Man Makes Fortune Forging Mormon Documents and Murders by Bombing
Mark Hofmann was a Mormon forger, counterfeiter, and murderer from Salt Lake City, Utah. Throughout the 1980s Hofmann made a large sum of money through forgery of Mormon and American documents, and when his schemes began to get solved, he also committed three separate bombing murders.
In 1980, Hofmann claimed he found the 17th century King James Bible with a folded paper that was thought to be a transcription belonging to Joseph Smith, the man who wrote the book of Mormon from transcriptions off of golden plates he found in the Utah desert. Specifically, a version of the transcription was presented by Smith’s scribe Martin Harris to Columbia classics professor Charles Anthon in 1828. This document, of course, was one of Hofmann’s forgeries, and he constructed it based on Anthon’s description of the document. Dean Jessee, who is an expert on handwriting and old documents in the LDS Church’s Historical Department, believed the document to be a Smith holograph – in other words, written in Smith’s handwriting. The Mormon Church then bought the document from Hofmann for more than $20,000, as well as duplicate artifacts from the church, including a $5 gold Mormon coin, discrete banknotes, and a 1st edition Book of Mormon.
Soon after, Hofmann dropped out of school to deal in rare books, as well as “discover” more documents previously unknown to the LDS Church, earning him a notable reputation among Mormon history buffs. He had managed to fool everyone; not only the senior leaders of the church but also document experts and historians of distinction. According to Richard and Joan Ostling, co-authors of Mormon America: the Power and the Promise, Hofmann was at this point a “closet apostate” who was motivated purely by greed and a desire to humiliate the church. In the 1980s, a large number of Mormon documents suddenly surfaced and came into the marketplace, some bought by the church and others donated to it, of which some were publicized, and others buried and suppressed.
In 1981, Hofmann presented the LDS Church with a document that would shake the foundations of the church. Supposedly, the document provided evidence that Joseph Smith wanted his son Joseph Smith III to succeed him, rather than Brigham Young, who did. A forged letter from Thomas Bullock, a clerk in the Historian’s office, chastised Young for destroying all copies of the blessing (which again, is also a forgery). He says in the letter that he believed that although he believed Young to be the legitimate leader, he would keep the blessing. The presence of the blessing and letter would shine a disfavorable light on Young and the Church. He expected the Church to buy the letter and bury it immediately, but they rejected it for its price. Instead, Hofmann offered it to the Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ), who believe succession should have gone through Smith’s bloodline but had no written proof.
The LDS church immediately scrambled to claim the document, and Hofmann presented it to his church, posing as a faithful Mormon, for items and relics worth more than $20,000. At the same time, he ensured that the documents came to light anyway. The case received a great deal of publicity, forcing the LDS church to openly acknowledge the document, and present it to the RLDS church. The Utah and Missouri chapters were racing each other to acquire the document, and Hofmann saw the opportunity to “exercise his power” on the Church. Not only would he repeat his scam, but his ultimate goal was to do so by forging the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, and lacing them with inconsistencies and errors.
The most famous of the forgeries, which showed up in 1984, the salamander letter presented a version of the recovery of the gold plates (a core part of the Mormon mythos) that differed from the version sanctioned by the church. This version showed that Smith found the gold plates through magic money-finding, and the angel in the story is replaced with a white salamander, a mythical creature said to be able to live in fire. This letter was the first to be declared a forgery.
Hofmann’s forgeries didn’t only extend to Mormon scripture. He also forged the signatures of many non-Mormon men of American importance, like George Washington, John Adams, John Qunicy Adams, Daniel Boone, John Brown, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, and others. But his grandest scheme was forging one of the most famous missing American documents, the Oath of a Freeman. The oath was originally printed in 1639, and only fifty were ever printed. A genuine copy would have sold for $1 million in 1985, and Hofmann’s agents commenced sales negotiations with the Library of Congress.
Hofmann was deep in debt, despite the amount of money he made. His lavish lifestyle and purchases of first-edition books had taken their toll on his pocketbook. He attempted to broker a sale with the McLellin collection, owned by William McLellin, an early apostle who split from the church. The trouble was, he didn’t know where the collection was, nor did he have the time to forge nearly enough documents. All the while, his debts crept upon him, the people he promised documents came knocking, and his sale of Oath of a Freeman was delayed over questions of its authenticity.
Hoping to buy some time, Hofmann started building bombs. On Oct. 15, 1985, document collector Steven Christensen was killed by one of the said bombs. His secretary was wounded by the shrapnel. Later that day, bomb number two killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen’s former employer. Police initially suspected the bombings were related to an investment business owned by Sheets’ husband, who was also Christensen’s mentor. Bomb number 3 is where things went wrong. The next day, while driving his Toyota MR2, Hofmann was badly injured when the third bomb went off. All at once, the police smelled blood in the water and focused on Hofmann as the main suspect. Many of his business associates went underground, fearing they were the next to get hurt.
The Jig was Up:
Police investigation of the bombings led them to find evidence of forgeries in Hofmann’s basement, including but not limited to the engraving plant with the forges plate for Oath of a Freeman. Document examiner George Throckmorton began looking into documents provided by Hofmann, previously determined to be legitimate and found that they were all forgeries. A number of documents were examined, and investigation revealed that many had striking similarities in writing styles and that they were written in homemade iron gall ink, which under a microscope, appeared cracked in a way that authentic period ink did not.
Hofmann was arrested in 1986 and charged with 4 indictments, for a total of 27 counts, among them 1st-degree murder, delivering a bomb, constructing or possessing a bomb, theft by deception, and communication fraud. A fifth indictment added five more counts of theft by deception. During the investigation, many prosecutors felt that the LDS church was hindering their efforts, likely to save face.
Hofmann faced the death penalty in Utah, as well as a federal indictment for ownership of an unregistered machine gun, and an indictment from New York prosecutors for the Oath of a Freeman incident. In 1987 Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of 2nd-degree murder, a count of theft by deception for the Salamander letter, and a count of fraudulent sale to the McLellin collection. He ended up getting off with a plea bargain, after which it was determined that he would be sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in prison.
His forgeries had a lasting effect. He’d managed to fool many experts in their various fields, many of whom trusted his forgeries for years. The Mormon church was also hit hard. According to Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, Mormons had seen some of the most intense prejudice since the turn of the century. It is close to impossible to tell how many forgeries of Hofmann’s are still circulating out there, but at least the man himself was brought under the iron grip of justice.