The Scotsman (Scotland), Aug. 3, 2002
IN THE multi-million-dollar marketplace for rare books and manuscripts, it’s easy to imagine the excitement that surrounded a certain Sotheby’s sale in New York. There in the auctioneer’s catalogue for May 1997, sandwiched between an 1887 edition of The Pickwick Papers (bound in green Morocco leather) and an original watercolour of Mickey Mouse and Pluto, was a work of extraordinary rarity. It was a poem which had never before been discovered, written in pencil and signed by its author.
This promised to be one of the great literary finds of the 1990s, more than 100 years old, but, in effect, a “new” work by that most enigmatic of writers, Emily Dickinson. The experts were united; everything about That God Cannot Be Understood was as it should be. The handwriting was perfect, entirely consistent with the poet’s hand later in her life. The paper too was exactly right, folded neatly, just as Dickinson would have done, whenever she sent her poems to friends or relatives. In every degree it seemed a piece of perfection – but the poem was a fake.
This is the tale of one of the greatest forgers in history, Mark Hofmann. He was jailed for life 15 years ago, but his works are still being uncovered, to the embarrassment of academic institutions, sale rooms and, notably, the Mormon Church.
By the time he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, Hofmann had pulled off some of the most audacious forgeries in history. He told prosecutors he had “forged hundreds of items with at least 86 different signatures”, including those of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Mark Twain and the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown.
And while historical documents were Hofmann’s stock-in-trade, he dabbled in other areas – a copy of The Call of the Wild signed by the author, Jack London; an autographed photo of old Scarface himself, Al Capone.
Most of all, from the cellar of his Utah home, Hofmann created a series of documents which purported to provide crucial evidence of the early years of the Church of the Latterday Saints. His work was astonishingly varied, moving in his early days from texts which appeared to promote the image of the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, to a series of documents which undermined Smith and his followers and set out to denigrate the Church.
In the case of American historians, short of documentation from the early years of colonisation, there was a constant desire for new discoveries to shed light on the murky world of the past. And for the Mormon Church, anything which bolstered the revelations of its founder was a godsend.
To the non-believer, this is hardly surprising, since the early history of the Church is so spurious.
If the theology seems doubtful, more controversial in its day was the question of polygamy, sanctioned by Smith apparently because he was addicted to sex. God commanded him to take “plural wives”; by the time he was murdered in 1844, Smith had formed “celestial marriages” with an estimated 41 women.
All of this, as the only son of devoutly Mormon parents, Hofmann was required to believe, and through his childhood he seemed a devout, all-American boy.
“I won’t go so far as to say I wanted to change Mormon history,” he would tell his prosecutors, before a double-take. “Let me take that back – maybe I did.”
It was to that end that he produced the series of fakes which caused high excitement among senior members of the Mormon Church and which took them in almost completely.
The first major “find” was the Anthon Transcript, a document which commented on some of the characters copied from the Golden Plates which had been revealed to Smith. These characters had been taken by Martin Harris, one of Smith’s disciples, for comment to a Professor Charles Anthon, a scholar of ancient languages. According to Harris, Anthon declared them to be Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyrian and Arabic, though Anthon’s written comments had been lost. Hofmann duly obliged with a forgery which convinced the hierarchy of the Mormon Church.
Another famous fake, the Salamander Letter, was again ostensibly written by Harris. In this, Harris described the manner of the discovery of the Golden Plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. This was a much more disturbing document for the Church, and one which they may have wished to hide away. Rather than being led to the plates by an angel, Joseph Smith discovered their location through use of a seer stone. When he reached the sacred place, Smith was said to have found a white salamander in the bottom of the box in which the plates lay; the salamander transformed itself into a spirit.
But if the Anthon Transcript and the Salamander Letter were the most important of the Mormon forgeries, Hofmann was able to sell a total of 48 documents to the Church, a precious source of income, as his trade in fakes expanded. However, these revenues were apparently not enough for a criminal who had begun to enjoy fast cars and expensive hotels, trappings of a life usually well beyond a young family man.
Hofmann began to expand his work as a forger and a con-man, the latter with a lesser degree of success. One business scam – a “Ponzi” or pyramid scheme – brought him into brief confrontation with hard-nosed business. Then one of his boldest ventures in forgery, the proposed $1.5 million sale of an early printed document, The Oath of a Freeman, failed amid doubts about its authenticity.
These setbacks coincided with the final attempt at forgery which was to bring Hofmann down. Again his ruse was aimed at the Mormon Church. It involved the sale of “the McLellin Collection”. This purported to consist of a number of papers, letters and journals written by a former apostle of Joseph Smith Jr who later left the Church. McLellin was an intimate of Joseph and knew his character well, which caused Church leaders great concern that the collection might come to light. On that basis, senior Church figures raised $185,000 towards the purchase of the papers.
This time, however, Hofmann had not forged the documents (which would have been a truly monumental task), and as time passed and no material appeared, the Church investors began clamouring for their money back.
Since his early childhood, forgery and deceit had become Hofmann’s way of surviving in the world. Now it appeared he was about to be exposed for what he was: not the educated antiquarian that his parents, family, friends and children believed him to be, but a fraud and a cheat. His double life was about to crash around his ears. He could think of only one way out.
The forger turned murderer. Steve Christensen, a Mormon bishop, was a partner in an investment company which had been party to the Church’s investment in the McLellin Collection. The firm was struggling, and to cover up his scheme to sell his non-existent documents, Hofmann decided to kill Christensen and his business partner, Gary Sheets; the police, he reasoned, would suspect a disgruntled investor of the crime.
For a few hours after the blasts, the forger’s plan might have worked. Detectives were reluctant to accept that Hofmann was their man, particularly since he himself had been injured in the blast. But within a day, evidence against him began to mount up.
In February 1986 Hofmann was charged with two murders and 28 counts of fraud. Nearly a year later, as part of a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, he walked into a Salt Lake County courtroom and pleaded guilty to the second-degree murders of Christensen and Sheets. He admitted that the Salamander Letter was a forgery and that the attempted sale of the McLellin Collection was a deception. He was sentenced to four concurrent terms of between five years and life, to be served in the Utah state penitentiary.
As part of his plea, Hofman agreed to give a detailed account of his motivation. He told prosecutors he had been dabbling in forgery, mostly with coins, since his teenage years, about the same time he had lost his religious faith.