After the death of Mormonism's founder and leader Joseph Smith, follower James Strang persuaded disciples 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.
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.