BULL STREET - The art of the Con

Mark Hoffman and the White Salamander Collection

Mark Hoffman was a Mormon, at least early on, a dealer in historical documents, a Church missionary, a murderer and a forger but not necessarily in that order. Having lived in Salt Lake City and being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hoffman knew that the Mormon Church was not being forthright regarding all of the documentation relative to their early history. Whenever an older document came his way that at all conflicted with the historic position taken by the Church, he knew that he could make an easy and profitable sale. The Church had gained somewhat of a reputation for secrecy relative to its history and although they had a substantial library, only the very highest ranking of Mormon officials were allowed into that section.

For whatever reason, Hoffman’s needs became ever greater and when he could no longer find purportedly legitimate writings to sell to the Church, he started composing his own. He knew that even if the Church felt that there was the slightest chance they were real or even if they weren’t if there was any possibility of their causing controversy, they would be purchased in an instant. Because supposedly negative documents had been popping up all of the time, the Church had evolved a methodology for purchase that would literally keep them out of the loop. The would have one of their wealthy parishioners purchase the document and then donate it to the Church where it would then be locked up for eternity or longer according to some.

Hofmann new the Churches weak spots and worked them as a concertmaster would work a Stratavarios. He started manufacturing documents full time in his house and produced such epics as “The Anthon Transcript” which went to the very bowels of the religion. “The next was the “Blessing of Joseph Smith III”, which told of Joseph Smith Jr. giving is son the aura of prophecy. “The Far West Letter” another in a long string of forgeries was supposed to a letter from Joseph Smith to his brother Hyrum in which there was a revelation from God. The next was the “Stowell Letter” which was sent by smith to Stowell discussing occult practices.

The roof finally fell in on Hofmann when he told the Church that he had the “McLellin Collection.” McLellin was an early convert both to the Church then away from it. The Collection purportedly had information in that would not read well in print. Hofmann received a loan from one of the Church authorities for a down payment on the purchase. However, Hofmann new that the McLellin papers were substantial and he would never be able to deliver forgeries of them in this lifetime. He was angling to create “the Oath of a Freeman” which was supposedly printed on Colonial America’s first printing press and would also contain material that the Church would want buried. Moreover, this would have been much easier to produce and would bring a substantially higher price.

Unfortunately for Hofmann, his creditors started to close and in a fit of panic he planted a bomb, which killed his liaison with the Church by the name of Steve Christensen. Also killed in the blast was Kathy Sheets, an innocent bystander that just happened to be the wife of one of Christensen’s business partners. The concept would be that people would think that Christensen had been killed a disgruntled employee and the money that had been loaned to Hofmann would be forgotten in the tragedy.

However, the Salt Lake City investigators asked the Church officials to search their vaults and produce all of the documents that had been bought from Hofmann. You can imagine their shock when they discovered that the McLellin Collection had been purchased by the Church year before and was in their inventory. This refocused the examination squarely on Hofmann who eventually was given a life sentence.

One of the early documents that Hofmann fabricated and sold to the Church would have shaken the very underpinnings should it ever have become public. It became known as the “White Salamander” for reasons that will become clear:

“…One such document which happened to become public knowledge was the so-called “Salamander Letter,” ostensibly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps. In the letter, Harris described the manner of the finding of the Golden Plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Rather than being led to the plates by an angel, however, Joseph Smith discovered the location of the plates through use of a seer stone, and upon reaching the place, there was a white salamander in the bottom of the box in which the plates lay. This salamander transformed itself into an ‘old spirit,’ struck Joseph three times, and made him unable to retrieve the plates at that time.”[101]

However, it is possible that one good forgery begets the next. Numerous books on the Mormon religion have indicated the Joseph Smith did not write much of what had been attributed to him. “…My research, however, led me to the conclusion that the largest portion of it had been compiled after his death. I found that later Mormon historians had taken portions of newspapers and diaries written by other people and changed them to the first person so that readers would believe that they were authored by Joseph Smith himself. In agreement with my conclusions, Mormon scholars later admitted that over 60% of “History” was compiled after Smith’s death.”[102]



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