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‘The King of Confidence’ Review: Visionary or Opportunist?

July 14
16:01 2020

By Howard Schneider

The literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen characterized our mid-19th century as an “American renaissance,” an era when powerful, perceptive writers—Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman—transformed the young nation’s ideals and language. It was also a time when apprehensive Americans embraced new fringe religions, utopian schemes and con artists without number. “In antebellum America, reality was porous,” Miles Harvey writes in “The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch.”

Mr. Harvey examines this bedeviled society through the life of James Jesse Strang, a strange man of many parts—most of them bad. He was born in 1813 in upstate New York, the same region that nurtured Joseph Smith, the founder, in 1830, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—and the Fox sisters, concocters of modern spiritualism.

As a youth, Strang yearned for future glory, but for many years it didn’t look as if he’d come remotely close. He was an unsuccessful (though talented) lawyer, a U.S. postmaster accused of corruption and a failure in the real-estate business. In 1843, beset by creditors, he fled with his wife and children to the Mormon community of Burlington, Wis. A year later, Strang, an atheist, met Smith and converted to Mormonism. Mr. Harvey speculates on a number of reasons for the conversion: anguish caused by the recent death of his daughter, Smith’s magnetism, Strang’s discernment of an opportunity to exploit the new faith.

Some weeks after Smith was killed on June 27, 1844, by anti-Mormon zealots, Strang claimed to have received a letter from Smith, postmarked before his murder, that named Strang his successor. “Modern researchers,” Mr. Harvey says, “have identified the letter from ‘Joseph Smith’ as a forgery.” This was also the opinion of other Mormons at that time. (Using paper with an authentic postmark, admittedly, was a deft hoax.) Unfortunately for Strang, one of the Mormons who believed that he was a fraud was Brigham Young, the powerful president of the Mormon Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, who excommunicated the interloper and rival. Young, however, had more serious problems, such as widespread hostility toward his flock, and so beginning in 1846 he led his followers west to what would become Utah.

‘The King of Confidence’ Review: Visionary or Opportunist? 3

Strang stayed behind with about 500 Mormons who remained loyal to him, eventually moving them in 1848 to Beaver Island, an “isolated landmass in the northern-most waters of Lake Michigan” with good timber and a large harbor, economic benefits that would be utilized by what Mr. Harvey calls Strang’s “theocratic kleptocracy.” Strang believed deeds ordinarily considered heinous were justified if perpetrated against non-Mormons, and the book persuasively argues that Strang’s community, eventually known as the Strangites, engaged in piracy, counterfeiting and other transgressions. (Strang once faced federal charges but was acquitted.)

In 1850 Strang assumed the title King of Earth and Heaven in a shabby coronation (he donned a paper crown). He imposed a strict ethical code on the sect, although enforcement varied depending on his attitude toward the accused. Some of the rules are reminiscent of the weird buffoonery in Woody Allen’s early movies (“Bananas,” particularly): Women, for instance, were ordered to wear pantaloons to demonstrate their allegiance.

By 1852, “after years of swindle and struggle,” Mr. Harvey notes, “Strang had finally become master of every sphere of human thought and action on Beaver Island.” That same year he was elected to the Michigan legislature, courtesy of voter fraud but, surprisingly, proved himself an impressive legislator. He was re-elected to a second term, again through polling shenanigans. In the latter term he displayed real integrity: An abolitionist, he introduced a petition in the legislature requesting that free black men be allowed to vote. Two weeks later he denounced the egregious Fugitive Slave Act.

Strang made a lot of enemies, even within his sect, for reasons ranging from his overbearing dictatorship to jealousy. And so on June 16, 1856, two dissident sect members ambushed and mortally wounded him. The killers were acquitted after a one-hour trial. Strang left behind five wives, numerous children and between 515 and 2,500 followers (estimates vary), who were driven off Beaver Island by bitter non-Mormon vigilantes. The splinter sect still exists today and,according to its official website, numbers “about 130” adherents.

Mr. Harvey, who teaches at DePaul University and is the author of two previous works of narrative nonfiction, is a skillful writer and thorough researcher. He characterizes his subject as “a person of considerable learning and intellectual acuity,” but on balance Strang strikes me as a two-bit intellectual dilettante whose main attributes were ruthlessness and astonishing luck (until his assassins caught up with him). Mr. Harvey asks throughout his book whether Strang was a “visionary idealist” or a “misanthropic opportunist,” a question that misses the point. What’s important is how someone like Strang, a man who offered any number of reasons to distrust him, acquired so many loyal devotees. Mr. Harvey maintains that in the midst of convulsive social change, Strang offered his flock, “many of whom were losers in mid-nineteenth-century America’s economic, demographic, and social convulsions,” a sense of belonging and purpose. That doesn’t delve deep enough. Since Mr. Harvey sees Strang as a microcosm of a certain kind of vexing, volatile Americana that’s still with us today, he ought to have gone further and considered, for instance, why most American “losers” were impervious to Strang’s seduction. (And not all of Strang’s followers were bumpkins.)

Mr. Harvey cites a literary scholar who asserts that Melville’s “The Confidence-Man” contains an allusion to Strang’s Beaver Island “kingdom” and notes that after his murder a Strang crony might have been the model for one of the more sordid characters in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: the King. It’s ironic that Strang’s legacy, if he had one, was in his possible influence on two of America’s classic novels.


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Tarannum Naaz

Tarannum Naaz

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