- Historic Sites
For His Was The Kingdom, And The Power, And The Glory … Briefly
On a green island in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, James Jesse Strang became the crowned, polygamous ruler of a Mormon “empire”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Strang called the survival of the Mormons “an extraordinary instance of the care of God for his creatures.” He declared in an extra of his newspaper The Islander that it would be satisfying to ravage the Pine River settlement, “but the moral effect of sending half a dozen to State Prison is worth more than the death of them all. Legal remedies are better than violent ones.”
But for those to whom no legal remedies are available—or seem to be—violent ones sometimes have an irresistible appeal. In 1856 four such men, each of whom had suffered under Strang’s harsh rule, plotted his assassination. Dr. Hezekiah McCulloch, a sometime physician who had held some of the highest offices in the Strangite church, had fallen into disgrace because of a vice that Strang detested, drunkenness; he was the chief conspirator. His accomplices were Thomas Bedford, who had once been severely whipped for adultery; Alexander Wentworth, a dandy who chafed under the king’s repressive laws; and a “Doctor” Atkyn, an itinerant daguerreotypist, con man, and blackmailer whom Strang had threatened to boot off the island.
When McCulloch and Atkyn made a trip to the mainland to buy firearms and ammunition, Strang calmly reported in the next day’s issue of The Islander , May 22, 1856: “Two doctors left here yesterday, and today two or three ignorant persons say they are on an errand of mischief.” The king was even unperturbed when the conspirators came back, set up a target range, and practiced their marksmanship. By mid-June Strang’s tone was stridently overconfident: “We laugh in bitter scorn at all these threats,” he wrote in The Islander . What King Strang for all his political acumen had failed to learn was that no autocrat can afford to laugh at threats.
The conspirators timed their assault to coincide with the arrival of the Michigan at St. James; Dr. McCulloch had somehow persuaded the captain to bring the warship to Beaver again. On Monday, June 16, 1856, it put in at the dock in front of a store run by McCulloch, and the captain sent his pilot to summon King Strang. Why we do not know; but it is entirely possible the captain was a party to the plot. It was 7 P.M. and the prophet and his four wives had just finished the evening meal, so Strang obligingly walked to the pier. As he approached it, Bedford and Wentworth stepped out of McCulloch’s store and rapidly caught up with Strang from the rear. Wentworth aimed his revolver and shot Strang in the head at close range. As he fell, the prophet turned to face his assailants, and Wentworth shot him in the face below the right eye. This caused Strang to roll over, and as he did so Bedford fired his pistol into the prophet’s back. After pistol-whipping the severely wounded Strang about the face and head, Bedford and Wentworth ran up the gangplank of the Michigan and asked for—and got—protection. Strang was carried to a nearby house, where the Michigan ’s surgeon examined him and bandaged his wounds, byt it was probably obvious to him that Strang was mortally wounded.
The leading Saints hastily conferred in the printing office, and Sheriff Joshua Miller wrote a note to Captain McBlair of the Michigan requesting that he join the sheriff and others there to discuss what to do with Bedford and Wentworth. The captain refused.
When the iron ship sailed out of Paradise Bay at ten o’clock the following morning, Bedford, Wentworth, and McCulloch were aboard. The captain said he would turn them over to the sheriff at Mackinac. He did—and, not surprisingly, within five minutes the three conspirators were at liberty and being feted as heroes by the townspeople. Beaver Island’s threat to Mackinac had finally been destroyed.
Twelve years earlier, when Joseph Smith was assassinated, the Mormon Church had suffered a similar crisis, but a half dozen leaders defied the Gentile mobs and reassembled the Saints. James Strang was in an even better position than Smith had been to bring this about, for he did not die for over three weeks after being shot, and he was fully conscious most of that time. But when his confused, leaderless followers sought his advice, the dying king merely said that each man should take care of his family. When they pressed him to appoint a successor, he said, “I do not want to talk about it.”
The collapse of the kingdom was not at first apparent to the Gentiles, who had been given more than one painful lesson on Mormon durability. Ten days after the shooting, the Michigan , with the three conspirators aboard, sailed into Paradise Bay, and there was talk of arresting Mormons. But when a large number of Strang’s people assembled, the vessel steamed off to Mackinac. This was enough, however, to convince the Saints that their king would have to be taken to a safer place. On June 28 he was carried by steamer to Wisconsin.