The Mormon Murders (1985)

posted Jun 9, 2010, 2:36 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Jun 9, 2010, 3:14 AM ]

A far more deadly attack on Mormon scripture was the work of a master forger named Mark Hofmann (b.1954).  Hofmann's counterfeit signatures of Washington, Lincoln, Butch Cassidy, Emily Dickinson, Billy the Kid, Mark Twain, John Brown, Jack London, and Al Capone still turn up in auction halls world-wide.


Hofmann was born a Mormon, and understood the Church’s passion for documentary evidence that might add depth to its history.  Hofmann built up a reputation as a document expert and collector of Mormoniana, but in fact he was forging an impressive collection of missing historical texts, such as the ‘Anthon Transcript’, the ‘Blessing of Joseph Smith III’, the ‘Far West Letter’, and the ‘Stowell Letter’.  His rendition of ‘The Oath of a Freeman’ almost sold for $1.5 million before doubts were raised about its authenticity.


Hofmann's most diabolical forgery was the ‘White Salamander Letter’, dated from Palmyra, 23 October 1830, addressed to William W. Phelps (1792-1872), and purported to be written by Martin Harris (1783-1875), who worked as Joseph Smith’s first scribe for two months in 1828.  Hofmann’s work was not only technically superb, but the text itself played on all the old Mormon fears of being connected to folk magic and divining for gold, in the hope that the Church would buy the letter from him and file it away forever. As it happened, the Mormons faced the challenge, and produced the text with great fanfare at a meeting of the Mormon Historical Association in May 1985.

According to Harris’s forged testimony in the ‘White Salamander Letter’, it was in the summer of 1824 that young Joseph Smith helped built a fence on his land, amazing Harris at how fast he could work.  Harris praised the boy to his father Joseph Smith, Senior (1771-1840), who boasted that ‘Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of coin money’. Harris wrote that ‘in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone’.  Joseph Smith recounted that ‘the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it’



on the 22nd day of Sept 1827 they get the gold bible – I give Joseph $50 to move him down to Pa [Pennsylvania]. . .Joseph found some giant silver specticles with the plates he puts them in an old hat & in the darkness reads the words & in this way it is all translated & written down – about the middle of June 1829 Joseph takes me together with Oliver Cowdery & David Whitmer to have a view of the plates our names are appended to the book of Mormon which I had printed with my own money


This was all very bad news: not only was Joseph Smith led to the golden plates by his ‘seer stone’, but the benevolent angel of Mormon historiography turns out to be a nasty spirit who strikes inquirers and likes to take the form of a salamander, a mystical figure from occult lore.  In another part of the letter, this spirit even taunts Joseph and says that he can have the plates if he brings his dead brother Alvin with him next time. Joseph, ever naïve, replies, ‘he is dead shall I bring what remains’? Where was Moroni, the noble son of Mormon, enshrined by the Church of Latter-day Saints?


In retrospect, it is difficult to understand how the White Salamander Letter could have fooled anyone.  Photographs show it to be a very convincing forgery, but the text is quite similar to the Willard Chase affidavit of 11 December 1833, printed in E.D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed…and indeed, it may have been this similarity which gave Hoffman’s work a kind of verisimilitude.


Chase signed an affidavit before a Justice of the Peace, affirming that it was he who in 1827 found a curious stone while digging a well with his hired hands Alvin and Joseph Smith. Chase wanted to keep the stone as a curiosity, but eventually he lent it to Joseph Smith, who refused to return it, claiming in the neighbourhood that it had wondrous powers.  Joseph Smith’s father told Chase a story similar to the one in Mark Hofmann’s forgery, only this time at the bottom of the box in which the gold plates lay, the spirit was ‘something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.’ This spirit also demanded that Joseph bring his brother Alvin a year hence, but he was still alive, expiring before the year was out, ‘which the old man said was an accidental providence!’ Chase had more uncomplimentary things to say about Joseph Smith, and was happy to give Howe his testimony, printed in the book.


Mark Hofmann was by now an expert at forging Martin Harris’s handwriting, and already had a plan to produce the original 116 pages of the first draft of the Book of Mormon, the so-called missing ‘Book of Lehi’. These were the pages that Harris recorded when he served as Joseph Smith’s first scribe from 12 April to 14 June 1828. Unfortunately, Harris took these 116 transcribed pages home one day and, according to the story, his wife threw them into the fire in disgust at the whole business.  Oliver Cowdery arrived in April 1829, and the work of translation and inscribing continued as before.


The Mormons always feared that these original pages were hidden somewhere, and if they should come to light, discrepancies with the published Book of Mormon would show that Smith was not reading a set text in Reformed Egyptian but was making it up as he went along.  Even if, as alleged, the Devil had meanwhile supernaturally altered the text of the missing Book of Lehi, it would be a problem for interpretation if found.


Encouraged by his success, Hofmann put it about in 1985 that he had uncovered a large number of papers belonging to William McLellin (1806-83), one of the original twelve apostles of 1835, who left the Mormons three years later. This claim was more problematic than the others, for Hofmann had not yet forged any of these documents, which anyway would have been a massive undertaking.  Instead, he bluffed his way into borrowing huge sums of money from different people in order to ‘buy’ the collection.  Each of Hofmann’s patrons was led to believe himself the sole backer of this major contribution to the Mormon heritage.


One of these people, a man named Steven F. Christensen, started pressuring Hofmann to show his cards.  On 15 October 1985, Hofmann’s home-made bombs killed both Christensen and the wife of his business partner, Kathleen Sheets.  The next day, in an attempt to murder Brent Ashworth, another person involved in the purchase, Hofmann blew himself up instead, and although he survived the blast, he was seriously injured.
Hoffmann was charged with the murders the following February, and accepted a plea bargain for life imprisonment.  He is currently doing time in Utah State Prison.  Ironically, it was later discovered that McLellin's journals for 1831-1836 had been sitting in the Mormon archives since 1908, so there was no reason to forge them in the first place!

Much has been written about the Hofmann case, much of it sensationalist:

  • Hofmann’s Confession, ed. Jerald & Sandra Tanner (Salt Lake City, 1987)
  • Linda Sillitoe & Allen D. Roberts, Salamander: the Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders (Salt Lake City, 1988)
  • Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders (New York, 1988)
  • Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer (London, 2002)