Mark Hofmann’s notorious and deadly legacy will always be inextricably tied to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the impact of his machinations spread far outside of Utah and the church. The new documentary about the case, Murder Among the Mormons, was one of the most-watched shows on Netflix the week it dropped. The three-part series explores how Hofmann fooled a nationwide community of scholars, investigators and collectors, the bombings that killed two people and, finally, the mistakes he made that led to his capture.
The documentary makers, Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tyler Measom (An Honest Liar), interviewed former LDS Church Historian Richard Turley for the true crime series. When I spoke to him following its release Turley described himself as a “fly on the wall” during the Hofmann bombing and forgery investigations. He later wrote a book detailing his observations called Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case. He wrote it, in part, to address the rampant rumors and speculation about the church’s dealings with Hofmann.
“I basically entered a crime scene,” Turley said of the time he started working in the LDS Church’s history department in 1986, right in the middle of the Hofmann investigation. “The police were looking for a motive for murder.”
The motive became apparent when forensic investigators not only uncovered Hofmann’s forgery of the Salamander Letter and Oath of a Freeman but began to realize just how prolific of a counterfeiter he had been. The turning point came with the so-called McLellin Collection—a collection of writings by early Mormon leader William E. McLellin. McLellin was estranged from the church, and Hofmann claimed the content of the collection would be damning to the faith. (The Salamander Letter, forged by Hofmann, also challenged LDS beliefs—detailing it was a white salamander that led founder Joseph Smith to the gold plates, from which he translated the Book of Mormon, and not an angel.)
“He spun this tale of a highly expansive McLellin collection with letters from Emma Smith—Joseph Smith’s wife—and other figures related to the church,” Turley said. Hofmann reportedly offered to sell the collection to both Alvin Rust, a collector of rare coins and other artifacts, as well as Steven Christensen, a Salt Lake City businessman who had previously bought and donated the Salamander Letter to the LDS Church.
But Hoffman ran out of time. “He had created a potential forgery that was so large, he couldn’t carry it out in the time that he had. That’s when he resorted to bombs,” said Turley. The first bomb exploded on Oct. 15, 1985, in the Judge Building in downtown Salt Lake City. The blast killed Christensen, who had received the bomb in a package addressed to him. The second bomb, meant for Christensen’s business partner, Gary Sheets, instead killed his wife, Kathy. The third bomb blew up Hofmann’s own car, along with the unfinished forgery of the McLellin Collection for police to find.
There’s no telling how many Mark Hofmann forgeries are still out there
The body of Hofmann’s forged work far exceeded the half-finished McLellin collection and the infamous Salamander Letter, doing untold damage not just to the record of Utah and LDS Church history, but American and world history as well.
“When you’re a historian, you’re gathering pieces of a mosaic and putting it on the wall to see what it becomes,” Turley said. “I think the damage that Hofmann did—using the mosaic metaphor—was akin to taking a whole dump truck of forged pieces and scattering them widely. So the genuine pieces of the past are mixed in with fakes and forgeries.” Those forgeries make it more difficult to form an accurate picture—or mosaic, if you will—of the past.
“Hofmann forgeries will continue to be discovered,” Turley said. He described a scene at a past annual conference for the Association for Documentary Editing held in Salt Lake City. “Distinguished scholars come to Salt Lake City, assuming the damage is limited to Utah and LDS history,” said Turley. At the end of his presentation, Turley brought up a sheet of signatures forged by Hofmann that was found in his prison mattress. Most of the known Hofmann forgeries could be tied to one of the signatures on that sheet. “As I mentioned those names,” said Turley, “prominent scholars in the audience began to make exclamations and moans and sighs as they realized this wasn’t just a Utah problem, but a problem for American and world history generally.”
Case in point: Turley’s published work on the Hofmann bombings helped one person, in the middle of acquiring an Emily Dickenson piece, discover it to be a Hofmann forgery before it was too late. But, because there is no telling how many Hofmann forgeries are still out there, Turley has a warning for collectors: “Caveat emptor.” Buyer beware.
“Better do your homework to figure out whose hands it has passed through and where it came from,” said Turley. “And, if you’re going to spend a lot of money, I’d have a document examiner take a look at it before you buy.” According to Turley, Hofmann was not above adding signatures to authentic documents to increase their value. Anything that passed through Hofmann’s hands should be suspect.
The secret of Mark Hofmann’s (temporary) success
Beyond being a talented counterfeiter, Hofmann knew how to play people. “Hofmann held himself out as a bit of a bumbling fool,” explains Turley. “The persona was very deliberate on his part. He just didn’t seem smart enough to create these sophisticated things.”
Hofmann also played on confirmation bias: our tendency to seek out new evidence that confirmed our existing beliefs or theories, Turley says. Hofmann would discover what people hoped to find and, it just so happened, that he might have what they were looking for. “If someone gives you evidence to confirm your existing bias, you accept it uncritically,” explained Turley. “Hofmann played off confirmation bias both for and against the church.”
That’s why Turley recommends a healthy dose of skepticism when confronted with any new information or evidence, especially if it confirms our existing bias. Skepticism has saved Turley before. “I have been the victim of people trying to do another Hofmann, but, due to my experience and skepticism that I have naturally, I’ve been able to stop these schemes before they develop too far.”
The LDS Church has also taken to heart the lessons learned from dealing with Hofmann. “Basically, what happened before I got to the church historic department, people would acquire materials, put them on the shelf and eventually someone would get around to cataloging them.”
But, this presented a problem if, in the meantime, the only person who knew a specific piece was in the collection, left the department or passed away. Put simply, the church didn’t know what it had, making them easier prey for forgers trying to sell fakes of pieces the church possessed. For instance, in the case of Hoffman’s collection of McLellin writings, a portion of the real writings had been in sitting on a shelf in the church archives all along.
So, Turley says, the church launched a project to catalog everything in the archives. They also instituted a policy that required the archivist who added material to create a corresponding record entry when they brought it in.
The church also implemented technology to thwart another of Hofmann’s known techniques: going into libraries, shops or archives and removing or adding items or pages from an existing work. Now, the church archives use a highly sensitive scale that can detect such tampering.
Despite the countermeasures, Turley believes that there could always be another Mark Hofmann. He referenced Michael George, the Salt Lake County investigator on the Hofmann case. “When asked, ‘was Hofmann the greatest forger ever?’ George said, ‘he’s the greatest forger ever caught.’”
While many interviewed for Murder Among the Mormons begrudgingly acknowledged Hofmann’s genius, he still made a number of mistakes that led to his inevitable capture. “He got greedy and in over his head,” Turley says.
There have already been Mark Hofmann copycats. Turley predicted, “the more people understand about the case and what happened, the more copycats there will be.” Turley said he writes about the Hofmann copycats he has since encountered in the updated second edition of Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, which is available Friday, March 12, 2021.
While Turley hailed the Netflix documentary as being able to take a “highly complex and esoteric story and portray it in a style that makes it generally accessible to the public,” he does have some reservations about the surge of attention to the Mark Hofmann case. “My big worry is that there is a tendency among some people to lionize criminals and turn them into folk heroes,” said Turley. “Because Mark Hofmann displayed a significant amount of skill in forging a broad range of items, there may be some who look at him in a way that may overshadow his psychopathic tendencies. I hope people won’t create a folk hero out of a killer.”
We spoke with Richard Turley on a recent river trip floating the trail of John W. Powell.
Longtime Utah news anchor Randall Carlisle reflected on covering the Mark Hofmann case. And while you’re here, check out our latest print issue of Salt Lake magazine and the other stories in our Arts & Entertainment section.