Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  It’s supposed to be a day we remember our war dead, although many use it as a time to remember the dead.  This weekend, I visited my sister’s grave and my brother’s grave.  I took the occasion to visit some friends I haven’t seen in years, and it was good catching up with them.

I’ve been interviewing Curt Bench.  Back in 1985, he worked at Deseret Book in their Rare Books Department.  (He is now the owner of Benchmark Books.)  We’ve been reflecting on his memories of both Steve Christensen and Mark Hofmann.  Steve was killed when he picked up a package loaded with a pipe bomb planted by Mark Hofmann.  Curt had the unusual position of knowing both men.

I remember this story well, but I know it is a completely new story to many, and I learned a lot from Curt.  Hofmann was a master forger.  Bench tells about some of the items Hofmann was able to create.  From part 1 of our interview,

Curt:  Oh we purchased lots of things from him, and not all Mormon stuff too.  I mean he presented us with things that were fascinating, but most of it was Utah or Mormon related.  Sometimes we would take things on consignment.  I remember we had a Martha Washington document.  Some of the things, I mean I could recall some of the things that came through our hands.  There was a promissory note that was “signed” by Orrin Porter Rockwell with his X, Elijah Abel the [early LDS] black [man] who held the priesthood, the document that had his X.  Mark was good at doing X’s apparently.  {chuckles}

We had a Daniel Boone document {early American frontiersman}.  I’m just trying to think of some things that weren’t just in the Mormon field.  Some things were books but quite often they were documents and so this was my big foray into that field.  I was a relative novice when it came to Mormon manuscripts and documents and so I kind of let him guide me in a lot cases.  When he would—he wasn’t dramatic at all and didn’t seem like he was trying to sell you.  He wasn’t a used car salesman type at all.  He was quiet and introspective but he made a big deal about things, but often he would say, “It’s a nice item.”

The Mormon document that was most explosive was known as the White Salamander Letter, and led to the bombings.  From part 2,

Curt:  Well the thing that was such a big deal about the Salamander Letter, or White Salamander Letter was that it was in the hand of Martin Harris, and there wasn’t anything previously known, and it gave a much different story about the [Golden] Plates and what happened at the Hill Cumorah.  It was such a dramatic departure from the traditional story because Joseph is there to get the plates in the hill and there’s a white salamander in the hole and it’s transformed into a spirit and it had all these magical or folk magic kinds of connections and so on that nobody had ever heard before.

It was just such a different take on the traditional story as one could imagine, and so he [Mark Hofmann] had claimed to have gotten it back east, a letter that came into his hands through a compatriot of his when actually later we find out that Mark created the document.  It kind of turned Mormon history on its head and then you have people squaring up on each side, the scholars that are trying to make sense of it and others saying there’s no way that could be true.

Steve [Christensen] was paying researchers, I mean this was over a period of time obviously, to look into it and we had some genuine scholars looking at why this all made sense in putting it into the historical context of folk magic, and the Smith family’s belief in folk magic and those kinds of things…

Curt remembered Steve Christensen, in part 3 of our discussion.

Curt:  I would consider Steve a friend, although we didn’t ever become close friends where we talked all the time but he was a very good customer.  I respected him greatly and really liked him.  We had frequent conversations.  He was just very open about everything.  He would let you borrow whatever you wanted as far as research material.  He was a very generous person.  He gave away lots of books.

GT:  Now is he related, I know there’s a big Utah clothing store, Mr. Mac, [owned by] Mac Christensen.  Is he related?

Curt:  Mac is his father.  Steve worked for his dad for a long time, and then left that business, the clothing business and went into financial services.

GT:  I believe Mac does something with the Tabernacle Choir?  Or he used to.  I’m not sure if …

Curt:  Mac was president of the choir for a while, for several years.

GT:  Ok.  I know a lot of people, especially if you’re from Utah saw Mr. Mac commercials.

Curt:  Oh yeah.  You can’t miss them.

GT:  I bought my suits from Mr. Mac.

Curt:  Right.  He’s a great guy, was a very generous man.  He’s been a good friend as well.

I also asked about Kathy Sheets, the second victim of a Hofmann bomb.

Curt:  Yeah.  I didn’t ever know her.  It was only later.  She was the second victim on that fateful October 15, 1985.  I didn’t ever have the pleasure of meeting her, but I have only heard really good things about her, a wonderful human being.  She figured into the whole Hofmann scheme.  As you know it was a very long, complicated story. It’s difficult to get to the heart of it.  She was just a victim of his machinations, as he’s trying to buy time and to throw the authorities and whoever off the scent so to speak.  It was a diversion which makes it all the more cold-blooded.

Steve was his first victim, that was that morning, and then she was early afternoon.  Then, I don’t know how much background you want, but that day I talked to Mark on the phone, the day of the bombings.

GT:  Oh really.

Curt:  Several times, probably six or seven times.  I called first to warn him about the bombings, well bombing at that point because there was already a lot on the news.  I was actually driving to work that morning and they said there was a bomb that had gone off in the Judge Building.  It was just a few blocks from where I worked.  They even as I recall gave the office number and it said a young businessman had been killed.  I only knew one person in the Judge Building and that was Steve Christensen, so as soon as I got to my office at work I looked up in my directory under his name and there was that office number at the Judge Building and I was just sick physically.  I mean it was horrible.  I felt that I needed to confirm.  They didn’t give a name on the news.

It just so happened that Mac Christensen’s store, the main store was in the ZCMI Center where Deseret Book also was.  I would see him and say hello down there.  I ran down to his store and he was talking to two men.  I don’t know who they were but there were tears streaming down his face.

GT:  Mac Christensen’s face.

Curt:  Mac’s.  That’s when I knew that it was Steve.  So I went back and called Mark Hofmann’s phone.

I was surprised to hear that Curt called Mark to warn Mark that there was a bomber out there!  (I hope you check out these conversations.)  Next week I’ll discuss the third bomb blast.  Were you aware of this story?  If so, what memories do you have?