© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Author Miles Harvey Tells The Story Of Schemer And False Prophet James Strang


Is the confidence man a quintessential American type? The oleaginous smooth talker who comes to town peddling a treatment, a cure, a miracle, a faith. Miles Harvey tells the story of one man, James Strang, who was a schemer and, incidentally, an atheist who was acclaimed as a prophet in 1844. And he proclaimed himself to be the anointed heir to Joseph Smith's leadership at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Miles Harvey's book is "The King Of Confidence: A Tale Of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets And The Murder Of An American Monarch." Miles Harvey, author of the bestseller "The Island Of Lost Maps" and a professor at DePaul University, joins us from Chicago.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MILES HARVEY: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: I'm afraid the title of your book is so long, we've run out of time for the interview.

HARVEY: Well, thank you for having me on.

SIMON: (Laughter). Tell us about this man who had gifts but seemed to leave scandals and questions in his wake.

HARVEY: Yeah. He was a guy who was a, you know, an obscure farm boy from western New York who kind of failed at everything he did. He was a self-trained lawyer, a newspaperman, a postmaster general. And then he left New York in a scandal and moved out to what was then called the West, now the Midwest, and remade himself. And as you mentioned, he'd been an atheist, but he went down to Nauvoo, which was then the great Mormon capital on the shores of the Mississippi, and converted to Mormonism. And whether the conversion was real, I don't know.

But anyway, shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. And this guy, James Jesse Strang, claimed that Smith had sent him a letter just before he died saying, you know, son, the church is yours. It would be like giving the U.S. military to, you know, a private in the army. But he managed to convince a lot of people that he was the rightful heir to the church.

SIMON: People talked about his eyes, didn't they?

HARVEY: Yeah, that was his one quality. He's got these kind of close-set eyes. He's otherwise sort of a nondescript guy. You know, he's short, bald. He was charismatic but not a super dynamic person, but he had these piercing eyes. People would say when he looked at you, man, he was looking right through you.

SIMON: I'd like you to read a section. This was an era where, as you write, confidence was a kind of legal tender. If I could get you to read that.

HARVEY: Yes, Scott. (Reading) Confidence was black magic, good fortune and hard cash combined. Confidence could turn worthless paper into glittering gold, cow towns into cities, empty lots into bustling businesses, losers into winners, paupers into millionaires. Confidence was a charm deployed by bankers, merchants, philosophers, politicians, clergymen and card sharps alike. Confidence was the soul of trade in the words of one leading financial publication. Without it, added Herman Melville, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop. In an age before the federal government began printing paper money, an age when people had to trust in privately issued banknotes, glorified IOUs, confidence was the de facto national currency.

SIMON: You do leave open the possibility that James Strang's conversion to some kind of faith - maybe there was a scintilla of a chance that it was genuine and that he had suffered some great losses.

HARVEY: Well, that's the other thing about this guy that's so interesting - is he - even from a young age, his journals are available from the time he was about 18, 19 to 21, 22, 23. And in those journals, you see this idealism and cynicism side by side. On the one hand, he's a very idealistic guy. On the other hand, he realizes and talks about how he is able to talk about God to people in a way that really moves them but that he doesn't believe in at all. But he's not going to tell him. And so I think there are always sort of those two forces in this fascinating man, this opportunist and this idealist.

SIMON: So Joseph Smith, the great Mormon leader murdered by anti-Mormon zealots. And James Strang magically produces this letter postmarked before Joseph Smith's death. How did he do that?

HARVEY: Well, we're not exactly sure, but, you know, his earlier career sort of set him up for this. He had been a postmaster general. And so he really knew what letters should look like, what postmarks should look like. And so this letter - modern experts think it's a forgery. It doesn't look like Smith's handwriting or any of the people who wrote for Smith. And the signature doesn't look right. But the letter was pretty convincing.

But it wasn't enough for Strang. He had to provide more proof. And so like Joseph Smith, he dug up some plates in a little town called Burlington, Wis. And these plates were written in a language that no one in the world could understand except for, luckily, one man, James Jesse Strang, who was able to translate them. And you may not be surprised, Scott, to learn that they sort of said Strang is the leader of the church. And so he slowly built a following first in this little town of Burlington. But he also had a lot of enemies there. And so he eventually moved to Beaver Island, which is an island in northern-most Lake Michigan.

SIMON: And he prospered there. He didn't lack for commercial opportunities, did he?

HARVEY: No. I mean, in one way, he was very shrewd in commercial opportunities. Beaver Island had sort of one product that it had plenty of, which was wood. And it was a stop on the steamboat lines. But Strang also knew that wouldn't be enough to run a utopian colony. So he essentially set up a pirate colony. But I've got to say, like, one thing that I contributed to the Strang story in terms of news research was sort of pinning down exact examples of his criminal activity.

SIMON: James Strang was a - I mean, demonstrably a schemer and a swindler, wasn't he?

HARVEY: He sure was. As far as his revelations go, I guess that's between him and God, but he sure always had a revelation when he was in a tight spot. Whenever he needed God to come down and say, I need the rest of the people on this island to do something, they did it. Even in his time as a postmaster, he was accused of fraud. There would be money he owed to people. He got into a lot of debt during the panic of 1837. He had invested in a lot of land and basically went belly up big time and was trying to pay off his debts while he would send people letters that said, you should have received that. And then they would say, well, we didn't receive your payment. And then he came up with these ornate excuses about how the payment disappeared between this stop and that stop, and it must have been stolen. And he was a shuffler, as they called people like that at the time. He shuffled.

SIMON: Yeah. You say we can't understand James Strang without seeing him in the company - and I'm going to let you complete the list - of Melville, Hawthorne and P.T. Barnum.

HARVEY: Yeah, I mean, Strang comes out of this period where things are just changing really fast. There's been an economic collapse. Technology was just in massive change. This is the era of the telegraph, the photograph, the railroad. Everything is shifting. The United States is suddenly a mobile society. And Strang was able to offer people simple solutions to the complex problems of their time. And it's not coincidence that P.T. Barnum, for instance, comes out of this same period. And there were many people like that. This is where we get the term confidence man. From 1849, we start using this word. It starts in one New York newspaper to describe one criminal, and it spreads like wildfire across the United States. And it's amazing how quickly this was adopted into our language. And it all has to do with the fact that there were so many of these people taking advantage of other people's confidence.

SIMON: Miles Harvey - his book "The King Of Confidence." Thank you so much for being with us.

HARVEY: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.