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September|October 2005
Furious George By Neil Kinkopf
The Missing Link By Michael Greenberger
Monkey Wrench By Cass R. Sunstein
Lessons From the Swiss Cheese Map By Shari Motro
Disarming and Dangerous By Chris Suellentrop
King James I, of Michigan By Geoffrey Gagnon

King James I, of Michigan

In 1851, James Strang declared himself king of a tract of Northern Michigan. President Millard Fillmore took the king to court and the president lost.

By Geoffrey Gagnon

THIS YEAR THE MORMON CHURCH WILL CELEBRATE THE 200TH BIRTHDAY of the faith's founder, Joseph Smith. A new movie will dramatize Smith's life, academic conferences are dissecting his theology, and, in Salt Lake City, the Mormon museum is displaying a trove of Smith miscellany—everything from a replica of his log cabin to his personal correspondence.

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. Bound copies of his newspaper, the Northern Islander, and dusty paintings of him are the highlights of the self-guided tour. An adjoining room is littered with mementos of more recent island history: a rack of antlers, a rusty plow, and an old dentist's chair. Not an august setting for the heirlooms of monarchy, but Strang's kingdom was a unique one: As an 1882 profile of Strang in Harper's put it, it was "an imperium in imperio in democratic America." Since his boyhood on a farm in Chappaqua County, N.Y., Strang had been obsessed with the idea of becoming a royal. Most children eventually abandon such dreams in favor of more practical pursuits, but Strang dedicated his life to ascending to a throne, even if it had to be one of his own making. He had no real interest in Smith's church, but saw it as an opportunity to gather followers—a kingdom needs subjects.

Once he was enthroned, there were whispers that Strang intended to expand his kingdom to include villages and lumber camps on mainland Michigan. To the loggers, farmers, and fishermen who were then settling my hometown of Traverse City (nestled on a bay between the tip of the pinky and the ring finger), Strang was the subject of curiosity, gossip, and considerable fear. But the man who would have been our king was never mentioned when I learned local history in grade school 140 years later.

I was taught that the region's first residents were Indians (Chippewa and Ottawa), followed by French traders and missionaries who, in the 1600s and 1700s, explored the forests that later beckoned the lumberjacks who settled the region in the 1830s. (Around the outbreak of World War I, the timber those lumberjacks had cleared began to be replaced with cherry trees; today, Traverse City is known as the "Cherry Capital of the World.") The timber baron Perry Hannah was credited in our textbooks as being the city's founder. That he stationed guards at the city limits to keep watch for marauding Mormons never came up.

Instead I learned about Strang from an aging cohort of amateur historians who have made the king their avocation. These enthusiasts—like Anne Marie Oomen, a local playwright who recently penned a theatrical rendition of the king's rule—are proud of all things Michigan, even its radical tyrants. I'm the same way. I was drawn to Strang's story as an unreconstructed Michigander. I was thrilled at the prospect of adding "only American kingdom" to my list of Northern Michigan's claims to fame—right below "home to world's largest cherry pie."

But what I found when I delved into Strang's life and works was something more compelling than a local historical curio. Strang would eventually provoke another New York-born lawyer, President Millard Fillmore, and he would have the unprecedented opportunity to defend his monarchy in an American courthouse. His story would garner national attention at a time when, absent technologies to transmit them, national stories were few and far between. Strang would experience the law in a way that few before or after him could claim. He would study it, practice it, reject it, run from it, recreate it, and enforce it. And in the end, he'd be undone by it.

THE FLOORBOARDS OF THE BEAVER ISLAND MUSEUM are worn and wide, and in the low light of an evening they're the gray of pencil lead. The boards might date from the days of Strang, or they may have been laid when the place became a hotel decades later. But Bill Cashman, the museum's curator, likes to picture Strang pacing these planks in what was once his print shop. He sees Strang, a compact man with deep-set eyes and a broad forehead, scratching his thick brown beard and leaning against a door jamb. 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.

The Bible has Moses and God settling on 10 concise commandments but, perhaps owing to the benefits of movable type, Strang's book ran to more than 300 pages. Ostensibly the book is a guide to church practices, but it functions as a legal code. In one section, Strang marshals a parade of biblical notables in a 38-point defense of polygamy. ("God has in many ways sanctioned Polygamy by bestowing great blessings on the parties to such marriages," Strang notes, suggesting that what was good for Abraham, Jacob, and David couldn't be bad for his followers.) Strang's edicts are at once scattershot and comprehensive: The next item discusses the need to build and maintain the island's roads. He forbids his flock from marrying "dwarfs, hunchbacks, and other deformed persons" ("To marry such, is to perpetuate their monstrosity"), and he harbors similar scorn for fashionably narrow shoes ("It is a depraved taste which admires them").

Though the volume was "printed by command of the King at the Royal Press," Strang waits until the book's midpoint to address the legal underpinnings of his monarchy. But regarding his divine right of kingship, Strang is unequivocal. God has entrusted the former lawyer with a duty to "administer justice and judgment throughout the earth."

The publication of Strang's book, and the coronation complete with paper crown and wooden scepter that preceded it, were the culmination of a life spent in the pursuit of power—in particular, the power of the monarchy. Strang's grandson, Mark Strang, a scholar of his grandfather, affectionately explains in his 1961 introduction to his grandfather's published diary that delusions of royalty were Strang's "avenues of escape." But Strang himself seems to have thought of them less as an escape than as a calling that he couldn't ignore, confessing a ceaseless preoccupation with the sort of power only royalty could bring. "The dreams of empire are so thoroughly imprinted on my mind as to not be easily erased," he wrote in his diary.

On his 19th birthday, in 1832, Strang lamented that power was coming too slowly. "I ought to have been a member of the Assembly or a Brigadier General before this time if I am ever going to rival Caesar or Napoleon, which I have sworn to," he wrote. He was a schoolteacher in upstate New York at the time, and the schemes he was devising to ascend to a throne were, even by his standards, outlandish. In his diary, he considered how he might convince Victoria, the young and still unmarried heiress to the British crown, to marry him.

Strang scribbled his ambitions in a cipher later cracked by his grandson. In scratchy symbols that replaced his flowing script, Strang bemoaned mediocrity ("Curse me eternally if that be my fate") and considered the career path of a would-be monarch. He chose to keep his options open. "I now solemnly confirm to be a priest, lawyer, conqueror, and legislator," he wrote in August 1832, "unless I find better business."

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. Mark Strang calls this period of his grandfather's life his "empty years." He became so disgusted with himself, his grandson notes, that he grew a thick brown beard to hide his face and "ease the pain of what he saw" in the mirror.

IT WASN'T UNTIL 1843, WHEN STRANG'S TERM AS POSTMASTER EXPIRED and he moved his family west to Wisconsin where his wife's family had settled, that he found his path to power. Though he likely didn't know it at the time, Strang was following the trail of the fledgling Mormon Church. Joseph Smith had attracted tens of thousands of converts, but had run afoul of authorities in New York and had moved west to establish his headquarters in Illinois. 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. As his grandson writes, "He had his own message to deliver."

Six months into Strang's tenure as a church elder, he had the opportunity to deliver that message unimpeded, and to a susceptible audience. 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 was not the only elder hoping to inherit Smith's flock, however, and a succession spat with Brigham Young kept the divine revelations coming. Strang told his followers that he had decided to move them to Beaver Island, which he had seen in a heavenly vision. "I beheld a land amidst wide waters, and covered with large timber," he reported.

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.

In the year since his coronation, Strang's audacity had swelled, outstripped only by the rumors of his activities. As far away as Cleveland, newspapers reported that Strang was looting non-Mormon homes, raising a militia, and even minting his own currency. Sheriffs' posses were sent from the mainland with arrest warrants, but Strang, with the help of his lieutenants, evaded capture by skirting the island's shores in a ramshackle boat.

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.

His arrest seems to have left Strang feeling more honored than defiant. In his newspaper he later noted his pride at being the first foreign leader to be escorted "into the country on a national vessel." The United States government was taking him seriously. And his reputation was growing: In Detroit, a crowd met the Navy ship that brought him ashore and watched as the outlaw monarch was marched from the downtown docks to the city jail.

An indictment was handed down quickly and, almost as speedily, the government's case began falling apart. 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.

As the trial approached, newspapers in Detroit played up the impending showdown between the United States and the woodsman king. The Detroit Free Press and the Daily Advertiser took opposing stances in daily screeds. The Advertiser called Strang a miscreant, alleging that Strang's followers had used the twisted revelations of their prophet-king to justify ransacking homes, burning property, and threatening to kill those who stood in their way. The Free Press called the government's case a charade, arguably an easier claim to support.

Just before trial, a government witness who claimed to have seen Strang's counterfeiters working out of a hidden cave on the island made a tearful admission: He had made the whole thing up. That left the prosecutor with the trespassing charge, which hung precariously on the government's contention that the Mormons were guilty of chopping down federal timber. Strang had never denied this claim; in the backcountry, such an offense was little more than frowned upon. He noted that his followers were merely improving property they hoped to take ownership of—an accepted practice among frontier settlers.

The Detroit Free Press wrote that Strang and his followers were, with only "dim and shadowy" evidence, falsely portrayed "as being so sunk in infamy and crime, as to be without the pale of human sympathy, or common justice." The paper concluded: "That the Mormon defendants were Mormon was the only crime fully substantiated." Evidently, the jurors in the case agreed. 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.

At home, Strang busied himself churning out constituents. He had been a polygamist since assuming his throne, but after his victory in Detroit, he began encouraging the practice vigorously. Strang mandated polygamy among church elders and, by the summer of 1855, he had added his own fourth and fifth wives, a pair of teenagers. The king's embrace of polygamy puzzled his followers who had been around long enough to remember that, a decade earlier, Strang had chastised the Brighamite Mormons for their practice of plural marriage. He had even gone so far as to write an editorial on the topic: "Polygamy Not Possible in a Free Government."

Strang's government, of course, was less than free. 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. For all the comprehensiveness of his edicts, Strang had failed to outline a plan for succession. "I have made my mark upon the times in which I live which the wear and tear of time in the unborn ages shall not be able to obliterate," Strang had proclaimed at the height of his reign. It was a boast worthy of Shelley's Ozymandias, and one just as rich in dramatic irony. 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.

Geoffrey Gagnon is the managing editor of Legal Affairs.

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