THE KING OF CONFIDENCE
A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
By Miles Harvey
Will the American thirst for snake oil ever be quenched? Probably not, at least judging by “The King of Confidence,” Miles Harvey’s jaunty, far-ranging history of the 19th-century con man and prophet James Jesse Strang. Despite the frontier setting, there is something eerily contemporary about Harvey’s portrait of a real estate huckster with monarchic ambitions, a creative relationship to debt and a genius for mass media. Until his assassination in 1856, Strang ruled over a breakaway Mormon colony on Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, where he was crowned “King of Earth and Heaven.” King Strang, as the press delighted in calling him, tried his hand at various roguish trades — lawyer, newspaperman, prophet, pirate, state legislator — but his true gift was for the pure flimflam of American celebrity.
In 1843, Strang, a young man from the Burned-Over District of New York, went west to duck a warrant. In the Mormon capital of Nauvoo, Ill., the avowed “unbeliever” was baptized by Joseph Smith himself. After Smith’s murder, Strang received a letter, allegedly written by the slain prophet before his death, appointing Strang leader of the 25,000 Latter-day Saints. While Brigham Young consolidated power and began organizing the Mormon exodus to the high desert of Utah, Strang gathered his own modest flock in Wisconsin. Late in the summer of 1845, he led a troop of men to the base of a tree by the White River, a spot revealed to him in a vision. There, the men exhumed three brass plates engraved with a mysterious script, supposedly written by one “Rajah Manchou of Vorito,” the leader of a long-vanquished civilization. Using a pair of “seer stones” on loan from an angel, Strang translated the Rajah’s prophecy: “The forerunner men shall kill” — Smith — “but a mighty prophet there shall dwell”: Strang. Like The Book of Mormon, Strang’s plates tied a makeshift American sect to the ancient world. Unlike Smith, Strang produced a genuine relic for his followers to see with their own eyes.
Following another revelation, Strang relocated his colony to Beaver Island, where he intended to establish his own New Jerusalem, an independent kingdom within the borders of the United States. At his 1850 coronation on the island, he wore the robes of “ancient Jewish high priests” and a crown made of paper and tinsel.
Confidence, Harvey writes, functions as a “de facto national currency.” Strang had plenty of it. In the contest to succeed Smith, he staked out the anti-polygamy position, contrasting himself with Brigham Young on the church’s most divisive issue. That did not stop him from secretly marrying four “spiritual” wives, in addition to his long-suffering legal wife, Mary. Strang’s first “celestial marriage” was to an intelligent young woman named Elvira Field. Field cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes and accompanied Strang on his evangelical tours, staying with him in his rooms and introducing herself as Charles J. Douglass, nephew of and personal secretary to the prophet.
Having claimed a divine right to the lightly populated Beaver Island, Strang’s subjects began counterfeiting money and practicing a form of religious piracy, “consecrating” gentile property to themselves with guns, swords and a fast schooner. President Millard Fillmore, who had been denounced in the press for going soft on Brigham Young and the Utah Mormons, dispatched an iron-hulled Navy steamer to raid the island, arrest Strang and subdue his marauding followers.
The factoid doesn’t get much respect as a source of genuine historical insight, but Harvey deploys small scraps of knowledge to great effect. His account of Strang’s rise and fall is littered with thumbnail histories of 19th-century cross-dressing, John Brown, John Deere, the Brontës, bloomers, the Underground Railroad, mesmerism, newspaper exchanges, the Illuminati and much else. This approach amounts to a sort of historical pointillism, bringing the manic, skittering mood of the era into focus. It is a style of history well suited to the antebellum decades, when American culture was most unabashedly itself — uprooted, credulous and bold with scattershot plans for civic and moral perfection. Horace Greeley, who embodied that time almost as well as King Strang, wrote of living in “this stammering century.”
Harvey’s wonderfully digressive narrative is interspersed with news clippings, playbills, land surveys and daguerreotypes, as if to periodically certify that all of this madness is really true. Strang himself, however, remains a cipher. Where did the calculation end and the delusion begin? Did he himself ever convert to his own gospel? In any case, the inner life of a prophet is less interesting than his or her effect on the world. Tinhorn revelators are seldom in short supply. Few of them secure private theocracies.
Rather than a probing biography of a single man, Harvey offers a vivid portrait of the time and place in which a character like Strang could thrive, an era when “reality was porous” and an anxious population cast about for something exciting to believe in and someone confident to follow. Once it is written, the history of our current moment won’t be the story of any particular scoundrel. Confidence men are always among us. It takes extraordinary circumstances for one to become king.