A forgotten chapter in the history of the Sillyverse

Frank Wilson (1886 – 1970), Chief of the Secret Service from 1937 to 1946, decided to write his memoirs in the aftermath of the JFK assassination. They were published as Special Agent: A Quarter Century with the Treasury Department and the Secret Service (1965). Wilson  wrote a draft of some chapters before enlisting a professional writer as a co-author. It was assumed that the drafts were used and destroyed as the published version was written. However, one draft chapter of material with no counterpart in the published book has surfaced. Given the continued secrecy surrounding the Office of Occult Affairs, the reason why this material was never used is self-evident from the contents. It is here published for the first time.

Retiring Chief Moran, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, new Chief Frank Wilson

Retiring Chief Moran, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, new Chief Frank Wilson

When I took over the United States Secret Service at the end of 1936, I spent some time with my predecessor, Chief William H. Moran, discussing the Service’s organization, goals, and practices. Moran was helpful in explaining the closed culture of the Service. To a new Chief like me, who was coming from outside the Service, this was an essential introduction.

After he had discussed everything else, Moran gave a chuckle, and said to me, “There’s something I almost forgot. You have one other person reporting to you. Her name is Silly Hughes, and she’s head of the Office of Occult Affairs.”

I’d never heard of the Office, and Moran’s use of the pronoun “she” made no sense. There were no women agents in the Service. So I asked the obvious, “What is this Office, and did I hear you say ‘she’ is named Silly?”

Moran leaned back in his chair and smiled. “You’ve never heard of the Office of Occult Affairs because it is secret, really secret, unlike the Secret Service as a whole,” he told me. “And yes, the head of the Office is a woman, and her name is ‘Silly.’ Well, her nickname, actually. But that’s what all her magicians call her.”

My puzzlement was obvious, because Moran launched into an explanation. In short, the Office of Occult Affairs was an organization of magicians that was under the Service but not part of it. There were agents who were magicians in the Office, and the head of the Office had traditionally been one of those. And there were women magicians.

The Office had been around for decades, but had become so ineffective no one could say what they actually did. When the head of the Office in 1930 resigned, Moran couldn’t find anyone who was qualified to head it who was both an agent and a magician. Nor did any of the regular agents who were qualified want the job. Moran was about to shut down the Office when he agreed to hire a young woman named Priscilla Hughes as the new head. Hughes was not an agent, naturally, but she wasn’t a magician, either. Moran never offered an explanation of why he hired her.

Miss Priscilla Hughes had revitalized the Office of Occult Affairs. The organization had gone from 17 people to about 150. Unlike the Service, which was prohibited by law from accepting funds from outside the Treasury Department, the Office received the majority of its funding from outside the organization. Officially, Miss Hughes reported to the Chief of the Secret Service, but she was on friendly terms with Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, and was well-known to the President. At least one of her magicians was on duty at the White House at all times protecting the President. Moran added with a laugh, “The magician most often on duty there is Sylvia Thompson, whom you will find very easy to spot once you’ve met her.”

I met Priscilla for the first time a few days after I officially became chief at the beginning of 1937. I was booked for a meeting with a Mrs. Alvin Andrews, whose name was unfamiliar to me. When I questioned my secretary, I was informed this was the head of the Office of Occult Affairs. It turned out that Priscilla had married in 1935, and used her married name for most purposes, but was still known within the Office by her maiden name.

That morning, my secretary announced Mrs. Andrews. At first I thought there had to be some mistake, for the woman who came sweeping in looked to be far too young, despite being visibly pregnant. Yet she introduced herself with a smile as Priscilla Andrews, and offered me a thick report on the Office of Occult Affairs. She then announced that she was there to answer any questions I had, and to ascertain my program, for, as she put it, “Either I or my successor should know what you are planning so that we may co-operate with you.”

I naturally asked, “Are you planning to resign when you become a mother, Mrs. Andrews?”

She shook her head. “No. But you may have other ideas. And it is settled policy in the Office that nothing takes priority over the success of the organization. That certainly applies to whoever occupies the position of head of the Office.”

My respect for Priscilla Andrews went up a notch with that statement. And the subsequent discussion raised it several more notches. Priscilla had modernized the Office in many ways that I was considering for the Service as a whole, and indicated her willingness to co-operate in sharing procedures. And, in truth, she did share a great deal of information. On the other hand, this co-operation almost never extended to implementing a common system across both organizations, a pattern I did not notice for some time.

And that sums up my relationship with Priscilla Andrews and her Office of Occult Affairs. Despite having an independent relationship with Secretary Morgenthau and President Roosevelt, Priscilla was a loyal subordinate who almost never used her access to work around me. She was careful to file regular reports with me and co-ordinate her work with the other branches of the Service as needed. On the other hand, she could switch to being evasive, vague, and misleading when she felt it appropriate, and Priscilla alone determined when it was appropriate. It was hard to tell when she was being cooperative and when she was not. I found her unfathomable.

It was slim comfort to me that my boss, Secretary Morgenthau, thought of Priscilla in similar terms. He laughed when I mentioned my first meeting with her. “Trust me on this, Frank,” he said to me, “Priscilla will do whatever it takes to work with you, but don’t ever expect to understand how she operates the Office of Occult Affairs.”

I frowned. “That doesn’t seem wise, Mr. Secretary. I’m not sure I can work with a subordinate who can’t explain the work she does.”

Morgenthau shook his head, smiling. “If you can find anyone who can explain what goes on there, and can manage it as successfully as Priscilla has, you are welcome to replace her, Frank. But I wouldn’t be in any hurry. It’s a curious and complicated organization, and perhaps it takes a curious and complicated person to run it. Certainly Priscilla qualifies. I presume she was all professional and attentive to business while she was talking to you?”

I nodded.

Morgenthau’s smile broadened. “Go visit the Office and watch her there. You won’t recognize her. She acts like the mischievous leader of a college sorority when she’s among them, much of the time. They’re all magicians who could make her do whatever they want, and yet when she tells them to jump, they jump. I don’t understand it, myself.”

And that was perhaps the most curious thing about Priscilla: she was not a magician, but she ran a group of magicians successfully. No one could explain why, not even Sylvia Thompson, her close friend and trusted subordinate.

As Chief Moran has said, Sylvia Reynolds Thompson was “easy to spot.” She was an albino with wild white hair who stood six feet, three inches tall. She was intensely loyal to Priscilla, and a great favorite with the President when she was on duty at the White House. Like her boss, she could be inscrutable at times, but she was genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met, and did her best to explain the Office’s  magic to me.

More mysterious was Priscilla’s “left hand man” as she sometimes called him, the magician who went by the name of “Brandywine.” He was a wild man even by the Office’s standards, eccentric, unpredictable, and yet reliable when it came to getting his work done. Priscilla was very reticent about explaining what Brandywine did, telling to me that he handled those assignments in which the Federal Government would not want its involvement known. Ultimately, Brandywine would be killed by the Nazis in 1942 on an undercover assignment in Europe.

Brandywine’s successor was William Harmon. Harmon was a marked contrast to his predecessor. He was a magician, but he had no air of mystery about him. Instead he was a disciplined and affable individual. I soon grew to like him, and relied on him to help me understand at least some of what was going on in the Office. When Priscilla retired in 1945, I was happy to agree with her recommendation and appoint Bill as her successor.

My one major dispute with Priscilla was in early 1942. In the wake of our entry into the Second World War after Pearl Harbor, I was tightening up security at the White House, and across the District of Columbia generally. The Office of Occult Affairs had received information that an important Nazi magician had come to the United States, and was planning to assassinate our political leadership, or bend them to his will. Priscilla was very uncommunicative about how she planned to deal with this threat, and what she would tell me seemed inadequate to the threat.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, began a push to have Priscilla removed and the Office transferred to the FBI. Hoover alleged that Priscilla, who was nursing her third child (born on December 7, 1941), was unfit as a wartime leader and that all intelligence-gathering functions should be consolidated under the FBI. I was becoming so frustrated with Priscilla’s lack of cooperation, and went so far as to complain to Secretary Morgenthau that we should either replace Priscilla or turn her and the Office over to Hoover. Knowing that the President liked Priscilla Andrews, Morgenthau asked me to hold off until he had spoken with the President. A few days later, a visibly irritated Treasury Secretary summoned me to his office, and made it clear that nothing would be done about Priscilla until the fall.

As I later found out, Priscilla had set a trap for the Nazi magician that depended on absolute secrecy. She had told the President and her magician Sylvia Thompson, but no one else. The trap worked and the Nazi magician was killed. Priscilla came to my office a few days later to explain and apologize for the misunderstandings. When the President subsequently promoted her and gave her the title of Director, he offered her the opportunity to separate the Office from the Secret Service. She declined, stating she would rather continue working within the Service and with me. Thereafter, we had only minor misunderstandings.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Dragon Lady, History, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A forgotten chapter in the history of the Sillyverse

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    It is easier to apologize afterward than to get permission in advance.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Silly would agree, so far as her own conduct was concerned. Indeed, she once threatened to attack a foreign embassy in Washington with her magicians, without so much as even informing the Departments of State and War. Morgenthau was not pleased, after the fact, but what could he do?

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