The King of Confidence reads akin to the best of thriller fiction. The true nature of the book renders the events all the more shocking and makes for an impactful read. Miles Harvey has done a masterful job bringing the past to life, narrating the whirlwind rise and fall of a true confidence man.
... jaunty, far-ranging ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
... meticulously researched ... 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 ... 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.
Mr. Harvey is a skillful writer and thorough researcher ... 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 ... 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.)
Readers of Harvey’s first two books know that he’s a remarkable sleuth, a writer with a passion for maps and islands and the patience to tell a complicated story ... I had a harder time finding Harvey in The King of Confidence. I missed Harvey, the intrepid reporter, often brave and sometimes baffled. That adventurer’s voice has gone quiet in The King of Confidence. Harvey tells us he took up this story at the urging of an editor. But he never tells us why. He also doesn’t explain what appealed to him in the story or what he learned from it or why Strang might help us navigate these years when stories of a con-man-in-charge again dominate our news cycles ... The great surprise of Harvey’s book isn’t a revelation of some polished truth about Strang, the sanctimonious rascal who occupies the center of the book as a kind of moral vacuum. Strang is as slippery now as he was in 1850. Instead, Harvey has spun out amazing connections to just about everything and everyone present in Strang’s world ... Harvey shows us just how Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Twain shared Strang’s imagined world.
Writing with electrifying pleasure in discovery, Harvey zestfully captures 'the carnivalesque atmosphere' of antebellum America ... vividly portrayed ... Deftly performing a fresh and telling analysis of the timeless power of the con man over Americans who worship those who invent their own rules and 'their own truths,' Harvey brings to galloping life a forgotten, enlightening, and resounding chapter in America’s tumultuous history of searchers and charlatans.
Harvey has penned a tour de force of popular history. Light on deep or original historical analysis, this work recounts Strang's colorful story ... A spirited, entertaining read with a twist of insight and a tang of scandal.
Journalist Harvey...delivers a vivid account of the life and times of American sect leader, lawyer, newspaper editor, and con man ... Harvey paints antebellum America as a time of 'excesses and delusions' and skillfully explores the era’s technological advances, rising immigration, political violence, religious fervor, and leading literary figures. This evocative tale will astonish and delight fans of American history.
A nicely spun yarn of religious chicanery on the frontier in a nearly forgotten historical episode ... Harvey’s narrative is a page-turning exercise in popular history perfect for fans of Devil in the White City. Entertaining historical excavation.