the white hate group Posse Comitatus, known for a series of 1983 shootouts that killed two federal marshals in North Dakota and a sheriff in Arkansas. Another ex–Silver Shirt, Richard Butler, founded the violent Aryan Nations, which he directed from Idaho until his death in 2004, going to his grave as the most visible leader of white hate. Pelley’s writings and theories, and the Silver Shirts’ uniforms and paramilitary posturing, gave post-Klan hate groups a style, a language, and an aesthetic.

Those were the most lasting bequests of a man who, while still in the initial glow of his out-of-body episode, enthused in 1929: “I know that the experience has metamorphosed the cantankerous Vermont Yankee that was once Bill Pelley and launched him into a wholly different universe that seems filled with naught but love, harmony, health, good humor, and prosperity.”

Fascism and the Occult

The career of William Dudley Pelley raises a complex question: Is there a natural affinity between fascism and the occult? Today, commentators and historians increasingly speak of occultist and pagan influences on Hitler. The subject is a favorite of cable-television documentaries. It has even spawned a subgenre of historical literature, ranging from speculative to serious, that casts the Third Reich as an occult empire. To consider this contentious issue requires taking a road that briefly leads us away from America before returning to it.

Europe in the early twentieth century was a hothouse of ideologies and doctrines—spiritual, scientific, and political—and these ideas often crisscrossed among themselves. Occult ideas sometimes spilled into social movements, both fascistic and democratic. On the democratic end of the continuum was the Austrian occultist–educator Rudolf Steiner, an early scourge of the Nazis. Steiner pioneered influential methods in humanistic education. His theories of human development—based on explorations into reincarnation, clairvoyance, and lost civilizations—produced Waldorf Schools for grade-school children, one of today’s most respected forms of alternative education, and Camphill Villages, extraordinary living–learning communities for mentally challenged adults. Both are found throughout America and Europe today.

The darker uses of occult ideas on the European continent are better known. Fascist movements discovered intriguing symbols within the occult lexicon, such as the all-seeing sun, the serpent, and the skull. Such images are magnetic, as are pseudoevolutionary concepts of primordial superraces and myths of a final showdown between forces of light and dark. The Nazis made sinister reuse of the ancient Vedic symbol of eternal recurrence—the swastika. The curved spokes of the swastika entered Europe through the influence of Theosophy. The Theosophical Society combined the symbol with other religious images—including the Egyptian ankh, the star of David, and the Sanskrit character om—to design its organizational insignia. For Theosophy, the swastika represented karma and rebirth; its inclusion among the other symbols was intended to express the unity of all faiths. Around the insignia revolved the Vedic maxim: There Is no Religion Higher than Truth. Yet for a handful of racial mystagogues—particularly the pan-German theorist Guido von List—the swastika became falsely conflated with images found in Germanic runes, which had been experiencing an early-twentieth-century revival. Ripped from its moorings, the swastika began appearing in Austrian occult journals as early as 1903.

Likewise, in the years preceding World War I, a handful of German pamphleteers and racial–mystical demagogues—List chief among them—seized upon the concept of the “Aryan” race, probably from Madame Blavatsky’s massive work The Secret Doctrine. The term Aryan, as used by Blavatsky, derived from Vedic literature, where it described some of the earliest Indian peoples.* She adapted it to include the present epoch of human beings, which she classified as the fifth of seven “root races.” These races stretched from the ancient past into the faraway future, eventually to be surpassed by a new branch of humanity, possibly exhibiting greater psychical or physical development. (On this, Blavatsky was vague.)

The notion of a primordial race emergent from Asia had long been attractive to German racialists: “If the Germans could link their origins to India,” wrote historian Joscelyn Godwin, “then they would be forever free from their Semitic and Mediterranean bondage”—that is, from Abrahamic or Hebrew lineage. How exactly Germany’s racial theorists came to conflate these patently Asian “Aryans” with their blond, blue-eyed ideal is the very essence of muddled thinking. Especially since Blavatsky wrote that the Aryan race would reach its zenith in centuries ahead in America—a nation whose good character she unambiguously, if oddly, praised as, “owing to a strong admixture of various nationalities and inter-marriage.”

So it was that the swastika and the concept of an Aryan race, reprocessed through the paranoia of racialist magazines and lodges, were imbibed by Hitler when defining his early political program. But the following cannot be stated clearly enough: Hitler was not an occultist. He contemptuously dismissed the work of fascist theorists who dwelled upon mythology and mystico-racial theories. In Mein Kampf, he specifically condemned “völkisch wandering scholars”—that is, second-tier mythically and mystically inclined intellects who might have belonged to occult–nationalist groups, such as the Thule Society, with which the Nazis shared symbols. From the earliest stirrings of Hitler’s career in the tiny German Workers’ Party and its street-rabble rallies, he was consumed with brutal political and military organization, not theology or myth. He employed a symbol as a party vehicle when necessary and immediately discarded the flotsam around it, whether people or ideas. He castigated those members of his inner circle who showed excessive devotion to Nordic mythology, dismissing the theology of Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg as “stuff that nobody can understand” and a “relapse into medieval notions!”

Historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, who has done more than any other scholar to clarify these issues, noted that:

Hitler was certainly interested in Germanic legends and mythology, but he never wished to pursue their survival in folklore, customs, or place-names. He was interested in neither heraldry nor genealogy. Hitler’s interest in mythology was related primarily to the ideals and deeds of heroes and their musical interpretation in the operas of Richard Wagner. Before 1913 Hitler’s utopia was mother Germany across the border rather than a prehistoric golden age indicated by the occult interpretation of myths and traditions in Austria.

Under the Nazi regime, Theosophical chapters, Masonic lodges, and even sects that had produced some of the occult pamphlets that a young Hitler may have encountered as a Vienna knockabout were shunted or savagely oppressed, their members murdered or harassed. Despite astrology’s well-publicized appeal to a few of Hitler’s cadre, the ancient practice was effectively outlawed under Nazism, and many of its practitioners were jailed or killed. The man sometimes mislabeled “Hitler’s astrologer,” Karl Ernst Krafft, had no contact with Hitler but briefly reached the attention of mid-level Reich officials for predicting the 1939 assassination attempt on him. Krafft later died en route to Buchenwald. Nazi authorities sentenced Karl Germer, the German protégé of British occultist Aleister Crowley, to a concentration camp on charges of recruiting students for Crowley, whom they branded a “high-grade Freemason.” History has recorded a few self-styled magi or occult impresarios who, often from the safety of distant borders, venerated Hitler as a dark knight of myth. Those same figures would have suffered the fate of Krafft and Germer had they lived within the Reich’s reach. However tantalizing some may find it to conceive of Hitler as a practitioner of black magic, it is fantasy.

“Hinduism at Its Best”

Fascination with the Third Reich has blurred the most decisive connection between the occult and politics in the past century, one with far-reaching consequences in the present world. The connection appears in the career of one of the twentieth century’s leading humanitarians, a man whose career produced the largest democracy in the postwar era and influenced the American civil rights movement. He spoke freely and openly of his debt to the founders of Theosophy, those denizens of Midtown Manhattan’s magical mystery street, West 47th. It is a connection by no means hidden, just typically overlooked.

Growing up in Western India under English rule, the sensitive young Mohandas K. Gandhi had little interest in religion. His ambitions were to be a lawyer—and to leave behind the esoteric Hindu philosophies and ideologies of his parents’ generation. When Gandhi turned nineteen in 1888, he ventured to London to study law. He was overjoyed to be in the grimy, bustling metropolis, the world’s largest city and the beating heart of the British Empire. Gandhi tried to fit the very picture of an English barrister, with neatly parted hair and crisply starched collars. But something got in the way of his mind’s eye image of where he was headed.

In 1889, following a difficult school year in which Gandhi struggled with his studies at London University (and later failed his matriculation exams), he met two friendly Englishmen who called themselves Theosophists. The law student recognized Theosophy as the pro-Hindu, anticolonial movement that had been spreading about his homeland through the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and his mysterious partner, Madame Blavatsky. These two Theosophical “brothers” asked the young Indian if he could help them read the original Sanskrit of the central holy text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God”). “I felt ashamed,” Gandhi wrote in his memoirs, “as I had read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati. I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them.”

The three began meeting together, and Gandhi became unexpectedly enchanted: “The Gita became an infallible guide of conduct. It became my dictionary of daily reference.” As for his new friends, they were not just any Theosophists but a wealthy nephew and uncle who had recently opened their Notting Hill home to Blavatsky, who was fleeing charges of fraud and scandals in India. They made Gandhi an offer that filled him with intrigue and dread: Would he like to personally meet the high priestess of the occult—along with her most recent “convert,” the esteemed British orator and social reformer Annie Besant? “I was a mere Bombay matriculate,” he recalled. “I could not understand the British accent. I felt quite unworthy of going to Mrs. Besant.”

But Gandhi did go. And while no records survive of the meeting between Blavatsky, Besant, and Gandhi, he later credited Theosophy for instilling in him the principle of equality among the world’s religions, a revolutionary idea to a student from a caste-based society. In this sense, he explained in 1946 to biographer Louis Fischer, “Theosophy … is Hinduism at its best. Theosophy is the brotherhood of man.” The organization’s motto—No Religion Higher than Truth—appeared to move Gandhi toward one of his central principles: that “all religions are true,” to which he carefully added, “all have some error in them.” A generation later, Gandhi’s ideal of universal brotherhood and his ethic of nonviolence touched the heart of an American social reformer and seminary student named Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gandhi partnered with the Theosophical Society during India’s independence movement, crediting it with easing relations between Hindu and Moslem delegates to the Indian National Congress, the movement’s policy-making body. So prominent was Theosophy in India’s political life that even the Congress’s founding in 1885 had been instigated by an early Theosophist, A. O. Hume, a retired Anglo–Indian government secretary who said that he was acting under “advice and guidance of advanced initiates.” In 1917, Blavatsky’s successor, Annie Besant, was elected president of the Congress, making the Theosophist the first woman and last European to hold the position. Besant herself bestowed upon Gandhi the title by which he became world famous: Mahatma, a Hindu term for “Great Soul” and the same name by which Theosophy called its own Masters.

For all that Gandhi discovered within Theosophy, however, he was suspicious of the organization’s secrecy, including its communiqués from hidden Masters. He declined to become a member. (Lodge records from London show that he did briefly join in 1891, his last year there.) Unlike Henry A. Wallace, who grew temporarily consumed and then politically disgraced by his attachments to an arcane teacher, Gandhi was shrewder, carefully stepping around his occult allies and knowing when to keep them at a distance. In a letter he published in the newspaper Young India in 1926, Gandhi drew a line that forever divided his fealty to Theosophy’s ideals from Theosophy as an organization. It could have served as a guide to Wallace, or to any leader who dwelled in the worlds of politics and the arcane. “Whatever critics may say against Madame Blavatsky or Col. Olcott or Dr. Besant,” Gandhi wrote, “their contribution to humanity will always rank high. What has been a bar to my joining the society … is its secret side—its occultism. It has never appealed to me. I long to belong to the masses. Any secrecy hinders the real spirit of democracy.”

* Sirhan’s reading habits also included the Rosicrucian literature of California’s Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, or AMORC. But he was dropped from its membership rolls after neglecting to pay a $2 lesson fee.

* The term near-death experience entered the popular lexicon in 1975, when physician Raymond A. Moody, Jr., used it in his book Life After Life.

* Competing notions of “Aryanism” began to appear in the late eighteenth century, but Blavatsky’s was among those that German occultists would most likely have heard of in the early twentieth century.

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