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 front-page 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.
Table of Contents
Prologue: In which an angel watches a man fall from a window in Illinois, then flies to Wisconsin with pressing business
- In which we meet a man who isn't there
- In which we encounter a mermaid and witness the birth of another imaginary being
- In which one shining city falls and another begins to rise from the prairie
- In which a kingdom is born
- In which one charlatan is run out of town, only to be replaced by an even greater scoundrel
- In which the end of the world approaches and a sea monster is spotted off Beaver Island
- In which we meet J. J. Strang's mysterious nephew
- In which our protagonist faces a choice between the diabolical and the divine—and, for once, does not place himself on both sides
- In which the King of Earth and Heaven is inaugurated with a crown made of paper on a throne stuffed with tree moss
- In which the inhabitants of Beaver Island evolve into what Charles Darwin might have called "a different set of beings"
- In which a melodrama is performed, and the curtains fall on one of the players
- In which the country's chief executive can't make up his mind
- In which many people feel trapped
- In which one fanatic hunts a white whale and another tracks down a missing monarch
- In which a tragedy opens in Detroit, and a drama comes to its climax on Beaver Island
- In which a murderous mood descends upon the kingdom
- In which the prosecutor wishes he had a bit more evidence, and the defendant wishes he had one true friend
- In which the King of Earth and Heaven runs for elective office
- In which the King of Beaver Island visits his old haunts, contemplates eating poison, and loses a machine that can predict the future
- In which a legend appears, and a horse thief departs
- In which the prophet writes a book, and his followers vote like hell
- In which the prophet, like just about everyone else, threatens to slaughter all his enemies
- In which the picture comes into focus
- In which various people whip their neighbors, bludgeon their colleagues, hack their enemies to death, and bring the United States to the verge of civil war while James Strang insists there's absolutely nothing to worry about
- In which the king makes his final procession
- In which our story ends where it began—with a disappearance
Epilogue: In which the ship steams away