July 15, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Miles Harvey's book The King of Confidence is a fascinating and engaging account of antebellum America and one of its most charismatic con men.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"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."
The King of Confidence tells the stranger-than-fiction story James Jesse Strang, a figure from the mid-19th century who combined the hucksterism of P.T. Barnum and the hypnotic charisma of a camp-meeting preacher. The leader of an apostate Mormon sect, Strang took several hundred followers to a remote island in Lake Michigan, where, in 1850, he declared himself King of Earth and Heaven. His rise to national prominence came in a time of dramatic change—economic, social, political and technological. It was an age when basic notions of truth were suddenly in question, an age when, as one contemporary chronicler 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,” an age, in short, very much like our own.
Although I don’t mention the current president or the Trump era in the book, I’ve cherished the opportunity to orchestrate this historical mashup—using music I love from my own time to provide the soundtrack for a story from a previous era, one that has obsessed me for years.
“Disappear” by the gifted young singer/songwriter Parker Millsap captures the fundamental American urge to vanish from one place and begin life completely anew in another: The King of Confidence begins with just such a disappearance. In 1843, a failed lawyer and newspaper editor vanished with his family from a small town in western New York, amid allegations that he had sold a nonexistent plot of land to a gullible victim. After reportedly faking his own death, James J. Strang reappeared in Wisconsin, which was then part of the Western frontier. Within a year, he had refashioned himself as an entirely new person—prophet of God and rightful heir to control of the 25,000-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The old gospel number “I Know I’ve Been Changed” describes a religious conversion much like the one Strang—until then, a self-avowed atheist—claimed to have experienced during a visit to the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844. Many musicians, including The Branchettes, The Staple Singers and LaTosha Brown, have made stirring versions of this song. But I chose this one by Tom Waits because of its ambiguity. Waits likes to play characters in his songs, including con-man types, such as the narrator of “Step Right Up.” He performs “I’ve Been Changed” with undeniable power and apparent conviction. But does he really mean it when he howls about how he “got religion”? Or is this declaration of faith just a mask? Such questions would hang over the enigmatic Strang for the rest of his life.
I’m a sucker for pop-music puff-pastries—sugary confections that I can’t help but crave despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that “every sentiment has been contrived,” as the singer of Dashboard Confessional puts it in “This is a Forgery.” The song, a self-conscious study of how we allow ourselves to be taken in, serves as my soundtrack for a pivotal period in Strang’s career. After Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, was murdered by a mob in 1844, Strang produced a letter supposedly written by the martyred prophet just before his death, naming Strang as his successor. Although modern experts believe the letter was forged, it appealed to many anxious members of the faith who were, as the song says, “looking out for some shining light.”
Strang’s claim to be the rightful inheritor of the church posed a serious threat to Brigham Young, the de facto successor to Smith, who called his rival a “wicked liar” and urged the faithful to “save yourself from the snare of deception and the Devil.” “The Imposter” by one of my all-time favorite songwriters, Elvis Costello, captures the anger and anxiety that I imagine Young felt about Strang. “He’s not the man you think that he can be,” the singer wails.
If you look at the short, bald man in the surviving daguerreotype images of Strang, it’s hard to imagine his appeal. Nonetheless, he had a hypnotic effect on many who heard him preach. Brigham Young, for example, reported that one top Mormon official was so blown away by the upstart prophet that he was left “almost devoid of reason” by the encounter. When I contemplate how someone might become so captivated by a complete stranger, I sometimes think of the transcendent “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, which makes clear that words—not just looks and charisma—have the power to seduce.
The antebellum era—that tumultuous period in American history leading up to the Civil War—was roiling with utopian experiments. “Our ulterior aim,” a member of one such colony wrote in 1844, “is nothing less than Heaven on Earth.” The theme song I’ve selected for Strang’s first utopian community, which he founded in 1845 in southern Wisconsin, is John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But because I don’t believe in utopias, I’ve chosen a subversively dark cover by A Perfect Circle. Before I wrote about Strang and lived through the MAGA utopianism of the Trump era, I found Lennon’s much-loved song to be simply naive. Now I find it dangerous. Instead of a world where we “live as one,” I dream of a world where we do the necessary, complicated and decidedly non-utopian work of learning to live as many.
“He led us to a joyous land ...” So begins “The Sweet Hereafter,” a haunting tune by Sarah Polley from Atom Egoyan’s brilliant film of the same name. As Strang’s first colony was being torn apart by dissension, he decided to move hundreds of his followers to Beaver Island, an isolated spot in northernmost Lake Michigan. This song, a funereal retelling of the Pied Piper legend, makes me think of how Strang’s followers must have felt about life on that remote landmass, where they found themselves cut off from family and friends. In sharp contrast to the lyrics, which celebrate a paradise on earth where “everything was strange and new,” the somber music aches of loss and loneliness.
In 1849 and 1850, Strang toured the East Coast for months, introducing a young man named Charles J. Douglass as his 16-year-old nephew and private secretary. But in fact, Charley wasn’t a man at all. His real name was Elvira Field, and she was Strang’s 19-year-old wife in men’s clothing—a marriage the prophet hoped to keep from his other spouse. When I think about James and Charley’s secret life during this time, I’m reminded of Sarah Vaughan’s smoldering version of “The Island,” a song about two lovers blissfully cut off from the rest of the world. Things became considerably more complicated, however, when the couple returned to the real island, where Strang had long declared his “unchangeable” opposition to the practice of polygamy.
On July 8, 1850, while seated on a throne stuffed with tree moss, James Strang declared himself King of Earth and Heaven. In my search for coronation music, I considered many songs, including an obscure Elvis Costello number with the same name as my book. But in the end, I went with an offbeat choice: “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” sung by Patti Smith, the sublime punk poet who had a huge impact on me as a young person. I chose this song because it occurred to me that if Strang had been born in 1960 (as I was), he might have wanted to be a rock star (as I did) instead of a prophet. His diaries, written when he was in his late teens and early twenties, make clear that what he really yearned for was power, fame and adoration. And with his coronation, he had pretty much accomplished all that. But what would be the costs? That’s the question this song poses. The original version by the Byrds contains a throw-off line about how stardom makes you “a little insane.” But in her ominous cover, Smith turns those words into mantra, repeating them over and over, while suggesting that realizing your fantasies can turn you into “broken glass.”
In The King of Confidence, I argue that Beaver Island quickly became a pirate colony, with Strang sending out ships to attack coastal towns as far south as Chicago and dispatching gangs all over the Midwest to steal horses and other commodities. Some previous researchers have doubted this idea, but I was able to document not only vague accusations against the king’s followers, but actual arrests and convictions of those caught red-handed. I was also able to place Strang himself at the scene of a jailbreak of one of his top lieutenants, who had just been convicted of horse theft. In my imaginary movie about Strang, the montage of these escapades is backed by “Raised on Robbery” by the great Joni Mitchell.
Reports of the colony’s misdeeds soon reached U.S. President Millard Fillmore in Washington. Alarmed by the threat of an independent kingdom on American soil, Fillmore ordered the Navy’s first iron-hulled warship to invade the island. In May of 1851, the U.S.S. Michigan sailed from Buffalo, New York, with plans for a nighttime raid on the colony. When I close my eyes and imagine that vessel approaching in the dark, I hear “Island,” a spellbinding piece by Philip Glass that sounds like a ship skimming over the waves.
I came of age listening to The Clash and have always loved that band’s 1979 cover of “I Fought the Law,” a song originally recorded by the Crickets and later made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four. “Robbing people with a six-gun / I fought the law and the law won” goes the chorus. And in 1851, it seemed that would be Strang’s fate, as well. After surrendering to federal authorities during the raid on his island, he and a number of his followers were taken to Detroit and put on trial. Thanks in part to his own skills as a lawyer, however, he and his co-defendants were found not guilty on the main charges, after which prosecutors quietly dropped the remaining counts. When President Fillmore left the White House with a whimper in 1853, King Strang was still very much in power.
After his victory in court, Strang moved to tighten control over his tiny kingdom, issuing an edict that gave him complete authority over all matters public and private. He also took a third wife, despite opposition to polygamy among many followers. Over time, as one resident would later recall, more and more people began “leading a double life,” in which they only gave the outward impression of devotion to the king. The prevailing state of mind must have been like the mood of denial and disillusionment in “Fake Empire” by The National, a song vocalist Matt Berninger has described as being about "where you can't deal with the reality of what's really going on, so let's just pretend that the world's full of bluebirds and ice skating."
In 1852, thanks to shrewd manipulation of the ballot box, Strang managed to get himself elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, which gave him control over a region one-fourth the size of the state. “Like Moses of old my name will be revered, and men scarcely restrained from worshiping me as a God,” he declared shortly after his victory. My choice to mark his triumph—and his growing ego—is “Invincible” by OK Go, a song that begs the “crushing crashing atom-smashing” title character to “use your powers for good.” And for once, Strang did just that. A longtime abolitionist, he helped pass legislation that made it harder for fugitive slaves in Michigan to be returned to their owners in the South.
One of the most popular songs of Strang’s time was “Home, Sweet Home,” which in an era of massive physical displacement and social upheaval evoked the idea of an unchanging, always-welcoming place of return. I’ve chosen a beautiful recording by Earl Scruggs as the soundtrack for what Strang hoped would be a triumphant return to his hometown in western New York during the spring of 1853. As fate would have it, however, the journey proved to be a disaster. Humiliated by an old friend, who apparently asked him to drink poison in public in order to prove his miraculous powers, and hounded by debt-collectors, the prophet reportedly had to flee town in the middle of the night.
Back on Beaver Island, Strang faced growing antagonisms with enemies, both inside his own kingdom and from nearby communities. “If war must come, let it be upon us,” the king proclaimed. In July of 1853, a group of his supporters arrived in two boats at a settlement on the mainland to confront their adversaries. A firefight ensued, leaving several of Strang’s men seriously wounded. When I picture this encounter, the song in my head is Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” which describes a similar altercation. (“It don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail,” the song’s narrator muses as a vessel full of his foes approaches.) As great as the original of this tune is, I love a haunting version by Cowboy Junkies even more.
“I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder,” Leonard Cohen sings in his apocalyptic anthem “The Future,” a fitting theme song for the chaotic final chapter of the kingdom on Beaver Island. In the last few years of his reign, the prophet took on two more wives, both of them teenagers, further infuriating many of his followers. For others, meanwhile, the final straw seems to have been Strang’s order that all women on the island must henceforth wear pantaloons in public. Eventually, a group of conspirators—possibly aided by state and federal authorities—began formulating plans to murder the monarch, who seemed to want “absolute control / over every living soul,” as Leonard Cohen puts it in this song about unchecked lust and power.
On July 16, 1856, the conspirators set a trap for Strang. Lured from his house, ostensibly on a routine matter, he made his way to the waterfront, where two armed assassins lay in hiding. My music for the king’s final procession is a Mormon hymn, “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger,” as put through a woodchipper by The LaDells, a band originally from Provo, Utah. “Deathly danger / surges with a sudden roar,” singer Max Punck howls in this menacing, Doors-like teardown of the old church tune. As the piece implodes on itself in a final vamp, Punck shrieks, ”You better run! You better run!” It would have been good advice for the prophet that day on Beaver Island.
I’ve always loved The Pixies for the way they mix chaos and melody. This 88-second version of “There Goes My Gun” evokes the panic that must have ensued when Strang’s assassins stepped out of the shadows and began to shoot.
No soundtrack of mine would be complete without a song by Bob Dylan. So I’ll close Strang’s time on earth with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” sung from the point of view of a dying man who knows a “long black cloud is coming down.” There’s no doubt James J. Strang would have attempted to knock on heaven’s door. Whether anyone answered is another question entirely.
My set list ends with a sublimely heartbreaking version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” sung by the Texas-based musician Matt the Electrician. This “hymn to brokenness and a dream betrayed” in the words of one critic, reminds me of the fate of Strang’s followers, who in the aftermath of his shooting were forced by armed vigilantes to flee the island “in the most destitute circumstances, having neither money nor provisions, and not even clothes, save for the shabby habiliments on their backs,” according to one contemporary report. Worse yet, they’d been stripped of their sense of exceptionalism as God’s elect and forced to face the realization that “you can’t be forever blessed,” in the song’s words. But I also chose the tune, which Simon penned in 1973 amid Watergate and Vietnam, because it reminds me of our own times. I compiled this list in the dark tunnel of the Trump era and coronavirus pandemic, with skyrocketing death tolls and unemployment numbers. As the song says, I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong …
Miles Harvey is the author of the national and international bestseller The Island of Lost Maps and a recipient of a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship. His book Painter in a Savage Land was named a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. He teaches at DePaul University.