But Strang also could have been scheming to fulfill a lifelong desire for grand authority. Strang’s four biographers, Van Noord included, have all sought insight in a diary Strang kept as a young man. The entries (some of which were written in code and deciphered more than 100 years later by his grandson, Mark Strang) show a bright, frustrated mind longing to make the mark of a Caesar or a Napoleon. At one point, Strang confesses to daydreaming of a plot to marry Princess Victoria. “My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power,” he wrote.
If indeed he saw the Mormon movement as a vehicle to gain power, the idea dovetailed with a more pragmatic one: land speculation. Strang’s lifelong best friend, Benjamin Perce, who was also Mary’s brother, was a land speculator in Burlington. Strang was his sometime partner and the pair could well have hoped to exploit the Mormon need to flee the persecution that surrounded them in Nauvoo. Indeed, when Strang left Nauvoo he’d obtained Joseph Smith’s blessings to research the idea of a Mormon settlement near Burlingtion.
Perhaps no one will ever completely understand what led Strang to Nauvoo, because within months of returning to Burlington he’d become the focus of intense controversy, making any accounts of him suspect. “Most of the contemporary material related to Strang was left by Strangites or virulent opponents—the credibility of either side had to be questioned,” says Van Noord.
Strang launched the controversy with a letter he claimed Joseph Smith wrote to him just prior to Smith’s assassination. In the letter, Smith predicted his martyrdom, appointed Strang the church’s new leader—at God’s direction—and instructed Strang to establish a Mormon colony near Burlington to be called Voree, meaning garden of peace. In addition to the letter, Strang claimed that approximately 15 minutes after Smith died an angel appeared to him and anointed his head with oil.
Armed with authority bestowed by both God and Joseph Smith, Strang plunged into the leadership void caused by Smith’s death. He trekked around the Great Lakes and Northeast persuading Mormons of his claim. In so doing, he clashed with Brigham Young, then head of the church’s twelve apostles and the man who quickly emerged as the favorite to succeed Smith.
If the Smith letter (now a part of a Yale University collection of Strang’s papers) was a fraud, it was a good one. Its Nauvoo, June 19 postmark is genuine and Joseph Smith probably did mail a letter to Strang shortly before his assassination—perhaps declining Strang’s proposal for a Wisconsin settlement. But Van Noord, for one, theorizes that Strang could well have saved the envelope (actually a second piece of paper) and then composed a new letter. “If you really think about the sequence of events you have to believe that he saw an article in a newspaper about Smith’s assassination then decided to forge the letter,” says Van Noord.
Strang soon bolstered the letter of appointment with the claim of a second angelic visit in September 1845. The divine manifestation reinforced Strang’s prophet status and bore remarkable similarity to Joseph Smith’s more renowned revelation that launched Mormonism. In Smith’s divination, the angel Moroni led Smith to gold plates buried in a hill near his home in Western, New York. Smith unearthed the plates and then translated their ancient writings—a task that resulted in the Book of Mormon.
In Strang’s revelation, an angel directed him to a site near Voree where three brass plates covered with cryptic symbols were unearthed. Strang then translated what he said were the ancient writings of one Rajah Manchou of Vorito who, among other things, prophesied Strang’s claim to the church. News of the plates brought plenty of burning criticism, but nonetheless, Strang’s ranks swelled.