The coronation of Queen Victoria it was not. On July 8, 1850 when James Strang declared himself King of Earth and Heaven, the crown was paper, the throne built with boards, and the rough-hewn venue filled with a few hundred instead of hundreds of thousands.
Somehow, a farm boy from Western New York once involved in land swindles was able to convince a segment of Mormons that he was founder Joseph Smith’s heir: an atheist turned prophet that persuaded them to settle in his dominion of Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. ‘King Strang’ garnered national newspaper coverage, fame, infamy – and even the attention of then President Millard Fillmore.
‘He was really able to create himself out of words,’ said Miles Harvey, author of a new book, The King of Confidence, which examines Strang’s life that included five wives, his almost six-year rule as king, and how he ultimately met his death at his followers’ hands.
Wildly ambitious as a young man, Strang wrote in his journals about marrying Princess Victoria to become the British empire’s sovereign. He had many professions – newspaper editor, lawyer and state legislator – but Strang was also a ‘confidence man’ – a term for someone who scammed others. He was an embodiment of his era, Harvey told DailyMail.com.
The antebellum period, which was roughly from end of the War of 1812 until the start of Civil War, was one of numerous religious and social movements, apocalyptic terrors, debates and dissent over slavery, and technological disruptions that included the camera, telegraph and railroads.
‘It was a period of stunning change,’ Harvey explained. ‘All of these upheavals left the truth open to interpretation in ways it hadn’t been a few decades earlier. So confidence in such situations became a currency.
‘Strang was a great storyteller and he told people what they wanted to hear.’
James Jesse Strang, above, was born on March 21, 1813 and grew up on a farm in Western New York. The region was such a hotbed of religious revivals that it became known as the Burned Over District. Raised Baptist and an active member of his church, Strang wrote in his journals that he was ‘a perfect atheist.’ After meeting Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Strang converted and was baptized. After Smith’s death, he tried to become the church’s new leader, according to a new book, The King of Confidence
First, Strang used a letter he said was from Smith as proof he should be the Mormon founder’s successor. When that didn’t seem to convince many in the church, Strang said he had a vision that revealed where ancient texts where buried. ‘Three plates of brass’ in an unknown language were unearthed and it turned out Strang was the only one who could translate them, according to the book, The King of Confidence. ‘On September 18, 1845, he declared the plates to be the work of a certain Rajah Manchou of Vorito, who in some distant age had fallen in battle at the site where the plates were discovered.’ Above, a contemporary broadside that depicts the Rajah Manchou plates, according to the book, from the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
James Jesse Strang was born on March 21, 1813 and grew up on a farm in Western New York. Although he was raised in the Baptist Church and remained active in his congregation, by the time he was 18, Strang was ‘already adept at dissembling, he believed not a word of what he professed,’ Harvey pointed out in The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch.
‘I am,’ Strang wrote in his journals, ‘a perfect atheist.’
However, religious revivals and proselytizing flamed all around Strang to the point that Western New York became known as the Burned Over District. It ‘also produced a more radical species of preacher—zealots with unconventional ideas and apocalyptic murmurings, men and women who founded their own sects, convinced that they alone spoke for God,’ according to the book.
And no one caused more of a stir than Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Smith said he had found golden tablets that had been buried in Western New York for 1,400 years. He then translated the ‘reformed Egyptian’ writing with seer stones called Urim and Thummim. The result was the Book of Mormon.
‘The Book of Mormon told the story of a centuries-long fratricidal struggle between two branches of an ancient Israelite clan that fled Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity, eventually winding up in the Americas. One of those tribes (the idolatrous, dark-skinned Lamanites) subsequently wiped out the other (the righteous, fair-skinned Nephites), but not before a Nephite prophet named Mormon managed to compile the history of his doomed people on some golden plates,’ Harvey wrote in The King of Confidence.
The Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830 and sold for $1.25, was deemed by some to be a ‘blasphemous work.’ Nonetheless, Smith soon had hundreds of converts, according to the book.
In the 1830s, Smith and his followers settled in Ohio as well as in Independence, Missouri, where some believe the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will take place. But tensions and fights with non-Mormons would lead to another settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois.
While Smith was leading his followers, Strang was speculating in real estate. After the financial crisis called the Panic of 1837, Strang was deep in debt. So much so that the then newspaper editor and published disappeared – fleeing from Randolph, New York – to escape to his creditors.
Now married, Strang eventually moved his family to Wisconsin and opened a law practice. One of his neighbors convinced him to hear Joseph Smith preach in Nauvoo. Harvey noted in his book that when Strang came to the bustling Illinois town in February 1844, ‘Strang was, by his own estimation, “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.”‘
Somehow, however, after Strang and Smith met, the avowed atheist was converted, baptized and then ordained an elder.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had grown quickly and attracted converts and critics – especially for the practice of polygamy.
Smith, who was running for President of the United States, ordered the destruction of a printing press of a newspaper that criticized him and his doctrines. Then charged with treason, Smith was in jail when a mob stormed the building on June 27, 1844. Smith was shot and killed.
No successor had been publicly named. By that July, Strang was saying that he had been secretly named to lead the church – and offered a supposed letter from Smith as evidence. But the missive wasn’t sufficient to sway many in the church.
At first, James Strang distinguished himself from his rival, Brigham Young, by coming out against polygamy. Young was said to have 55 wives during his lifetime. Strang was already married for years to his wife Mary when he met Elvira Field. They began a relationship and she traveled with him as he recruited followers to his settlement and then kingdom on Beaver Island. By June 1849, Strang and Elvira Field secretly wed and she no longer had to pretend to be his nephew, wear men’s clothes and use the name Charles J Douglass. Field is seen above as Douglass. Strang ended up marrying five women
Miles Harvey, the author of a new book called The King of Confidence, told DailyMail.com that Strang surrounded himself with scoundrels and con men, including J C Bennett, seen above. Harvey wrote: ‘Even in an age of what one newspaper called “bare-faced impudent corruption and public plunder,” John C Bennett stood out as an unprincipled schemer, a Machiavelli of the frontier.’ Bennett was Strang’s second-in-command and helped him plan for the kingdom on Beaver Island. Bennett was ousted from the church due to a sex scandal
Strang then ‘had a vision’ that revealed where ancient texts where buried in Wisconsin. After the ‘three plates of brass’ in an unknown language were unearthed, it turned out Strang was the only one who could translate them, Harvey noted in The King of Confidence.
‘On September 18, 1845, he declared the plates to be the work of a certain Rajah Manchou of Vorito, who in some distant age had fallen in battle at the site where the plates were discovered,’ he wrote.
‘After informing the dying noble that “other strangers shall inhabit thy land,” God told him to record and bury these words: “The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record.”‘
A newspaper article about Strang’s ‘discovery’ and its message was the start of nationwide attention on the ‘unknown prophet’ and his new Mormon settlement he founded called Voree in Wisconsin.
There were about 900 newspapers in the 1830s. By 1850, there were more than 2,500 and information moved quicker than it had before, Harvey pointed out in his book. He told DailyMail.com Strang was able to take advantage of the burgeoning newspaper explosion.
As Strang’s national prominence was growing, his rival, Brigham Young, was solidifying his position within the church and casting doubt on Strang’s claims. Young also excommunicated Strang.
Young would lead the Mormons West and found Salt Lake City. Their struggle for power within the church lasted for years as they both sought followers. Young was also the Governor of Utah and, at one point, Strang was a possible replacement.
Initially, Strang differentiated himself from Young by being opposed to polygamy. But that would change. Rumors swirled while Strang traveled with his secretary, Charles J Douglass, as he attempted to attract followers to his newest settlement and vision: Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.
Brigham Young, above, saw James Strang as a rival to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After Strang produced a letter he claimed was from Smith naming him head of the church, according to a new book, The King of Confidence, Young wrote: ‘Is it not surprisingly strange that Joseph Smith should appoint a man to succeed him in the presidency of the church some seven or ten days before his death, and yet not tell it to the High Council, nor any of the authorities of the church?’
In Western New York, which become known as the Burned Over District due to to the numerous religious movements happening in the region, no one caused more of a stir than Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smith, above, said he had found golden tablets that had been buried in Western New York for 1,400 years. He then translated the ‘reformed Egyptian’ writing with seer stones called Urim and Thummim. The result was the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830. He quickly gained followers from around the world. Smith was eventually jailed for treason. A mob stormed the jail and Smith was shot and killed on June 27, 1844
By June 1849, Strang and Elvira Field secretly wed and she no longer had to pretend to be his nephew, wear men’s clothes and use the name Charles.
Things were progressing for Strang. Voree, his first Mormon settlement in Wisconsin was growing and plans were moving forward for Beaver Island. By July 1850, Strang was ready to for his coronation.
Four years earlier, his followers had to swear allegiance to him as their ‘Imperial Primate and Absolute Sovereign,’ but it ‘fell far short of the magisterial fantasies that had long haunted Strang’s imagination,’ Harvey wrote.
Now, Strang was to be king and renamed the island’s main settlement St. James. On the day of the coronation, ‘”James, the Anointed” sat on his throne and brandished his scepter while “with uplifted hands,” as one observer put it, the faithful bore witness “that the Kingdom of God is set up on Earth,”‘ according to the book.
Strang wrote then President Zachary Taylor, the US Congress and the American people a letter that requested, according to the book, ‘that the prophet and his followers be granted the right to “settle upon and forever occupy all the uninhabited lands of the islands of Lake Michigan.”‘
However, the island was not uninhabited: The original settlers were the Odawa and Ojibwe. Tension also immediately sprang up between other locals who were not Mormons and fishermen, many who had come from Ireland because of the potato famine.
Soon, there were articles accusing the Mormons of Beaver Island of many crimes, including counterfeiting, horse theft and piracy. Harvey told DailyMail.com Strang surrounded himself with scoundrels and con men. He pointed out that some of the stories were due to anti-Mormon bias.
‘He didn’t do everything he was accused of,’ he said. But, ‘Strang was clearly running a criminal enterprise.’
Some of his followers may have participated in the crimes because they thought they were doing righteous work and preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, he noted.
‘The “consecrating” of “Gentile” property, or, in other words, the robbing of those who were not Mormons, was a recognized and established practice, from the earliest settlement of the island,’ Morgan Lewis Leach, a local historian, wrote in 1883, according to the book.
Strang and his followers alleged crimes eventually drew the attention of the US Attorney’s office and then President Millard Fillmore. While Fillmore initially waffled, he eventually authorized dispatching the U.S.S. Michigan to raid Beaver Island and to arrest Strang. Brought to trial on federal charges, Strang spent the first anniversary of his coronation arguing for his freedom in Detroit. He was acquitted, according to the book.
The next year, in 1852, Strang was elected to the Michigan state legislature. He also expanded his control over Beaver Island and its inhabitants: Non-Mormons were kicked off the island. Among his followers, he implemented a very unpopular dictate that women had to wear pantaloons, which Harvey described as ‘loose-fitting trousers’ that ‘gathered at the ankles.’ This, coupled with Strang’s now openly polygamous life rankled his believers and dissent spread.
‘A growing number of Beaver Islanders were coming to believe that the real tyrant was Strang,’ Harvey wrote. ‘By late winter of 1856, a beleaguered prophet had come to see pantaloons as the ultimate symbol of loyalty.’
Some of Strang’s followers turned on him. On June 16, 1856, two lay in ambush and shot him. Harvey wrote: ‘As news of the attack spread, readers across the country woke up to headlines such as this: From the Beaver Islands—A Tragical Occurrence!—Strang, the Mormon Leader, Shot!! The story traveled not just the country but the globe.’
On July 9, 1856, Strang succumbed to his wounds and died. His kingdom, which lasted just shy of six years, was no more.
Miles Harvey, right, is the author of a new book called The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch. ‘From the get-go I was hugely excited about the project,’ he told DailyMail.com. It appealed to him that it was a Midwestern story and he spent about five years researching and writing the book. He said James Strang embodied the antebellum period, which was a time of numerous religious and social movements, apocalyptic terrors, debates and dissent over slavery, and technological disruptions that included the camera, telegraph and railroads