There’s a new entry in the popular true crime segment, “Murder Among the Mormons.” It’s a three-part documentary that opened on Netflix last week. It tells the story of how Mark Hofmann, a young Mormon collector and seller of LDS historical documents, became perhaps the most skilled forger of historical documents in American history. The prime targets of his schemes were other Mormon collectors, including the LDS Church. When a big ticket scheme involving “the McLellin collection” started to unravel in October 1985 and threatened to expose Hofmann, he turned to murder, planting two bombs in Salt Lake City which killed two people.
Shortly thereafter, a third bomb exploded in Hofmann’s car as he was unloading it for placement somewhere in downtown Salt Lake City. Hofmann himself was badly injured. Law enforcement quickly figured out that Hofmann had not discovered but had forged many of the documents he had sold. In January 1987 he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and a variety of other crimes associated with his forgery schemes. There was no trial. Hofmann and prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain deal. He remains in prison in Utah.
That’s the first story. There are several book-length treatments of the whole affair where you can read all the details. There is Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, by Linda Stillitoe and Allen Roberts, first published in 1988 by Signature Books. A second excellent treatment is Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, by Richard E. Turley, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1992.
The Second Story
Apart from the first story, the true crime story, there is a second story about the role of the LDS Church in the events before and after Hofmann’s arrest and conviction. Call it a sinister church story, a genre you are no doubt familiar with from Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code and its sequels. One aspect of this second story is that LDS leadership approved the purchase of several documents from Hofmann without recognizing that the documents were forgeries. That is rather unsettling to some mainstream Mormons who attribute spiritual superpowers to LDS leaders, or at least to the President of the Church. Another aspect of the second story is that the content of some of the forged documents (initially accepted as authentic by most people, including several experts) provided details and episodes that were inconsistent with standard LDS accounts of Mormon origins. The documents suggested there was more magic than religion in the early Mormon story.
A final aspect of this second story was the idea that the Church may have acquired some documents from Hofmann (either directly or from third parties who purchased them, then gifted them to the Church) not for the purpose of displaying them or making them available to scholars but, instead, to bury them in some vault or archive, never to be seen again. Think of the closing scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. That is a controversial claim and there is evidence on both sides. You’ll have to read one of the books listed above and come to your own conclusion. The second story, about the role of the Church, is much more interesting than the first story, the true crime story. The Netflix documentary gets plenty of mileage from the second story.
The Third Story
Yes, there’s a third story. How did you come to learn of these events? You certainly didn’t hear about it in Sunday School. If you lived in the Salt Lake City area in the mid-1980s, you might have lived those events in real time or seen television coverage on local TV stations. If you lived anywhere else in the United States in the mid-1980s, you might have read a story or two in your local newspaper (to younger readers: newspapers are large ink-on-paper devices that people used to read to obtain information about daily events before there were cell phones and the Internet). If you weren’t old enough in the mid-1980s to read or care about Mormon history, where did you learn about the Hofmann forgeries and the Church’s role? I was around and interested but happened to be overseas at the time and did not hear a thing about the whole affair until months afterwards. Later, I read the Salamander book listed above. I’m sure the whole affair was more traumatic for those in the Salt Lake area who lived the events in real time and who possibly felt personally at risk.
Of course, there are many Mormons who are living this third story right now, as they view the Netflix series or hear about it from a friend or coworker. I got one of these from a friend earlier this week who was getting needled by non-LDS coworkers. “Hey Dave, what’s the deal with this Salamander Letter?” The only way to answer that is to tell what I called “the first story.” But it’s not like there’s a satisfying short answer for someone who isn’t already familiar with the details. First you tell about the document and why it was interesting. Then you explain it was actually a forged document. But that some of the details in the forged document were disturbingly plausible. Then you explain there were a lot of other forged LDS historical documents, and how the forger made a lot of money selling them to LDS collectors, including the Church. Then you have to sort of explain why LDS collectors, including LDS leaders, were willing to pay thousands of dollars for these forged documents. Were they gullible, or just caught off their guard? And it just keeps going. Every answer raises two more questions. Before you know it, you’re talking about treasure spirits and peep stones and D. Michael Quinn’s 1987 book Early Mormonism and the Magical Worldview.
One last item. The Church had some advance notice that the Netflix series was coming. In response, an essay was recently posted at LDS.org that provides some details on the whole affair, titled “Hofmann forgeries.” It’s squirreled away in the History Topics section, with no mention of it or link provided on the LDS home page. If you don’t already know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. It’s actually a very good summary, and no doubt carries added credibility for puzzled friends or family members because it’s at LDS.org. It does sort of slide over some details. For example, “[Hofmann] also forged an 1830 letter from Martin Harris (known as the “salamander letter”), which described Joseph Smith being involved in folk-magic practices.” Yes, the letter was forged, but he didn’t just make up the idea that Joseph was involved in folk magic. That was part of the con. The whole idea of passing off a recently created document as an authentically ancient document goes well beyond the Mark Hoffman episode. Christian history is full of this sort of thing (for starters, see Donation of Constantine). The Christian Bible is full of this sort of thing (for starters, see the Book of Daniel). Mormon history is full of this sort of thing.
As a conclusion, I’ll bet some readers have a very interesting third story to tell. Where did you first hear the story of the Mormon murders and the forged documents? If you have read one of the books or just watched the Netflix series, what do you think of the Church’s involvement? Did it lead to more transparency and more access to historical documents held by the Church? Or did it have the opposite effect, at least for a generation?