Mark William Hofmann
December 7, 1954
|Status||Incarcerated at Central Utah Correctional Facility, Utah Department of Corrections number 41235|
|Occupation||Document dealer and forger|
|Spouse(s)||Doralee "Dorie" Olds (1979–1987; divorced)|
|Motive||Covering up forgeries|
|Conviction(s)||Murder, theft by deception, fraud (pleaded guilty January 7, 1987)|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
|Date||October 15, 1985|
|Injured||2 (including himself)|
Mark William Hofmann (born December 7, 1954) is an American counterfeiter, forger, and convicted murderer. Widely regarded as one of the most accomplished forgers in history, Hofmann is especially noted for his creation of documents related to the history of the Latter Day Saint movement. When his schemes began to unravel, he constructed bombs to murder three people in Salt Lake City, Utah. The first two bombs killed two people on October 15, 1985. On the following day, a third bomb exploded in Hofmann's car.
Mark Hofmann was born in 1954 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Lucille (née Sears) and William Hofmann (1928–1993). He was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).[a]:41 He was a below-average high school student, but had many hobbies including magic, electronics, chemistry, and stamp and coin collecting.:55 Hofmann and his friends were said to have made bombs for fun on the outskirts of Murray, Utah.[b] According to Hofmann, while still a teenage coin collector, he forged a rare mint mark on a dime and was told by an organization of coin collectors that it was genuine.[c]
Like many young men in the LDS Church, Hofmann volunteered to spend two years as an LDS missionary, and in 1973 the church sent him to the England Southwest Mission, where he was based in Bristol. Hofmann told his parents that he had baptized several converts; he did not tell them that he had also perused Fawn M. Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. While in England, Hofmann enjoyed investigating bookshops and buying early Mormon material, as well as books critiquing Mormonism.:56 He later told prosecutors that he had lost his faith in the LDS Church and become an atheist around age 14.:205–06, 316 He had learned that his maternal grandparents had continued to secretly practice polygamy for more than a decade after the church publicly ended the practice (it was not fully renounced until 1904).:77–78 A former girlfriend believed he performed his mission only because of social pressure and the desire not to disappoint his parents.:243
After Hofmann returned from his mission, he enrolled as a pre-med major at Utah State University. In 1979, he married Doralee "Dorie" Olds, and the couple eventually had four children.[d]:58 Dorie Olds Hofmann filed for divorce in 1987, two years after his crimes came to light, and became co-founder of a holistic medicine company.
In 1980, Hofmann claimed that he had found a 17th-century King James Bible with a folded paper gummed inside.:65–66 The document seemed to be the transcript that Smith's scribe Martin Harris had presented to Charles Anthon, a Columbia classics professor, in 1828. According to the Mormon scripture Joseph Smith–History, the transcript and its unusual reformed Egyptian characters were copied by Smith from the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.
Hofmann constructed his version to fit Anthon's description of the document, and its discovery made Hofmann's reputation. Dean Jessee, an editor of Smith's papers and the best-known expert on handwriting and old documents in the Historical Department of the LDS Church, concluded that the document was a Smith holograph. The LDS Church announced the discovery of the Anthon Transcript in April and purchased it from Hofmann for more than $20,000.:68–69 Appraised by the LDS Church for $25,000, it was purchased on October 13 in exchange for several artifacts the church owned in duplicate, including a $5 gold Mormon coin, Deseret banknotes, and a first edition of the Book of Mormon. Assuming the document to be genuine, prominent Mormon academic Hugh Nibley predicted that the discovery promised "as good a test as we'll ever get of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon" because he thought the paper might be translated.:66–69 Zoology professor Barry Fell soon after claimed to have decoded the text.:70–71
Hofmann promptly dropped out of school and went into business as a dealer in rare books. He soon fabricated other historically significant documents and became noted among LDS Church history buffs for his "discoveries" of previously unknown materials pertaining to the Latter Day Saint movement. These deceived not only members of the First Presidency – notably Gordon B. Hinckley, then the de facto president of the church due to the poor health of more senior leaders[e] – but also document experts and distinguished historians.[f][g] According to Richard and Joan Ostling, Hofmann was by this time a "closet apostate" motivated not only by greed but also by "the desire to embarrass the church by undermining church history".:253:104
During the early 1980s, a significant number of new Mormon documents came into the marketplace. Sometimes the church received these as donations, and others it purchased. According to the Ostlings, "The church publicized some of the acquisitions; it orchestrated public relations for some that were known to be sensitive; others it acquired secretly and suppressed."[h]
In 1981, Hofmann presented the LDS Church with a document which supposedly provided evidence that Smith had designated his son Joseph Smith III, rather than Brigham Young, as his successor. In a forged cover letter, purportedly written by Thomas Bullock and dated January 27, 1865, Bullock chastises Young for having all copies of the blessing destroyed. Bullock writes that although he believes Young to be the legitimate leader of the LDS Church, he would keep his copy of the blessing. Such a letter, if true, would portray Young and, by extension, the LDS Church, in an unfavorable light.
In February 1981, Hofmann tried to sell the letter to the chief archivist of the LDS Church.:42 He expected the church to "buy the blessing on the spot and bury it.":75 When the archivist balked at the price, Hofmann offered it to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church; now known as the Community of Christ), which had always claimed that the line of succession had been bestowed on Smith's descendants but had never had written proof. A scramble to acquire the document occurred, and Hofmann, posing as a faithful Mormon, presented it to his church in exchange for items worth more than $20,000.[i]:80–81 Nevertheless, he also ensured that the document would be made public. The next day, a New York Times headline read, "Mormon Document Raises Doubts on Succession of Church's Leaders," and the LDS Church was forced to confirm the discovery and publicly present the document to the RLDS Church.:80–81
During the race by the Utah and Missouri churches to acquire the blessing document, Hofmann discovered "a lever to exercise enormous power over his church", a power to "menace and manipulate its leaders with nothing more sinister than a sheet of paper".:298 Salt Lake County District Attorney's investigator Michael George believed that, after Hofmann had successfully forged the blessing, his ultimate goal was to create the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, which he could have filled with inconsistencies and errors, sell them "to the church to be hidden away" and then – as he had done often with embarrassing documents – "make sure its contents were made public."[j]
Perhaps the most famous of Hofmann's Mormon forgeries, the Salamander letter, appeared in 1984. Supposedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps, the letter presented a version of the recovery of the gold plates that contrasted markedly with the church-sanctioned version of events. Not only did the letter intimate that Smith had been practicing "money digging" through magical practices, but it also replaced the angel that Smith said had appeared to him with a white salamander.:118–19
After the letter had been purchased for the church and became public knowledge, LDS Church apostle Dallin H. Oaks asserted to Mormon educators that the words "white salamander" could be reconciled with Smith's Angel Moroni because, in the 1820s, the word salamander might also refer to a mythical being thought to be able to live in fire, and a "being that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the Angel Moroni."
In 1984, longtime LDS critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner became the first to declare the letter a forgery, despite the fact that it, as well as others of Hofmann's purported discoveries, would have strengthened the Tanners' arguments against the veracity of official Mormon history.[k] Document expert Kenneth W. Rendell later said that while there was "the absence of any indication of forgery in the letter itself, there was also no evidence that it was genuine.":130
No one is certain how many forged documents Hofmann created during the early 1980s, but they included a letter from Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, describing the origin of the Book of Mormon;[l] letters from Martin Harris and David Whitmer, two of the Three Witnesses, each giving a personal account of their visions;:95, 97 a contract between Smith and Egbert Bratt Grandin for the printing of the first edition of the Book of Mormon; and two pages of the original Book of Mormon manuscript taken in dictation from Smith to Oliver Cowdery.
In 1983, Hofmann bypassed the LDS Church's historical department and sold to Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of the First Presidency of the church, an 1825 Smith holograph purporting to confirm that Smith had been treasure hunting and practicing magic five years after his First Vision. Hofmann had the signature authenticated by Charles Hamilton, the contemporary "dean of American autograph dealers", sold the letter to the church for $15,000, and gave his word that no one else had a copy.:100–06 Hofmann then leaked its existence to the press, after which the church was virtually forced to release the letter to scholars for study, despite previously denying it had it in its possession.
To make this sudden flood of important Mormon documents seem plausible, Hofmann explained that he relied on a network of tipsters, had methodically tracked down modern descendants of early Mormons, and had mined collections of 19th-century letters that had been saved by collectors for their postmarks rather than for their contents. Hofmann also traded in many legitimate historical documents acquired from rare book sellers and collectors. The forgeries were thus intermingled with many legitimate historical documents, which bolstered Hofmann's credibility.:95, 98
In addition to documents from Mormon history, Hofmann also forged and sold signatures of many famous non-Mormons, including George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Boone, John Brown, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, Nathan Hale, John Hancock, Francis Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln, John Milton, Paul Revere, Myles Standish, and Button Gwinnett, whose signature was the rarest, and therefore the most valuable, of any signer of the Declaration of Independence.:377
But his grandest scheme was to forge what was perhaps the most famous missing document in American colonial history, the Oath of a Freeman. The one-page Oath had been printed in 1639, the first document to be printed in Britain's American colonies, but only about fifty copies had been made, and none of them were extant. A genuine example was probably worth over one million dollars in 1985, and Hofmann's agents began to negotiate a sale to the Library of Congress.:132–34
Despite the considerable amounts of money Hofmann had made from document sales, he was deeply in debt, in part because of his increasingly lavish lifestyle and his purchases of genuine first-edition books.[n] In an effort to clear his debts, he attempted to broker a sale of the "McLellin collection" – a supposedly extensive group of documents written by William E. McLellin, an early Mormon apostle who eventually broke with the LDS Church. Hofmann hinted that the McLellin collection would provide revelations unfavorable to the LDS Church. It was already known that McLellin had written various letters and papers dealing with controversial subjects in Joseph Smith's life. In 1879 the RLDS Church printed a letter from McLellin to Joseph Smith III, Joseph Smith's son, stating that Emma Smith knew and disapproved of her husband's adultery. When McLellin was visited by this same Joseph Smith III McLellin asserted: “Emma Smith told him [McLellin] that Joseph was both a polygamist and an adulterer."
But Hofmann had no idea where the McLellin collection was, nor did he have the time to forge a suitably large group of documents.[o] Those to whom Hofmann had promised documents or repayments of debts began to hound him, and the sale of the Oath of a Freeman was delayed by questions about its authenticity.[p]:249–54 In an effort to buy more time, Hofmann began constructing bombs. On October 15, 1985, he first killed document collector Steven Christensen (as well as injuring a secretary in the leg with shrapnel).[q] Later the same day, a second bomb killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen's former employer.[r] As Hofmann had intended, police initially suspected that the bombings were related to the impending collapse of an investment business of which Sheets's husband, J. Gary Sheets, was the principal and Christensen his protégé.:179–82
The following day, Hofmann himself was severely injured when a bomb exploded in his car. Although police quickly focused on Hofmann as the suspect in the bombings, some of Hofmann's business associates went into hiding, fearing they might also become victims.:21
During the bombing investigation, police discovered evidence of the forgeries in Hofmann's basement. They also found the engraving plant where the forged plate for Oath of a Freeman was made. Document examiner George Throckmorton analyzed several Hofmann documents that had previously been deemed authentic and determined they were forgeries. Three letters purportedly written from an Illinois prison by Smith used different ink, paper, and writing instruments. Because the letters had been authenticated by different experts, the inconsistencies had earlier escaped detection. Throckmorton also discovered that some documents, supposedly written by different people, had similar writing styles and that they had been written with homemade iron gall ink that looked cracked like alligator skin under a microscope, although authentic period ink did not.:260, 270–71, 274–75 Investigators also found that a poem used to authenticate the handwriting in the Salamander Letter had been forged by Hofmann and inserted in a Book of Common Prayer once owned by Martin Harris.:288–91
Hofmann was arrested in January 1986 and charged on four indictments totaling 27 counts, including first-degree murder, delivering a bomb, constructing or possessing a bomb, theft by deception, and communication fraud. A fifth indictment, containing an additional five counts of theft by deception, was added later in January. Hofmann initially maintained his innocence. However, at a preliminary hearing, prosecutors produced voluminous evidence of his forgeries and debts, as well as evidence linking him to the bombs. During the investigations, many of the prosecution team became convinced that they were being stonewalled by leaders of the church. Chief investigator Jim Bell said "They're hiding something; the church is doing everything it can to make this as difficult as possible. I've never seen anything like this in a homicide investigation.":236
Hofmann not only faced the prospect of the death penalty in Utah, but was indicted on federal charges of possession of an unregistered machine gun. New York prosecutors also sought an indictment for the fraudulent sale of Oath of a Freeman. In January 1987, Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, one count of theft by deception for forging the Salamander Letter, and one count of fraud for the bogus sale of the McLellin collection. The fact that Hofmann got off with a plea bargain instead of going to trial, where he would likely have faced the death penalty if found guilty, was quite puzzling to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, "In any other state, you'd see this thing go on trial, because that's how prosecutors’ reputations are made. Going to trial and getting bad guys, big splashes, lots of exposure. Here you have a nice plea bargain.":514
Hofmann agreed to confess his forgeries in open court, in return for which prosecutors in Utah and New York dropped additional charges against him. He was sentenced to five years to life, but the judge recommended that Hofmann never be released.:491, 521–23 Utah has an indeterminate sentencing scheme. Prison sentences have a minimum and maximum time frame; the offender must serve the entire sentence until the Utah Board of Pardons opts to grant him parole sooner.
In 1988, Hofmann told the Board of Pardons that he thought planting the bomb that killed Kathy Sheets was "almost a game ... at the time I made the bomb, my thoughts were that it didn't matter if it was Mrs. Sheets,[s] a child, a dog ... whoever" [was killed]. Within the hour the board, citing Hofmann's "callous disregard for human life", decided that he would indeed spend the remainder of his "natural life in prison".:373–74 Hofmann also told Investigator Michael George that he was bewildered by the attention paid to his murder victims: "I don't feel anything for them. My philosophy is that they're dead. They're not suffering. I think life is basically worthless. They could have died just as easily in a car accident. I don't believe in God. I don't believe in an afterlife. They don't know they're dead.":378
After Hofmann was imprisoned, he was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife filed for divorce. Hofmann attempted suicide in his cell by taking an overdose of antidepressants. He was revived, but not before spending twelve hours lying on his right arm and blocking its circulation, thus causing muscle atrophy. His forging hand was thereby permanently disabled.[t]
Hofmann, Utah Department of Corrections offender number 41235, was originally incarcerated at Utah State Prison in Draper. However, in 2016, he was transferred to Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.
As a master forger, Hofmann deceived a number of renowned document experts during his short career. Some of his forgeries were accepted by scholars for years, and an unknown number of them may still be in circulation.[u] But it is Hofmann's forgeries of Mormon documents that have had the greatest historical significance. In August 1987, the sensationalist aspects of the Hofmann case led apostle Dallin H. Oaks to believe that church members had witnessed "some of the most intense LDS Church-bashing since the turn of the [20th] century."
A student of Mormonism, Jan Shipps, agreed that press reports "contained an astonishing amount of innuendo associating Hofmann's plagiarism with Mormon beginnings. Myriad reports alleged secrecy and cover-up on the part of LDS general authorities, and not a few writers referred to the way in which a culture that rests on a found scripture is particularly vulnerable to the offerings of con-artists."
According to the Ostlings, the Hofmann forgeries could only have been perpetrated "in connection with the curious mixture of paranoia and obsessiveness with which Mormons approach church history.":252 After Hofmann's exposure, the LDS Church tried to correct the record, but the "public relations damage as well as the forgery losses meant the church was also a Hofmann victim.":254 Robert Lindsey has also suggested that Hofmann "stimulated a burst of historical inquiry regarding Joseph Smith's youthful enthusiasm for magic [that] did not wither after his conviction".[v]
A three-part documentary series about Hofmann's illegal activities entitled Murder Among the Mormons premiered on Netflix on March 3, 2021. The limited series debuted for the week ending March 7, 2021, as the third most streamed Video on demand original-content program, according to Nielsen streaming ratings with 587 million viewer minutes.
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