Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Genius Bomber: The Mormon Forgery Murders

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Poet and the Murderer
The Poet and the Murderer

Once Mark Hofmann began to talk, he spoke freely of his many deals.   As a kid, he had loved explosives and magic.  He also liked to enrich himself and had shown a streak of dishonesty.  He learned quickly how to fool people and he enjoyed that sense of power.  Then he turned to outright fraud.  By age 12, he had acquired an electroplate machine and learned to build up the mintmark--a 'D'--on a Denver dime, because it made the otherwise ordinary coin worth thousands of dollars.  Then he located a coin dealer to authenticate it through the U.S. Treasury, says Simon Worrall in The Poet and the Murderer, where they pronounced it genuine.  For Hofmann, that meant it was authentic. Experts said so and people paid real money.

Value, he instinctively understood, writes Worrall, is not absolute but relative.   He realized how gullible people were and became himself an authenticator of coins.  He enjoyed conning them. 

In fact, he later told a college girlfriend, he admired Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church for his ability to dupe people on a large scale.  Despite Hofmanns facade of concern for the church, he did not believe a word of their doctrines.  To his mind, Smith was an illiterate man who had persuaded many people to follow an absurd fantasy, including giving up their daughters to be one of his many celestial wives.  Hed manipulated gullible people for his own advantage.  He might not be a role model for spiritual purposes, Hofmann apparently decided, but he was a great one for self-enrichment.

When he was 13, Hofmann began to collect Mormon memorabilia, and then to manufacture them on his own.   As he learned how to trade these items, he grew obsessed with the church's history and he went on to become a dealer in rare documents.  At first he created and sold only fragments, but then he worked on longer pieces and invited investors into Ponzi schemes, borrowing from one to pay another.

Mark Hofmann, yearbook
Mark Hofmann, yearbook

During his intense studies of religious history, Hofmann had developed a fundamental distrust of the hierarchy in the Mormon church. Sillitoe and Roberts attribute this to the fact that he had a shameful family secreta polygamous marriage involving his grandmother that took place after the Mormon decree against plural arrangements.   Yet the sustained nature of his calculated deception of the church was personal. 

"The real reward of the whole business," he told one feature writer, "is being able to see things that no one else knows about."   He apparently reveled in the sense of power he had over others.

He had set out to deliberately prove that the church was a fraud, even as he told others he was protecting his heritage.   In fact, as soon as he made an important "find" that he insisted must remain a secret for the churchs sake, word often leaked out and embarrassed the church.  It was a game.

As he made his confession, Hofmann explained to investigators that he had won the elders' confidence by producing the "Anthon Transcript," a faith-enhancing document that supposedly affirmed an authentication by an expert named Charles Anthon of the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was based.  The transcript had disappeared and Hofmann had "found" it.  That got him access to the church archives, which gave him more fodder.

He described how he had removed blank pages from 19th century books, learned how to age ink, and then developed a way to forge someone's handwriting from other extant samples or from that person's signature.  He immersed himself in the other person's perspective and trained himself to write without hesitation.  So many documents came from him that when the FBI later used 17 samples to authenticate one of his "historical signatures," Hofmann had done fourteen of them.

To make the Oath of a Freeman, as recounted in Bodies of Evidence by Brian Innes, he had bought a facsimile of the Bay Psalm Book from 1640, which had been printed on the same press as the Oath.   He cut out the letters, laid them down in the manner of copies of the Oath and created a pattern for a printing plate.  He removed paper from a book of the right date, so that paper testing would show that it was the right age, and pressed his plate onto that.  To get the right ink, he burned a leather binding from another antique book.  He let mold grow on the paper and then oxidized it to fade the ink. 

It was impressive enough to get an offer from the Library of Congress after they subjected it to many tests.   (In the end, an expert on printing presses had declared this document to be a fraud because things did not align as one would expect and the border was incorrect for something actually set in type.)  

Among his many significant religious forgeries was the salamander letter.   To get the right "voice," Hofmann had read old newspaper accounts and letters from the time period.  He made up the salamander itself, and he included in the letter references to some of the people who "authored" his other forgeries.  It was clever, painstaking and certainly amusing to him.  He had written the poem in the back of the prayer book to authenticate the letter.  So much for the FBIs analysis.

William McLellin, portrait
William McLellin, portrait

Hofmann then "discovered" a cache of papers and diaries potentially embarrassing to the church known as the McLellin collection (William McLellin being a renegade Mormon apostle and a former friend of Joseph Smith's), which Steve Christensen was going to help to authenticate for the church.   These papers had been lost for almost a century and they allegedly showed the early days of Mormonism to be far different from official descriptions.  A religion of some 12 million members worldwide, according to Worrall, with assets of more than $30 billion and a substantial daily income could hardly afford to have those papers made public, so the elders had sanctioned the unsecured loan to Hofmann of $185,000 for purchasing the collection.  Steve Christensen was going to arrange for its purchase and donation to the church. 

But things had quickly unraveled.  While Hofmanns many duplicitous deals form a complicated narrative, his fate hinged pretty much on what happened with the McLellin deal.

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