The con man pervades popular culture, often as a quasi-hero, somebody using his wits and resources to swindle others for personal gain. The noun “con” is short for “confidence,” although it is often used as a verb meaning “to trick.” By definition, a successful con requires a receptive mark—somebody whose confidence is gained. Thus, the perception is that these victims enable the swindlers. In other words, they get what they deserve.
Miles Harvey’s “The King of Confidence” accepts no such popular, mythical understanding of con men, but rather builds more nuanced portraits of the players and the played. Harvey’s exploration focuses on Jesse James Strang, but finds its way to plenty of similar scrapers and connivers. Strang thrived—until he didn’t—in an antebellum American society littered with cheats and imposters, bogus money and fake tonics, itinerant preachers and professional rail hoppers. He lived in a time when vigilante justice was an accepted way of life, and where criminals stood a fair chance of getting away with murder, election fraud, jail breaks, strong-armed thefts and other misdeeds. It was a time in which one might evade or bribe or deceive justice, or just become part of its system. At a moment in history when P.T. Barnum was arguably the country’s biggest celebrity, all destinations seemed possible; shortcuts, ethical or otherwise, might get you there more quickly.
In tracing Strang’s rise and fall, Harvey creates a colorful portrait of this society that served as backdrop to his subject’s doings. Strang’s astounding biography, in which he rises from nothing to notoriety, and by at least some measures succeeds at jobs ranging from lawyer to statesman to cult leader, takes place in an intensely bizarre landscape. Strang repels and attracts bands of dubious or earnest or naïve citizens, capitalizing on a certain anxiety and restlessness rubber-banded to the electric societal changes sweeping the nation. Harvey carefully, and with a degree of impartiality, builds our understanding of Strang as a contradictory character: equal parts compassion and heartlessness, ignorance and savvy, ambition and aimlessness, generosity and selfishness. Strang might very well be considered a self-made-up man—his résumé a jumble of truths, half-truths and outright lies that over time blur and blend in such a manner as to make all distinctions impossible.
Much of the story takes place on Michigan’s Beaver Island, a short distance from the Canadian border, where Strang more or less steals—by hook and by crook, as the saying goes—the territory. Strang uses this outpost to build a cult-like community of disenfranchised Mormons, and under the guise of religious right establishes a polygamous, plundering, bewildered city state that all but achieves independence. Strang, waving around a probably forged letter in which the deceased Mormon leader Joseph Smith calls him a divine prophet and heir to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, anoints himself “King.” In most significant ways, he becomes one.
Harvey uses this island as the narrative home base as well, but travels with Strang to other parts of Michigan, as well as to Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Illinois. The disarray that makes up the political, cultural, religious and geographical landscape rises almost to the level of absurdist theater. If the stakes weren’t so high and so bloody, it might be comical.
Harvey refrains from working speculative descriptions and details into the narrative, à la Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City.” Rather, he tilts the perspective this way and that, allowing readers to glimpse the myriad possibilities. Harvey’s skillfully crafted story splits the difference between outright skeptic and full-on believer, getting us close enough to ground level—through newspaper reports, court documents, letters, journals, and so forth—to wonder. Did Strang believe his own lies? Did shreds of truth beget the lies, or vice versa? Was there room, just a little, to believe in the miracles?
Strang’s life seems not so much to mirror contemporary realities but exist because of them. Harvey studiously avoids direct comparisons to modern times, in particular the realm of Donald Trump, but he plants seeds here and there, finally capping the narrative with a nudge in that direction. It’s impossible, once the idea strikes, not to draw parallels between Strang’s brand of bold, narcissistic, flimflam artistry and our current president. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening to observe the fiercely partisan battles and unabashedly biased media. It looks more like today than pre-Civil War times to watch just how many people follow a souped-up, miserable excuse of a leader.
The plot proceeds as a kind of anti-fairy tale, a buildup to Strang’s inevitable destruction, the tension coagulating more around the how than the why. Assassins, indeed, get their man; the death, for sure, drags on mercilessly; the conspirators sink into oblivion or worse. While our misguided allegiances might lead us to blame the victim, this is surely a case in which the con man gets what he deserves.
The King of Confidence
By Miles Harvey
Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.