The first shots came from behind.
A bullet struck James J. Strang on the back of his head, next to his ear, and ricocheted away. Another pierced his left kidney. As he turned to face his assassins, they fired again. This time, a bullet buried itself in his right cheekbone, below the eye.
Then the gunmen closed in. One clubbed him so hard with the butt of his big pistol that it broke. When they were done, they climbed aboard a U.S. Navy warship that was docked at Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Its commander had watched the assault from his deck. Now he offered sanctuary to the attackers. Within days, they would be free of all charges and celebrated for what they had done.
Bloody and battered but somehow still alive, Strang lay on a wharf that reached into a body of water called Paradise Bay. It was June 16, 1856, almost six years since his followers had lowered a makeshift crown upon his head and swore their allegiance to him in a bizarre coronation ceremony.
The "King of Beaver Island" would cling to life for three weeks. When he died from his wounds on July 9, at the age of forty-three, so did his dream of a religious utopia on the edge of American civilization.
Strang was one of the most colorful men of his time -- a political boss who called himself a king, a cult leader who proclaimed himself a prophet, and a con artist who persuaded hundreds of people to move to a remote island and obey his commands. He emerged during a turbulent period of sectarian passion and frontier settlement, twin forces that helped give birth to what may remain as the greatest display of Christian religious diversity ever seen in the United States. During a six-month period in his early thirties, he converted to the new faith of the Mormons, launched an audacious bid to become their leader, and lost a power struggle to Brigham Young.
Instead of admitting defeat, however, Strang founded a dissident sect and tried to establish a personal theocracy within the borders of the United States. Like mainstream Mormons, he studied the Bible and avoided alcohol and coffee. Unlike Young, he crusaded against polygamy, winning admirers among those who opposed their church's growing acceptance of the practice. Then he changed his mind. At the time of his death, he had five wives, four of them pregnant.
Strang was in many ways a logical if extreme product of his own culture -- and from the fringes of society, he posed flamboyant challenges to American national unity and its commitment to religious pluralism. For both saints and gentiles -- as Mormons commonly referred to themselves and non-Mormons, respectively -- he became a figure of curiosity, sympathy, and murderous hatred.
Who was this baffling man?
The best surviving image of Strang is a photographic portrait from the 1850s. In the black-and-white picture, his head tilts downward but his dark eyes stare out. (Contemporary accounts describe his eyes as brown or black, though one of his wives claimed they were blue.) Strang is pure intensity, demanding attention and ready to implore. As a newspaper reporter had described him a few years earlier: "He appears like a man trying with all his might to convince others that he had something very important to tell them, and that it was absolutely necessary they should believe it."
A few years before Strang sat for the photo, he visited the phrenological firm of Fowler & Wells in New York City for an examination of his skull, a pseudoscientific procedure that was supposed to reveal character traits and mental prowess. Strang was so proud of the report he received that he printed it in the Northern Islander, the newspaper he started on Beaver Island.
"You are quite radical in your notions," wrote Samuel R. Wells, who might have determined as much by skipping the cranial measurements and having an honest conversation with his subject, if that was possible. "Should you undertake to play the hypocrite," continued Wells, "you would very soon expose yourself in some way, for you have not tact and cunning enough to enable you to carry it out into any great speculation or enterprise."
This assessment was prescient. Strang would go far with his great speculations and enterprises, but also would suffer devastating exposure. The tale of his remarkable life involves those age-old ingredients of gothic drama and high tragedy: sex, violence, pride, fanaticism, and conspiracy.
More than a century and a half later, Strang's story echoes some of the most pressing debates of our own time on the nature of faith and freedom, the shifting definitions of marriage, the power of religious leaders, the rule of law, and the limits of tolerance. It teaches no easy lessons, though it may remind us that Americans have wrestled with these controversies for generations.
Excerpted from The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America by John J. Miller.