Many people are well aware that Jerald Tanner called out the Salamander letter as a forgery, but did you know that Brent Ashworth beat him to the punch! Brent tells how Mark Hofmann offered him the letter before Steve Christensen, and Brent turned it down because he believed it was a forgery!
Brent: It was Hofmann that offered me the Salamander Letter, and it was $50,000. He said, “Lyn [Jacobs] has it. Lyn found it.” This was Hofmann. “But, would you like to hear what was in it?” I said, “Well, yeah, that’s be interesting.” He read me the Salamander Letter for the first time. I said, “Mark, that is an obvious forgery.” He was really upset about that, because I’d never called anything of his a forgery. This was the first time. He wondered why I thought it was a forgery. I just happened to have been reading the Chase Affadavit, which sounds like that’s what Tanner was reading, too.
GT: Oh, Jerald Tanner, yeah. Well, I think that’s what Jerald thought.
Brent: Maybe so, but I told him I thought it was an early forgery from early Church history . I said, “Only the Church should handle that.” They can they get put it in its right setting, as President Hinckley told me they were going to do with their materials. I said, “A collector can’t really do that. We don’t have the means to do that, or the other sources to do that.”
GT: So, you’re saying that the Church would have turned it over to historians, who would have put it in the proper context.
Brent: That’s what President Hinckley told me when I was going out. He said, “Now, tell the people we’re not trying to hide them, but if we get them first, we’re going to give them to our historians and have them put them in their proper frame,” or whatever, “before we release them,” which seems reasonable to me. But, the Church gets attacked on it all the time, but unfairly, I think. So that’s what I thought and the other part of that story is Hofmann waved his finger at me and said, “It’s authentic.” And he said, “To prove it’s authentic, it’s going to be shown to Dean Jessee. Dean’s going to authenticate it and and then we’re going to show it to Ken Rendell and Rendell’s going to authenticate it. Rendell wrote a whole book on Hofmann and other forgeries, later. They interviewed him for this, [Netflix documentary,] but he didn’t make the tape I guess.
Brent: He’s a big dealer back East. He has The World War II Museum. He’s a good friend. Mark said, “The third reason is, it’s even going to make Time Magazine.” Rick, all three of those things happened, and it’s still a forgery. Everything happened that he said was going to prove it to be authentic happened, and it’s still a fake.
Do you think Church leaders were trying to hide the letter, or open it up to Mormon historians?
The Salamander Letter wasn’t the only forgery caught by Brent. He will describe a few other forgeries of Mark that he caught, including one with Abraham Lincoln’s signature. Mark wasn’t happy about being caught!
Brent: There was another time that I was in Deseret Book Rare Books with Curt Bench. Curt showed me this rare Lincoln debate book. Abraham Lincoln published only one book in his lifetime. He did it on his own and that was The Lincoln/Douglas debates. He published them in 1858. He lost those debates. He probably won that debate, but he lost the debates because he lost the election to Douglas, and just had to run for president two years later. He printed up his debates, because a lot of people wanted to read them, they thought they were excellent on the slavery issues and the states and territories that it [slavery] could be allowed to move in to and so on. They were brilliant. They’ve been studied ever since. There were about 17 or 18 copies of it, that Lincoln inscribed to close friends, and half of those inscriptions are in pencil. Now, remember, I told you about Hofmann and pencil, which I think is an important distinction that’s been missed by a lot of people.
GT: It really is [important.]
Brent: I think it’s an important thing. I’ve got a lot of those pencil ones, as well as ink ones. But none of the pencils [forgeries] were ever charged because there’s no test for pencil as such, just comparisons. I was with Curt and Curt shows me this original. The book was fine. Hofmann had no respect for history. It was a first edition or whatever of Lincoln’s Douglas debate. 1860 is when they were published during the presidential campaign. He published the 1858 debates. So, I’m looking at the handwriting. It’s inscribed by Abraham Lincoln. If there’s anybody’s handwriting that I really know very well, it’s Lincoln’s. So I’m looking at this, and it’s not Lincoln’s. I mean, it’s not even close in a lot of ways. I told Curt, “Well, this is a phony. Somebody has tried to try to sell this to you as a Lincoln and it’s not. It’s fake. I went up to Hofmann’s the following Wednesday morning. That’s one of the times he really hit the fan. “How dare you tell Curt Bench that that’s a fake? It came from….” I said, “Mark I didn’t know that came from you.”
GT: Oh, really?
Brent: Yeah, because Curt never mentioned his source to me. But I knew then where it had come from.
GT: So you caught him a few times on these forgeries.
Brent: Well, I did. I should have been a little smarter, shouldn’t I? I bought half of them, so I’m not that smart. The point was, I’m not bragging. I’m just saying that I told Curt this is fake. Don’t buy it. Hofmann was really angry at me. That was one of the four times he was angry at me. He laid into me up at his house on Marie Avenue about that. “How dare you tell Curt Bench? That hurts my reputation.” He went on and on. I said, “Well, it’s fake, Mark. I don’t know who you got it from.” That’s what I said. I had no idea he was a forger. I was still buying stuff. But, whoever you got it from, you’d better return it because it’s a fake.” He said, “How do you know it’s a fake?” I said, “Well, for one thing, Lincoln’s signature goes up. The A, as always lower than the N. Sometimes, it’s really [hard to see.] You have to look at it, because it’s very close in every case, and sometimes Lincoln’s signature gets a little sloppy. But that’s just a trait Lincoln had throughout his handwriting. The N of his signature is higher than the A.” So, I’m teaching the forger where he went wrong, on Lincoln. But, he let me have it that he was going to take it back to whoever he got it from. It’s kind of hilarious. None of those were mentioned in the Hofmann case, because they were in pencil, and that’s one of them.
Were you aware that some of Hofmann’s forgeries were caught prior to his arrest? Did you know there are still no known ways to identify forgeries in pencil?
After the bombings, Brent Ashworth left town to avoid becoming a target. To his dismay, his 7-year-old son was involved in a serious accident and died just days before the Hofmann trial. Brent shares the details of this tragic loss.
Brent: We had a rule in our house, at the time, that the kids were never allowed on bikes on Sunday. Anyway, we went out on Saturday and the next day, the kids were on bikes. My youngest brother wouldn’t have known that. [My brother Kip and his wife] were staying with our kids, during that time, a couple of days that we were gone. The only hour that they were not there, hour and a half or so, was during the time this accident took place. They had to go down. Their church assignment was to feed the missionaries at the MTC. So, they went down to do their church calling. They left our 12-year-old daughter, Amy Jo, in charge for an hour and a half. Well, boys, you know, the cat’s away… They got on their bikes. At the time, we had these five little boys and two sons born after that. We had nine children all together, two daughters. ..So, the boys are on bikes and we had given John a new little blue bike for his birthday. Sam grabbed it. Our house overlooks the Provo Temple. It was up in Oak Hills area and the road feeds down about a football length from our home into a more major road going down this way. The boys were racing to the corner to see who could outrace each other. Our son, Sam, who had just turned seven, grabbed his big brother John’s bike. He said, “I’ll beat you to the corner, John.”
Brent: Well, he’d taken his big brother’s bike and so John and the other boys were behind him, chasing him down to the corner. Three teenagers in a car, a Camaro, were coming down the feeder road and they’d been up on the hill. It was Sunday. They’d been up on the hill drinking beer and shooting. They’re all 19 years old, should have been on missions but they weren’t ready to go on missions. When they saw our son, the kid in the back seat said that the kid that was driving…decided he could beat the kid and he pushed on the gas and my son hit the windshield and flew over the car into the end of the concrete into this blacktop. They lost control of the car and ended up upside down in the neighbor’s front lawn, going down the hill. It’s a wonder they weren’t badly hurt, the three of them. They crawled out of the car and the car was badly damaged. It had the trunk broken open and there were beer cans and ammo and guns laying all over the front lawn. They got out okay. Our son, looking at him, it looked like he was dead, initially. He had flown over the car and into the street. Our daughter, Amy, could hear the commotion. She ran out there and saw her brother lying in the street. She was, of course, really crying and everything, really bad.
Brent discusses the trying months in which is son hovered between life and death, losing him just days before Brent and his wife were set to testify in the Hofmann trial. Do you think Brent’s son was a third Hofmann victim?