DePaul University Newsline > Sections > Signed by the Author > The King of Confidence

Faculty explores life, assassination of 19th century con artist

King of Confidence
(DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch

By: Miles Harvey, Department of English

"The Kind of Confidence" tells the story of the most infamous American con man you've never heard of: James Strang. 

In the summer of 1843, Strang, a charismatic young lawyer and avowed atheist, vanished from a rural town in New York. Months later he reappeared on the Midwestern frontier and converted to a burgeoning religious movement known as Mormonism. Following the murder of church founder Joseph Smith, Strang unveiled a letter purportedly from the prophet naming him successor. He then persuaded hundreds of fellow converts to follow him to Beaver Island in northernmost Lake Michigan, where he declared himself a divine king. From this stronghold he controlled a fourth of the state of Michigan, establishing a pirate colony where he practiced plural marriage and perpetrated thefts, corruption, and frauds of all kinds. Eventually, having run afoul of powerful enemies, including the U.S. president, Strang was assassinated, an event that was front-page news across the country.
(Image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

I encountered many surprises in researching this complex and fascinating figure. One of them was Strang's brilliance in understanding new media technologies and using them to his advantage. The newspaper boom of the mid-19th century, along with the invention of the telegraph, created a complex and fast-moving grid of news gathering and dissemination that had much in common with the information superhighway of our own times. As an experienced newspaper editor, Strang was able to exploit this new system to spread his propaganda across the country while commanding national news coverage from his island kingdom on the far reaches of the American frontier.

What inspired you to write this book?

I got lucky on this one. An editor from Little, Brown and Company contacted me with the idea. I was skeptical at first, but I quickly fell in love with Strang's saga, which has much to say about our own times. One of the things that drew me to the story is that it takes place almost entirely in the Midwest, an area of the country that, in my opinion, has too small a place in our collective historical imagination.

About the author:

Miles Harvey is a professor in DePaul's Department of English, where he teaches creative writing. he also is the founding editor of Big Shoulders Books and the director of the new DePaul Publishing Institute. His books include "The King of Confidence," "Painter in a Savage Land" and "The Island of Lost Maps."

Publisher, publication date, length:

Little, Brown and Company, July 2020, 403 pages

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