Part 49: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section E]
by Sarah Allen
In this post, we’ll be talking about the absolutely insane story of James J. Strang. He faked his own death, claimed to have been appointed Joseph’s successor by a letter he produced, claimed ordination to the role by an angel, formed a breakaway sect of the Church referred to as the Strangites which many of the Book of Mormon witnesses as well as members of Joseph Smith’s family temporarily joined after his death, claimed to find and translate a set of plates of his own supposedly taken from the Book of Laban, became a State Representative, claimed there was a sea monster in Lake Michigan, crowned himself the earthly king of the Kingdom of God while residing on Beaver Island, Michigan, fired a canon at his detractors, cozied up to John C. Bennett, and led an infamous band of Mormon pirates before he was murdered by a group of his own former followers.
Because this story is so bonkers, there are numerous biographies of Strang out there to choose from (“God Has Made Us a Kingdom” by Vickie C. Speek; The King Strang Story by Doyle C. Fitzpatrick; Kingdom Forgotten by Laurie A. Lounsbury; The King of Beaver Island by Charles K. Backus; The King of Beaver Island and The Assassination of a Michigan King, both by Roger Van Noord), but I’ve only read one, The King of Confidence by Miles Harvey. It was informative and well-sourced, but it also was much more fair in its treatment of Strang than it was of either Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, who were both described in pretty unflattering terms. So, take that into consideration if you’re looking for a book recommendation.
I’m going to give an overview of Strang and his story, and then I’ll go into Jeremy’s commentary. All quotes are taken from The King of Confidence, since it’s my main source for the timeline of his life.
James Strang was born in Western New York in 1813, and like Joseph, grew up in what was called the Burned Over District. However, he had the exact opposite reaction to all of the religious turmoil than Joseph did. Rather than turn to God in desperation, wondering which church was true, Strang declared himself an atheist:
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.”
Early on, he started dreaming of becoming royalty and gaining power—in those exact words. “My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power,” he wrote in his journal. He developed his own secret code that he wrote that journal in, and also in it included clumsy plans to marry young Princess Victoria of England, become “a Priest, a Lawyer, a Conqueror, and a Legislator,” and his aspirations to become the American Napoleon—a soldier of common origin who would rise to become the emperor. When he realized that a Civil War was potentially looming, his reaction was as follows:
“Amidst all the evils of the disturbances of our national affairs,” he wrote, “there is one consolation: that is if our government is overthrown some master spirit may form another. May I be the one. I tremble when I write but it is true.”
In his study of Napoleon, he bought a biography named The Life of Napoleon. There were at least two such books with that title during that time period so it’s unclear which one he read, but both of them praised Napoleon’s insincerity in dealing with people and his Machiavellian principles. This was his hero, remember: a man who made his name and fortune by exploiting and deceiving others.
Strang worked a series of jobs in his early life, including that of a newspaper editor, a part-time postmaster, and a lawyer. All of those positions would aid him later in life. He also tried to become a real-estate baron and engaged in land speculation. However, he was deeply in debt by 1843 when he was 30, so he sold someone some land in Ohio that didn’t actually exist. When he got caught and arrested, he at some point asked the jailers if he could go upstairs to get something. Once he was up the stairs and out of their sight, they never saw him again. He escaped and:
“The next that was heard of him,” noted the local paper that reported on his disappearance, “a coat, hat and some papers containing his name and residence were found in the weeds, in one of the eastern counties of the state, and the leaves so stirred up as to convey the impression there had been a severe struggle, and the suspicion of murder.”
After skipping town with his family, Strang eventually landed in Burlington, Wisconsin. While there, he met a group of Latter-day Saints who, like him, were abolitionists and who were working to help escaped slaves. This wasn’t the first he’d heard of Joseph Smith; he’d grown up in Western New York near enough to Palmyra that he was already somewhat familiar with Joseph and his “Golden Bible.”
Strang again began working as a lawyer there in Wisconsin, and took a case that had him traveling to Ottawa, Illinois. One of his new Mormon buddies encouraged him to make a 175-mile detour to Nauvoo to hear Joseph Smith preach in person. Strang wasn’t interested in Joseph in a religious sense. He declared he was “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” But he was curious to learn how Joseph managed to earn such a devoted following in such a short amount of time, so he went. He arrived in Nauvoo in February, 1844.
The only record we have of his meeting with Joseph was when he later told a reporter that he “contended with Smith for a considerable time, but was at last converted to the faith.” Whether that was a legitimate conversion or not is anyone’s guess, but going off of what came later, my guess is that it wasn’t. I think Strang took one look at the atmosphere in Nauvoo in 1844, realized what a powder keg it was, met Joseph and saw both how trusting he was and how forceful his personality was, and maybe picked up a few tips on how to conduct himself as a prophet/leader, then went back home and waited for his chance.
Miles Harvey, the author of The King of Confidence, wondered about this religious turnaround as well:
What was behind this conversion? Why did a skeptic like Strang suddenly open his mind to the Mormon message? How could it be that a man who had spent his entire adult life lifting his “puny arm in rebellion against the Most High God,” in the words of his devout Baptist sister, would suddenly drop to his knees with the zealotry of a true believer? Was he, as that same sister would suggest, hoping to fill a spiritual void caused by the death of his daughter? Did he, like so many others before him, succumb to the force of Smith’s personality, the allure of his words, the charisma that circled him like a silvery halo, the mysteries and mystifications that enveloped him like the cigar smoke of a card sharp? Or was a more complicated dynamic at work? Could it be that in this inventor of a new bible, a new religion, a new city, and a new self, in this empire builder who was running for president of the United States, James Jesse Strang recognized, at long last, a way to realize his own dreams of royalty and power?
Regardless, he was baptized by Joseph himself on February 25th, 1844, and was ordained an elder by Hyrum Smith on March 3rd. He stayed in Nauvoo until late March or early April, then headed back to Burlington. After Joseph was murdered approximately three months later, Strang made his move.
A letter was produced, supposedly from Joseph, naming Strang as his successor in leading the Church. This letter was postmarked from Nauvoo on June 19th, and it supposedly arrived in Wisconsin on July 9th, shortly after Joseph’s death.
According to Harvey:
Modern researchers have identified the letter from “Joseph Smith” as a forgery. The main body of the text is written in print lettering rather than in cursive script—a style of penmanship so unusual for the prophet and his secretaries that no other examples are known to exist, according to one scholar. The signature, moreover, “bears no slightest resemblance to that of Joseph Smith,” in the words of another expert. And the two sheets of paper used in the letter are from different kinds of stock.
But in some ways, the fraud is quite a clever one. Envelopes and postage stamps were not yet common in 1844, so letter writers often left one side of the outer sheet blank, then folded it in such a way that it could be used for the address and postmark. And in the case of “the letter of appointment,” as Strang soon began calling it, the postmark, hand-stamped in red ink, appears to be authentic. This seems to indicate that someone did indeed send the cover sheet to Strang from Nauvoo on June 19, 1844, even if the inside sheet was a total fabrication. And who, after all, would know better how to pull off such a fraud than someone who had spent several years as a U.S. postmaster?
That “Letter of Appointment” is currently part of the James Strang collection at Yale University. However, that collection is not digitized, so if you want to read it you have to go there in person.
Strang also claimed to be visited by an angel the same day of Joseph’s death, anointing him as the new prophet and leader of the Church. Most people didn’t believe his claims and immediately assumed it was a hoax. There were a lot of people vying for control of the Church in the immediate aftermath of Joseph and Hyrum’s murder, and his was just one more claim. It just wasn’t believable, especially given that he’d only been a member of the Church for a few months, and the language of the letter was…florid, to put it mildly.
Addressed to “My Dear Son,” it included lines such as, “The wolves are upon the scent, and I am waiting to be offered up,” and “In the midst of darkness and boding danger the spirit of Elijah came upon me, and I went away to inquire of God how the church should be saved.” And what was the response?
According to Smith, God’s voice came in reply: “My servant James J. Strang.”
So, you can see why this was all initially met with derision. Brigham Young in particular did not care for Strang’s claims. He called him a “wicked liar” with “pretended” revelations and had him excommunicated pretty early on. He also once wrote:
“Is it not surprisingly strange that Joseph Smith should appoint a man to succeed him in the presidency of the church some seven or ten days before his death, and yet not tell it to the High Council, nor any of the authorities of the church?”
Which, I think, is a pretty great point. Anyway, for the next fourteen months, most people just ignored his efforts to take over the Church. But Strang wasn’t ready to let it go. In late summer of 1845, he made his next move.
On the 13th of September, Strang gathered up a group comprised of several of his small band of followers and announced he’d received a vision that an account of an ancient people was buried nearby, in a hill close to the White River Bridge. He led his followers up the hill to an oak tree and had them examine the ground for evidence of tampering. They supposedly didn’t see any, so he had them start digging there under the tree. Eventually, they found a flat stone, and under it was a “case of slightly baked clay containing three plates of brass,” covered in pictures, symbols, and letters of a strange language they didn’t recognize. These became known as the Voree Plates.
Strang claimed to have been given a Urim and Thummim that looked conveniently similar to the Nephite Interpreters given to Joseph. Within five days, he produced the record of a mysterious “Rajah Manchou of Vorito.” Never mind that rajahs are royalty from India and one hanging out in the middle of Wisconsin centuries before it was settled by European Americans is not exactly likely. Strang also neglected to say if or how this mysterious Indian rajah was connected to the Book of Mormon peoples or why his record would be delivered to the new prophet in the first place. And what was on those plates?
“My people are no more. The mighty are fallen, and the young slain in battle,” lamented the rajah, who added that “the word of God came to me while I mourned.” After informing the dying noble that “other strangers shall inhabit thy land,” God told him to record and bury these words: “The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record.”
For Strang’s small but devoted group of followers, the meaning of this prophecy was self-evident. Just as Joseph Smith had unearthed the “golden plates” that became the Book of Mormon, James Strang had now stumbled upon a second holy text, a sign from God about the true heir to the church. Could the “forerunner,” after all, be anyone but Joseph Smith? And the “mighty prophet”? Well, wasn’t this the final proof that it must be Strang?
Anyway, back then, any newspaper editor could send copies of their paper to any other editor around the country free of charge. They’d post interesting stories they received from around the country without doing the slightest bit of research to verify the stories in them, and that’s why you see so many smaller papers repeating the exact same claims about Joseph, Oliver, and the other early Saints in many of the same words. Strang, as a former newspaper editor, knew this and he capitalized on it. He (or someone devoted to him) sent out articles all over the country trumpeting his discovery and declaring that the Saints were flocking to Wisconsin by the thousands to see their new prophet. That wasn’t true, but it drummed up enough publicity that some people did start listening to him and heading his way.
And, as the Saints were preparing to leave Nauvoo and head West, Strang published an op-ed in the Voree Herald inviting them to join him instead:
“Many of you are about to leave the haunts of civilization & of men to go into an unexplored wilderness among savages, and in trackless deserts to seek a home in the wilds where the foot print of the white man is not found. The voice of God has not called you to this.”
… Strang’s second inducement had less to do with fear than with faith: he offered church members a figurehead. The Voree Herald’s pronouncement that “the voice of God” had not called residents of Nauvoo to go west reminded readers that he, James Strang, was the only one who could hear that voice. When Brigham Young had taken control of the Nauvoo church, he had told the faithful they were now without a prophet, perhaps not wanting to be seen as supplanting Smith, even after his death. But Strang knew that a prophet was exactly what the people wanted—that they had joined the church precisely because they believed its founder spoke to God.
… In response to such provocations, Young issued a letter in late January of 1846, warning that Strang’s claim to be the true heir to the church was “a lie—a forgery—a snare.…Flee from it, and save yourselves from the snare of deception and the Devil.”
Most people listened to Brigham, but more than you’d expect listened to Strang and headed to Wisconsin instead. By the fall of 1846, Strang had gained about 500 followers. Then Nauvoo fell, and even more people fled to Strang’s camp.
It was about then that Strang’s eye landed on Beaver Island in the middle of Lake Michigan. He decided that’s where he wanted to lead his people. To make that happen, he relied on his new friend, John C. Bennett. Many of you might recognize that name; he’s rather infamous in LDS history. I’m not going to go into his exploits here, but we may touch on that in a future post.
Bennett was the one who reached out to Strang initially, suggesting they “should combine their talents and invent a kingdom together. While Strang assumed the position of ‘Crowned Imperial Primate,’ Bennett proposed to be his ‘General-in-Chief.’” I’m not sure what a “crowned imperial primate” is, but it makes me think of King Louie from The Jungle Book.
Anyway, that “kingdom” included something Bennett referred to as the Order of the Illuminati, complete with a secret handshake, a secret sign, and passwords to identify each other. They took an oath “ever to conceal, and never to reveal, any of the ceremonies, secrets and mysteries” revealed during their meetings. If that sounds like a secret combination to you, you’re not alone. It was also apparently a riff on Freemasonry, only more extreme. During their induction ceremonies, the members pledged absolute obedience to Strang as not just “the Prophet of God, Apostle of the Lord Jesus, and Chief Pastor of the Flock” but also as “the Imperial Primate and actual Sovereign Lord and King on Earth.” They vowed to follow Strang’s words as “the supreme Law, above and superseding all laws, obligations and mandates of any other person, authority or power whatsoever.” Then they signed their names in blood in a book to seal the deal.
But a lot of his followers weren’t so enamored with Bennett. While Strang was out of town, they excommunicated Bennett, who refused to leave, assuming that Strang would back him when he returned. He was right.
Strang had set himself up as a sort of anti-Brigham who rejected polygamy in full—at least, at that point. He even called it a “damning, soul-destroying doctrine,” and condemned its followers with the following curse:
May their bones rot in the living tomb of their flesh: may their flesh generate from its own corruption a loathsome life for others: may the blood swarm with a leprous life of motelike ghastly corruption, feeding upon flowing life, generating chilling agues burning fevers & loathsome living corruption. May peace and home be names forgotten to them; & the beauty they have betrayed to infamy, may it be to their eyes a crawling mass of putridity & battering corruption, a loathsome ghastliness, its delicate hues a sickly light that glares from universal corruption; its auburn tresses the posthumous growth of temples crawling with worms, its fragrant breath the blast of perdition.
Bennett’s propensity for “spiritual wifery” was something he didn’t want anything to do with. Still, Bennett was too important to Strang’s plans for him to get rid of him just yet, so he declared the excommunication illegitimate. He also claimed to have received a vision of an amazing land, and a Native American he stopped to ask about it supposedly told him he was carried away in a vision of the spirit so the Lord could show him the Saints’ new kingdom on Earth.
He soon went away again with a few followers on a scouting mission to check out Beaver Island, and while he was away, Bennett somehow made a grab for power. Strang was livid when he returned, declaring:
I have received information of some proceedings of a very grave nature seriously affecting the interest of the church and pecunarily some of its most worthy members, not at all authorized by any instruction from the proper source. More I will not say lest injustice might be done on mere surmise, but I do hope the brethren will not follow the instructions of every man who sets himself up as director.…Instructions from me are generally written, always signed by my own hand.
It’s not clear exactly what Bennett did—there are no existing records of it. But whatever it was, he earned Strang’s ire and Strang announced his removal “from all official standing in the church” on June 7, 1847 for “suppressing letters addressed to Pres. Strang” and “giving instructions to the Saints, purporting to be by the authority of the First Presidency, which were entirely unauthorized,” among other things. He was run out of town and excommunicated again in his absence, supposedly to be “delivered over to the buffetings of Satan.”
George J. Adams was called to replace him as Strang’s righthand man. He had once been a prominent missionary for the Church, but was also an alcoholic and a womanizer, and he was excommunicated about 10 months after Joseph’s death for his behavior. At that point, he turned to Strang’s branch and was instrumental in gaining followers for the sect.
Throughout 1847, about 600 of Strang’s approximate 1,000 followers were excommunicated or simply abandoned the faith, and his attempts to populate Beaver Island weren’t going well, either. It was so remote, people weren’t keen on the idea of separating themselves from all outside contact, especially with winter drawing nearer. Strang’s good friend and brother-in-law, Benjamin Perce, had been killed in an explosion, and his marriage wasn’t doing well, so he was struggling on multiple fronts by the end of the year.
For reasons unknown, he and some of his followers reported seeing a sea monster in Lake Michigan, between Beaver Island and the shore. Maybe it was to gather curious onlookers who might be converted, or maybe, as Harvey speculates, it was to tie in with the “beast of the sea” from the Book of Revelation that preceded the apocalypse. This isn’t a bad guess, since Strang spent much of 1848 predicting said apocalypse.
Also in 1848, Strang began preaching the Order of Enoch, a type of communism wherein the adherents agreed to give up all money and belongings and combine their property together in one giant household, with Strang in position as the patriarch. They gave up coffee, tea, sugar, spices, and dried fruit, and wore matching clothing all made from the same materials. It fell apart pretty quickly, with people abandoning it almost as soon as they joined and others refusing to join altogether. Strang started issuing proclamations that the Second Coming was near and those who refused to join the Order had no hope of exaltation and would be subject to God’s wrath and vengeance.
He also declared that it was now a commandment that the people move to Beaver Island. He was really, really pushing that idea, wanting a separate enclave for his people. Maybe this was to prevent them from leaving so easily, or to isolate them the way cult leaders often do. I don’t know, but he was set on the idea. More people slowly started to make the move over to the island.
Around this time, Strang claimed to have been visited by Elijah, who gave him permission to start up doing baptisms for the dead in the White River. One of the very first people he posthumously baptized was his boyhood hero, Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1849, Strang took his wife Mary and their children back East and dropped them off with his parents for a while, despite promising to take them on a tour of the East coast and to help her with the childcare. He then met up with his nephew, Charles Douglass, and the two were suddenly inseparable as they traveled around, trying to gain recruits. Douglass became his clerk and they went everywhere together, with Strang ignoring Mary’s letters. “Charley” was also a bit on the effeminate side, which started rumors going:
“I am informed,” wrote one follower, that “your clerk was in the habit of wearing petticoats until very recently.”
… “Charley’s a gal!” That’s how the writers of one letter, a husband and wife, summed up rumors that were beginning to blow like “whirlwinds” among Strang’s followers by the time he and Douglass reached Philadelphia in November of 1849. One man claimed to recognize Douglass as a young woman he had seen on Beaver Island. Another added up the clues—including the feminine contours of the young man’s rear end and chest—to conclude that “from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet,” Strang’s secretary was “every whit a woman.” Still another follower, who had allowed Strang and his assistant to stay in her lodgings, reported that when she washed Douglass’s laundry, she discovered “a mess of bloody cloths, which women sometimes use, all rolled up.…”
Strang was indignant at the rumors and defended his nephew from the accusations:
Don’t you know that the mere suspicion, no matter how unfounded, that I traveled with a female in disguise would be taken up by a thousand tongues each of whom would assess it strong as holy writ? Are you so ignorant of human nature as not to know that the mere suggestion that a traveling friend of mine had one single feminine Physiological peculiarity must inevitably fall upon me as a distinct charge of keeping a concubine?
He was telling the truth—“Charley” was not his concubine or his mistress. She was his new wife, Elvira Field.
Just two years before, he’d written, “I now say distinctly, and I defy contradiction, that the man or woman does not exist on earth, or under the earth who ever heard me say one word, or saw me do one act, savoring in the least of spiritual wifery, or any of the attending abominations. … My opinions on this subject are unchanged, and I regard them as unchangeable.”
Except they weren’t unchangeable. He secretly married Elvira on July 13, 1949, and just a few weeks later, set off back East with his family. There, he met back up with her, now under the guise of Charley. They traveled around together for months, until March of 1850, when Strang finally went to pick up his family and head back to Wisconsin together.
On July 8, 1850, he was crowned the King of Earth and Heaven by George J. Adams, wearing a tin and paper crown decorated with tinsel and glass stars.
Just prior to this, there were some skirmishes between Strang’s followers and the other residents of Beaver Island, who didn’t appreciate his attempts to take over their home. During a supposed imminent nighttime attack on the Strangites, the “War of Whiskey Point,” he fired a cannon blast at the would-be attackers, and no attack ever materialized. Harvey believes it was quite possibly done to set the stage for the coronation and the need for them to have a ruler who would protect them, rather than from any sense of actual danger.
Immediately after his coronation, he announced that God gave him and his followers the islands of the Great Lakes, he was disbanding the Order of Enoch, and he would grant his followers parcels of land for “inheritances” if they would give him 1/10th of all their possessions. He also purchased a schooner—a fast, sleek boat—for his people. They would soon put that boat to good use, making raids on the nearby towns and settlements along the coastline and engaging in pirating and theft. They referred to this as “consecrating” “Gentile” property, but they were straight-up robbing the people who weren’t part of their band. They also ran a counterfeiting outfit from the island.
Over the winter of 1850-51, Strang claimed he spent much of his time translating “the Plates of Laban,” or the brass plates, which, he said, had once been kept in the Ark of the Covenant and was one of the lost books of the Bible, written in Egyptian. At some point, he claimed, they ended up disappearing from Israel and somehow ended up on Beaver Island. The first edition was somewhere around 80 pages, but was eventually expanded over the years and is now about 340 pages. He called this The Book of the Law of the Lord. It is still considered scripture by his followers today. It was also considered scripture of the RLDS/Community of Christ church in its early days, but was officially decanonized at some point.
This book not only sanctioned polygamy, giving legitimacy to Strang’s marriage to Elvira Field, but it essentially gave Strang, as the divinely appointed leader, full power over his kingdom: “maker, interpreter, and enforcer of laws; distributor of property and patronage; overseer of infrastructure and internal revenue; military commander, chief justice, and supreme pontiff all rolled into one, with authority ‘over the princes and rulers, and over all that sit in judgment.’”
Though they didn’t all move to the island, at one point Strang’s followers supposedly numbered approximately 12,000. It was probably around this time, as many of his followers really, really didn’t like polygamy and its sanction would have seen them abandon the faith.
Strang’s first wife, Mary, left him in May of 1851, taking their children with him. Strang claimed to have forced her out, and a note left behind by Charles James Strang, the son of Elvira and Strang, stated that Mary had tried to kill him when he was a baby. That could be why, if the story is true. However, there’s no evidence of that, and it’s unclear if she left Strang or if Strang left her.
George Adams was excommunicated in 1851 and kicked off Beaver Island. He went to the mainland and immediately started telling tales about Strang to the local law enforcement, who had him arrested. Strang kept using the law to his advantage to be released, and he kept getting re-arrested. Finally, the district attorney of Michigan wrote to the federal government to get permission to invade Beaver Island. President Fillmore agreed to the action.
However, Strang went into hiding. So, a warship was sent after him. The crew and the district attorney who led the charge kidnapped a judge who was friendly to Strang and threatened to hang him from the yard-arm of the warship if Strang didn’t turn himself in—a move that would have been perfectly legal at the time if it was ordered by the district attorney, according to Harvey. Upon hearing that, the judge cracked and told them exactly where to find Strang. Strang ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody along with about 30 of his followers.
Strang represented himself at his trial in late June, 1851 and won, something that delighted the sparsely populated section of the state where Beaver Island was located so much that he was subsequently elected to the Michigan House of Representatives twice. He won 100% of the vote on Beaver Island in both elections, something that apparently came about because he commanded his followers to vote for his ticket and told them that if they didn’t, they “would be struck dead.” Additional fraud is suspected, as he gained more votes than there were registered voters in the district.
He also married several more wives over the next few years, as well as supposedly set his sights on becoming the governor of Utah, according to several sources:
“Hon. J. J. Strang passed through our city a few days since on his way to Washington,” reported a paper in the little town of Adrian. “We understand he would like to be Governor of Utah.” … The governorship of Utah would not only make Strang the top political official in a fast-growing territory. It would also allow him to challenge Young for control of the entire church. Reflecting on his chances of success, the Battle Creek Journal observed that it would be “a delicate matter to attempt to dethrone Governor Young; but the King is competent to any emergency. Bold, energetic, and cunning; and…reliable under all circumstances, he will probably be appointed.”
He wasn’t, and Brigham went unchallenged in the governorship for another four years.
Meanwhile, Strang’s continued championing of polygamy was turning off many of his followers, who continued to resist the idea. He also forbade women from wearing dresses, forcing them to wear pantaloons whether they wanted to or not, which formed a rift among his people:
By late winter of 1856, a beleaguered prophet had come to see pantaloons as the ultimate symbol of loyalty. Women who refused to wear them—and men who refused to demand that their wives and daughters wear them—were, in the king’s mind, an existential threat to his reign. “After it became apparent that some of the women were not disposed to yield,” wrote one nineteenth-century chronicler, “Strang declared in public that the law should be obeyed, if he had to wade ankle deep in blood.”
It wasn’t so much the clothing as his need to be obeyed that was upsetting him. His people were starting to reject the blind loyalty they’d shown him over the years and he didn’t like it. This is also worded oddly—Strang was murdered in July of 1856, so this has to be winter of 1855-56 Harvey’s talking about. If it was 1856, it had to be around the beginning of the year.
Anyway, as 1856 wore on, a conspiracy started to form among some of his disillusioned followers, and they started to plan his murder. Thomas Bedford, Dr. Hezekiah McCulloch, a mysterious Dr. Atkyn (likely not his real name), and Alexander Wentworth were the group’s leaders. Charles McBlair lured Strang out to the docks one night, June 16th, and Wentworth and Bedford shot him in full view of several sailors from the US Navy on the deck of their ship, the U.S.S. Michigan, who did nothing to try to stop the attack or help the victim afterward (McBlair was their commanding officer). Bedford also pistol-whipped him in the face, which was quite violent. Strang didn’t die immediately; the next day, he was taken off the island to the mainland to be tended to, but he only survived for a few more weeks. He died on July 9th, 1856.
After the attack on Strang, mobs stormed the island and drove out the remaining members of his band of followers and supposedly used his own printing press to issue a manifesto declaring his reign at an end. When the assassins were arrested, their trial lasted less than an hour. They were released and fined $1.25 each, one Bedford claimed he never paid.
As for Strang’s legacy, it isn’t quite what he hoped it would be:
Many years later, an acquaintance would insist that the whole thing began as a simple real-estate swindle, set up by Strang and two other men—childhood friend Benjamin Perce and partner Caleb Barnes. According to this witness, Barnes once confided that the initial intent of the scheme was to draw Mormon pilgrims to Burlington, thus drastically inflating local property prices and making the three men rich. “Their aim, in the first place,” claimed the friend, “was to have Joseph Smith appoint a gathering place, or Stake, on their lands, but as Smith was killed about this time they changed their plans and concluded to make Strang Smith’s successor.”
… More than forty years after the discovery of the Rajah Manchou plates, one of Strang’s former confederates would claim that the relics had been part of an elaborate fraud perpetrated by the would-be prophet and two collaborators—his old friend Benjamin Perce and his law partner in Wisconsin, Caleb Barnes. According to this witness, Barnes once confided that the plates had been made out of an old brass kettle, which the men engraved with a file saw, then treated with acid to give them an “ancient appearance.” After that, they used an auger to bore a long, slanting hole in the hillside, after which they carefully placed the plates beneath the earth and tamped down the surrounding soil, “leaving no trace of their work visible,” according to the man’s account. The motivation for this ornate hoax, he said, was simple: selling property owned by Strang and his associates in Burlington to unsuspecting Mormons.
These statements were given by Isaac Scott as part of an exposé on Strang in the December 29, 1888 edition of the RLDS newspaper, the Saints’ Herald. There are a lot of other charges made in that article, and it’s a really interesting read. For instance, it included a description of another hoax Strang played with John C. Bennett where they turned down the lights and used phosphorus mixed with oil to anoint the heads of various people in a mock “endowment” and it’d emit a sort of glow, so people would think it was the Holy Spirit lighting on them. The entire thing is well worth checking out. It’s a secondhand source from decades later, but it’s an entertaining one. Take it with a grain of salt, but enjoy it for how crazy it is.
Anyway, this overview ended up being way longer than anticipated, so we’ll have to address Jeremy’s commentary on Strang next week. He’s got a lot to say, and there just isn’t room for any of it here. I hope this was a decent enough intro to set the stage, at least. I think it’s a fascinating story, even if I don’t believe a word of it.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.