Meet Michigan’s greatest con artist

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While reading Miles Harvey’s latest book, I was reminded of “Popeye” character J. Wellington Wimpy’s famous catchphrase: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Wimpy — along with Canada Bill Jones, Charles Ponzi, C.L. Blood, Cassie Chadwick, George Parker, P.T Barnum, Susanna Mildred Hill, Bernie Madoff and William Thompson — are some of history’s most famous con artists. While they are surely nefarious, none of them match Michigan’s own King James Jesse Strang, who in the mid-19th century held court at Beaver Island while serving two terms in the Michigan State House of Representatives.

Author Miles Harvey’s unusual biography of Strang boasts a 19th century-style title: “The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets and the Murder of an American Monarch.”

Harvey, in a nonjudgmental style, sorts out reality from myth when recounting Strang’s bizarre life. Several capable books have been written about Strang, but Harvey’s book contains fascinating and previously unreported historical information. Harvey uses his background as a DePaul University English professor to illustrate how contemporary writers influenced Strang’s own psyche.

Legendary authors, such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens and, of course, Herman Melville, are cited and analyzed by Harvey to tease out the real James Strang.

Strang was a man of opportunity. He bounced from one get-rich-quick scheme to another, whether it was the construction of canals in the United States, glorious land grifts, or just pronouncing himself both a medical doctor and a lawyer. He also had been a postmaster, which would play large in one of his most audacious schemes.

His most improbable scheme came in 1843. With creditors on his heels, Strang fled westward. He eventually discovered the Mormon faith and became a follower of Joseph Smith. This led to the bold and opportunistic move of self-anointing himself as Smith’s successor following his assassination in 1844.

Using a letter — most likely forged — allegedly sent by Smith that named Strang as his successor, he began overseeing a splinter group of the fast-growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was directed by Brigham Young, a staunch opponent of Strang.

In 1845, Strang conspired with friends to fabricate and bury three plates of brass with indecipherable cuneiform writing on them. Only Strang could read them.

Miles writes about the translation: “In his effort, Strang was assisted by a pair of seer stones called ‘Urim’ and ‘Thummin,’ a combination of magical glasses and crystal balls, which he claimed an angel had loaned him to specifically for the task. The whole deal replicated Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon.”

Harvey also makes the case that Strang was a genius for using new technology and modern communication to propel his life forward. He had a daguerreotype of himself made as early as possible, and launched the newspaper “Northern Islander” upon settling on Beaver Island. The paper promoted his causes, such as plural marriages, in which Strang participated with his five wives.

“He constructed himself out of words and understood his audience,” Harvey said.

Harvey also makes a credible case that Beaver Island, where Strang moved his flock in 1848, became the center of a pirate operation run by Strang and his followers. Using modern search tools that weren’t available to previous writers, Harvey provides proof that Strang was running everything from horse thievery to counterfeiting.

In 1850, Strang crowned himself King of Beaver Island. In 1852, he was elected state representative from a district that was one-quarter of Michigan’s landmass. There was talk of ballot box stuffing, especially on Beaver Island where he received 695 votes and his opponents received 0.

Harvey gives kudos to Strang for his lifelong commitment to abolitionism and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was first detailed in a series of journals he wrote as a young man. Strang even reprinted an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative “My Bondage and My Freedom” in his newspaper.

Strang’s rule came to a violent end on June 16, 1856. He was shot by two followers and died three weeks later. Shortly after this incident, the Mormons on Beaver Island were run off by vigilante-marauders. Today, a small town on the island is still named St. James and the King’s Highway runs across the island.

“When I was approached to write a book on Strang, I was skeptical. When I delved deeper, I knew instantly I wanted to write it,” Harvey said. “Strang’s story was mostly considered a footnote to Mormon history, but I was excited because it was a Midwestern story that had been overlooked by the book industry in the East and the movie industry in the West,” he said.

In the book’s last paragraph, Harvey acknowledges the comparisons to today’s political atmosphere: “People like James Strang never really vanish. When the time is right they reappear, wearing a new guise, exploiting new fears, offering new dreams of salvation. Americans are fixated on such figures especially in periods of profound social and economic upheaval. So the King of Confidence lives on.”

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