ELLSWORTH — On Dec. 11, a jury in Charlottesville, Va., recommended that James Alex Fields Jr. spend the rest of his life in prison. In August of 2017, Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a group of anti-Nazi protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Fields had traveled overnight from Ohio to attend a mass gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. There have been many such demonstrations in the country’s history, but this one unsettled a nation already on edge. Footage of young men wearing swastika armbands and waving Confederate flags streamed over Facebook and Instagram into offices and living rooms around the country. Chants of “Jews will not replace us” rang through the air.
Charlottesville is 800 miles from Ellsworth. It is tempting to imagine the events that 2017 summer in Virginia as far removed from the reaches of the coast of Maine. But Fields and the white supremacists he was marching with were inspired in part by George Lincoln Rockwell, whose legacy extends into Maine, into Ellsworth, to a tidy ranch — headquarters of the Church of Christ in Israel — on Route 179.
The house is the home of Frank Smith III. He’s 98 years old, blind and nearly deaf. His stories and answers to questions tend to ramble, making it difficult for a listener to discern where they begin and end. But he well remembers George Lincoln Rockwell.
“Likeable guy, this Rockwell,” said Smith during an interview at his home in November.
Smith recalled the first time the two met. “Commander Rockwell was the most legitimate, honest guy,” he said, referring to Rockwell by his American Nazi Party title.
The Smiths come to Ellsworth
Frank Smith and his wife, Claudia, settled in Ellsworth in the mid-1960s. The two had met in Virginia at the headquarters of the American Nazi Party, where Claudia worked as secretary for Rockwell, the party’s founder.
Smith and his bride came to Ellsworth in part “to escape a tangled past of tabloid headlines,” according to a 1992 report in the Providence Journal. Nicknamed “Boston Blackie” by law enforcement officials, the Journal reported that Smith was first arrested in 1952 during an FBI roundup of accused bank robbers. Smith was acquitted.
He was indicted on a different charge in 1953 but was again acquitted.
The law caught up with Smith in 1957, when he was convicted of placing several sticks of dynamite on the back porch of the chairman of the Woburn licensing board and sent to Walpole State Prison, according to the Journal.
Smith was released from prison in 1964, but trouble followed him. While parked in a car in Somerville, Mass., shortly after his release, Smith was hit by five bullets in the head and chest, the work of “underworld hitmen,” according to the Journal.
George Lincoln Rockwell had deep ties to Maine. In the years before he became an advocate of industrialized mass murder and the deportation of non-whites, Rockwell lived near Boothbay Harbor, attended Hebron Academy and ran advertising and publishing businesses in Portland and Boothbay Harbor, according to a 2017 article in the Portland Press Herald.
After starting his party in 1959, Rockwell made a point to stage events that would draw media attention, such as the 1966 neo-Nazi Memorial Day Parade in Portland, driving a “Hate Bus” through the South in opposition of civil rights and holding speeches and rallies on college campuses. His strategies have been adopted by a broad swath of groups, Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told the Press Herald.
“His tactics have great resonance today,” Mayo said.
Smith reportedly became interested in Rockwell’s views while in prison in Massachusetts, according to the Providence Journal. After his release, Smith traveled to Arlington, Va., to meet with Rockwell. There he encountered and later married the former Claudia B. McCullers.
Rockwell and the Smiths remained close even after the couple’s move to Maine. Claudia helped Rockwell type up the manuscript for his book, “White Power,” over the Christmas holiday in 1966, according to an account by William Schmaltz in “For Race And Nation: George Lincoln Rockwell & the American Nazi Party.”
In another account, “American Fuhrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party,” author Frederick James Simonelli describes how Barbara Von Goetz, pregnant with Rockwell’s child, was unwilling to tell him she was expecting. She feared he would be devastated if the baby did not survive (the couple lost their first child in infancy). She lived with the Smiths in Ellsworth until the girl was born. According to Simonelli’s account, Francis J. Smith and Barbara Von Goetz are listed on the birth certificate as the girl’s parents.
Rockwell was assassinated leaving a Laundromat in 1967. John Patler, a former member of the American Nazi Party, was later convicted in his death. But Smith, who told The American he suspected that Patler had had an accomplice, set out to conduct his own investigation. Smith’s inquiries reportedly came at the request of the Commander himself: “the Commander exacted a pledge from me to conduct a thorough investigation, in case of his death,” he explained in a 1968 Letter to the Editor of The American.
But Smith’s digging caused him to run afoul of other American Nazi Party members. Less than a year after Rockwell was killed, Frank and Claudia were themselves the target of an assassination attempt. During a half-hour gunfight on a Sunday afternoon in March of 1968, a gunman fired more than 50 shots at the couple near their home, according to news reports in The American. Smith reportedly grabbed a rifle and the couple hopped into his black Cadillac and fired back. Police and news reports of the shooting show the car riddled with bullet holes. (A high-ranking American Nazi Party official, Christopher Vidnjevich, was arrested and charged in the incident, although a jury later convicted him on a reduced charge of assault and fined him $1,000, according to a report in the Journal.)
Although it nearly got him killed, Smith’s investigation into Rockwell’s death did not go anywhere. But at Smith’s home on North Street (Route 179) Rockwell’s legacy lives on.
“You might say I’m pretty well to the right wing,” he said. But “we are national socialists,” he continued. “There never was a Nazi Party. There are national socialists. They are for the nation.” (The term “Nazi” is a contraction of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the full name of the Nazi Party.)
Smith maintains that he is not a Nazi, despite having signed a 1968 letter to The Ellsworth American “Sieg Heil!”
In his November interview with The American, Smith praised Hitler’s 1925 autobiography, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), likening the political climate in which it was written to that of the United States in the 1930s and ’40s.
“I read ‘Mein Kampf,’” he continued, “Change one word, the same things are happening here.” Except, Smith explained, “They’ve got Hitler, we’ve got Roosevelt.”
Smith holds the rank of bishop in The Church of Christ in Israel, which he incorporated in Maine in 1978. The church has kept a low profile over the years. It did — and does — little in the way of promotion. It is not listed in the phone book, nor does it come up in internet search results of local places of worship. Under the bylaws of the church, “There shall be no members … nor shall there be any membership record maintained.” Services, if there are any, are not advertised in local outlets.
Smith spends his time in Ellsworth, but the church’s arms have reach. “People think a church is a building, it’s not,” said Smith. “My congregations are spread all over.” (The American was unable to independently verify this.)
The church’s adherents keep him updated on worldwide events, said Smith, calling and sending literature and items that may be of interest. He also keeps up to date with national politics, adding that he believes President Trump is a nationalist. Asked how Smith came by a box of neatly-packaged DVDs labeled “Trump Rallies,” his caretaker, Louis, shrugged and said “People send them.”
The tenets of the Church of Christ in Israel are based in part on what Smith calls the “lost gospels.” Part and parcel are racial stipulations.
“You’ve got to be descendant from Adam and you’ve got to be white,” Smith said.
The Church of Christ in Israel does not explicitly advocate white supremacy in its bylaws. But, on Dec. 8, 2000, in Ellsworth, Bishop Francis J. Smith ordained Florida resident William Raymond Finck. The ordination certificate appears on christogenea.org. According to the certificate, Finck was recognized as being “Divinely called to the Ministry.”
Finck founded and maintains far-right and racist websites, including the Holocaust-denying Mein Kampf Project. According to his websites, Finck also subscribes to Christian Identity “theology.” As Schmaltz explains in “For Race and Nation,” Christian Identity members “believe that Aryans are the true Israelites, God’s chosen people.”
Rockwell affiliated with the Christian Identity movement in 1964, forming an allegiance with one of the group’s most prominent ministers.
Your tax dollars at work
Smith said he does not take donations and lives off a pension. But for decades, taxpayers in Ellsworth have been subsidizing his church. As a religious organization, the Church of Christ in Israel has tax-exempt status. The church paid no taxes on its property until 2016, when City Assessor Larry Gardner revisited the property and began taxing the group for the areas not being used for religious purposes. Last year, the Church of Christ in Israel paid taxes on $8,200 of valuation, a bill just shy of $145. (The church also owns nearly 600 acres in Fletchers Landing, which is in open space designation and taxed at a lower rate than other property.)
Tax-exempt status for churches is one that municipalities have little standing to challenge. The IRS has shown little appetite over the years for revoking status based on an organization’s views — groups such as white supremacist Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute and the New Century Foundation, both of which openly express white supremacist views — have long enjoyed tax-exempt status. (The National Policy Institute recently lost its status for failing to file federal tax returns.)
Keepers of the flame
Rockwell is long dead and some of his disciples aging, but “the Commander” remains “the most important figure in the white supremacist movement since World War II.” So said Heidi Beirich, who tracks hate groups as director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., in an interview with the Portland Press Herald in 2017. “His original organization spawned the movement’s most important organizations until very recent times, and his ideas remain central to what is going on right now in the movement.
“Without Rockwell, you wouldn’t have what we see today,” she said.
Rockwell’s father arranged for his son to be buried in Maine, according to the Press Herald, but American Nazi Party followers seized his remains and ultimately cremated Rockwell’s body. In 2017, the leader of one of the ANP’s successor groups told the Washington Post that the group still had Rockwell’s remains. “We want to keep them in a secure location until a time when we can inter them properly,” said Martin Kerr.
“We’re not at the end of the Rockwell wave,” Kerr added. “We’re at the beginning.”