Nearly three years after the white nationalist hate group VDARE purchased a historic castle in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, their presence has deepened divisions among neighbors and undercut the town’s efforts to appeal to tourists, according to residents Hatewatch spoke with for this investigation.
Townspeople opposed to VDARE’s presence singled out the group’s public involvement in Berkeley Springs’ celebration of the Christmas holidays as a particular cause of concern to Hatewatch. The residents allege that starting in 2021, VDARE donated thousands of dollars to the Bath Christmas Project, an ostensibly benign operation focused on enlivening Berkeley Springs with festive cheer. (Bath is an alternate name for Berkeley Springs.) Since that time, ushers have brought children on Christmas-themed visits to the castle. Nowhere in the advertisements or social media posts promoting these events has Hatewatch observed the hosts explaining VDARE’s ownership of the castle, meaning that visiting non-white children could find themselves meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus in the same spot where white nationalists gather to organize. The conflict over Christmas is representative of a larger struggle in the 94% white town between those who want to attract big-city tourists to Berkeley Springs, and those content to quietly align with a group known for amplifying hate.
‘Diversity is weakness’
Peter Brimelow, 75, and Lydia Brimelow, 38, the married couple who run VDARE, purchased the Berkeley Springs castle for $1.4 million without the help of a loan in February 2020, as Hatewatch previously reported. SPLC has for years documented VDARE’s racist activism. The non-profit has published defenses of the writing of far-right terrorists. They promote the “great replacement,” a racist conspiracy theory embraced by both white supremacist terrorists and some more mainstream pro-Trump figures suggesting that elites are systemically eliminating whites from Western countries through non-white immigration. Unlike more obscure white nationalist leaders, Brimelow has been connected to powerful figures in the Republican Party, including former Trump adviser Stephen Miller. He appeared at the New York Young Republican Club Gala in Manhattan on Dec. 10, where Hatewatch observed him physically embracing former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
VDARE has also written in support of both the insurrection attempt waged by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, and the deadly “Unite the Right” rally staged in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. They publish content authored by Jason Kessler, a white supremacist who helped organize that 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Peter Brimelow appeared last month with Kessler at an annual conference led by American Renaissance, a group that traffics in bogus propaganda that claims non-white people are inferior. For a recent example of their style of advocacy, when the Republican party disappointed many of its supporters during the 2022 midterm elections, VDARE blamed those struggles on fielding too many Black or non-white candidates:
It would be far better if the GOP saved its money on offering naturalization courses to immigrants and focused on white suburbanites. It would also be a smart idea to run competent whites to represent whites rather than fielding clowns like Herschel Walker.
A more diverse GOP isn’t the path to victory. A GOP that gets more of the white vote is the only way forward.
In late November, Lydia Brimelow spoke to a podcast called “Coffee and a Mike,” which has platformed figures who peddle politically charged disinformation, such as Jim Hoft from Gateway Pundit.
“The people I know, which is a narrow swath, are looking to live around other people who agree with them,” Lydia Brimelow said. “One of the things we talk about [at VDARE] is this idea that diversity is strength, which could not be less true. Diversity is weakness.”
Hatewatch emailed Peter Brimelow to ask about this comment. He wrote, “Berkeley Springs works because it has shared values, including voting overwhelmingly for Trump.”
The hate group on the hill
Berkeley Springs residents told Hatewatch that Christmas at the Castle, the event where children are ushered to the Brimelows’ home, ran for years prior to their arrival in Berkeley Springs under its previous ownership. The Brimelows helped bring Christmas activity back into the building after a hiatus that lasted years, residents said, with the primary change in the event being the ideology of its current occupants. Still, the Bath Christmas Project’s website refers to 2021 as the “first annual Christmas at the Castle,” while noting that Lydia Brimelow has joined its board.
Residents of Berkeley Springs describe the castle as being central to the image of a town that relies heavily on tourist traffic for its local economy. The impressive, 137-year-old structure essentially looms on top of Berkeley Springs itself, embedded in a wooded hillside. Visitors can take in its curtain walls from multiple vantage points on the placid streets that intersect below it. There is no more iconic landmark of the tiny town, residents say.
A wealthy Maryland landowner named Samuel Taylor Suit bought the land and commissioned the building of the castle. According to legend, he built it to convince Rosa Pelham, the daughter of a Confederate officer, to marry him. After Suit died, Pelham lost the castle to her creditors, turning it over to a bank, and it changed hands many times over the decades, according to a website devoted to the castle’s history. Andrew Gosline, the castle’s owner prior to Peter and Lydia Brimelow, died in December 2014. David Abruzzi is an Air Force veteran and Morgan County resident who served as the president of the historic landmarks commission in the town of Bath from 2019 to 2021. He told Hatewatch that Brimelow purchased the property from Gosline's children.
Donors pumped $4.3 million into VDARE in 2019, during the height of Trumpism, as Hatewatch previously reported. Those big money donations put VDARE in a financial position to purchase the castle just before the start of the pandemic in 2020. (VDARE’s donations have appeared to dwindle since this period, as Hatewatch will report later in this investigation.) Most people with whom Hatewatch spoke for this story had never heard of VDARE before the white nationalist group came to occupy the landmark.
“It’s not good. I wish it hadn’t happened. I’m sure there are similar groups in other areas, but this is such a small town, and the iconic castle now casts a dark shadow over Berkeley Springs,” Abruzzi said of VDARE’s purchase.
Brimelow argued to Hatewatch that VDARE is focused on “preventing Berkeley Springs’ iconic castle from falling down” in response to our questions and that their presence is in town “probably a spur to patriots.”
Potential impact on tourism
Locals say that VDARE sees potential allies in Berkeley Springs and its surrounding areas because of the community’s rightward political leanings. Based on his comments to Hatewatch, Brimelow appears to agree. Hatewatch observed a meeting hosted by the Morgan County Democratic Party on Nov. 16, and chairperson Jim Hoyt reminded the room of around a dozen attendees about the rightward nature of the region as they raised their hands to make suggestions about fielding candidates. (Hatewatch also attempted to contact the state’s Republican Party by email for this story but did not receive a response.)
“I’ll give you a dose of reality,” Hoyt said about finding a strategy that works for Democrats. “It isn’t easy here.”
The Brimelows’ racist, anti-immigrant worldview makes many people with whom Hatewatch spoke for this investigation feel uncomfortable, including those who claim not to be all that politically engaged. Some residents worry that Berkeley Springs’ tourist industry, which primarily feeds on the money brought in by visitors from more liberal areas like Washington, D.C., and its neighboring suburbs, will decline or flatline if outsiders come to associate the town with VDARE’s bigotry.
On Nov. 5, VDARE hosted an array of white supremacists at the castle for a new project they launched called the 1620 Society. According to Lydia Brimelow, who blogged about the event on VDARE’s website, the group included a man named Michael J. Thompson, who, under his pseudonym Paul Kersey, ran a virulent racist site called “Stuff Black People Don’t Like.” In April, they hosted a white nationalist conference at the castle that included Kevin DeAnna, a longtime VDARE writer who, in a different publication, cited in a positive context “SIEGE,” a text advocating for terrorism in the name of building a white, neofascist ethnostate. DeAnna, who is also based in West Virginia, returned to the castle in late November to help host an annual online fundraising event. Critics of the Brimelows worry that the limited amount of tourist money brought in by racists like Thompson and DeAnna could be significantly disproportionate to the money Berkeley Springs loses from people who are scared to visit in response to their being there.
Hatewatch spoke to a woman named Kelly, who commutes from over the border in neighboring Maryland to work at the city’s Old Roman Bathhouse, a historical monument to America’s first spa. Kelly told Hatewatch that while she did not know the people who live in the castle, people talk about their ideology.
“People say they bought the castle in cash,” she told Hatewatch before lowering her voice to a whisper. “And that they’re racists.”
Hatewatch spoke to employees of The Country Inn, a hotel just beneath the hill that houses the Brimelows’ residence. The Brimelows often dine at The Country Inn, residents said, and have hosted large groups of people there. They said that white nationalists who attend events at the castle sometimes stay there. While some hotel workers spoke warmly of the Brimelows, including one woman who attended church with them, another told Hatewatch that she used to go to the Berkeley Springs castle as a girl but that she hasn’t gone back under the new owners.
“It’s because of all the weird stuff people say is going on up there,” she said.
Clashes over branding and associations
Berkeley Springs’ small-town quaintness makes Christmas another opportunity to draw in weekend tourist dollars, but residents are divided over VDARE’s involvement in the town’s marquee holiday project. The Bath Christmas Project gave an award to a local nurse, who requested Hatewatch not use her name. The nurse, who had experience working with nonprofits, helped Bath Christmas Project set up Amazon Smile and PayPal in October 2020. In 2021, she found her name in a list of awardees next to the Brimelows and felt upset by it.
“It’s just this really quiet thing,” she said, referring to VDARE’s involvement in Christmas preparations. “I never really confronted [Bath Christmas Project head] Hunter [Clark] to tell him why I found it so uncomfortable. I did let one of the volunteers for the project know. She told me she had heard a lot of people talking about it.”
Trey Johanson, the proprietor of Fairfax Coffee House, whom Hatewatch interviewed in its earlier reporting on the VDARE castle, found herself in a similar position. Johanson told Hatewatch that the Bath Christmas Project requested during the 2021 holidays that she loan out the Star Theater, a historic movie house she owns that lights up the streets at night with a stunning, red, 1950s-style neon marquee. Johanson agreed because she wanted to give children a chance to see Christmas movies there.
“But I told him I don’t want to do it if the VDARE people are involved,” Johanson said.
Like the nurse, Johanson found her name as an awardee side-by-side with the Brimelows and felt repulsed by it. She declined to participate in the Bath Christmas Project in 2022, she said.
As one of the more prominent business owners in a small town, Johanson attends monthly tourism board meetings in Berkeley Springs. The tourism board brought in a group called Imagine DC on Oct. 20 to help them find a new logo with an eye on attracting more visitors. According to people who attended the meeting, Imagine DC viewed promoting tolerance and inclusivity as critical to building up Berkeley Springs’ appeal to outsiders, largely because of the presence of VDARE and their castle. The new logo, which has been approved, features rainbow colors and an outline of the West Virginia map.
According to multiple people who attended the Oct. 20 tourism board meeting in Berkeley Springs, a shop owner named Charlie Curia stood up inside to wave a hand-drawn sign with a swastika on it. Curia, who admitted to doing this in a face-to-face conversation with Hatewatch in his store, claimed to be making a point about LGBTQ+ Pride, which he described as “a hate group.” (Although the new Berkeley Springs tourism logo uses rainbow colors, it is not specifically a Pride flag, according to residents who have seen it.)
From inside his shop, which retails in home decor and other crafts, Curia handed Hatewatch a note he typed out on paper explaining why he held up the swastika. In the note, Curia claimed not to have “any prejudices against any group.”
“‘Pride’ is a hate group similar to good old boys, antifa, BLM, etc.,” Curia wrote.
Curia also told Hatewatch that he knew the Brimelows and enjoyed their company. He described Brimelow as a journalist and said that he and his wife Sue Evans got together with the VDARE couple last Christmas.
“It was just friends getting together,” Curia said of his time with the Brimelows.
Peter Brimelow told Hatewatch that he met Curia once but declined to “gossip about a neighbor.” He said of the tourism logo that he understood it to “[flaunt] homosexuality,” which “could alienate potential visitors who are Christians/conservatives/have children.”
Roughly 15% of same-sex couples have children, and same-sex couples are more likely to adopt or foster children than heteronormative couples, according to census data. Most Americans are more accepting of LGBTQ+ rights than white nationalist groups like VDARE. A poll published in April by The Trevor Project, a group focused on children’s mental health, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans would be comfortable having LGBTQ+ children.
Hatewatch accompanied Southern Poverty Law Center’s client Tanya Gersh as she spoke to residents of Berkeley Springs at Fairfax Coffee House on the night of Nov. 13. (Please read the disclosure at the bottom of the investigation for more.) Gersh, who along with SPLC successfully sued neo-Nazi propagandist Andrew Anglin after he used his website, The Daily Stormer, to torment her and her Jewish family, comes from Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish, like Berkeley Springs, attracts tourists from out of state and is in a region with a significant percentage of conservatives. (Whitefish has also served as a hub for radical-right organizing.) Gersh passed along her advice for how to counter VDARE’s message to an intimate group of people who vocally opposed their presence in the castle.
Charlie Curia, his wife Sue Evans, and a third woman with whom Hatewatch did not get the opportunity to speak camped outside the event taking photographs of people as they entered and left. (At one point, one of the three appeared to hide behind a parked car to take photos of the Hatewatch reporter as he returned to his hotel.) The reporter asked why Curia took photos of people entering and exiting Fairfax Coffee House.
“Because we wanted to,” Curia responded.
Hatewatch asked Curia whether he sent the images to VDARE and if he took them on the Brimelows' behest. He said he did not. Separately, Hatewatch received a message on Twitter from a pseudonymous white nationalist referring to Fairfax Coffee House on Nov. 15. In addition to Curia documenting Hatewatch’s presence on Nov. 13, this reporter also emailed Peter and Lydia Brimelow asking for an in-person interview on Nov. 14, which Peter Brimelow declined. Regardless of how the pseudonymous person came to learn about Hatewatch’s presence at Fairfax Coffee House, the episode encapsulates the kind of surreal tensions that have come to surround Berkeley Springs since VDARE purchased the castle.
Although residents say they have primarily seen the septuagenarian Peter Brimelow at The Country Inn and at his church, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Lydia, almost 40 years his junior, appears to have made more of an active effort to integrate herself into the town. Berkeley Springs residents noted Lydia Brimelow’s apparently fruitless attempt to recruit what she called “Christmas monkeys,” her euphemism for laborers, to mount Christmas-themed lights on top of the Berkeley Springs courthouse during the summer months, when Christmas was still half a year away. Another resident recalled Lydia Brimelow appearing at a yoga class. The resident recalled a woman in attendance asking in disbelief, “You’re here?”
“Lydia recalls one comical interaction with an idiot who (thanks to you),” Peter Brimelow told Hatewatch, “was apparently surprised she didn’t fly in on a broom.”
Abruzzi, the former president of the historic landmarks commission in the town of Bath, told Hatewatch that Lydia Brimelow appeared at meetings held by that group. He described her as sitting quietly, not speaking to anyone and not taking notes. Lydia Brimelow claimed to have an interest in history during the November podcast appearance on “Coffee and a Mike.”
“I am a part of the historic American nation. And, you know, that means my family came here on the Mayflower. They fought in every war in American history. Um, they were … on the pioneers. They’ve expressed all these things. And they’ve participated in these things,” she said.
Hatewatch asked Abruzzi why he thought she went to the meetings.
“It makes sense,” he said of her interest in historic landmarks. “They’re enamored with a time and place that no longer exists.”
When clashes around town get ugly
VDARE, which like other far-right groups has said America is in the midst of a “cold civil war,” moved into Berkeley Springs at a time when Trump-era politics had emboldened the radical right. Locals say that the atmosphere around Morgan County had become downright dangerous as a result of fringe extremists.
In August 2020, when progressives in the town hosted a Black Lives Matter event in solidarity with those protesting against the police murder of George Floyd, counterprotesters showed up waving Confederate flags, according to photos reviewed by Hatewatch. West Virginia permits people to carry firearms openly, and Jim Hoyt, the Morgan County Democratic Party chair, told Hatewatch that he left because the situation felt unstable. Hoyt recalled that the counterprotesters shouted down someone reciting a prayer at the start of the protest with chants of “U-S-A!” Multiple witnesses say that Brimelow observed that protest while seated, flanked by someone carrying a camera rig, who filmed it.
In advance of that event, police arrested a man named David DeGraw for making terroristic threats on Facebook. Degraw specifically called out progressives in his threats, suggesting he would kill them on sight.
“You don’t understand how bad I’m hurting right now,” DeGraw said in a Facebook video he published after his arrest, visibly crying. “I fuckin’ … I got arrested today for telling Black Lives Matter and Antifa that I will fuckin’ kill them on sight if they fuck with my country. And guess what my country fuckin’ did, man? They fuckin’ arrested me! They arrested me for fuckin’ terrorism.”
Hoyt, a retiree, has faced threats on his life for his affiliations with the Democratic Party. He forwarded Hatewatch harassing and threatening voicemails he said a man named Charles McBee sent him.
“Fuck you, communist Democrat. Go suck a big pack of fuckin’ dicks. Motherfucker. Trump won the election. Fuckin’ go to hell. You’re gonna go down. It’s not gonna end well for you motherfuckers,” a man barked on one of the voicemails.
Hoyt also let Hatewatch review McBee’s arrest records over the incident as well as records showing his conviction for misdemeanor offenses related to “obscene/harassing phone calls” and “harassing/threatening phone communications via computer.” Hoyt said he requested that McBee receive counseling in lieu of any potential jail stay.
Hoyt said he had been disappointed with the tenor of the dialogue coming from the political right in recent years. He noted that the reactionary 1776 Restoration Movement held a rally in the area that coincided with Juneteenth on June 18, 2021. He showed Hatewatch a photograph of a young boy, who looked to be around the age of 10, waving a flag that proclaimed, “FUCK BIDEN.”
“Think about what you’re doing,” Hoyt said, referring to the boys’ parents. “It’s a little kid.”
An alleged climate of fear
Local opponents of VDARE argue that the white nationalist group silences neighbors by inserting themselves into the fabric of a small, tightly knit community, as they say they have done with the Christmas holidays. They also claim that they frighten people with their money through the threat of litigation. The median household income in Morgan County, West Virginia, which encompasses Berkeley Springs, stands at around $57,000, according to recent census data. A nonprofit that pulled in $4.3 million in 2019 alone stands to have significant power there.
Regarding the Bath Christmas Project, residents said when the Brimelows made their donation in 2021, they gave $2,500. Hatewatch called Hunter Clark, the man who runs the Bath Christmas Project, to confirm the sum of the donation and ask if he wanted to comment on the Brimelows’ involvement in it. He said he did not want to speak to “certain people” about it and hung up the phone.
Fears of VDARE targeting critics with litigation are well-founded. The white nationalist group sued a local resident named Ted Stein for comments he made on Twitter claiming VDARE organized the contentious counterprotest to the August 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration that Brimelow allegedly attended with a video camera. VDARE sued Stein over the tweet that year, despite the post racking up only a few dozen retweets on the site. Stein decided to settle with VDARE and paid them $20,000, which the white nationalist group then turned into propaganda for their website.
“Whatever the local Left was up to in Berkeley Springs, WV, we have disrupted it,” Brimelow wrote while announcing the settlement. “Next stop, America.”
Neighbors of Stein say that fighting the lawsuit simply became too expensive for him, and that West Virginia’s absence of anti-SLAPP laws, which enable countersuits, made the prospect of defending himself potentially fruitless. He ultimately published an apology to VDARE, which Brimelow touted to his audience. Hatewatch reached out to Stein by phone about the suit, but he declined to speak about it.
A woman named Lisa Swanson, who resides in the area and opposes VDARE’s presence in town, told Hatewatch that while some conservatives or Republicans may oppose white nationalism, they are scared to speak up.
“No one I knew had even heard of VDARE when they came. … It felt a little like the Klan coming to town,” Swanson said of the Brimelows. “But people say, ‘Let’s not raise any hackles.’ It’s a small town and people are just afraid to say anything.”
VDARE’s future in Berkeley Springs
Despite the contentious environment in Berkeley Springs, donation data provided by Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) to Hatewatch should give those in town opposed to VDARE’s ideology reason for cautious optimism.
The hate group surged in prominence during the Trump era, due to the Republican Party’s embrace of hardline anti-immigrant views. Trump’s authority also presented the Brimelows with a bounty of unique opportunities. Not only has he met with such figures as Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn and Larry Kudlow, the government under Trump forgave $76,106 worth of PPP loans to Happy Penguins LLC, one of at least three LLCs attached to Lydia Brimelow.
Following the $4.5 million VDARE hauled in during 2019, and their purchase of the castle in February 2020, donations have declined, according to David Armiak from CMD. Armiak noted to Hatewatch that DonorsTrust, which is tied to the right-wing Koch and Mercer empires, gave $1.5 million to VDARE in 2019, but gave only $75,000 and $33,000 to them in 2020 and 2021, respectively. National Philanthropic Trust, another Koch network-connected vehicle, gave VDARE $50,000 in 2019. They gave VDARE nothing in 2020. Donations from Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program declined from $39,797.65 in 2019 to $23,500 in 2020. (Some 2021 records were unavailable at the time Hatewatch reported this story.)
“Large donations are lumpy,” Peter Brimelow wrote in response to questions about those findings. He told Hatewatch that VDARE had raised “about a quarter” of its $200,000 goal to close the year in donations they targeted during an online fundraising event.
Neighbors speculate that running VDARE’s operation from the castle may not be cheap for the Brimelows, despite the relatively affordable cost of living in Morgan County. Hatewatch visited the assessor’s office of Morgan County and inquired about whether the Brimelows pay property taxes, and they do. Those expenses go on top of preserving a large, century-and-a-half-old structure located in a remote area, detached by many miles from some of the businesses needed to carry out such a complex task.
Neighbors told Hatewatch that a local woman named Denise Selby, whom they described as a reactionary, worked at the castle. Hatewatch found Facebook posts that appear to corroborate the claim, showing her and a man named Justin Spielman maintaining the building. When Hatewatch called Selby to ask whether she worked as an employee or volunteer, she quickly ended the conversation and hung up the phone. Hatewatch called two numbers linked to Justin Spielman through a data collection service and left voicemails but did not receive a response. Selby and Spielman are both also associated with the Bath Christmas Project, according to its website. Brimelow described “citizen volunteers who make this little town work” to Hatewatch in response to a question about Selby and accused Hatewatch of trying to destroy America.
Lydia Brimelow described the funding for the castle as coming primarily from two major donors, and it is unknown whether the group can tap into those anonymous sources for such large amounts again. VDARE also made a misstep in trying to sue a bigger target than a local Berkeley Springs resident. In 2020, they sued The New York Times for defamation and lost.
‘Isn’t everyone a patriot?’
Abby Chapple, 83, has lived in Berkeley Springs for 35 years. She works at the museum in town, which sits adjacent to its famous spas, and preserves the area’s rich history. She said that people who visited the VDARE castle sometimes came to the museum.
“They were highly aggressive,” Chapple claimed of the guests. “They would come over to the counter, put their elbows down and start using code words. I’m not totally up on all of them. But I could figure out some of them, like, ‘Are you a patriot?’ And I would say, ‘Isn’t everyone a patriot?’”
The museum where Chapple works is situated directly below the castle and its surrounding hills. She said that one middle-aged visitor with a heavy English accent announced himself as a VDARE guest, saying, “I’m a friend of Brimelow.”
Lydia Brimelow, in her podcast appearance on “Coffee and a Mike,” talked about the castle and her ambitions for it. She talked about how “cancel culture” had affected VDARE, leading to the shutdown of conferences they had planned and how the castle provided a kind of refuge for people with her ideology.
“My vision is it becomes a big hub of American patriotism,” she said.
Chapple, who as a Republican worked under President Reagan’s administration for the Consumer Products Safety Commission, described a “good old boy network” that she says still dominates the region. She said that was the reason why some locals are afraid to speak up with their concerns about VDARE’s ideology. She reflected on the guests of the Brimelows who came to the museum and how she believes they perceived themselves.
“The interesting thing was they thought everyone here accepted them,” she said of the Brimelows’ guests. “Which is obviously not the truth.”
Editor’s note: Tanya Gersh is represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s special litigation team in the legal department, which operates independently of Hatewatch.