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The King of Confidence
A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
By Miles Harvey
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A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Longlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
Finalist for the Midland Authors Annual Literary Award
A Michigan Notable Book
A CrimeReads Best True Crime Book of the Year
"A masterpiece." —Nathaniel Philbrick
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 frontpage 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.
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In which an angel watches a man fall from a
window in Illinois, then flies to Wisconsin with
I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.
AN ANGEL WATCHED THE MOB EMERGE FROM THE WOODS AND steal single file along an old rail fence toward the town jail. Although the men, more than 100 strong, attempted to hide their muskets and rifles by keeping the long barrels close to the ground, the angel was not deceived. Nor was he fooled by the mud and gunpowder with which they had blackened their faces in disguise. Whether the murder that these men were about to commit was an act of sacred purification or an abomination against God, whether it would earn the killers an exalted place in heaven or instead secure their eternal damnation—these were celestial mysteries to which the angel alone on earth knew the answers.
History, however, must adhere to the facts. It was Thursday, June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois, some dozen miles from the banks of the Mississippi River. The time was around five o’clock in the evening. When the men reached the jail, they surrounded it and a host of them rushed the entrance. One of the guards fired shots from the front steps but no one in the mob fell, after which the men pushed past the guards and stormed up the stairs, blasting their weapons as they stumbled toward a second-story room. Barricaded inside, along with three associates, was the one they had come to kill.
In the instant before the assailants reached his room, that man readied a six-shooter, smuggled in by one of his supporters. While the angel was no doubt able to peer through the walls of the jail and deep into the man’s soul—his fears, his regrets, his thoughts about his rapidly dwindling time on earth—history can record only that his name was Joseph Smith, that he was thirty-eight years old, and that he was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bullets ripped through the wooden door. Splinters flew. One of the other prisoners slumped to the floor, uttering, “I am a dead man.” And now the mob pushed into the room, and now the one they had come for fired his gun, and now his bullets were spent, and now he rushed to an open window, and now he flexed to jump, and now he was shot in the back and then, from below, in the chest, and again in the back.
“O Lord, my God,” he yelled as he plummeted toward the earth.
Let us stop him there for a moment, frozen in time, arms outstretched, eyes wide open to take in his fate. And if the image of a doomed man suspended in midair seems somehow implausible, is it any less plausible than the rest of Smith’s life? Is it plausible, for instance, that a down-and-out drifter—a person with only a rudimentary education, who spent much of his time hunting for buried treasure with a divining rod, who was described by those who knew him as “indolent,” “ignorant,” “prevaricating,” and “shiftless”—would be the one man singled out by God to found a new church, to produce a radically new holy book, and to ready the way for Christ’s return to earth? Is it plausible that angels fluttered about the American wilderness watching over this man? Or that one of them, a celestial being with the unlikely name of Moroni, had suddenly appeared at his bedside in rural New York one night to reveal the existence of golden tablets that would change the course of history? Or that those tablets—containing a heretofore unknown account of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, as well as a detailed chronicle of mankind’s future—just happened to be buried a few miles from the man’s house? Or that these prophecies were written in “Reformed Egyptian,” a language unknown to scholars, and absent from the historical record, before or since? Or that the man was miraculously able to read this lost language, thanks to a supernatural pair of seer stones called the Urim and Thummim? Or that he was somehow able to produce this new bible, nearly 600 pages long, in less than three months? Or that after he was done translating the golden tablets, he gave them back to the angel Moroni, thus eliminating any means of independently verifying his own story?
Is it plausible, moreover, that despite the fact that the Book of Mormon was full of faulty grammar and anachronisms, despite the fact that it repeated the phrase and it came to pass an estimated 2,000 times, despite the fact that many readers found it impossibly dull (“chloroform in print,” in the words of Mark Twain), despite the fact that even Smith’s own hometown newspaper called it “the greatest piece of superstition that has come to our knowledge,” the man soon began gaining large crowds of enthusiastic followers? Is it plausible that, even as he hurtled toward the ground, his new religion, not yet fifteen years old, could claim at least 25,000 converts in America and Europe? Or that just twenty miles from this lonely jailhouse his people had built their own city—a city from which a huge Greek revival–style temple was beginning to rise over the Mississippi River, a city with more than 10,000 residents, many of them all the way from England, a city that at the moment of its founder’s death rivaled Chicago as the most populous in Illinois?
And what of Smith’s own transformation? How had this “most ragged, lazy fellow,” in the words of one of his earliest supporters, managed in just a few short years to metamorphose into a prophet, seer, and revelator, as well as the mayor of the city of Nauvoo, the supreme justice of its court, and the general of a powerful militia? What were the odds that he would take as many as forty women as polygamous wives? Or that, at this very moment, he would be a candidate for president of the United States? Or that he would make so many enemies at every juncture that his people would be driven from their settlements first in Ohio, then Missouri, and, in the very near future, from Illinois, so many enemies that those waiting for him below the window would not be satisfied until they filled his lifeless body with more bullets than even the angel could count?
No, none of it is the least bit plausible. But in the antebellum era—that tempestuous period of American history leading up to the Civil War—plausibility was about as fashionable as three-cornered hats. It was possibility that filled the air, possibility that spewed from the smokestacks of factories and steamships and locomotives, possibility that shot off the printing presses, possibility that gleamed through the stained-glass windows of churches and flapped the tents at revival meetings, possibility that glimmered in the eyes of transcendentalists, possibility that rapped on the séance tables of spiritualists, possibility that keened its siren song to immigrants across the globe, possibility that shone like the North Star to escaping slaves and to the 2.5 million still in bondage in the South, possibility that spilled across the map in what would soon be called Manifest Destiny, possibility that barked like a street vendor to passersby in booming cities and howled like a coyote to restless loners in desolate frontier outposts, endless possibility.
The mid-nineteenth century was a time when everything—even time itself—seemed indeterminate, malleable, open to new rules. Just five years earlier, a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had announced an invention with the magical power to freeze time, to capture light and shadow, to suspend an object in motion the way that Smith, our falling man, now hangs above the earth. And just in the previous month—May of 1844—an American named Samuel F. B. Morse had demonstrated an equally incredible invention, this one with the ability to speed up time by allowing instantaneous communication across long distances. When Morse sent the first message on this astonishing medium, the electrical telegraph, he selected a question from the Old Testament, a question that seemed to underscore all the promise and anxiety of this frenzied age: What hath God wrought?
The falling man proclaimed to his followers that God had wrought a new kind of chosen people—Latter-day Saints—who were specially commissioned to usher in the restoration of the Kingdom of God, right here on the North American continent. He told them that time would stop—perhaps within their own lifetimes—that the wicked would perish, and that Christ would “reign personally upon the earth,” which would be “renewed and receive its paradisical glory.” He insisted that angels existed, some of them “having bodies of flesh and bones,” and that regular people were able to converse with them. He maintained that God was “once a man like us,” and that, in turn, they could all become gods.
If these ideas were heretical to most of the falling man’s contemporaries, they nonetheless reflected the spirit of the age—a time of geographic mobility, of frantic canal and railroad construction, of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, of drifters with no fixed profession or status, of seers and seekers and swindlers and speculators, of religious fevers and apocalyptic dreams and economic collapses; a time when the fastest rate of urban growth in American history, before or since, and fraying ties of kinship and community had created a nation of strangers; a time when as much as half the paper money in circulation was thought to be counterfeit; a time when a nobody, a shape-shifter such as Joseph Smith, could suddenly rise to godlike heights and just as suddenly crash back to earth.
Indeed, as Smith completed that final plunge, the inglorious conclusion to his own story was about to institute the beginning of an equally epic and unlikely saga. Because even as the prophet hit the ground, even as his last words drifted across the plains, the angel was taking flight. With Smith dead, this celestial messenger had important business in Wisconsin.
As he flew north from Carthage, the angel passed over vast stretches of prairie that were quickly giving way to squared-off farm fields. He passed over little towns with squat wooden buildings. He passed over dusty roads that had once been Indian trails and, before that, buffalo paths. The buffalo were long gone, but just twelve years earlier Native Americans and federal troops had still been slaughtering each other in the Black Hawk War, which ended with the Sauk and Fox nations giving up 1.3 million acres in northern Illinois. Angling northeast along the course of the Rock River, the angel flew over the hamlet of Grand Detour, where a blacksmith from Vermont named John Deere had invented a steel plow that was much better at slicing through the thick prairie soil than its cast-iron competitors. In the future, this device would become known as “the Plow That Broke the Plains,” but for now this region, still the frontier, was considered the American West. (It wouldn’t become known as the “Midwest” for another half century.) Wisconsin, which the angel now spied ahead of him, was still a territory, four years from statehood.
Just over the border, the angel reached his destination, a settlement at the junction of the White and Fox rivers, forty miles southwest of the site of Milwaukee, still two years away from incorporating. There the angel came upon one of the local denizens, a short man with intense brown eyes. As the man would later report, the angel anointed his bald head with oil, sanctified him as the successor to Joseph Smith, and issued him a sacred commission:
God blesseth thee with the greatness of the Everlasting Priesthood. He putteth might, and glory, and majesty upon thee.…Thou shalt preach righteousness and the sublime mysteries in the ears of many people, and shall bring the gospel to many who have not known it and to the nations afar off.…While the day of the wicked abideth, shalt thou prepare a refuge for the oppressed and for the poor and needy. Unto thee shall they come, and their brethren who are scattered shall come with them, and the destruction of the ungodly shall quickly follow, for it already worketh. Go thy way and be strong.
And then the angel disappeared, never to be seen again.
History does not record this celestial messenger’s name, nor does it establish whether he was an actual divine or a figment of the imagination or an outright lie—only that the bald-headed man’s name was James Jesse Strang, that he was thirty-one years old, that much like Smith he would rise from obscurity to fame, and that he too would meet a violent end. And in an age when the showman P. T. Barnum was perhaps the most famous person in the country—an age when, as one contemporary put it, “larceny grew not only respectable, but genteel” and “swindling was raised to the dignity of the fine arts,” an age that gave birth to the term confidence man—Strang would come to embody a constantly repeating character in American history, a kind of figure whose grip on our collective imagination is as tight today as ever. But before all that, he would reign as King of Earth and Heaven.
In which we meet a man who isn’t there
Ours is an age of suicide and mysterious disappearance.
—Arcturus, A Journal of Books and Opinion, 1841
IN AUGUST OF 1843—TEN MONTHS BEFORE THAT ANGEL FLEW TO Wisconsin—a man from a small town in western New York vanished into the night.
Such disappearances were not uncommon in those days. The Panic of 1837—the deepest and longest-lasting economic crisis the young country had ever faced, to be rivaled only by the Great Depression a century later—had hurtled countless average Americans into sudden financial ruin. For some, the humiliating prospect of having the sheriff take possession of their goods and real estate to satisfy a creditor’s claim was simply too much to bear. As one Pennsylvania man who owed “two hundred and fifty dollars—gone I can’t tell where” put it in his 1842 suicide note: “I am gone and forgotten—numbered with the dead, where the creditors call upon me no more.”
But for others there was a way to end one’s miseries without putting a bullet in one’s brain, to lose one’s life without actually dying. For years, those who hoped to outrun creditors had sought refuge on the fast-expanding western frontier. The man who disappeared from the New York town of Randolph, sixty miles south of Buffalo, at the tail end of the summer of 1843 had faced mounting debts for years, putting off his creditors with increasingly ornate ruses, until at last his only hope was to get out of town. In many other periods of history, the missing man might never have been heard from again after his disappearance. But he lived in an era of sudden transformations, an era when you could be broke one day and rich the next, anonymous one day and famous the next, an era when wild dreams and lunatic fantasies could quickly metamorphose into hardened facts. At that exact moment in history, for example, as many as 50,000 followers of a prognosticating preacher named William Miller were convinced that the Second Coming of Christ would take place within the next seven months. Such a precarious time, when nothing felt stable or certain anymore, favored chameleons like the man who was no longer there.
Although he was physically unimposing—a few inches over five feet, and bald, with an oddly bulging forehead—he did possess one distinguishing feature: his dark brown eyes, which one acquaintance described as “rather small but very bright and piercing, giving an extremely animated expression to his whole countenance.” Another claimed that they seemed “as though they could bore right through a person.” But more than any tangible attribute, the vanished man possessed an invisible, ineffable aura called confidence. And in those days before electrical power, confidence was what made antebellum America hum. 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 and merchants, philosophers and politicians, clergymen and card sharps alike. Confidence was “the soul of trade,” in the words of a 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 bank notes—glorified IOUs—confidence was the de facto national currency.
But if the missing man’s gift for confidence enabled him to gain people’s trust, to make them believe the most absurd stories, it also got him into serious trouble. Just before dropping out of sight, he had allegedly attempted to pull off a swindle involving a farm he “pretended to own in the interior of Ohio,” in the words of one newspaper near his hometown. He managed to sell this nonexistent property to an unsuspecting purchaser, who then “removed to Ohio, but was unable to find the farm he had bought.” Finding no evidence that the seller owned any land in the county, the enraged buyer returned to New York, procured a warrant, and had him arrested. Shortly after being detained, however, the man reportedly escaped by making up “some excuse for he wished to step up stairs, and was permitted to do so, since which the officer has not seen him.” This fugitive’s name was James Jesse Strang, but the local paper had another sobriquet for him: “the greatest scoundrel in all the land.”
* * *
One day, his name would be on the lips of the president of the United States. But for the first thirty years of his life, Strang had lived an obscure existence in western New York, which in those decades was a place of seismic demographic shifts, dizzying social upheavals, and frenzied enthusiasms. What sparked these cultural explosions was the construction of the Erie Canal, one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century. Completed in 1825, this 363-mile ditch, chiseled by brute force through the rocky wilderness between Albany and Buffalo, connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. In the days before the arrival of railroads, it allowed merchandise to move west and raw materials to flow east at a fraction of the previous time and cost, making New York City, which stood at the eastern end of the waterway, the financial capital of the United States. Perhaps even more important, the canal opened the vast interior west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlement. In the 1820s, as Strang was entering adolescence, no region of the United States saw a more rapid rise in population than that of western New York.
But the canal also became what historians have called a “psychic highway,” transporting migrants not just through space and time but into a kind of alternate universe where rigid traditions could lose their social form and moral clarity, radical ideas could be tested, unconventional lifestyles could be embraced, wild ambitions could be realized, and dark fears could run rampant over the collective imagination. Many of the great social movements of the nineteenth century—abolition, women’s suffrage, and temperance among them—were already taking root in the fertile intellectual soil of western New York. But the region was becoming even better known for its seething religious passions. So many different spiritual wildfires lit up the landscape that the place would become known as the Burned Over District. And for the first three decades of his life, James Strang was never far from the blistering heat of those flames.
His parents, Clement and Abigail Strang, were charter members of a Baptist church in Forestville, New York, where the young man was raised on a farm with his older brother, David, and his younger sister, Myraette. By the time he reached his late teens, the region had gained widespread fame as the scene of “the greatest revival of religion throughout the land that this country…ever witnessed,” in the words of the nationally famous itinerant preacher Charles Grandison Finney, who in 1830 and 1831 waged an epic evangelistic crusade in the Burned Over District. During six feverish months of nonstop preaching, proselytizing, and prayer meetings in Rochester, for example, Finney managed to convert 800 people. As one witness put it, “You could not go upon the streets and hear any conversation, except upon religion.”
But the Burned Over District 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. In the summer of 1831, for instance, an erratic, unemployed carpenter named Robert Matthews received a divine revelation. Henceforth he would call himself Matthias the Prophet and preach of an imminent cataclysm, in which 1,800 years of Christian misrule would come to an end, “all real men” would enter paradise, and all disobedient wives and outspoken women would be damned, along with “clergymen, doctors and lawyers.” In some other age, this eccentric preacher—dressed in his trademark green frock coat, crimson sash, and tight pantaloons—might have been ridiculed, arrested, or institutionalized. But in an era when almost any oracular claim seemed possible, he soon found a devoted following.
“Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe,” wrote the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the Burned Over District in 1831 as part of a nine-month tour that resulted in his landmark book, Democracy in America. “From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”
Yet of all the groups stumbling down “extraordinary paths,” none caused more of an uproar in the Burned Over District than Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints. Like many homespun holy men, Smith insisted that God spoke through him; unlike his competitors, however, he produced a massive sacred text to support his claim. 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. Left with the melancholy task of safeguarding this record of destruction, Mormon’s son and fellow scribe Moroni, the last Nephite survivor, buried the plates beneath a hill in what would one day become western New York, where they remained for 1,400 years until Joseph Smith unearthed them.
Smith’s translation of those plates, 588 pages long and selling for $1.25, finally rolled off the presses in 1830, the year James Strang turned seventeen. The initial reception to the book was brutal. The Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph described it as a “blasphemous work” and a “fraud,” adding that “a viler imposition has never been practiced.” The Fredonia Censor, a paper published about ten miles from the Strang family farm, called Smith a “miserable impostor” and predicted that “the deluded followers of Jo Smith’s Bible speculation” would soon come to their senses “and reason [would] resume again.” Yet despite such forecasts of the sect’s early demise, Mormonism had by then found a fervent group of followers numbering in the hundreds in western New York.
Strang himself, however, was not among them. At the age of eighteen he wrote in his diary about a growing distaste for religion: “It is all a mere mock of sounds with me for I can no longer believe the nice speculative contradictions of our divine theologians of our age. Indeed it is a long time since I have really believed these dogmas.” Although he continued to take an active part in the local Baptist church and to “pray and talk on religious subjects,” he did so only “to please the people.” Already adept at dissembling, he believed not a word of what he professed. “I am,” he wrote, “a perfect atheist.”
This sense of standing apart from the normal flow of life, from other people, and even at times from himself was nothing new. It had been with Strang since a sickly childhood, when he once came so close to death that his parents made plans for his burial. For the rest of his life, he would feel “a kind of creeping sensation akin to terror” when he recalled that lonely existence: “Long weary days I sat upon the floor, thinking, thinking, thinking!…My mind wandered over fields that old men shrink from.” In those early days, he rarely attended school, and even when he did teachers paid him scant attention, convinced he was “scarcely more than idiotic.” But all that isolation, all that thinking, thinking, thinking, left him with an overwrought fantasy life. He began to imagine a new self, began to construct a future in which a lonely farm boy would inspire love and adulation, a youth small in stature would loom large, and an absolute nobody would become a legend.
My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power.
- “A jaunty, far-ranging history... Despite the frontier setting, there is something eerily contemporary about Harvey’s portrait of a real estate huckster with monarchic ambitions, a creative relationship to debt, and a genius for mass media... Harvey deploys small scraps of knowledge to great effect. His account of Strang’s rise and fall is littered with thumbnail histories of nineteenth-century cross-dressing, John Brown, John Deere, the Brontës, bloomers, the Underground Railroad, mesmerism, newspaper exchanges, the Illuminati, and much else. This approach amounts to a sort of historical pointillism, bringing the manic, skittering mood of the era into focus. It is a style of history well suited to the antebellum decades, when American culture was most unabashedly itself... Harvey’s wonderfully digressive narrative is interspersed with news clippings, playbills, land surveys, and daguerreotypes, as if to periodically certify that all of this madness is really true... Rather than a biography of a single man, he offers a vivid portrait of the time and place in which a character like Strang could thrive.”—Chris Jennings, New York Times Book Review
- “Harvey is a skillful writer and thoughtful researcher... He examines the bedeviled society [of antebellum America] through the life of James Jesse Strang, a strange man of many parts---most of them bad.”—Howard Schneider, Wall Street Journal
- "The story of James Strang--a messianic con man who wreaks havoc on an island community of his own devising--is amazing in itself. But it is the telling of the tale--think Herman Melville meets Mark Twain--that makes The King of Confidence a masterpiece. This book has talons that sink into you and won't let go."—Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower
- “Deeply researched, artfully written, and splendidly compelling... Great writers deserve great subjects, and Miles Harvey, who has proven himself a great writer in two previous books, has found another subject worthy of his skills... A riveting book.”—Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
- “Harvey’s entertaining history… chronicles a manic, anxious, gullible time, not unlike our own.”—New York Times Book Review
- "The King of Confidence is that rarest of gems: gorgeously written, impeccably researched, and completely addictive. Miles Harvey has written one of the best books of the year. But don't take my word for it. Read it!"—Jonathan Eig, New York Times bestselling author of Ali: A Life and Luckiest Man Alive: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig
- "The King of Confidence is a ludicrously enjoyable, unputdownable read--a book with unsettling (but also weirdly comforting) parallels to our time. By illuminating this forgotten moment in American history, where a group of rational adults fell under the spell of a charismatic madman, Harvey reminds us of the endlessly repeating nature of history and humanity."—Dave Eggers, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Zeitoun and What Is the What
- "A rollicking story ripe for a Hollywood treatment."—Vanity Fair
- “Miles Harvey's meticulously researched tale The King of Confidence brings alive the bizarre and chaotic arc of Strang's life… America's history is rich with tales of frauds and fakers who successfully bamboozled their fellows. In Harvey's lively and insightful book, he shows why Strang deserves to be remembered as a prime exemplar of the type.”—John Reinan, Minneapolis Star Tribune
- "Harvey serves up what promises to be a page-turner about this bizarre moment in Michigan history where fair Beaver Island served as an epicenter of fraud, polygamy and piracy."—Jennifer Day, Chicago Tribune
- "Harvey delivers a vivid account of the life and times of American sect leader, lawyer, newspaper editor, and con man James Jesse Strang... He paints antebellum America as a time of 'excesses and delusions' and skillfully explores the era's technological advances, rising immigration, political violence, religious fervor, and leading literary figures. This evocative tale will astonish and delight fans of American history."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- “Is James Strang the most infamous American con man you’ve never heard of? That’s the question animating Harvey’s biography of the opportunist prophet-king, a convert who persuaded the Mormons who did not follow Brigham Young to Utah to join him on Michigan’s Beaver Island. Strang’s authoritarian rule may have done him in, but Harvey’s marvelous rendering of this con man in fraught antebellum America may have a particular resonance today.”—National Book Review
- “The King of Confidence reads akin to the best of thriller fiction. The true nature of the book renders the events all the more shocking and makes for an impactful read. Miles Harvey has done a masterful job bringing the past to life, narrating the whirlwind rise and fall of a true confidence man.”—City Book Review
- "Vividly portrayed... Miles Harvey specializes in true stories of audacious individuals, here attaining new heights of wonderment... Writing with electrifying pleasure in discovery, Harvey zestfully captures 'the carnivalesque atmosphere' of antebellum America... Deftly performing a fresh and telling analysis of the timeless power of the con man over Americans who worship those who invent their own rules and 'their own truths,' Harvey brings to galloping life a forgotten, enlightening, and resounding chapter in America's tumultuous history of searchers and charlatans."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
- "Flip this book open, read page one, and then try to stop. The King of Confidence is mesmerizing all the way through--a quirky, rollicking ride through an America marked by upheaval, tumult, and religious fervor. It feels like one of those dystopian futures that Hollywood keeps warning us we're hurtling toward, but it's actually our own forgotten past. What this startling book cleverly illuminates, though, is our own perilous present, where so many of us still yearn for con men and kings."—Dave Cullen, New York Times bestselling author of Columbine
- “Harvery… is a remarkable sleuth, a writer with a passion for maps and islands and the patience to tell a complicated story.”—Ann Fabian, National Book Review
- "A riveting tale told in lively prose and gripping anecdotes... Harvey is a master storyteller, and his skills are in full display."—Benjamin E. Park, Religion News Service
- "Wooly and wild, as artful as scrimshaw, The King of Confidence literally had me at the table of contents, and never let go. What an immense pleasure to be in the hands of so deft a storyteller, to be swept away by the richest kind of story, one that veers back to a historical moment while capturing America today, our pixie-dust delusions and national gullibility in the face of old-fashioned hucksterism. Miles Harvey is a literary treasure; he's added his best-yet to a growing heap of masterpieces."—Michael Paterniti, New York Times bestselling author of The Telling Room and Driving Mr. Albert
- “James Strang is my new favorite ne’er-do-well of history: a con artist for the centuries... Please read this book. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about the 1840s... Enjoy this wild tale.”—Molly Odintz, CrimeReads
- “Over several hundred exhaustively researched pages, Harvey presents an account of Strang’s life that plays out like a classic narrative of ambition, transgression, success, and, ultimately, failure.”—Patrick Sullivan, Northern Express
- “Fascinating… Harvey, in a nonjudgmental style, sorts out reality from myth when recounting Strang’s bizarre life.”—Bill Castanier, Lansing City Pulse
- "Miles Harvey masterfully relates one of the great unknown chapters of our nation's history, one of those peculiarly American tales where faith, madness, and old-fashioned flimflammery converge to stunning effect. The story of James Strang, con man extraordinaire, is wildly amusing in its exposure of the stone-cold gullibility of our forebears, but also unsettling in its eerie echoes of our current national landscape, and the realization that very little has changed. The King of Confidence is a marvelous read."—Scott Anderson, author of the New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Lawrence in Arabia
- “In this year of remote work and canceled vacation plans, the most engrossing virtual trip I’ve embarked on transported me to a Mormon kingdom on a Lake Michigan island during our nation’s antebellum era. And it’s an outstandingly entertaining excursion.” —Margaret Fosmoe, Notre Dame Magazine
- "Perfect for fans of Devil in the White City... Harvey's narrative is a page-turning exercise in popular history... A nicely spun yarn of religious chicanery on the frontier in a nearly forgotten historical episode."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A spirited, entertaining read with a twist of insight and a tang of scandal... Harvey has penned a tour de force of popular history."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2021
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Little, Brown and Company