June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
On a green island in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, James Jesse Strang became the crowned, polygamous ruler of a Mormon “empire”
In the fall of 1846 a short man with a great reddish-brown beard walked into the phrenology parlor of Fowler and Wells at 131 Nassau Street, New York City, to purchase a phrenological examination. He was barely five feet three and of slight build, but his full auburn beard, his curiously bulging forehead, and his intense, deeply set dark eyes gave him a vividness and dramatic presence that compensated, along with his black stovepipe hat, for his short stature. After the report of the examination was written by Samuel R. Wells, the short man read it with satisfaction and left.
A trip to the phrenology parlor was hardly a rare occurrence in mid-nineteenthcentury America. Nor was it even highly unusual that the short man in the stovepipe hat later published his nearly two-thousand-word phrenological description on the first page of a newspaper he edited. (Walt Whitman was so taken by the report Fowler and Wells wrote on him that he had it bound into early copies of Leaves of Grass .) But this particular visit to the phrenologist is of some interest because the man in the stovepipe hat was no ordinary person—as the phrenologist himself seemed to realize, even though his subject’s name, James J. Strang, meant nothing to him.
The report said, for example, “You are quite radical in your notions,” which is not a bad characterization of a man who convinced thousands of Mormons that an angel had designated him to succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The phrenologist also credited him with “versatility of talent, which enables you to attend to a variety of things. …” Again, an apt comment on a man who besides serving as a state legislator was acknowledged as a full-fledged prophet to whom God had entrusted a major portion of the Bible, lost since the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in 597 B.C. , and who was also an instinctive linguist who translated the ancient Oriental language in which the Biblical fragment was written, even though he had never studied any language but English. And certainly not the least of this versatile man’s achievements was to have become a king whose kingdom lay within the United States and whose loyal subjects numbered in the thousands.
The learned phrenologist also said of him, “You are fond of variety and change,” as he indeed was. At the time of his death he had five wives, the oldest forty-three, the youngest eighteen. Not only had they borne him ten children, most of whom lived with him and his four youngest wives in the royal palace, a solidly constructed log house in northern Michigan, but when he died each of the four youngest wives was with child. As Professor Wells perceptively remarked after carefully feeling and measuring the long narrow skull of James Jesse Strang with its bulging forehead, “You are fond of children, warm-hearted and ardent, and fond of home.”
The professor erred, as a matter of fact, in only one observation he made; but admittedly it was a major error. He wrote: “Should you undertake to play the hypocrite, ‘lay low and keep dark,’ you would very soon expose yourself in some way, for you have not tact and cunning enough to enable you to carry it out into any great speculation or enterprise.” That one sentence is enough to repudiate forever the science of phrenology, for James J. Strang’s supply of tact and cunning was truly extraordinary. And how could anyone deny that creating a kingdom within the United States qualifies as a “great speculation or enterprise”? To have reigned even as briefly as a half dozen years was an achievement; for kings, as one historian drily summed it up, have never done well in the United States.
Strang was able to pull this off because he brought to the task of creating a kingdom not only tact and cunning but a rare mixture of idealism and deceit, saintly asceticism and sexual appetite, backwoods utopianism and Napoleonic authoritarianism. His followers, mostly a ragtag collection of poor, uneducated pioneers, were not too blinded by ignorance and superstition to perceive both sides of his character. The trouble was that few of them could see both sides simultaneously. As a result, during his career as prophet and king, at any given time most of his followers saw him as not merely godly but godlike, the prophet who would lead them to Zion. But there were always others, a minority who saw him as a cynical opportunist—eloquent, yes, but lascivious and dictatorial.
Strang’s origins were far from regal. He was born on a small farm near the town of Scipio in Cayuga County, New York, in 1813. It was a time of deep religious ferment, and upstate New York seemed to have more than its share of strange religious goings-on. For example, when Strang was ten years old, an angel with the odd name of Moroni allegedly appeared in the bedroom of a farmhouse in the next county to tell a seventeen-year-old farm boy that God had written a new Bible on golden plates and buried them in a nearby hill. Young Joseph Smith dug up the plates; then, with the help of two magical stones provided by Moroni, he translated them as The Book of Mormon and became the founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Even though Strang some twenty years later was to be a strong contender to succeed Smith as head of the Mormon Church, as a boy he was unaware of Smith, Moroni, and the plates. Indeed, Strang’s youthful religious development moved from agnosticism to skepticism. As he grew into adulthood in the 1930’s, he turned to the rationalism of thinkers like Tom Paine and the Comte de Volney. Upon completion of his meager formal education, Strang read law; he was admitted to the Chautauqua County bar in 1836. He did a stint as a small-town postmaster and won admiration for his wit and eloquence as a debater.
But beneath this rather ordinary surface strange currents stirred. In his diary on his nineteenth birthday, March 21, 1832, Strang wrote: “I am 19 years old and am yet no more than a common farmer. ’Tis too bad. I ought to have been a member of the Assembly or a Brigadier General before this time if I am ever to rival Cesar or Napoleon which I have sworn to .” (The five underscored words were written in a cipher of Strang’s invention that was not decoded until a few years ago.)
Later that spring he confided to his diary in his private cipher: “I have spent the day in trying to contrive some plan of obtaining in marriage the heir to the English Crown.” (The lady would have been the future Queen Victoria, then twelve.) If a nineteen-year-old New York farm boy is to become a king, he obviously needs to give it quite a bit of thought. And James Jesse Strang gave it a great deal. His preoccupation with power appears again and again in his youthful diary. On New Year’s Day, 1835, for example, he wrote of those who had “died in obscurity” the previous year. Then Strang added fervently: “Curse me eternally if that be my fate.”
Yet nothing he did in the next half dozen years gave promise of escape from such a fate: he married a Baptist preacher’s daughter, served as a temperance lecturer, and became a small-town weekly newspaper editor. But when he migrated to Burlington, Wisconsin, with his wife and child in the summer of 1843, he had without knowing it taken a major step toward his royal destiny.
In Burlington, Strang took up for the first time the practice of law. During his first winter in the territory, he attended a Mormon meeting to hear an apostle of Joseph Smith’s known as the Wild Ram of the Mountains. Strang had never been susceptible to the theatricality of evangelical preachers. In fact, he had described himself in his diary as “a cool Philosopher.” But perhaps when he saw how the Wild Ram could shake the windowpanes and move his listeners to religious ecstasy, he was envious. We have no record of his feelings, but we know he was sufficiently interested in Mormonism to journey some two hundred miles to the south, to Nauvoo, Illinois, where after talking with Joseph Smith he was baptized a Mormon.
As he baptized Strang, the Prophet is reported to have said: “Thou shall hold the Keys of the Melchizedek priesthood, shall walk with Moses, Enoch, and Elijah, and shall talk with God face to face.” It was not quite like marrying the heir to the British throne, but it had possibilities. Especially in 1844; for Illinois seethed with political intrigue and violent anti-Mormon feeling. Clearly, the sect could not last much longer in Nauvoo. When Strang proposed to Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum that he found a Mormon colony near Burlington, Wisconsin, they made him an elder of the church and urged him to report on the possibilities to the north.
Strang’s report from Burlington came too late for Joseph Smith to do much about it. On June 27, a few days after receiving it, Joseph and Hyrum were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Smith had been such a colorful, powerful leader that to many his death meant the end of Mormonism. In the New York Herald ’s, obituary James Gordon Bennett wrote, “The death of the modern Mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism. They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the ‘latter day saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.”
To Bennett’s credit he revised this judgment two days later: “Instead of sealing the fate of Mormonism, we are now rather inclined to believe that this revolting transaction may give only additional and increased strength to that sect.” But the immediate future of the church was extremely dark. As the twelve apostles who ruled the church under Smith assembled in Nauvoo, they were in shocked despair. In this awful crisis of the young church only one Mormon responded with what must have amounted to joy: James Jesse Strang.
At the moment when a rifle ball struck Smith, causing him to fall to his death out of the second-story window of the Carthage jail, Strang was taking a solitary walk through the countryside outside Burlington. As the Prophet’s life was extinguished, Strang said later, he heard celestial music, looked into the sky, and saw an angel accompanied by a heavenly host glide down onto the meadow in which he stood. The angel stretched forth a hand, anointing his head with oil as a sign that henceforth Prophet Strang was to be the supreme ruler of the Saints on earth.
For several days he did nothing. Perhaps he was looking for another sign. He certainly received one in the mail twelve days later. In an envelope postmarked “Nauvoo, June 19th,” Strang received a letter supposedly written by Joseph Smith nine days before his assassination. In it Smith admitted to having wondered if Strang was under the influence of an evil spirit; but in the midst of his doubts, he wrote, God suddenly whirled him into the upper air. The moon and stars went out, the earth dissolved, and with heavenly music all about him Smith heard God reveal the Prophet’s approaching martyrdom. Still aloft, Smith then heard God say, according to the letter, “And now behold my servant james j. Strang hath come to thee from far … & to him shall the gathering of the people be for he shall plant a stake of Zion in Wisconsin & I will establish it & there shall my people have peace & rest & shall not be mooved … & the name of the city shall be called voree which is being interpreted garden of peace … and now I command my servants the apostles & priests & elders of the church of the saints that they communicate & proclaim this my word to all the saints of God in all the world that they may be gathered unto and round about the city of Voree. …”
Within a month of the death of Joseph Smith, Strang was in Nauvoo, mounting a campaign to succeed him. At first he said nothing of the angel; he based his claim solely on the letter. But at once there were questions as to its authenticity. Ironically, most were directed to the postmark, which is valid, instead of to the signature, which an expert in 1950 described as a manifest forgery. It was soon clear that more than a questionable letter would be needed if Strang, a relatively recent convert, was going to outdistance such stalwart contestants as the Wild Ram of the Mountains, Lyman Wight; the Archer of Paradise, Parley P. Pratt; or the most formidable of them all, the Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young. All these men enjoyed the prestige of being among Smith’s twelve apostles at the time of his assassination. They were known and respected not only in Nauvoo but wherever there were Mormons.
But James Jesse Strang had one incalculable advantage over all of them, and particularly over his chief rival, the stolid Brigham Young. The Mormon Church had been founded by a prophet, a soothsaying, crystalgazing seer who soared with the angelic host and talked to God Himself. To those who felt that Smith’s successor as head of the Church of Latter-day Saints should also be a prophet, Strang was a good choice. Three of the twelve apostles supported Strang, as did Joseph Smith’s mother and his brother William. And scores of other Mormons suddenly found that the words of a familiar Mormon hymn, number 297—”A church without a Prophet, Is not the Church for me;/It has no head to guide it; In it I would not be”—had new meaning. They migrated from Nauvoo to Strang’s new Mormon “stake” at Voree, outside Burlington. Brigham Young was not given to revelations, but he did go so far as to ban the singing of that hymn.
But a full-fledged prophet in the Joseph Smith tradition must have a testament. It had come to Smith in the form of The Book of Mormon; Strang was to receive it in The Book of the Law of the Lord . In each instance, an angel conducted the prophet to buried plates on which the holy writ was inscribed in a foreign language. Strang rceived the first angelic alert of the impending discovery early in 1845. That fall the angel appeared again and showed Strand the precise spot at which to dig. He led four of his disciples to the spot, then stood apart as they commenced to dig. After digging, then chopping their way through the roots of an oak tree, then using pick-axes to penetrate a layer of rock, they finally came to three brass plates.
Eighteen years earlier, when Joseph Smith had dug up his buried plates in upstate New York, he had allowed no one to see them. When anyone was in their presence, Smith kept the plates in upstate New York, he had allowed no one to see them. When anyone was in their presence, Smith kept the plates covered with a handkerchief. Strang showed his to his awed followers, then went into seclusion for a week to translate their strange markings, which he later reported to be passages in certain “lost Levantine languages.”
The Brighamites charged that Strang’s plates had been fashioned from an old brass kettle and that the inscriptions on them were unintelligible “hen tracks.” Strang insisted that they were the record left by Rajah Manchore of Vorito, an Oriental potentate who milleniums ago on the Wisconsin frontier had ruled a godlike people, now levelled to dust but destined one day to rise again. The instrument of their resurrection was to be the divinely guided prophet who would discover and translate the constitution of their theocratic monarchy. As the rajah inscribed it on the plates: “The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth my records.” The forerunner was the slain Joseph; the prophet was his successor, James. It is regrettable that this is the rajah’s sole appearance in history, for the spectacle of this exotic figure transplanted to the Northwest Territory has the same incongruous charm as the appearance (courtesy of Mark Twain) about the same time of the “disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen” on a raft carrying a runaway boy and an escaped slave down the Mississippi.
From 1845 to 1848 Strang waged a vigorous campaign to succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the Church of Latter-day Saints. He travelled to all the big cities of the eastern seaboard, preaching and debating. He published a newspaper and wrote news stories, editorials, and reports of his travels. He repeatedly denounced Brigham Young as an imposter and finally “excommunicated” him, delivering him over to “the bufferings of Satan.” He assembled his own twelve apostles and created the Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints, with himself as leader and prophet. And he proceeded to develop his Utopian Mormon community, Voree, in southwestern Wisconsin.
Strang’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader are vividly revealed in his efforts to build his own church organization and the theocratic community that it would serve. To seize control of the Mormon Church, Strang needed even more than divine documentation of his legitimacy as Joseph Smith’s successor. He needed a cadre of experienced Mormons to represent his cause not only in Nauvoo but in the great population centers of the East that were the recruiting grounds for the church: Baltimore, Washington. Philadelphia, and New York. Lacking time to train men for this role, Strang assembled the leadership for his church from among those who had defected from Smith and Young. Some of them had good credentials, but many were scoundrels. A superb example of the latter was George J. Adams.
Adams was an actor and a preacher, noted for his taste for crude bombast, loose women, and bourbon. A tall, striking man, he had played the heavy in such melodramas as The Idiot Witness and Pizaro, or the Death of Rolla in a Mormon repertory company at Nauvoo. But when his womanizing cametoBrigham Young’s attention, Adams was thrown out of the church for “under the sacred garb of religion … practising the most disgraceful and diabolical conduct.” Packing up his theatrical costumes, Adams drifted to Ohio, where he came to Strang’s attention.
Strang was somewhat cautious in recruiting Adams. When questioned about his having been thrown out of the Mormon Church, Adams replied in writing that he was a victim of “base phalshoods,” including the charges that he was a drunkard and a fornicator; the truth was, according to Adams, that Young and his apostles were deeply jealous of Adams’ ability to spellbind his listeners “whereaver and wheneaver I lift up my voice.” Adams confessed to having some doubts about Strang, but he resolved these by conferring with God, who “condescended in a glorious manner” to verify that Strang was, indeed, the true prophet.
Adams reached Voree in the spring of 1846. With him was another prominent Mormon who had fallen out with the leaders at Nauvoo: Dr. John C. Bennett—former major general of the Mormon Legion (the Latterday Saints’ armed force) and also Nauvoo’s leading abortionist. While his medical skills had been in great demand in a community where plural marriage was already widely if secretly practiced, Bennet had made the mistake of becoming nonclinically interested in a nineteen-year-old girl named Nancy Rigdon, to whom Joseph Smith had taken a particular liking. Bennett was excommunicated in 1842 and like Adams eventually decided to throw in his lot with Strang.
Voree, when Adams and Bennett got there, was an unpromising frontier settlement of little more than a thousand people living in log houses and tents. The prospect of settling in this rude village must have been unexciting indeed—and not merely because of its size. In Nauvoo, then the largest city in Illinois, Joseph Smith’s paramonarchical state had engulfed the community. It organized the theatres, the army, businesses, schools, newspapers, and the government itself. The church, rt seemed, was merely another sphere it controlled.
Bennett proposed to Strang, in effect, the re-creation of a Nauvoo at Voree. Specifically, he suggested that Strang lay the basis for such a community by devising a secret order that would govern the Strangite kingdom of God on earth. The order would be organized along feudal lines, with noblemen, viceroys, grand councillors, and, above them all, God’s earthly regent, the king himself, James Jesse Strang. To the man who at nineteen had secretly sworn to rival Caesar and Napoleon and had spent a day trying to contrive a scheme to marry into the House of Hanover, Bennett’s suggestion had the sound of Destiny.
The Halcyon Order of the Illuminati bears abundant evidence of the blending of the powerful monarchical leanings of Strang with the brilliant charlatanism of Bennett. An initiate into the order, with ranks of chevaliers, earls, marshals, and cardinals drawn up around him in a darkened room, took an oath to
uphold sustain and obey the said James J. Strang and his lawful successors, if any he has, each in his time as the Imperial primate and actual sovereign Lord and King on Earth and as my true and lawful Sovereign wheresoever and in whatsoever kingdom state or dominion I may be; and in preference to the laws, commandments and persons of any other Kings, Potentates, or States whatsoever. …
Upon swearing to the oath, the initiate into the Illuminati knelt before the king, who anointed his head with oil. And miraculously, according to the testimony of more than one member of the order, the initiate’s head would thereupon radiate with a glowing halo. Even given his deep yearning for power—kingly power—it is remarkable enough that James Strang finally would find himself on a throne. But it is perhaps even more remarkable that on their knees before that throne were rugged American pioneers imperturbably forfeiting both their souls and their American citizenship.
But before the top nobility of the order had been initiated, the summer of 1846 had arrived and Strang had gone East on business. The blueprint of the kingdom of God on earth had been sketched out; now the prophet needed to round up the Saints and march them to Voree. Accompanied by Bennett, Adams, and some of his other apostles, Strang began in earnest to woo the Mormon Church of the martyred Joseph Smith. Brigham Young’s followers had already started their long trek from Nauvoo to the West when James Jesse Strang headed for Ohio. His objective: to capture the first Mormon Church established by Smith, the Kirtland Stake.
When Strang appeared in Kirtland, he was no mere upstart. He had three of Joseph Smith’s twelve apostles in his Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints. He had the support of Smith’s mother and brother William. Moreover, the Brighamites were in disarray as they fled westward from the ruins of Nauvoo. As he rose to speak to the Kirtland Saints assembled for their morning worship one Sunday in the summer of 1846, James Jesse Strang must have realized that this could be a decisive day in his life. Even though he was small and thoroughly unprepossessing in appearance, Strang could galvanize an audience. On that Sunday he preached for eight hours in what one of his followers described as his “most rapid manner.” It was a superb performance. The Kirtland Saints were dazzled and won over. The new prophet took possession of the first Mormon temple; then with George J. Adams and others, he headed for Philadelphia, New York, and Boston with the plan of setting the Mormon churches there “in order,” that is, winning them over from the Brighamite faction to the Strangite.
Although Kirtland was the most heartening victory that summer, Strang made many converts throughout the East. His attack was two-pronged. First, he denounced Brigham Young and his apostles for teaching that “polygamy, fornication, and adultery are required by the command of God in the upbuilding of his kingdom.” He climaxed his denunciation of them with what must be one of the most revolting curses uttered by a nineteenth-century clergyman: “may their bones rot in the living tomb of their flesh; may their flesh generate from its own corruptions a loathesome life for others; may their blood swarm with a leprous life of motelike, ghastly corruption feeding on flowing life, generating chilling agues and burning fevers. May peace and home be names forgotten to them; and the beauty they have betrayed to infamy, may it be to their eyes a crawling mass of putridity and battening corruption. …”
The second prong of Strang’s attack was an appeal to his listeners to gather into the fold at Voree planned for them by God and revealed by God to his two prophets, Joseph and James. That fall and winter Voree harvested the fruits of the prophet’s eastern swing, and the village nearly doubled in size. But it was also gathering the bitter harvest of Bennett’s secret Order of the Illuminati. Somehow the covenant of the order leaked out and by January, 1847, two thousand copies had been printed along with a handbill denouncing it as an undemocratic cabal whose members were banded together for purposes of iniquity. Perhaps the handbill’s most telling thrust was at the initiation ceremony. It did not deny that the heads of the initiates glowed, but pointed out that this was a hoax engineered by Strang, who rubbed their heads with a mixture of olive oil and phosphorus. One apostate even found the bottle and repeated the “miracle.”
The attack on the Illuminati was only the first of a series of harassments by local non-Mormons, or “Gentiles,” as the Latter-day Saints dubbed everyone else. As Strang’s converts made their way toward Voree from the East, it became a common Gentile practice to stop their wagons a few miles outside of town and try to convince them they had made a terrible mistake. Shrewd Gentile farmers also curbed the growth of the community by early buying up much of the land in and around it and offering it for sale to the Saints at prohibitive prices.
In spite of his blunders in the selection of some of his lieutenants, Strang was capable of decisive leadership. By the winter of 1846–47 he saw that Voree was doomed and that a new site needed to be found that possessed an abundance of fertile land and isolation from hostile Gentiles. And he had a prophetic hunch that he had seen the New Jerusalem from the deck of a Great Lakes steamer on his way from Buffalo to Chicago. After moving through the Straits of Mackinac, the steamer had passed among some lush, green islands fifty miles southwest of the straits. It occurred to Strang at the time that these islands would offer the land as well as the safety that his kingdom needed. The events of the following winter greatly increased the appeal of those remote islands. Soon the garden of peace reverberated with the rumble of excommunications. William Smith, Joseph’s brother, was charged with being one of the most lascivious libertines ever to prey upon American womanhood and was consigned to the buffetings of Satan. His lengthy defense contains little of interest except for one minor point: he claimed to have discovered the bottle of olive oil and phosphorus used at initiations.
John C. Bennett, general and prime minister, whose talent for mischief was not small, was also excommunicated and departed the scene with hardly a flurry. When he had broken with Joseph Smith he had written a series of scurrilous newspaper articles denouncing his fqrmer friends. This time he quietly drifted off to New England to raise chickens. Of Strang’s more flamboyant lieutenants, only Councillor Adams stayed on. The Brighamites ridiculed him for pursuing a twin career as actor and preacher, but the prophet tolerated not only Adams’ acting but his drinking and lechery, in return for notable services on behalf of the Strangite kingdom. Strang even defended Adams by asking the Saints, “Isn’t it true that no less a man than David danced naked before the daughters of Israel?”
In the spring of 1847 Strang and four Mormons from Voree visited the islands Strang had seen the previous summer. The largest of the group of a dozen, Big Beaver, is thirteen miles long and six wide. It has broad white sand beaches the length of its eastern shore and sand dunes and bluffs along its western side. At the northern end is one of the finest sheltered harbors in the Great Lakes. The island is in the midst of what was in midnineteenth century—and remained until the advent of the sea lamprey—one of the best fishing areas in the lakes. The land was fertile and well timbered. It was an ideal spot for a Utopian community.
At the appropriate time, Strang announced that he had been visited by an angel who instructed him to move his colony to “a land amid wide waters and covered with large timber, with a deep broad bay on one side of it.” Clearly this was Beaver Island; and evidently the angel knew that Indian claims had already been invalidated and that shortly the federal government would open Beaver and the surrounding islands for settlement. From 1848 on, the Mormons streamed from Voree to Beaver. They found the islands practically a virgin wilderness, and with industry, intelligence, and dedication they named the rivers, lakes, bays, and hills of Beaver Island with proper Biblical names; they cleared the fields and planted them, laid out a network of roads, and erected sturdy log houses. The church, the jail, the royal press, and the king’s residence were clustered along the shores of the fine harbor in a settlement they immodestly called St. James—the name it bears today. In fact, in many important ways the island has changed very little. It has approximately the same population as in Strang’s heyday: two thousand; the main road is called the King’s Highway; the highest sand dune is Mount Pisgah; the large inland lake at the south end is Lake Genesereth; the chief river is the Jordan; the shallow baptismal lake at the north end is Font Lake; and the splendid harbor, Paradise Bay.
Brigham Young found his New Jerusalem at the end of a two-thousand-mile trail, and as the world capital of Mormonism, Salt Lake City has since then prospered and multiplied despite its remoteness. James’s kingdom was far more accessible to the Mormon recruiting areas of the East and Midwest; yet it was equally isolated from the Gentile world, richly blessed with fertile fields, virgin forests, and superb fishing grounds; and it is as inviting now as it was a century ago. But today it contains not a single Saint.
What was fatal to Strang and his kingdom was the alliance between his disaffected followers—few as they were—and the hostile Gentiles who, even in northern Michigan, saw this tiny colony as a threat to the Republic, to orthodox Christianity, to conventional sexual morality, and to economic privilege—specifically, the right to use the island as a base for fishing operations and trading with the Indians.
Although the few Gentiles who occupied Beaver Island when the Saints began arriving were unfriendly, they were quickly outnumbered and outmaneuvered by Strang and his followers. Their unfriendliness hardened into resentment as they observed the Mormons rename the lakes, rivers, and hills on the island and treat them as their God-given inheritance. The Gentile trading post stood on Whisky Point, a hooklike projection of land that protected the harbor. It was aptly named, for a major part of Gentile business consisted of bartering whisky for fish caught by the Indians. The ultimate source of Gentile hostility to Strang, however, was not on Whisky Point but on Mackinac, the small island at the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. A century earlier it had been the center of the fur trade for almost half the North American continent; then for a while it had served as a fuelling station for wood-burning steamers. With the fur trade a trickle of what it had been and the island’s timber all chopped down, Mackinac in the mid-nineteenth century existed largely on its past reputation as a trading center.
Strang was quick to perceive this. His paper, “Some Remarks on the Natural History of Beaver Islands, Michigan,” was published in the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report, 1854, and remained the definitive work for nearly a century. As a student of the island’s economy, he traced the barrels of whisky from the warehouses at Mackinac to the trading post at Whisky Point, where they were used to produce what was called Indian whisky: two gallons of common whisky or unrectified spirits were dumped into thirty gallons of water; red pepper was added to give it fire, tobacco to make it more intoxicating. For thirty years, Strang reported, the fish shipped from the rich grounds around Beaver Island had been paid for in large part with Indian whisky. It cost five cents a gallon to make and was sold to the Indians for fifty cents a gallon by the cask, twenty-five cents for a quart, or six cents for a drink. The boats that brought the whisky returned to Mackinac laden with fish.
Strang exposed this illegal exploitation of the Indians in numerous articles in his newspaper The Northern Islander and in a forty-eight page pamphlet, “Ancient and Modern Michilimackinac, Including an Account of the Controversy between Mackinac and the Mormons.” Even though there were only twenty or thirty Indian families on Beaver, their presence made the island more attractive to Strang and his followers, who shared Joseph Smith’s notion that the Indians were members of a fallen race, the Lamanites, mentioned in The Book of Mormon . Proselyting among this “noble and intellectual race of men,” to use Strang’s words, had been one reason for choosing Beaver Island.
Fishing rights and trade with the Indians may have been the two basic causes of friction between Gentiles and Saints, but in terms of interest, especially in newspapers in Michigan and throughout the East, these were eclipsed by something far more sensational: polygamy.
By this time the widespread practice of “spiritual wifery” among the top leadership of Brigham Young’s Mormons had become common knowledge. This made it an ideal issue by which the Strangites could differentiate their sect from the Brighamites. In 1847 one of the elders of Strang’s church, John E. Page, had issued a statement denouncing polygamy in which he declared: “We have talked hours, yea, even days with President Strang, and we find to our utmost satisfaction that he does not believe in or cherish the doctrine of polygamy in any manner, shape, or form imaginable whatever.”
The following spring, when the migration to Beaver Island was under way, Strang held a conference at which members of the Strangite sect living outside Voree assembled to meet the prophet and discuss the future of the church. One of those who attended was a seventeenyear-old schoolteacher from Charlotte, Michigan, whose parents had switched from the Brighamite to the Strangite church. Elvira Eliza Smith was bright, modest, devout, and attractive. She deeply impressed Prophet Strang. She returned to Michigan, and some months later she was visited by an emissary from the prophet, Councillor Adams, who bore a remarkable proposal.
He told Elvira that the prophet had received from God, by means of an angel, the divine plan for the kingdom of God on earth. James Jesse Strang was to rule the kingdom as king and vice-regent of God. And the new society was to be polygamous: the king was to set the example for his subjects! Then Adams, the histrionic old lecher, with suitable dramatic flourishes, hand-pressings, and other business, came to the point: Would Elvira accept the honor of being the king’s first plural wife and a queen of his kingdom? That Elvira quickly accepted tells us something about Councillor Adams’ special talents and a great deal about the prophet’s remarkable ability to convince his followers of his divine mission.
On July 13, 1849, in defiance of the laws of Michigan, the United States, and—up till then—the Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints, James and Elvira were “married” in a bedchamber somewhere in Michigan. As a lawyer, Strang knew their marriage was legally impossible; and as one of the loudest opponents of Mormon polygamy, he recognized that in terms of the struggle for power within the Mormon Church, it was politically dangerous. So he cropped his young bride’s dark hair, bought her a black broadcloth suit and a black silk hat like his, gave her the name Charles J. Douglass, and took her with him as his nephew and secretary on his customary fall and winter recruiting drive through the major cities of the eastern seaboard. While his first wife, Mary, and their four children stayed with his relatives in Chautauqua County, New York, the prophet and his bride honeymooned in New York City. In letters to Mary, Strang wrote of “Charley’s” being with him, but we do not know whether Mary .was hoodwinked by the fiction of this newly discovered nephew. At any rate, there were those who were not.
That October, during a church meeting in New York City over which Strang was presiding, with Charley beside him as secretary, the newlyweds had a jolting experience. After Strang concluded his sermon and pronounced the benediction, one of his apostles jumped to his feet to accuse Strang of “adultery, fornication, and spiritual wifery.”
It is a delightful irony that the only report we have of this contretemps is to be found in Strang’s newspaper The Gospel Herald in a lengthy article signed “C. J. Douglass.” Elvira, alias Charley, describes how President Strang preached “with burning and matchless eloquence, in words that seemed to fall from angels’ lips.” While he spoke, Apostle Lorenzo D. Hickey listened with “a kind of nervous twitching which sometimes marks incipient insanity”; then, the sermon over, he jumped up and shouted his accusation at Strang. The account ends with the comment that Strang’s refutation of the charges against him “convinced every person present that Hickey’s accusations were all utterly false.” The same issue of The Gospel Herald , November 22, 1849, contains the report by the phrenologist who found Strang lacking in “tact and cunning.”
As spring approached, the thirty-sevenyear-old prophet faced the necessity of returning to Beaver Island with his new bride, his first wife, and their four children. But his supply of tact and cunning was so large that Strang was able to make the shift from monogamy to polygamy without in the least rippling the waters of Paradise Bay. He matter-of-factly announced that he had just translated one passage of 165 characters on the sacred plates the angel had led him to in Wisconsin. It read: “Thou shall not take unto thee a multitude of wives disproportioned to thy inheritance, and thy substance; nor shall thou take wives to vex those thou hast; neither shalt thou put away one to take another.” This was a bit subtle, but the implication was clear: with proper reservations, a Saint could have several wives.
At the same time the prophet finally disclosed to his people that in obedience to Chapter XX of the Book of the Law of the Lord he would shortly be crowned king. The Book said: “God has chosen his servant James to be King; He hath made him his Apostle to all nations; He hath established Him a prophet above the Kings of the Earth; and appointed him King in Zion; by His voice did he call Him, and He sent his angels unto him to ordain him.” Despite some wavering on the question of whether the pronouns describing himself should be capitalized, Strang had a feeling for Biblical language that Joseph Smith lacked. Mark Twain said of Smith that “Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as ‘exceeding sore,’ ‘and it came to pass,’ etc., and made things satisfactory again.” Strang had more the hang of it.
The coronation occurred on July 8, 1850 (Elvira’s twentieth birthday), in the log tabernacle, a roofless structure eighty feet long. A fifteen-year-old girl who managed to squeeze into the tabernacle later wrote an awed account of the ceremony. A trumpet sounded, and James Strang was escorted into the tabernacle by the council and the twelve apostles, followed by the quorums, or minor orders of the ministry. The king wore a long flowing robe of bright red. The procession moved the length of the tabernacle to the platform on which the coronation would take place. Awaiting them there, garbed in the most regal costume he could assemble from his collection, was the actor-preacher president of the council, George J. Adams. He towered over the little bearded king enveloped in his red robe. The climax of the ceremony came when Adams, wearing a short tin sword attached to a brass-studded belt, with enormous dignity held out the crown in both hands. It was a shiny metal ring with a cluster of glass stars in the front. The July sun shone into the roofless tabernacle and made the stars sparkle as Adams slowly lowered the crown onto the elongated and perspiring head of King James Jesse Strang.
For the next few years this ceremony did not seem as pathetically absurd as it does today. The island’s economy flourished. The Chicago-Buffalo steamer made sixty stops a year at St. James, and many other vessels sailed into Paradise Bay for fish, firewood, and lumber. In Mackinac the reign of King Jimmy was no longer a subject for crude jokes. The king’s handling of the island’s polity was too impressive: he combined with remarkable adroitness the throne and the ballot box.
Strang ruled the Saints with the absolute power of a divinely ordained monarch; but at the same time he ran as a Democrat for the Michigan state legislature and won two terms. He introduced a bill to have the Beaver Islands incorporated into a new county; and when this passed he controlled that county and another on the mainland that had a bloc of Mormon voters.
By l855 King Strang was arthe peak of his power. His kingdom embraced Beaver Island and certain outlying islands with a total population of about twenty-six hundred Saints. His people were prosperous and, for the most part, loyal and happy. And the king’s household had waxed most royally. In 1852 he had married Betsy McNutt, a thirty-one-year-old maiden, and she, like Mary his first wife, and Elvira his second, bore him four children. Then in the summer and fall of 1855, he married two teen-age cousins, Sarah and Phoebe Wright, each of whom shortly became pregnant. The king and his four wives and children lived in a sturdy but trim log house overlooking Paradise Bay. (Mary, his first wife, had taken her children and moved back to Wisconsin, evidently feeling that six was a crowd.) Sarah wrote of their life together, “[We] had separate rooms [but] … all met in prayer and ate at the same table.” Of Strang she said, “He was a very mild-spoken, kind man to his family, although his word was law—we were all honest in our religion and made things as pleasant as possible.”
Through hard work, shrewdness, and what would today be called charisma, James Strang had, unbelievably, fulfilled the outlandish dreams of royal power that he had confided to his diary as a frustrated farm boy of nineteen. But if the ascent to power had been slow and uncertain, the descent was to be breathtakingly swift.
Beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of life on Beaver Island there were some fairly powerful currents of dissension. How deep these ran it is difficult to say, for this was a totalitarian society in which expressions of dissent were dealt with harshly. Marriage with Gentiles was forbidden; drinking tea, coffee, or alcohol was outlawed; the use of tobacco was forbidden; pantalets under skirts were required by law, and women who broke the law exposed their husbands to punishment. Even men’s clothing was regulated by law. And the punishments were of Old Testament severity, meted out with a lash made of beech switches toughened by heating and twisting. For example, for “lying, tale-bearing, and endeavoring to incite to mischief,” the culprit was stripped to the waist and lashed thirty-nine strokes.
King Strang’s harsh, autocratic rule and the deep enmity it engendered among some of the islanders would probably have been insufficient by itself to topple his kingdom. But Gentile antagonism on both the island and the mainland had been building against the Mormons from their first appearance on Beaver in 1847. As the Saints had grown in economic and political power, the number of incidents between them and the Gentiles had increased in frequency and gravity. The introduction of polygamy and the formal establishment of the kingdom had exacerbated Gentile feelings of hostility that were already nearly unbearable.
It did not help matters at all that the newspapers, particularly the Detroit Free Press and Detroit Advertiser and Tribune , found King Strang irresistible. They printed lurid—and largely false—accounts of Mormon sexual license, thievery, and political chicanery. Councillor GeorgeJ. Adams, a few years after Strang’s coronation, incurred the royal wrath by bringing a prostitute over from the mainland and passing her off as his wife: he was thrown out. He then spread stories, which the Detroit papers eagerly broadcast, of assassinations and torture and of a huge Mormon counterfeit mill operating in a cave in Mount Pisgah. During the spring of 1851 President Millard Fillmore, visiting his brother in Detroit, read of scandalous events on Beaver Island and decided to take action. He placed the U.S.S. Michigan , the first ironclad vessel built for the U.S. Navy, at the disposal of the U. S. District Attorney, George C. Bates.
Due process was observed by having the governor of Michigan request federal intervention. Then, armed with warrants charging Strang and most of his top officials with treason, counterfeiting, trespass, theft, and several other crimes—oddly enough, not including polygamy—the district attorney, accompanied by a marshal and a judge, sailed into Paradise Bay on the Michigan one night in May, 1851. The attorney, leading a body of sailors each armed with a Navy revolver and cutlass, proceeded stealthily toward Strang’s house, their way lit by a covered ship’s lantern. After stationing a boatswain at each end of the house, District Attorney Bates crept up the stairs until he found himself in “a long, low room, where wide berths, heavily draped with stunning calico, shielded beds like the berths and staterooms of steamers, which proved to be occupied by Mormon women four in a bed.”
The account of the raid on the seraglio by the intrepid D.A. appears to be mostly romantic nonsense. At no time did the king’s palace have a harem. And with Mary in Wisconsin, Strang in the summer of 1851 was living with the only other wife he had at the time, Elvira. When Strang was awakened, he coolly examined the warrants and shortly thereafter peaceably surrendered himself and thirty-one of his disciples. They were transported to Detroit on the Michigan , and Strang pleaded the defendants’ case before a jury often Whigs and two Democrats. In his closing statement to the jury, Strang, the lawyer turned preacher, made an eloquent speech in which he drew analogies between himself and Jesus. This had been the basis of his defense throughout the trial: that he and his followers were victims of religious persecution—as they indeed were. The jury agreed and acquitted them all.
Following the trial there were numerous instances of Mormon-Gentile friction, but none compared in violence to “the Battle of Pine River” in the summer of 1853. The trouble started when Strang tried to use his considerable police power in Manitou and Emmett counties to halt the sale of Indian whisky to the Indians in the vicinity of Pine River on the mainland—present-day Charlevoix. Pine River fishermen regarded Strang as an ungodly polygamist and a power-mad dictator who was trying to expand his empire.
On July 12, 1853, the Mormon sheriff of Emmett County, together with thirteen other Beaver Islanders, put in at Pine River on a peaceful mission: to issue calls for jury duty in the circuit court at St. James the following week. As they were leaving in two boats, the Pine River settlers opened fire on them from close range on the beach. The Mormons, six of them wounded, hastily pulled out of range; but before they had well started on their twenty-five-mile trip across open water to Beaver Island, they saw that they were being pursued by three boatloads of Pine River fishermen. For ten miles the chase continued, the Mormons managing to stay just beyond range of gunfire; then the fishermen began to close the gap, and bullets started striking the Mormon boats again. Incredibly, at this moment a BuffaloChicago steamer came along, and the captain took the exhausted and bleeding oarsmen aboard. The furious fishermen, helpless against the large vessel, turned around and headed back for Pine River.
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.
But nothing filled the vacuum left by the departed king, and as this became increasingly clear to Gentile raiding parties from Mackinac, they became bolder. The climax was reached on July 5 when a mob, largely from Mackinac, arrived in a flotilla of boats to push the Mormons off Beaver Island. Bands of half-drunk armed men roamed the island, driving Mormon farmers and their families at gunpoint to the dock at St. James, where steamers came to transport the dispossessed to Chicago and Detroit. One boat took 490 to Chicago; another took 300. They were forced to leave behind everything but their clothing: livestock, household goods, even their provisions. And, of course, their well-tended farms and orchards. The dispirited Mormons were so overwhelmed that none of them resisted to any extent. There was no gunfire. Yet within the span of a day or so, an entire community of approximately 2,600 men, women, and children was ruthlessly uprooted and cast out. One reputable Michigan historian, Byron M. Cutcheon, has called the fifth of July, 1856, “the most disgraceful day in Michigan history.”
As King Strang lay dying in Voree, few of his subjects were with him. Two of his wives, Betsy and Phoebe, nursed him; only two apostles were at hand. On July 9, 1856, almost exactly six years after his coronation, the king died and was buried in Voree.
The kingdom had fallen with the king. And the Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints collapsed not long after the death of its sole prophet, James Jesse Strang. Had he appointed a strong successor, both kingdom and church would have had a chance to survive his death. But his failure to do so was completely in character.
Strang was a gifted man. But his very considerable personal magnetism, his powerful will, and his immense capacity for hope were not possessed primarily by a dream of service to God nor by a project of social reform. What possessed him was an adolescent boy’s dream of royal power, a dream that focused monomaniacally on the crown itself. The thought of passing the crown on to someone else did not occur to him; and when it was suggested, it was a notion devoid of any appeal. “After me,” King Strang must have thought, “—nothing.”