If you think America is nutty now, just go back a few generations.
In the decades leading to the Civil War, the young republic was riven by passions spiritual, political and religious. As the country fell into the Panic of 1837, an economic depression that wouldn’t be matched for a century, Americans looked for answers and found them in soothsayers, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.
It was the golden era of P.T. Barnum, the spiritualist Fox sisters and the founding of utopian communities such as Oneida in New York and Amana in Iowa. Noted authors including Tocqueville and Dickens visited America during this period and took note of what Dickens called “a love of ‘smart’ dealing, which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust.”
A new religion was founded in upstate New York, supposedly based on golden tablets found in the wild and filled with ancient prophecies. The early history of that religion, popularly called Mormonism, forms the backdrop for the fantastic, true-life tale of James Jesse Strang, who made his way to Michigan, seized one of the largest islands in the Great Lakes and created a colony of believers while proclaiming himself “King of Heaven and Earth.”
Strang is forgotten today, but in his time, he made front-page news across the nation and rivaled Brigham Young as a leader in the fast-growing community of latter-day saints. Miles Harvey’s meticulously researched tale “The King of Confidence” brings alive the bizarre and chaotic arc of Strang’s life, as he seized his opportunity to accumulate power, money and multiple wives before being gunned down by rivals.
Surrounding himself with true believers as well as like-minded swindlers, Strang and his followers terrorized upper Lake Michigan, launching pirate raids on neighboring villages and stealing horses, timber and fishing boats. Their predations roused the U.S. Navy to send gunboats to subdue Beaver Island, Strang’s power base. Meanwhile, Strang got himself elected to the Michigan Legislature with some first-rate ballot stuffing and angled to be named governor of Utah, which was replacing the Midwest as the seat of the Mormon population.
Just as Strang’s life was reaching its end in 1856, Herman Melville was finishing the last novel that would be published during his lifetime. “The Confidence-Man,” released just months after Strang’s assassination, tells the tale of a swindler who sees religious sects and utopian societies as golden opportunities for fraud. Some scholars have suggested that Melville took inspiration from the well-publicized saga of Strang and Beaver Island.
America’s history is rich with tales of frauds and fakers who successfully bamboozled their fellows. In Harvey’s lively and insightful book, he shows why Strang deserves to be remembered as a prime exemplar of the type.
John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter.
The King of Confidence
By: Miles Harvey.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 416 pages, $29.