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Mark Hofmann was possibly one of the greatest forgers of all time. The documents he produced fooled countless experts and it is thought that many of his forgeries are still in the wild today. The consequences of his forgeries escaped him though and the end result was the pipe bomb murders of October 1985.

Hofmann's first encounter with fraud came at the young age of 15. He managed to fake a mint mark on a coin and then tried to sell it to a local coin dealer. The dealer was thrilled and after it was pronounced genuine by the Treasury department, he bought it from Hofmann for several thousand dollars. Hofmann claims that was "when I lost respect for forensic examination".

Early Forgeries

Mark Hofmann was a dealer in historical documents. He lived a quiet life in Salt Lake City and was married with the children. Although he is today best known for his forgeries and the murders that followed, at the time he was respected in his field and did in fact find many genuine documents. This gave him access to some of the finest library collections, and it is believed that he may have stolen volumes or ripped blank pages from books. His first forgeries involved "autographing" early editions of books in order to increase their value. Later on he faked letters by people such as Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. The quality of his forgeries was extremely high, as well as using original paper from the period of the document he was forging and artificially aged inks manufactured using the techniques of the period, he was able to imitate people's handwriting very precisely.

Although money was certainly a motivator for Hofmann, it appears that it was not the only one. Producing the forgeries brought excitement to his life, not only because he was fooling people, but also because it enabled him to rewrite history as he saw it. He claims that the documents relating to Mormon history that he "discovered", portrayed events as he believed they might have happened, although it appears many of the ideas in his forgeries were borrowed from other sources (in particular the idea of the salamander).

Tales from the Mormons

One of his largest scale set of forgeries, that eventually led to his downfall, centred on important documents from Mormon history. Many of these documents were alleged to be damaging to the Church's current presentation of their history. Although Hofmann was raised as a Mormon he claims to have ceased being a believer at the age of 14, while still maintaining a surface compliance. At the very least he did not believe in the Church's divine guidance when it came to authenticating documents, since over a period of 5 years he sold 446 forged documents to officers of the church for a total of several hundred thousand dollars. The documents he produced contradicted the Mormon Church's presentation of their history and were eagerly snapped up and hidden away. To keep them on their toes Hofmann even leaked details of his "discoveries" to the press, further discrediting the Latter-Day-Saints.

The Salamander Letter

One of his most famous forgeries was the Salamander Letter. This letter, supposedly written by Martin Harris to W.W Phelps described an event at the heart of the Mormon faith, the discovery by Joseph Smith of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. The account given differs strongly from the standard faith story; the benevolent angel is replaced by an agressive white salamander and Joseph Smith became involved with folk magic. Amusingly the church leadership managed to bend over backwards and claim the letter reaffirmed the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith. It is also thought that the document may have been laying the ground for a forgery of the lost Book of Lehi, also written by Harris. If Hofmann had discovered these missing 116 pages they would almost certainly have been compared against the Salamander letter as part of an attempt to authenticate them. The manuscript could have been worth millions of dollars.

The McLellin collection

What ultimately lead to Hofmann's downfall was a series of documents known as the McLellin collection. This was a collection of papers, letters and journals written by a former Apostle of Joseph Smith, William E. McLellin who later left the church. The two were said to be on very close terms and the LDS leaders were worried that the documents might come to light. Unlike other documents, this one wasn't forged by Hofmann and was not in a position to buy it either as he had no idea of its location. He was nevertheless able to secure a loan for $185,000 from Hugh Pinnock, a General Authority of the Church in order to purchase the collection. It is thought that Hofmann wanted to use the capital in order to sustain himself until he had managed to sell his forgery of "The Oath of a Freeman", the first document printed in colonial America. It is thought that the Library of Congress would have bought the document for a price of around $1,500,000, after which Hofmann could repay the LDS and claim that he was unable to finalise his purchase of the McLellin collection. The sale of "The Oath of a Freeman" was delayed however and the Church had begun to ask for its money to be returned. It was apparently unaware that it had already purchased the McLellin collection in 1908 (the documents were found as part of the investigation into Hofmann's forgeries).

The murders

To buy more time, Hofmann decided to murder his contact with the Church, Steve Christensen. This was carried out on October 15, 1985 with a home-made bomb. On the same day Kathy Sheets, the wife of one of Christensen's associates was killed by a similar device. Hofmann was actually trying to kill her husband, but the death of Kathy was satisfactory as Hofmann was trying to throw investigators off his tracks by making it appear as if the attacks were part of a vendetta against Steve Christensen's company. The Church however simply replaced Christensen. The next day Hofmann mishandled a third homemade device, seriously injuring himself. It is thought that this bomb was destined for Brent Ashworth, a successful lawyer and businessman who collected Mormon documents. Hofmann was probably hoping that this second death related to Mormon documents would scare the Church sufficiently to drop the deal.

It was months however before Hofmann was finally charged with the murders in February 1986. Doubts subsisted though until he confessed in 1987. He is currently an inmate of the Utah State Penitentiary, where he is serving a life sentence.

Over the years he certainly made a tidy profit from his forgeries, however the exact amount and what the money was used for remain unknown, as the charges against him relating to forgery were dropped as part of a plea bargain. It is believed that he made over $2,000,000 as a result of selling counterfeit documents, which continue to turn up (in 1997 a poem supposedly by Emily Dickinson was sold by Sotheby's for $24,150).

http://utlm.org/newsletters/no59.htm (has full text of salamander letter)

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