October 15, 2009

Mark Hofmann and the Salamander Letter

It's been 24 years today since Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets were slain by bombs set by document forger/murderer Mark Hofmann. A while ago I was asked to sum up the "Salamander Letter" episode in 250 words or less. My results substantiate the claim that brevity is often more difficult than lengthiness ("lengthiness" seems like such a weak antonym for "brevity"). Here is my sub-250-word attempt. Beneath it I included a transcript and images of the actual Salamander letter. Any comments on what I could have done better are welcome:

On October 15, 1985 several bombs rocked Salt Lake City, Utah, killing two Mormons and injuring a third—historical document dealer Mark Hofmann. Investigators soon uncovered a twisted scheme of lies, forgery, and murder plotted by Hofmann himself.

Hofmann had “discovered” a stream of documents shedding negative light on LDS Church origins. He quickly began selling them to the Church and other collectors. The most famous of these documents, the “Salamander Letter,” sharply contradicted foundational LDS history. The letter, signed “Martin Harris,” recounted Smith’s discovery of golden plates. Rather than being led by a heavenly angel, however, a “white salamander” helped Smith discover the plates via magical money-digging.

Hofmann negotiated a complex deal with a General Authority and others to sell the document to a private individual who would donate the letter to the Church, but became desperate as the scheme began unraveling. To deflect attention away from himself, Hofmann planted three bombs—one inadvertently exploding in his own car, nearly killing him.

Hofmann’s sophisticated forgeries fooled many document specialists but innovative detectives discovered their fraudulence before Hoffman’s criminal trial began. In order to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and theft-by-deception in 1987 and received a life sentence. Hofmann’s forging hand was later destroyed during an attempted suicide and in 1988 a parole board ruled that Hofmann would spend his natural life in prison.

Transcript of the "Salamander Letter"


                                             Palmyra October 23d 1830
Dear Sir
       Your letter of yesterday is received & I hasten to answer
as fully as I can—Joseph Smith Jr first come to my notice
in the year 1824 in the summer of that year I contracted
with his father to build a fence on my property in the
corse of that work I approach Joseph & ask how it is in a
half day you put up what requires your father & 2 brothers
a full day working together he says I have not been with
out assistance but can not say more only you better find
out the next day I take the older Smith by the arm & he
says Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a
stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of
coin money it was Spirits who brought up rock because
Joseph made no attempt on their money I latter dream
I converse with spirits which let me count their money
when I awake I have in my hand a dollar coin which
I take for a sign Joseph describes what I seen in every
particular says he the spirits are grieved so I through
back the dollar 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 but only just
got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come
to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold
but when I take it up the next morning 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 because I lay it down to cover
over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down
Joseph says when can I have it the spirit says one year
from to day if you obay me look to the stone after a few
days he looks the spirit says bring your brother [^ Alvin] Joseph
says he is dead shall I bring what remains but the
spirit is gone Joseph goes to get the gold bible but the spirit
says you did not bring your brother you can not have
it look to the stone Joseph looks but can not see who
to bring the spirit says I tricked you again look to the
stone Joseph looks & sees his wife on the 22d day of Sept
1827 they get the gold bible--I give Joseph $50 to move him


down to Pa Joseph says when you visit me I will give
you a sign he gives me some hiroglyphics I take then to
Utica Albany & New York in the last place Dr Mitchel
gives me an introduction to Professor Anthon says he
they are short hand Egyption the same what was used
in ancient times bring me the old book & I will trans[-]
late says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from
from [sic] view says he I can not read a sealed book—
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 Cowderey & 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—space & time both
prevent me from writing more at present if there is any
thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
Yours Respectfully
Martin Harris

W W Phelps Esq

                                             W W Phelps Esq
                                             Canandaigua N Y

For more on Mark Hofmann, see the FAIR wiki article "Mark Hofmann/Church reaction to forgeries."

Steve Mayfield and George Throckmorton, key players in Hofmann's prosecution, discussed the Hoffman case at the 2006 FAIR Conference. Videos of their presentation are available on YouTube.

The two best full works on the case are Richard E. Turley, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, University of Illinois Press (1992) and Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, Signature Books (1990).


DMI Dave said...

Nice summary. I was actually out of the country when all this happened -- I didn't hear about if for months. I'm glad there are a couple of good books that tell the story.

BHodges said...

I was three years old, so I was pretty unaware at the time :)

Was your stay out of the country a 2-year stay?

Ardis Parshall said...

BHodges, you make me feel so old! This was post-mission for me and I had moved back to Utah, but I wasn't doing history then, and didn't know anyone involved, but followed the horrifying news day after day.

This was of course after years of being amazed when first one exciting document and then another turned up. Who wouldn't notice when the Church News or Ensign announced an Anthon Transcript or a letter from Lucy regaling a friend with details Joseph knew about the Nephites but which hadn't made it into the Book of Mormon? You didn't have to be a practicing historian to be aware of all of that.

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