Library & Open Learning Services

Library & Open Learning Services

The Juanita Brooks Lecture Series

The Truth is the Most Important Thing

Allen D. Roberts
Salt Lake City, Utah

Delivered at Dixie College
12 May 1988

About Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks was a professor at Dixie College for many years and is a well-known author.

She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set her fellow historians more stringent standards of scholarship to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner have been life-long friends of Mrs. Brooks and it was their wish to perpetuate her name through this series. Dixie College and the Brooks family express their thanks to Dr. and Mrs. Tanner.

The Truth is the Most Important Thing

A Look at Mark W. Hofmann, the Mormon Salamander Man

by Allen D. Roberts

It was over 2 ½ years ago that pipe bombs prepared by Mark W. Hofmann viciously and quickly ended the lives of two stalwart Salt Lake City residents, Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen Webb Sheets. Another bomb, intended, we believe for a third would-be victim, exploded prematurely in Hofmann’s blue sports car, badly injuring Hofmann while exposing him to eventual discovery as not only a premeditating murderer with a callous disregard for life, but also a forger of the greatest talent ever known in that most deceptive of professions.

Almost immediately following the bombings, I found myself immersed in inquiry about the confusing events which seemed to be touching all of us in the Mormon history community. For both personal and intellectual reasons, my “need to know” and communicate the facts was intense. The community was in shock and the trauma would be relieved only through understanding the whys and hows, despite the additional pain that might be inflicted by uncovering the details of this intriguing drama. A month after the bombing, I co-authored the first major investigative magazine article on the story, entitled “Bombs and Historical Bombshells” published in “Utah Holiday Magazine.”

At the same time, Linda Sillitoe, for five years a staff writer at the Deseret News, was brought on to the case because she too was a participant in the Mormon subculture we call the Mormon history community, an unstructured diverse group of perhaps 3000 academics, historians, writers, artists, researchers and readers which express its interest in Mormon issues through lively publications, symposia and trafficking of information and writings on the “Mormon Underground.” Christensen, Hofmann, Linda and I, and our mutual acquaintances—many of them players in the Hofmann story; some of them here today—called this community home.

After more than two years of investigating this multi­dimensional murder and forgery mystery, we have completed our task, having enough puzzle pieces in place to comprehend the big picture, as dark and complex as some of it seems to be.

For tonight, I have chosen to review some of the key ques­tions you may still have about the Hofmann years. I will focus on three questions in particular: who was Mark Hofmann?; did he intend to revise Mormon history through his documents? and, what was his explanation for creating the kinds of forgeries he did?

Hofmann’s forgeries have given him a notoriety his homicides never could. The full extent of his career is not yet known, but it includes Mormon handwritten documents, printed currency, coins, tokens, and books. In the American market, handwritten and printed documents, as well as forged inscriptions and altered books have been verified as Hofmanns. The names of Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Betsy Ross, and Emily Dickinson, have joined Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Martin Harris in the ranks of Hofmann forgeries. Thus far over 100 different documents of books, (including multiple samples of some), have been declared Hofmann forgeries and we are aware of several hundred other documents or books that Hofmann dealt that now are questioned. His most famous document nationally, the Oath of a Freeman, was considered for purchase by the Library of Congress for more than $1 million.

Most people who know or knew Hofmann profess surprise at his proven capacity for crime. We are asked how a good Mormon boy from a good Mormon family could commit the crimes Hofmann has confessed to. To get a clue as to the nature of the man, we can begin with a look at the boy.

He told the parole board, “As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions. Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority, I believe this is what led to my forgery activities.” Years later, no longer a boy, he would describe his excitement at duping the top leaders of the Mormon church.

Though Mark was not an achiever in high school, (he graduated in the lower 50% of his class), he was known in his ward for his grasp of Mormon doctrine. He could quote scriptures at length and had memorized the sacrament prayers long before he was ordained a priest. He visited the Wilford Wood history museum in Bountiful when he was 13 and was intrigued by the unusual assortment of Mormon artifacts and documents he saw there.

Despite his demonstrations of religious devotion, Mark had concluded by his early teen years that the scientific explanation for the universe was at least as persuasive as the religious one. In his mid-teens that attitude was not acceptable in his devoutly religious home, creating a conflict between his developing values and those of his family. Nevertheless, he progressed through the ranks of the priesthood. By the time he went on his mission, he was researching what he considered to be the shadowy side of Mormonism, reading Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s publications and studying Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History like a philosophical Bible.

Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that Hofmann’s rejection of orthodox Mormon beliefs made him either a forger or a murderer. As Linda will explain, we believe Hermann demonstrated almost classic sociopathic behavior throughout his life.

Both the investigation and Hofmann’s interviews establish that he had the necessary skills to perform the range of forgeries involved in the charges against him. He also learned a low-key way of presenting his finds that allowed his victims to make the claims for the documents, and pay the price.

Hofmann’s Mormon documents, unlike his Americana known thus far, contain revisionist content—in other words, they tend to reshape Mormon history. They altered the public portrait of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith in several ways. At least six documents promote the old anti-Mormon accusation that Smith was heavily involved in money-digging, an activity considered by many 20th century Mormons to be inappropriate for a prophet of God, as Smith claimed to be. The most famous of these, the 1830 Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps or “white salamander letter,” uses language more secular and magical than sacred, connects Smith to seerstones, enchantments, and an elusive trickster that transforms itself from a salamander. Also, the letter repeatedly mentions money, treasure, and gold, but contains no reference to the angel Moroni described in the official 1838 history

Several other Hofmann documents substantiated the salamander letter, including the mythical Oliver Cowdery history, reported in Los Angeles and Utah newspapers as containing a “taunting salamander,” and the news that Joseph Smith’s brother Alvin actually was the first to find the gold plates. Hofmann also strengthened this theology of money-digging with content in the longlost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon which, evidence and interviews suggest, Hofmann was about to “discover.” Those pages would then be buttressed by the salamander letter and other Hofmann documents, just as the salamander letter was supported by other forgeries.

Even earlier, Hofmann took on the controversial subject of succession to the presidency, an issue which distinguishes the LDS and RLDS churches to this day. His 1844 Joseph Smith III blessing promised Smith’s son that he would receive his father’s mantle of presidency. The blessing deal became snarled between the two churches, both of which thought Hofmann was selling them the letter. Fortunately, RLDS never dealt with Hofmann again, but as the deal went sour Hofmann brought to LDS leaders an 1865 letter from clerk Thomas Bullock to Brigham Young. In this letter Bullock informed Young that he would not surrender the blessing from Joseph to his son, implying that Bullock did not trust Young to preserve a blessing that challenged his presidency. Hofmann brought the letter as the gift of a faithful Mormon and it was never made public. Still, it convinced LDS officials of the blessing’s authenticity, in turn, reassured the RLDS historian dealing with the blessing. It also preserved Hofmann in the LDS church leaders’ good graces.

In another significant Hofmann forgery, the 1825 Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter, Smith explains how to use a hazel stick to divine for hidden treasure. This document, together with Hofmann’s 1825 money digging contract and 1838 treasure revelation, clearly portray Joseph Smith as a professional money-digger rather than the young dabbler described in his own history.

Another little known Hofmann forgery, Joseph Smith’s 1844 letter to Maria and Sarah Lawrence, was created in Logan even before the Anthon transcript. It drew attention to Smith’s controversial early polygamous marriage to two wealthy young sisters, over whom he was appointed guardian. Still another Smith letter altered the perception of a surrendering prophet going “like a lamb to the slaughter,” for in that letter, supposedly his last. Smith called out for the Nauvoo Legion to save him.

Hofmann also doctored a land deed with the names Solomon Spaulding and Sidney Rigdon to resurrect the old theory that Spaulding authored the Book of Mormon. He told murder victim Steve Christensen and general authority Hugh Pinnock that the land deed was part of the McLellin collection, then sold it out from under them to the Cosmic Aeroplane book store.

These documents alone make it clear that Hofmann managed to strike virtually every raw nerve in Mormon history at least once. He also made money forging documents of neutral and testimonial content which were sold not only to the church but to private clients, as well. He forged with the idea of earning income, but was also creating what historians came to accept as primary evidence that Mormon origins were shaped in the shadowy milieu of 19th Century magic, folk religion and treasure seeking, rather than in the uncomplicated way the church was now presenting it.

“I wasn’t fearful of the church inspiration detecting the forgery,” Hofmann told the prosecutors about the Anthon transcript. “I won’t go so far as to say I wanted to change Mormon history.” He paused, reflectively and then contradicted himself, “Let me take that back. Maybe I did. I believed that the documents I created could have been a part of Mormon history. I’m speaking specifically for example, of the magic-related items—the 1825 Stowell letter, the so-called salamander letter. In effect, I guess, the questions I asked myself in deciding on a forgery—one of the questions was—what could have been? I had a concept of church history and I followed that concept.”

Hofmann explained how he rationalized dealing forgeries by repaying investors with interest and selling people documents that, he thought, would always be viewed as authentic and therefore valuable. He described altering the mint mark on a coin when he was 15. “It ended up going to the Treasury Department,” he said, “where it was pronounced genuine. And my feeling was that if the Treasury Department—or I should say my rationalization was that if the Treasury Department—pronounces it genuine, that it is genuine by definition.”

“Is that the same kind of rationalization you used on these documents?” asked prosecutor Bob Stott. “If the expert says they’re a real document, then the people who bought them really aren’t hurt?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Hofmann said. “And that’s also when I lost respect for forensic examinations, I guess.”

As the prosecutors probed to see if Hofmann felt he’d betrayed his friends and clients with his fraudulent dealings, Hofmann compared his forgeries with something he personally considered fraudulent. “It’s not so much what is genuine and what isn’t,” he explained, “as what people believe is genuine. My example would be the Mormon church, which may be a bad example since I’m sure you’re both believers in it. I don’t believe in the religion as far as that Joseph Smith had the First Vision or received the plates from the Angel Moroni or whatever. It doesn’t detract from the social good that the Mormon church can do. To me, it is unimportant if Joseph Smith had that vision or not, as long as people believe it. The important thing is that people believe it.”

However, the other important thing to Hofmann was that people believe in his documents—which tended to shape Mormon history to fit his own perceptions, as if what people believed about Joseph Smith really mattered to him after all. But he had a more pragmatic explanation. “It is true that I wrote the documents according to how I felt the actual events took place. In other words, I believe that Joseph Smith was involved with folk magic, but the idea there was more to keep it in harmony with what I thought potentially genuine, discoverable-type documents may say. In other words, to make it fit the history as accurately as possible so that I wouldn’t be found out.” During this parole board hearing, Hofmann admitted he was proud of his ability as a forger. Several times he referred to the forgeries, and especially the murders as a “game.”

Hofmann’s revisionist documents did fit their historical context, and thus Mormon historians became part of the authenticating process just as they had with his other major documents. The money-digging documents, in fact, provided a catalyst for many Mormon historians to delve into research of early Mormon origins. They found similar references to money digging, magic, and folk religion, as illustrated in Michael Quinn’s new book, Mormonism and the Magic World View, which uses hundreds of primary sources, none apparently from Hofmann, and none with the dramatic impact of Hofmann’s letters signed by Joseph Smith and Martin Harris.

Hofmann’s Stowell goldigging letter once believed to be the earliest Joseph Smith holograph, was purchased directly by LDS First Counselor Gordon B. Hinckley with $15,000 of church funds. In his deposition Hofmann said that he met with Hinckley three times before selling him the letter, and assuring him there were no copies. Hofmann said that Hinckley told him that only top church leaders would know of its existence. In point of fact, the letter was released to the public two years later, after the salamander letter surfaced, and scholars discussed both letters at the Mormon History Association meeting in 1985. How did the scholars know about the Stowell letter? Hofmann had leaked it to various people in the history community, and then blamed the leaks on Charles Hamilton, the letter’s unwary authenticator in New York City. The church’s denial that it had the letter, followed by its release, began a chain of image-tamishing events that ultimately led to the church’s involvement in the McLellin collection transaction, a high-pressured deal that eventually resulted in tragedy.

Steve Christensen and the general authorities overseeing the deal, Elders Hinckley, Oaks, and Pinnock, believed the McLellin collection contained documents that would shake the foundations of the church. Hofmann showed them a papyrus fragment he said was Facsimile 2, used by Joseph Smith in producing the Pearl of Great Price. The problem was, it didn’t in the least resemble the illustration of Facsimile 2 appearing in printed Mormon scripture. Hofmann also said the McLellin collection included an affidavit that William McLellin, a renegade apostle in the nineteenth century, had obtained from Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife. The trouble with it was that Emma omitted any mention of Joseph’s famous First Vision, instead implying that his first religious experience had to do with the Angel Moroni, the gold plates, and the Book of Mormon. But a salamander had already inserted itself into testimonial picture—and no one knew better than Christensen and the church authorities how much trouble that salamander had been. There was even a revelation in the McLellin collection, Hofmann said, indicating that Smith was considering selling the copyright to the Book of Mormon—the scripture he claimed to have translated “by the gift and power of God.”

Steve Christensen told his friends that the McLellin collection made the salamander letter look like a Primary children’s manual.

To Christensen, church leaders, and many others, Hofmann appeared to be an orthodox Mormon and a gifted document discoverer. In reality, he was a deceiver behind a pleasant mask of orthodoxy, yet he himself had long railed against deceit and hypocrisy. He was already a forger and counterfeiter by the time he wrote an impassioned letter from USU to his mother on April 29,1979—the same day he withdrew from 18 hours of difficult courses. He took as his theme the assumption—obviously a bone of contention at home—that the Mormon church was less than honest about its history and hid certain historical materials.

“Dear Mom,” he began his footnoted treatise in letter form. “During our Easter feast you gave it as your opinion that certain materials in the church archives should not be made public because there exists certain faith-demoting facts that should not be known. While you may take comfort in knowing that this has been an attitude of the leadership of the Church, you have expressed anxiety because I do not share this belief. Since I can get honors credit for just about anything I write, I thought you might appreciate a letter from me clarifying my ideas in this regard.”

Hofmann was not taking an honors course—or any other class—that quarter. Nevertheless he plunged into a fictional incident he said occurred between himself and Church Historian Leonard Arrington, in which Arrington refused to let him see a certain record and said he had no access to it himself. The manuscript in question had already been microfilmed and was accessible, and Arrington did not control access to the archives anyway. But the tale was obviously a means toward Hofmann’s end of “proving” an institutional hypocrisy that even included the professional Mormon historians. “One wonders,” he scoffed, “how a new history can be written with such limited access to important primary material.”

Hofmann then tied his theme of institutional deception to individual honesty. “Personal doubts and uncertainties are seen as temptations rather than as challenges to be explored and worked through. The individual’s conscience and the weight of authority or public opinion are thus pitted against each other so that the individual either denies them to himself at the expense of personal honesty or hides them from others and lives in two worlds,” he continued.

Hofmann, the precocious student of the scriptures, the diligent “greenie” on a mission, the college student with a bank of anti-Mormon books under his bed, already commuted regularly between two contradictory worlds. Nor was he any stranger to hypocrisy. To maintain his approved standing in the community, Hofmann upheld his guise as a believing Mormon. His closest friends knew he was in fact a professed atheist who would explain the hundreds of deaths due to the Mexican earthquake—“evolution taking its natural course.” To approach his conservative LDS parents he tried a middle tack, that of a liberal Mormon intellectual who could quote respected LDS historians to support his own positions.

“Hopefully,” he wrote to his mother in this honors theme for a class he didn’t have, “our concept of the Prophet and the Church will stand up under examination, but if it does not, would it not be better to change our concept so that it becomes consistent with the facts rather than just ignoring them?”

“The truth is the most important thing,” he concluded. “Our idea of reality should be consistent with it.” He signed the letter “Love, Mark.”

The year 1979, when Hofmann wrote this letter, was an important turning point for him. That year Hofmann married, he decided on a document career rather than going to medical school, and he sold his first known forgery—a secret temple ceremony called the “second anointing.” As he changed the direction of his life, he explained to one person very close to him why he wanted a full-time career in Mormon documents and research—because the documents he found would convince people they believed in a fairytale. Seven months later, he forged the Anthon transcript and sold it to the Mormon church.

Now his career was off to a spectacular start. “The truth is the most important thing,” he’d written. Now he had only to make everyone’s reality consistent with it.

Today, nine years later, we have adjusted our perceptions of the manufactured historical “reality” Hofmann created. In recognizing the forgeries and the forger, we can dismiss as fake a veritable “Hall of Fame” of superlative documents. They include the following “top ten.”

  1. The earliest Joseph Smith holograph (1825 Josiah Stowell letter).
  2. The very last Joseph Smith holograph (1844 Jonathan Dunham).
  3. The earliest Lucy Mack Smith holograph (1829 Lucy Mack Smith letter).
  4. The earliest Martin Harris holograph (1830 Martin Harris Salamander letter) plus three other handwriting samples from a man who had previously left none.
  5. The earliest history of the church (1829-30 non­existent Oliver Cowdery history).
  6. The only document signed by Solomon Spaulding and Sidney Rigdon (1822 land contract).
  7. The only “second anointing” holograph (c. 1912).
  8. The only primary document recording the bestowal of the church presidency by Joseph Smith Jr. upon Joseph Smith III (1844 Joseph Smith III blessing).
  9. The original document closest to the Book of Mormon plates (1828 Anthon transcript).
  10. The earliest document ever printed in America (and its twin), (1639 “Oath of a Freeman”).

It is easy now in retrospect to say, “No one could have really found all those documents.” But before 1985, no one other than Hofmann knew the totality of this list. His most significant and costly forgeries had been authenticated by America’s most respected experts and, as importantly, Hofmann was highly trusted in most circles.

We say hello to an enigma. Mark Hofmann was raised in the church, filled a mission, married in the temple, associated with general authorities, maintained a current temple recommend, and fathered four children, one while he was a murder suspect. Many thought they knew him; few think so now. Late at night, he would work alone, below the ground in his secret basement lab, as he researched, forged and peddled his wares to eager and unsuspecting victims, he obscured his identity with many names: (MH initials) Mark Hofmann, Mike Hansen, Mike Harris, Martin Harris. In his most imaginative and notorious forgery, he created a white salamander, a clever and defiant trickster. It lived in a hole beside a treasure and had the temerity to smite a prophet of God and exclaim, “I tricked you again.”