About the Book
The riveting story of the most infamous American con man you’ve never heard of: James Strang, self-proclaimed divine king of earth, heaven, and an island in Lake Michigan, until his assassination in 1856.
In the summer of 1843, James Strang, a charismatic young lawyer and avowed atheist, vanished from a rural town in New York. Months later he reappeared on the Midwestern frontier and converted to a burgeoning religious movement known as Mormonism. In the wake of the murder of the sect’s leader, Joseph Smith, Strang unveiled a letter purportedly from the prophet naming him successor, and persuaded hundreds of fellow converts to follow him to an island in Lake Michigan, where he declared himself a divine king.
From this stronghold he controlled a fourth of the state of Michigan, establishing a pirate colony where he practiced plural marriage and perpetrated thefts, corruption, and frauds of all kinds. Eventually, having run afoul of powerful enemies, including the American president, Strang was assassinated, an event that was frontpage news across the country.
The King of Confidence tells this fascinating but largely forgotten story. Centering his narrative on this charlatan’s turbulent twelve years in power, Miles Harvey gets to the root of a timeless American original: the Confidence Man. Full of adventure, bad behavior, and insight into a crucial period of antebellum history, The King of Confidence brings us a compulsively readable account of one of the country’s boldest con men and the boisterous era that allowed him to thrive.
416 pages (kindle)
Published on July 14, 2020
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The instant I saw this book, I knew I had to read it.
You see, my family is LDS, and while I was raised in the church, I left it when I was younger, and made the transition official with my records removed when I was in my early twenties. I remember a lot of this stuff from my youth, from time at church, but it was all told with a very “churchy” tone. Since then, I’ve enjoyed not being LDS so much, I have had no desire to do any further reading on a lot of church history. I got my fill of it as a kid, thank you very much.
That being said, I really enjoy reading about historical figures I’ve never heard of before. The weirder they are, the more I like it. Confidence men, scammers and the like, really turn my crank. I always think the ways they con people are just… fascinating (and rather amazing in the, “Holy crap, someone actually bought into that?!” way.).
I will say, before going into this book very far, I do think this book could potentially offend LDS people, not because it outright poo-poos their religion, but there is discussion of church lore, which is, shall we say, handled with a bit of a guffaw. While I think the guffaw was put in all the right places, I wouldn’t, for example, advise my mother to read this book. I think sometimes the way things are handled, especially regarding Joseph Smith and his golden plates, for example, are explained with a sort of off the cuff disbelief and blatant skepticism that would absolutely offend her (though I found it to be extremely refreshing). So, be aware of that before diving in.
Anyway, this book is about one James Jesse Strang. Strang grew up in the mid 1800’s, starting out in a county in New York which, at the time, was known for its fervent religiosity. This is where a whole lot of religious movements and con men got their start. This, as it happens, was also the county Joseph Smith started out in. Strang, however, was not religious. A devout atheist, he often waxed on and on in his journals and notebooks about how he was absolutely not religious. Strang went on to become a lawyer, married a woman he really didn’t like much, and started selling off property that didn’t exist to people. He also really thought Napoleon was fantastic and he really wanted to emulate this guy.
So how did he get from backwoods New York atheist, to the heir of the early LDS church? Well, it’s a bit of a wild ride.
Now, before I continue on, I should tell you that one thing I loved about this book, which you may or may not enjoy, was all the context. Again, I’m going to put a little personal spin on this. There were a whole lot of things I never knew about Joseph Smith and the early Mormons and, specifically, this part of New York. I remember I went to the Sacred Grove as a kid, and watched my dad go crazy trying to get all the mosquitos off of him as we wandered around. What I didn’t know until I read this book, was just how prevalent and prolific various religious movements were in this specific county in New York, to the point where this county got a nickname due to all the religious fervor: Burned-Over District.
I’d always thought this part of New York was a place where a few other small churches started out but not many, and eventually everyone realized that the Mormon church and Joseph Smith was THE DUDE TO FOLLOW and just went after him. I had no idea that there was such a fervor of religiosity in this region that Smith really was just one guy plying his trade amongst hundreds of them. That this region was so notorious for its religious devotion, it was nationally known for it. That there were so many men and women starting churches, you could pretty much throw a rock and hit someone with a direct line to God.
So, for me, a whole lot of this book contextualized things that I’d understood a little… differently… from my church days.
There was a lot about the time in US history that made confidence men and religious upstarts so prevalent. For example, banks were basically handing out IOU’s to people, which may or may not actually be worth anything in the end. Thus, there were huge amounts of insecurity. The country was in a bit of a roiling state due to things happening in such a way that was setting the stage for the Civil War. There was a whole lot of uncertainty, and people wanted certainty. What better way to give people what they want than to find God? For one reason or another, Burned-Over District in New York became a hotbed of this stuff. And this is where both Joseph Smith and James Jesse Strang really got started.
Strang ended up getting into some trouble in New York and he took off in the night (literally) with his wife and family. He wasn’t heard of again for five years, when he turned up in Wisconsin. Out in Wisconsin, he ends up practicing law again, and selling off property again. One thing leads to another, and he ends up in Nauvoo, Illinois, meeting Joseph Smith and then converting to the church. This is weird, because he’s an atheist and he’s very proud of that fact, so no one is really sure why he converted. Many years later, someone said he converted because he was hoping that he could entice all the Mormons to move up to Wisconsin, which would drive the property values through the roof. He could unload a bunch of property and make a boatload of money. While that’s just a theory, in my mind, it’s the theory that makes the most sense.
Anyway, the rest of the book goes on from there. It tells the story of how he started a breakoff Mormon sect after Joseph Smith died, how he “found” his own brass plates and an angel “loaned” him the devices he needed to translate said plates (just like Joseph Smith). How he became the King of Earth and Heaven, Beaver Island, the saga of lording over these people and his struggle to keep them loyal to him, and his spectacular fall.
It’s all very… entertaining.
What I liked most about this book, however, wasn’t just the story of Strang, it was the historical backdrop that serves as fantastic context for so much that happens. It’s really not just a story of one guy with a chip on his shoulder, but the larger, changing, evolving United States as a whole and all the stresses and tensions within it that allowed certain movements to rise up and take root in the way they did. There were not a few times I found myself refocusing, contextualizing some of the things I learned in church all those years ago, and a whole lot of times I was just interested because what I was learning was interesting.
So while this is a biography of one man, you kind of get double duty here. It’s a biography, and a nonfiction historical book sort of smashed into one, and I found all the parts of it to be just fantastic. Part of this is likely because of my own personal history. This book tapped into something in my own story that doesn’t get tapped into often. Part of it is also because it’s just interesting. I haven’t read much about confidence men in the mid-1800s, and while I know that was a time when scammers really had fun, what this book does is show some of the reasons why people like Strang came to be, and the social elements that played into their stories and allowed them to be what they became.
And, wow, was he a colorful person.
All in all, I absolutely loved this book. I devoured it. It was well written, with a lot of detail and depth that I honestly didn’t expect. While I do not think this book is for everybody, I do think that it is worth reading. I wish I could find more nonfiction books like this.