August 4, 2020

King of Beaver Island

Author Miles Harvey takes on the enigmatic James Strang.
By Patrick Sullivan | July 4, 2020

It is possible to make the argument that James Strang is the most interesting person who ever lived in northern Lower Michigan. He was a self-proclaimed prophet, an abolitionist, a con man, possibly a pirate, and he crowned himself king of Beaver Island, ruling over its inhabitants for several years with impunity until his death in 1856.

Miles Harvey, author of the “The King of Confidence,” a book about Strang, never makes the argument that Strang is Northern Michigan’s most interesting personality, but he presents its case: 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.

Harvey is scheduled to talk about his book at a National Writers’ Series online event on July 14. In the run-up to that event, Northern Express sat down with Harvey for a chat by phone.

Northern Express: There have been lots of books written about Strang, and some of them are pretty good, but I don't think a writer of national prominence has ever come around before who's been able to place this story in historical context and tell it so crisply. It's always struck me as strange that that hasn't happened, because the story was just waiting there. What took you so long?

Miles Harvey: I think that, in general, we overlook stories about the Midwest. They get ghettoized often as "Midwestern narratives." I've never believed that as a lifetime Midwesterner. So that's one factor. The other factors, I think, with the books that came before, a few of which are excellent, they always looked at Strang through the prism of Mormonism and/or local Michigan history, and I saw him as a much bigger figure. I saw him as a lightning rod for all the enthusiasms and excitement and apocalyptic thinking of the mid-19th century, which was one of the most tempestuous and fertile times in American history. And he just touched on so much of that stuff that I was instantly interested in writing about it. 

Express: I know that, while it's a tale that’s not widely known, a lot of people, especially in this part of Michigan, have come across it many times, and there are a lot of variations. I've heard different versions of this story with contradictory details. And I know that your book is impeccably researched. There are 60 pages of endnotes. Do you believe that you've nailed down the definitive account of Strang’s story?

Harvey: Well, when you're dealing with a figure who’s willing to deceive other people and perhaps deceive himself, it’s hard to pin down a completely accurate version of his character. One thing I’m happy about in the book is that I was able to push the knowledge about him a little further. For instance, not much has been written about him as an abolitionist, and I was able not only to write about his interest in that but also dig back in the files and sort of see where it came from and understand that.

Another thing was, you know, there's always been a defense of him by certain writers about whether he was running a huge criminal enterprise out of Beaver Island. The idea of him and his people being involved in a pirate colony has struck some, not all, but some previous writers, as an example of anti-Mormon bigotry. And while there certainly was, regrettably, much anti-Mormon bigotry at this time in the Midwest, I found solid evidence that the people around him were engaged in crimes.

Express: Yeah. That jumped out at me. The horse theft in Perrysburg, Ohio, for instance.

Harvey: Yeah. That was stuff that’s never been written about before. There’s a whole chapter in a little town in Ohio where one of Strang’s top lieutenants gets arrested and jailed and eventually convicted of horse theft, and Strang comes to town. He was absolutely there, and suddenly his assistant has broken out of jail with the help of conspirators. So that story not only shows that the top people around Strang were systematically engaged in this kind of activity, but that Strang clearly knew about it and was probably engaged in it himself.

I mean, I couldn't say that he was involved directly in the jailbreak, but there was a witness who said he was involved in the jailbreak. So, I think he comes off as much more of a conscious criminal in this in this book, and I just hope a more complex figure in general. I also talk about the fascinating sides of him. You know, he was really interested in the natural history of Northern Michigan and had a piece published in the Smithsonian annual report, basically about fish in the area. And he also, with one of his wives, worked on a project that the Smithsonian had that was essentially this massive crowd-sourcing project. And it's just a landmark project because it enabled us to understand weather patterns in the United States

Express: You must have come across a lot of the false stories that are out there about Strang. What do you think is the biggest myth about him?

Harvey: That’s a great question. Let me just think on that for a minute. Well, one thing I think is a myth is that he was a prophet of God. On the other hand, I also — and this is my opinion — I think he came to believe in himself as a prophet of God. One of the things that I really was interested in with Strang, and you can see it from his earliest days when he left a diary, is this passionate idealism, versus a contempt for other people and a willingness and an ability to deceive them. And I think eventually the darker side of his personality won out.

But in the meantime, he made a lot of people believe that he was a divine prophet and some people still believe it. You know, there's still a small group of his followers. Some of them are in Burlington, Wisconsin, where he had his first utopian colony and where he eventually was taken after he was shot on Beaver Island.

Express: Have any of those people reacted to the book so far? What kind of reactions have you gotten?

Harvey: I haven't heard from them. I did speak to one of them as I was preparing for the book, and I may hear from him. I’d welcome it. I'm not sure that I've sent him a book yet, but I should. I can't speak for them, but I think even people who follow Strang are probably aware that he was a complex human being.

And like Joseph Smith, whatever else you might say about Strang, he was kind of an extraordinary figure in that, first of all, he was a really good writer, in a kind of didactic way. You know, I wouldn't put him up there with Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Walt Whitman, but he knew how to put a sentence together. He knew how to make a persuasive argument, and he knew how to manipulate newspapers.

A lot of his stuff is really interesting in terms of the literary effort that went into it, you know, stories he told about angels visiting him and about digging up mysterious brass plates that no one else could read except for him. The act of imagination involved in his con was amazing. And I don't think it was just cynical. I believe that there was something else to him that wanted to lead people.

Express: How much did you know about his story before you went into this? 

Harvey: Not much. To be honest, I kinda got lucky on this book. My agent got a hold of me one day and said an editor from [Little, Brown and Company] wants to talk to you, and that editor’s name is Ben George, who knew some of my earlier work and said, “I’m interested in you writing a book proposal — no promises — about this guy named Strang. You're a writer I'd really love to work with on this if we can convince other people at Little Brown that it's a worthy project.”

And that was just an incredible opportunity. I have a fellow author and fellow longtime freelance writer friend who once said, “No project is ever as much fun if you didn't think of it yourself.” But this was one case where that couldn't be further from the truth. This was kind of the perfect project for me and really early on, I kind of knew the story I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. Some of those things that come to writers more slowly came quickly on this one to me.

Express: I feel like this story resonates with our own times in surprising ways. You write about a society that is contending with rapidly developing forms of communication that are transforming life and causing confusion about what's true and what's false, which is sort of leading to chaos. Did you have that in mind as you were writing?

Harvey: I recognized early on that there were certain really significant points of comparison between the Antebellum period, which is those decades leading up to the Civil War in the United States, and our own time. And then this huge economic disaster, the Panic of 1837, which was until then the biggest economic crisis in American history, which was very much like what happened in 2008 with us. And there was just a really unstable political situation and a really exciting but shockwave-making revolution in communications technology, also like our own time.

And as a result of all these things, the basic ideas of truth were very much in question. There was in those days a lot of what we might call fake news. Strang — who had been a newspaper editor before he came became a prophet of God and remained a newspaper editor until he was killed in 1856 — was a brilliant manipulator of the new media landscape. He understood that he could not only get in newspapers but in certain ways control the news from far-away Beaver Island, just as now in the social media environment people on troll farms in Russia can control information and affect public opinion. Strang was really brilliant about that.

Express: I thought I thought the section describing Strang’s downfall was really interesting. I mean, it was tragic and comical at the same time. Pantaloons are an interesting hill to die on.

Harvey: [laughs] I have to quote you and that, that is wonderful. I wish I thought of that when I was writing the book. Yeah, they called it the "Bloomer Revolution" or the "Pantaloon Revolution." At some point, as things sort of degenerated on his island, he ordered that all women must wear pantaloons, which, if you see pictures of pantaloons — also known as bloomers — from that period, although people were wearing them on Beaver Island before the feminist pioneer Emelia Bloomer was wearing them, if you look at these things, it really does not look revolutionary to us.

They’re just like these baggy pajama pants with big skirts, but the skirts are a little bit shorter, especially in front. It doesn't look shocking to us, but it shocked people in the 19th century, and it was really disturbing people on Beaver Island. That having been said, I've got to say that I think Strang’s desire to have women wear pantaloons was, as much as anything else, a desire, like a lot of cult leaders have, to control the situation.

So, if he orders that everyone must do this thing, it establishes his firm control at a time when he was losing control. And I also think among the people on the island who revolted against him, pantaloons were an issue, but their grudges with Strang were much deeper than what clothes the women had to wear. 

Express: How much time did you spend on the island while writing this book? 

Harvey: I only spent a week on the island, and I had a great guide on the island, a woman who’s unfortunately passed away but was a longtime resident and really interested in Strang. She’d been a mayor in suburban Chicago and just a really super bright, thoughtful woman. But, you know, except for place names, there’s not a lot of evidence of Strang on the island. I mean, he's everywhere, in terms of place names, right? Including St. James, which is named after him. But there’s only arguably a couple of buildings left. After he was shot, local people raided the island and forced all of his followers off and pretty much made the island their own.

That's when the island becomes more of an Irish island. The Mormons were just wiped out; it wasn't that they were subsumed. So, there is not much evidence of Strang on the island.

I basically wanted to get a sense of what it was like to inhabit that place. I stayed on the southern tip of the island, far away from St. James, by the lighthouse. The year I was there we couldn’t even get a cell signal, and we didn't have internet, which was a mixed bag for my kids but pretty fun for me and my wife.

And you just got the feeling that you were are far away from even the Michigan shore, even Charlevoix, Petoskey, etc. You felt more like you are in a 19th-century place, even though you know you're only, what — 25 miles away from the mainland? And the island is obviously a stunningly beautiful place. 

Express: The story would make a great movie, and it would be great if the movie was filmed on location. Who would be a good actor to play Strang? 

Harvey: My wife’s an actress and she had a list of names. I was thinking of William Macy. He may be a little old now to play Strang, but it would need to be someone like him, someone who can be charming but also has a dark side to him. I could get back to you on that. I gotta say, I think it would make a good movie, too, and I was really happy when Vanity Fair did a little mini-review of it, they said something like, “Ripe for a motion picture treatment” or something like that. I was like, “Yeah!” I agree with you. Beaver Island would be the ideal place to film it.

Harvey emailed after the conversation with several other actor suggestions from his wife, actress Rengin Altay, who also voiced the audiobook for “King of Confidence.” She suggested Strang be played by Michael Fassbender, Daniel Bruhl, Orlando Bloom, Ben Foster, or Christian Bale. Harvey’s son, 18-year-old Julian, suggested Jared Leto. 

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