Confidence, Harvey writes, functions as a “de facto national currency.” Strang had plenty of it. In the contest to succeed Smith, he staked out the anti-polygamy position, contrasting himself with Brigham Young on the church’s most divisive issue. That did not stop him from secretly marrying four “spiritual” wives, in addition to his long-suffering legal wife, Mary. Strang’s first “celestial marriage” was to an intelligent young woman named Elvira Field. Field cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes and accompanied Strang on his evangelical tours, staying with him in his rooms and introducing herself as Charles J. Douglass, nephew of and personal secretary to the prophet.
Having claimed a divine right to the lightly populated Beaver Island, Strang’s subjects began counterfeiting money and practicing a form of religious piracy, “consecrating” gentile property to themselves with guns, swords and a fast schooner. President Millard Fillmore, who had been denounced in the press for going soft on Brigham Young and the Utah Mormons, dispatched an iron-hulled Navy steamer to raid the island, arrest Strang and subdue his marauding followers.
The factoid doesn’t get much respect as a source of genuine historical insight, but Harvey deploys small scraps of knowledge to great effect. His account of Strang’s rise and fall is littered with thumbnail histories of 19th-century cross-dressing, John Brown, John Deere, the Brontës, bloomers, the Underground Railroad, mesmerism, newspaper exchanges, the Illuminati and much else. This approach amounts to a sort of historical pointillism, bringing the manic, skittering mood of the era into focus. It is a style of history well suited to the antebellum decades, when American culture was most unabashedly itself — uprooted, credulous and bold with scattershot plans for civic and moral perfection. Horace Greeley, who embodied that time almost as well as King Strang, wrote of living in “this stammering century.”
Harvey’s wonderfully digressive narrative is interspersed with news clippings, playbills, land surveys and daguerreotypes, as if to periodically certify that all of this madness is really true. Strang himself, however, remains a cipher. Where did the calculation end and the delusion begin? Did he himself ever convert to his own gospel? In any case, the inner life of a prophet is less interesting than his or her effect on the world. Tinhorn revelators are seldom in short supply. Few of them secure private theocracies.