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'King Of Confidence': How A Con Man You've Likely Never Heard Of Became A Divine King

Teacher, lawyer, editor, prophet, pirate, state legislator, historian, and "King of Earth and Heaven." These titles all belonged to one man: James Strang. 

In 1843, the young lawyer and avowed atheist Strang fled rural New York and reappeared in what is now Burlington, Wis. While in the Midwest he converted to a new religious movement called Mormonism. Following the murder of church founder Joesph Smith, Strang claimed that the prophet named him the successor.

During antebellum America, Strang managed to convince his followers to move to Beaver Island in northernmost Lake Michigan to create a pirate colony where polygamy, theft, corruption and many frauds were practiced.

The story of how an atheist managed to become a self-proclaimed divine king until his assassination in 1856 is fascinating — and Miles Harvey wrote all about it. Harvey’s new book on James Strang is called The King of Confidence.

"It's one of the great reinvention stories of the 19th century, which was absolutely full of such stories," says Harvey.

While in the Burlington area, Strang found three brass plates buried near the White River after claiming he saw them in a vision. These plates, written in a mysterious script from a long-gone civilization that only Strang could translate with seer stones, would cement Strang's place as a prophet, according to Harvey.  

Credit Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Illustration depicting the Rajah Manchou plates that James Strang's followers dug up in Burlington, Wis. Strang claimed to have seen their location in a vision and had "seer stones" only given to him in order to translate the text.

Strang would also convince his followers to follow him from Voree to Beaver Island in the northernmost Lake Michigan, where he would later declare himself a divine king. While this story may seem to get more and more farfetched, Harvey says men like Strang thrived because of the period they lived in.

"I think there's certain periods in history where the truth becomes malleable. And in the case of antebellum America, the years before the Civil War, there was just incredible societal tremors," he notes. This period brought a communications revolution, a depression, changes in technology (like the camera, telegraph and railways) that quickly made America a different place.

This period also gave birth to the term "confidence man," according to Miles. And Strang was definitely one who made his own truth and had a great gift in preaching it to others.  

"I think the fact that Strang was a man that understood what was going on around him and understood how it might fit his personal needs led to his ascension in the minds of hundreds of people to King of Earth and Heaven," he explains. 

Credit Courtesy of Miles Harvey
This drawing of James Strang is from a 19th-century newspaper. Strang used the widely reachable network of newspapers across the United States to remain in the spotlight — here he's noted as "King Strang."

Strang's followers truly believed they were bringing about the second coming of Christ on Beaver Island through Strang. This mindset permitted many things, such as creating a pirate colony where thefts were committed, and corruption and fraud were commonplace. 

The activities on the island even led to Strang getting the attention of President Millard Filmore, face federal trial, and face an invasion of Beaver Island by a Naval warship, according to Harvey. Yet, throughout all of this, Strang continued to lead for 12 years until his assassination by past followers.

"Strang constructed himself entirely out of words," notes Harvey. From forging a letter from Joesph Smith, digging up bronze plates, to being the newspaper editor on his colony to circulate news across the country — it was the start of media's power and of modern propaganda that gave Strang power over those who should have had power over him.  

Despite the lying, theft, manipulation of the polls, and many other crimes, "[Strang] probably believed that what he was doing was in some way righteous just because he was doing it," says Harvey.

Harvey hopes that Strang's story can give people a window into a world that allowed con men to thrive and learn from Strang — a "fascinating figure full of good and evil and over-serious self-belief ... I just found him amazing to think about for five years and I'll miss him."

Miles Harvey will be discussing The King of Confidence Thursday night in a virtual event for the Wisconsin Book Festival. 

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.