Ramblings & ephemera

James Jesse Strang, Mormon King of Michigan

From Geoffrey Gagnon’s “King James I, of Michigan” (Legal Affairs: September/October 2005):

One letter that isn’t on display is the one that James Jesse Strang said he received from Smith just before the Mormon leader was murdered in June 1844. In the letter, which now resides in a university library, Smith bequeaths the nascent Mormon Church to Strang – a new friend, a Mormon of just five months, and, of all things, a lawyer. “If evil befall me,” Smith wrote to Strang in the letter, “thou shalt lead the flock to pleasant pastures.”

Strang’s rivals, among them Brigham Young, dismissed the missive as a forgery and Strang as an unworthy successor to Smith. Yet a couple of hundred church members – Joseph Smith’s widow, mother, brother, and sisters among them – believed the letter was authentic and that it granted church leadership to Strang. A disgusted Brigham Young took his followers west to Utah and built what is now the fastest growing religion in the United States. Strang took his followers to a remote island in Lake Michigan and declared the place his sovereign kingdom.

Hold up the palm of your right hand and you’re looking at a map of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Thirty miles off the coast of your ring finger sits Beaver Island, a 55-square-mile island on the inland sea of Lake Michigan. Only one building survives from Strang’s sojourn, a museum in which Strang artifacts fill one room. …

An old metal press, long since disappeared, once filled the building’s big front room. Strang used the press to spit out the Northern Islander, the region’s first newspaper, and to print his magnum opus, The Book of the Law of the Lord. The long-winded tome of decrees includes what Strang described as the lost transcription of the meeting between Moses and God on Mount Sinai. …

He settled, for the time being, on being a lawyer. “I should rather be the best hunter in an Indian tribe than a commonplace member of the New York bar,” he wrote. But a decade of legal practice yielded little more than common accomplishments, and little more power than that which was afforded him in his capacity as the postmaster of Chautauqua County. …

Strang met the church’s leader after making the acquaintance of Smith’s brother Aaron, who lived near Strang in Wisconsin. Initially, he wasn’t impressed with Joseph Smith, describing him in his diary as a man of “meager education.” Smith, however, seems to have been smitten with Strang’s intelligence. Within weeks of meeting Strang, Smith baptized him, and just weeks after that, he named him a church elder.

Strang, who as a teen was tossed out of the local Baptist church for questioning its precepts, had called himself the “perfect atheist” before moving West, but once on the frontier he realized he might command from the pulpit the power that had eluded him. Strang didn’t bother to familiarize himself with Mormon doctrine until long after he was a church leader. …

In June of 1844, an anti-Mormon crowd killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith. At the instant Smith met his demise, Strang claimed that he received a visit from an angel who anointed his head with oil and declared him the leader of the Mormons. A few days later, a letter to the same effect, purportedly mailed by Joseph Smith before his death, arrived in Strang’s hand. His years as a postmaster, perhaps, had not been wasted. …

Strang and his followers arrived on Beaver Island in the spring of 1847 and spent three difficult summers recruiting followers before he was convinced he had enough subjects to make a respectable kingdom. In 1850, with 200 followers on hand in an unfinished log tabernacle, Strang enlisted a traveling Shakespearean actor named George Adams to muster all the pomp and circumstance he could. Strang appeared before an audience of several hundred on a moss-stuffed seat, wearing a giant red flannel robe trimmed in white. Adams came before the crowd and placed a makeshift crown on Strang’s head, anointing him King James the First. Taking hold of a two-foot wooden pole, Strang returned the favor and named Adams his prime minister.

IN THE SPRING OF 1851, NOT YET A YEAR after Strang had taken royal possession of Beaver Island, the sound of waves helped cover the midnight approach of a rowboat full of troops and U.S. Marshals. Carrying government-issue revolvers, the men slipped toward the glow of an oil lamp in a square log house. Expecting a fight, they instead found the small village of St. James asleep. Marines lay on the deck of the iron-hulled Michigan, armed and ready to charge the beach. But no shots were fired. Within an hour of coming ashore, the landing party had matter-of-factly taken the king into custody. …

President Millard Fillmore, who had entered office the day after Strang’s coronation, reportedly received news of the frontier king from his brother, Charles Fillmore, who lived in Detroit. He soon began hearing about the king from prominent members of his party as well, who pressured the president to take action. Among them was Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 Senate rival, Stephan Douglas, who was wary of giving the South a secession movement to point to in the North. Fillmore instructed his attorney general and the secretary of the Navy to arrest the king. …

Judge Ross Wilkins told the prosecution that because the king and his followers hadn’t engaged in war against the United States or aided enemies of the nation in doing so, the king couldn’t be convicted of treason. That left the federal government with charges against Strang of trespassing on federal land, counterfeiting coins, and obstructing the mail. …

The next morning they delivered a verdict of not guilty. …

STRANG RETURNED FROM DETROIT AND DECLARED HIS TRIAL VICTORY a mandate for his absolute rule. He modernized the kingdom with roads (the King’s Highway, recently resurfaced, is still traveled), managed a lumber export business and a booming fishing trade, and enacted progressive conservation laws (“Ye shall preserve the trees by the wayside. And if there be none, ye shall plant them”). He even appointed garbagemen to keep the kingdom clean.

A year after his win in court, Strang won election to the Michigan Legislature, representing the island and a huge swath of the northern woods, and he commuted to the mainland to serve a pair of two-year terms. He deigned to recognize Michigan’s government, he said, because he saw that as engaging in international relations with a neighboring country. …

After his court victory, Strang’s absolute power began to corrupt him, if not quite absolutely, then bizarrely. He had a fixation with fashion that led him to decree that, for reasons of health, women should wear only loose fitting, knee-length bloomers as opposed to anything that “pinches or compresses the body or limbs.” The king’s stance, and the resulting uproar, unraveled the kingdom. When a collection of outspoken wives refused to don their new pants, Strang had their husbands flogged with a willow whip for “endeavoring to incite mischief and crime.” He reprimanded his subjects in print as well. “We laugh in bitter scorn at all these threats,” he wrote, using the royal we, in what proved to be one of the final issues of the Northern Islander.

Less than two weeks later, a mob of angered husbands, still smarting from their willow lashings, ambushed the king. Strang was pistol-whipped and then felled by an assassin’s bullet. … When Strang fell, pillaging mainlanders flooded the island to drive the Mormons away. The kingdom was scattered and soon forgotten to all but a handful of us Michiganders.

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