How We Got Here: The Mad Legions of America

Part Four in a series; see Parts One, Two and Three.

After Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection, his opponents grew more hysterical and conspiracy-minded. Father Coughlin, abandoning most pretenses of progressivism, now branded Roosevelt’s programs the “Jew Deal,” reproduced Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda speeches in his newsletter and encouraged the formation of the Christian Front, a national militia group which terrorized Jews across the country. Meanwhile, a fresh crop of fascist-inspired “shirt groups” sprung up across the nation, along with demagogues and hatemongers. They offered disparate programs based around anti-communism, millennarian Christianity and multitudinous but vague grievances, conspiracy theories and hatreds.

These hatreds, whether directed towards Roosevelt or society in general, most frequently took the form of antisemitism, which erupted with particular savagery in the postwar era. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 triggered the Ku Klux Klan’s rebirth; the Russian Revolution and postwar Red Scare folded Judeophobia into a general hatred of radicals and immigrants; Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent vomited a constant stream of abuse at “the International Jewish banker who has no country but plays them all against one another.” Jew-bashing found its support in comfortably middle class audiences: small business owners, churchgoers and other conservatives who considered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a convenient, comprehensive explanation for a frighteningly changed world.

Gerald Winrod, a Kansas preacher and sometime politician, earned the moniker “the Jayhawk Nazi” for his frothing fulminations about “President Rosenfeld.” When Winrod wasn’t promoting the Protocols to his followers, he produced detailed genealogical charts “proving” that Roosevelt’s family were Italian Jews. “Roosevelt invariably draws upon his Semitic ancestry,” Winrod warned; “it is therefore as natural for him to be a radical as it for others to be true Americans.” He capped this assessment with an outburst that Roosevelt “is not one of us!” Winrod’s one attempt at attaining national office, a Senate campaign in 1938, resulted in ignominious failure, but he retained a faithful audience of Heartland bigots for decades.

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Gerald Winrod

Even more odious was James True, a Midwestern industrialist and Klansman who vowed that “we’re not going to drive the Jews out of the country; we’re going to bury them right here!” To this end, he kept dozens of guns around his house and regularly fired bullets into bars of soap, which he claimed bore the consistency of Jewish flesh. He endorsed a national “Jew Shoot” in 1936 (which inspired President Roosevelt to assign Secret Service protection to prominent Jewish leaders) and patented a special brand of truncheon he branded the “Kike Killer.” For the anti-Semite on the go, True invented a compact “lady’s size” and boasted that “it can crack even a Negro’s skull wide open.”

Winrod and True found a distaff counterpart in Elizabeth Dilling, a Chicago native who became a favored conservative provocateur. Traveling through Europe with her husband (including a brief stop in Soviet Russia, where she found Lenin “a poor substitute for Christ”) convinced her to become politically active. In 1934, culling from a variety of sources ranging from congressional records to cheaply mimeographed pamphlets, Dilling published The Red Network, which listed a variety of groups she deemed subversive. These ranged from actual communists and progressives to such unlikely radicals like the YMCA and the Catholic Association of Internal Peace.

One relative described Dilling as “highly emotional, eager girl with a dramatically sculptured face, enormous brown eyes and a quick, giddy laugh [and] somewhat lonely.” She appeared to suffer from unspecified mental illness, regularly visiting a therapist who encouraged her political activism. A savage, charismatic speaker, Dilling cultivated a reputation as a bomb-throwing provocateur, describing herself as “little poison ivy” who “had an even disposition: she was mad all the time.” To a friend who expressed doubts about her cause, she snapped that “I’d die in a good cause and not shrivel up like a watery old turnip that’s frostbitten in the fall.”

Dilling Congress
Elizabeth Dilling

Dilling’s zealotry led to denunciations of Jews and Communists, along with a plainspoken contempt for democracy. Like many on the Right, Dilling insisted that the United States “is a Republic, not a democracy,” and viewed fascism as a cure-all to the country’s faults. “It seeks a harmony between all classes and concedes to industrialists,” she enthused, “white collar, professional, as well as laboring workers, a place in the social order as necessary parts, not “class enemies” of the whole, but under State control.” As for Adolf Hitler, she visited Berlin in 1938 and found “the German people under Hitler are contented and happy…don’t believe the stories you hear that this man has not done a great good for this country.”

Dilling found a wide-ranging audience: her books sold thousands of copies across the country, and she frequently appeared before Congress to harangue them on the Communist threat. Her lectures were bankrolled by wealthy businessmen, notably Merwyn K. Hart of the New York State Economic Council, affiliated with the American Liberty League. Besides his love of Hitler and Francisco Franco, Hart advocated an aggressive gun culture, urging “heads of homes everywhere in this country take legal steps to have pistols, rifles and adequate ammunition on hand in case Communists should start trouble.” Dilling later organized the “Mother’s Movement” to oppose entry in World War II, which led to her indictment for sedition (which we’ll revisit later).

Nor were these merely fringe voices ranting to limited audiences. Congressman Louis T. McFadden of Pennsylvania demanded, in a congressional floor speech, whether “the Protocols of Zion [are] manifested in the appointment of Henry Morgenthau as Secretary of the Treasury?” A businessman’s organization, the Sentinels of the Republic, moved from defending child labor to denouncing Jews; one leader assured a colleague that “old-line Americans of $1200 a year want a Hitler.” And General George Van Horn Moseley, commander of the United States Third Army until 1938, insisted that German Jews were “receiving their just punishment for the crucifixion of Christ … whom they are still crucifying at every turn of the road.”

George Van Horn Moseley (right)

A MacArthur protege equally obsessed with Jews and venereal disease (which he often equated), Moseley resigned from the Army amidst protests that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies “violate all American tradition” and that fascism served as a necessary “antitoxin” against Communism. He soon came into contact with George E. Deatheridge, a Minnesota businessman who organized the Knights of the White Camellia (named after a Klan knockoff from Reconstruction-era Louisiana). Deatheridge told a friend that “it will take military action to get this gang out” and proposed a coup d’etat against FDR. Deatheridge also tried enlisting the German-American Bund, the American Legion and other extremists in his conspiracy; these groups made support contingent upon Deatheridge find a suitable strongman. Moseley, he hoped, was his man.

Moseley heard Deatheridge out, then politely declined his offer. Instead of reporting his associate’s conspiracy to authorities, the General appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in June 1939 to rant about an imaginary Jewish plot against America. He praised Adolf Hitler “for settling the problem of the Jew within their borders for all time” and urged Americans to follow suit. He also urged the sterilization of Jewish immigrants and endorsed eugenics programs to “breed all the Jewish blood out of the human race.” Such ravings lost Moseley entree into respectable circles, but he remained beloved of America’s far right, serving as an intellectual forerunner to unhinged general-demagogues from Edwin Walker to Michael Flynn.

Others, not content with rage and racism, took complete leave of reality. William Dudley Pelley penned novels (mostly small-town, slice of life narratives with simplistic moral lessons), short stories, several Hollywood screenplays and a self-published newsletter, The Philosopher, which was part-travelogue, part-religious encyclical. He wrote about journeys to Europe, Japan and war-torn Russia, where he briefly joined a Red Cross detachment serving in the Russian Civil War, while advocating a strange, millennarian philosophy mixing Christianity with Fortean weirdness. His time in Hollywood resulted in collaborations with Lon Chaney and Tom Mix but little personal satisfaction.

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William Dudley Pelley

Then, on May 29, 1928, Pelley awoke during a sleepless night with the sensation of dying. Rather than pass away, he encountered two angels who assured Pelley, “We’ve got you and are here to help you!” The ensuing celestial journey (which he branded Seven Minutes in Eternity) led to Pelley’s “rebirth”; upon awakening, Pelley decided that he must “give the whole race an inspiration by which it may quicken its spiritual pace.” So inspired, Pelley drifted into increasingly eccentric behavior, abandoning fiction for the mantle of political philosopher. With his fierce goatee and intense gaze, he certainly looked the part; unfortunately, his writings betrayed his essential crankishness.

Today, Pelley’s messianic ramblings read like L. Ron Hubbard mated to Adolf Hitler. He believed that the world was governed by what he termed “Master Minds,” alien intellects who assigned eternal souls and intelligence to deserving human hosts. Naturally, in Pelley’s catechism, white bodies received the most developed souls while blacks, Asians and other races received the cast-offs. Worst of all were Jews, whom Pelley castigated as “demons” cast out from Atlantis to destroy Christian civilization. To combat their dread influence, Pelley founded his own private university, Galahad College in Asheville, North Carolina, which offered courses on “Christian Economics” and revealed to students “Why You Are Opposed by Invisible Persons.”

Pelley’s creativity extended to historical forgery: at one point, he claimed to discover the diary of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Founding Father from South Carolina, which recorded Benjamin Franklin ranting against “Jewish vampires” during the Constitutional Convention. Franklin’s warning that “Jews are a danger to this land, and if they are allowed to enter, they will imperil our institutions” provided pseudo-historical cover for Pelley’s Jew baiting. Academics soon debunked Pelley’s “discovery” as a fraud, but the “Franklin Prophecy” remains a popular canard among far right ideologues and Islamic extremists alike.

Silver Shirts
Silver Shirts

Pelley didn’t remain content with inane lectures and imaginative conspiracies. In January 1933, shortly after Hitler took power in Germany, Pelley founded the Silver Legion of America (most commonly rendered as the Silver Shirts). In so doing, he entered “the ultimate contest for existence between Aryan mankind and Jewry,” proposing a massive program of ghettoizing Jews and other undesirables. Pelley ran for President in 1936 but managed only 1,600 votes in Washington; his organization attracted the attention of the Dickstein-McCormack Committee, an early forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and faced public exposure and ridicule which greatly exceeded his influence.

If Pelley acted like a clown, strutting about in a silver outfit with an L embossed on its breast, his ravings were deadly serious. His organization numbered 25,000 at its peak, maintaining paramilitary groups in various states that stockpiled weapons and drilled for their proposed revolution. Pelley’s group maintained its strongest following in California, where they collaborated with the German-American Bund and other pro-Nazi organizations in sabotage operations along the West Coast. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the FBI pounced, jailing Pelley for sedition and dismantling his organization.

Upon leaving prison, Pelley retreated further into occult oblivion, founding a small UFO cult in Indiana and dispensing his blather to an ever-shrinking group of followers until his death in 1965. Nonetheless, his strange crusade became an inspiration to generations of radical rightists, many directly influenced by the Silver Shirts. Richard Butler, in his youth a Pelley disciple, founded the Aryan Nations, one of America’s largest and most influential white power groups. And his writings, particularly the “Franklin Prophecy,” have found a second life on internet hate sites.

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Detroit police modeling Black Legion outfits

None of these groups – not Dilling and Winrod’s hate-mongering, not General Moseley’s ranting conspiracism, certainly not Pelley’s otherworldly inanities – could compare with the Black Legion. Though largely forgotten to history, the Black Legion achieved far more destruction than any American far right group of its era. Though nominally a regional group, it boasted a frightening level of support from prejudiced Midwest laborers, middle class businessmen and corporate plutocrats alike, each finding it a useful vessel for their personal causes and pet hatreds.

Headed by William Shepherd, a druggist from Bellaire, Ohio, and Virgil Effinger, a Lima salesman styled “the Grand Titan,” the Legion splintered from the Klan in 1924 into an even more extreme terrorist group. In contrast to the increasingly public KKK, the Legion functioned as a secret society, its members swiping white hoods for black robes decorated with skulls and crossbones. Recruits were sworn into the Legion at gunpoint while reciting the “Black Oath,” reportedly stolen from Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, which bound them to secrecy on pain of death. To emphasize their seriousness, recounts historian Tom Stanton, each recruit received a .38 caliber bullet with the promise that “an identical one would be used on him should he violate his oath of secrecy.”

Estimates of the Legion’s strength range from 20,000 to 135,000 members (40,000 is the generally accepted figure) across the Midwestern United States, with smaller chapters as far afield as Los Angeles. Members included poor laborers (many from the South), local businessmen, police officers, even politicians; in Highland Park, Michigan it counted a mayor, police chief and other prominent citizens among its members. It proved the strongest and most lasting in the Wolverine State, also home to Father Coughlin and one of America’s largest Klan chapters; there, the Legion organized into “brigades” and “regiments” complete with quasi-military ranks. “General” Arthur Lupp, head of the Michigan chapter, defined the Legion’s mission as “the doctrine of Americanism, the doctrine of the flag, and the counteracting of communism.”

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Arthur Lupp and wife

Their plans for the “counteracting” subversion involved a high body count. Lupp entertained ambitious dreams of a wholesale pogrom against Jews and Catholics; he asked a Detroit health official whether it would be possible to “inject typhoid germs into bottles of milk.” Lupp had recently been appointed a health inspector and thus had access to the city’s dairy supply, making his sick fantasies a chillingly real threat. When a squeamish colleague threatened to turn him into police, Lupp in turn threatened his colleague with assassination. He also constructed bombs designed for detonation in Jewish neighborhoods across Detroit, a plan again foiled by a Legionnaire less enthusiastic about wholesale murder.  

The Legion didn’t always target Jews or Catholics. Earl Little, a Baptist speaker associated with Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, found himself constantly harassed by the Legion in Lansing throughout the early ‘30s. “Nearly everywhere my father went,” Little’s son Malcolm recalled, “Black Legionaries were reviling him as an uppity nigger for wanting to own a store, for living outside the Lansing Negro district, for spreading unrest and dissension among the ‘good niggers.’” In 1931, Little died violently in what police called a streetcar accident and Little’s family branded a lynching. The experience proved formative for Little’s son, who drifted from crime to Islam and racial activism before emerging as Malcolm X.

The Legion found common cause with corporate America, particularly the ubiquitous Du Ponts. Irenee du Pont funneled money to the Legion, using the group to terrorize workers at General Motors factories in Michigan. Their leader in this effort was Isaac White, a former Detroit policeman who’d lost a leg in a shootout with bootleggers; unsurprisingly, he styled himself “Peg Leg.” His piratical name fitted his nature, as White organized a Legion “Intelligence Department” which compiled lists of union activists for the benefit of auto dealers and corporation heads. Those fingered by Peg Leg often faced punishment, termination or worse.

Effinger McCrea
Conspirators: Virgil Effinger (left) and Duncan McCrea

John Bielak, a sheet metal finisher for Hudson Motors in Flint, organized a chapter of the American Federation of Labor and led a work stoppage. His employers tried to fire him, only to face further backlash from his coworkers. This rabble-rousing earned him a visit from Peg Leg White, who instructed Bielak to cease his organizing efforts; Bielak refused. In March 1934, Bielak received an invitation to negotiate after-hours with his foreman; instead, he was ambushed by Legionnaires, who shot him dozens of times. Police found his body face down in a ditch, a blood-splattered union card resting beneath his head. Authorities blamed the murder on Communists and refused to investigate further, despite Bielak’s wife’s insistence that the Legion killed him.

As General Motors and other automakers faced strikes and sit-downs throughout the Thirties, the Legion furnished scabs and strikebreakers. The Legion’s luckier victims received beatings and floggings; others were murdered, usually dragged off into the night for gangland-style executions. At their boldest, the Legion fired bullets into strikers’ homes, burned down farmhouses and bombed labor camps and union meeting houses. On one occasion, failing to locate a striker marked for execution, a Legion hit squad randomly murdered Silas Coleman, a black steelworker, because their leader wanted to see “what it felt like to kill a nigger.”

Legion Victims
Victims: Silas Coleman and Charles Poole

Many “respectable” Americans condoned, shielded or actively supported the Legion’s reign of terror. Harry Anderson, a General Motors executive, advised a southern colleague that “maybe you could use a little Black Legion down in your country” to deal with blacks and recalcitrant workers. When Michigan officials petitioned Attorney General Homer Cummings for assistance, Cummings demurred, on the grounds that “no federal law had been violated.” A Wayne County prosecutor, Duncan McCrea, also refused to investigate the group; soon the Detroit Free Press ran an expose showing that McCrea was himself a high-ranking Legionnaire.

The Legion’s actions became increasingly, even arrogantly bold, its leaders expressing ambitions far beyond strikebreaking and midnight murders. In January 1936, Virgil Effinger addressed a conclave of subordinates promising a coup d’etat before year’s end. “They did it in Russia with 30,000 men and we are stronger than that here in the United States,” he vowed. In preparation, Effinger’s men began stockpiling arms and stepped up harassment of its enemies, from laborers and progressives to nosy journalists; one Legion captain offered a $400 bounty for the assassination of Ecorse’s Mayor William Voisine, a Catholic. Even Father Coughlin, who shared most of their prejudices, became a potential target through his Catholicism. Finally, the murder of Charles Poole in May 1936 exposed the Legion to public scrutiny which proved their undoing.

Legion Dean
Dayton Dean (center, pointing), one of Poole’s killers

Poole, a Catholic WPA official living in Detroit, had married a local girl who happened to be a Baptist. The mixed marriage incited the fury of many locals, who spread false rumors that Poole beat his wife Becky into miscarrying a child. Several acquaintances invited Poole to join them for a baseball game; instead, Poole was driven out to the countryside, confronted with the accusations of abuse and told by Black Legion leader Harvey Davis, “You’ll never do it again.” The next morning, a woman found Poole’s body, riddled with six bullets, in a cabbage patch outside Dearborn.

The murder of Poole, a Federal official, finally brought the FBI and federal prosecutors to crack down. In a remarkable about-face, Duncan McCrea vowed to bring Poole’s killers to justice, well-aware that many of them would be his friends and acquaintances. The case broke open when Dayton Dean, one of Poole’s killers, discovered that the rumors of Poole beating Becky were false. Seized with guilt over his “horrible mistake,” Dean confessed to prosecutors, leading to a sensational murder trial, even more sensational press coverage, and the conviction of 47 members of the Legion. Other members escaped to other states (police discovered Peg Leg White hiding in Oldtown, Maryland) or vanished altogether. 

Historians estimate that the Black Legion killed at least 50 people during its decade-long reign of terror, along with countless non-fatal acts of violence. During its time the Legion captivated Americans, inspiring countless media exposés and several films, including a famous drama starring Humphrey Bogart. Pennsylvania Governor George E. Earle, who received rumors of a parallel group called the Bucktails in his own state, thundered that the Legion was “the direct result of the subversive propaganda subsidized by the Grand Dukes of the Duchy of Delaware, the Du Ponts, and the munition princes of the American Liberty League.” The Du Ponts declined to comment, and no one deigned to investigate Earle’s charges; the Black Legion soon faded into obscurity.

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Humphrey Bogart in The Black Legion (1937)

Regardless, the Legion’s activities demonstrated that an uncomfortable swath of Americans remained comfortable with fascism. Even as Europe’s fascists grew bolder and more violent – Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the pogrom of Kristallnacht, Mussolini’s bloody conquest of Abyssinia and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War – the American Right continued coddling fascists, at home and abroad, even as war clouds gathered in Europe. With the government often lackadaisical in prosecuting such groups, it fell to courageous private citizens, from progressive journalists to Jewish activists and civic-minded criminals, to fight back.