What was the “salamander letter” and why were so many people determined to possess—and to conceal—it? Why was this one of the most unusual cases in American forensic history?
A skilled con artist by anyone’s assessment, Mark Hofmann eluded exposure by police and document authenticators—the FBI, Library of Congress, the LDS historical department, and polygraph experts—until George Throckmorton discovered the telltale microscopic alligatoring that was characteristic of the forgeries. What ensued was a suspense-ridden cat-and-mouse game between seasoned prosecutors and a clever, homicidal criminal. In the end, this story only verifies that some facts are indeed stranger than fiction.
|Publisher:||Signature Books, Incorporated|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||11 MB|
|Note:||This product may take a few minutes to download.|
About the Author
Allen Dale Roberts is an award-winning architect (Cooper-Roberts Architects) specializing in historical restoration. He is the co-founder of Sunstone magazine, co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and is a contributing author to Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue. He has been published in the Utah Historical Quarterly and elsewhere and is the recipient of a Best Article Award from the Mormon History Association. He is a board member of the Utah Endowment for the Humanities and is the Utah Advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
George J. Throckmorton, an expert in document authentication, was the first to expose Mark Hofmann’s forgeries. His analysis is included as an appendix to Salamander. A member of the SLCPD, he serves on the board of directors of the Southwest Association of Forensic Document Examiners and is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Read an Excerpt
The Birth of the Salamander Letter
The boom in Mormon documents continued into 1983, though Camelot was gone, replaced by a grim professionalism. A change was coming, too, in the new Mormon history, for the faith-promoting finds that blossomed in 1982 now seemed in short supply. Information swapping in the “Mormon underground,” however, became even brisker as photocopies of purported document texts circulated.
The letter Mark Hofmann took on January 11, 1983, to Gordon B. Hinckley, by now second counselor in the LDS first presidency, was of major significance. Dated in 1825, when Joseph Smith was only nineteen years of age, the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter replaced the Anthon transcript as the earliest Smith holograph. More importantly, the letter described an occult means of finding buried treasure and portrayed Smith as a treasure digger, an image the church had tried to deny ever since the young preacher proclaimed himself a prophet and his parlor-full of followers became a church.
Stowell, a farmer in Pennsylvania, had hired Smith and his father to hunt treasure for himan enterprise not uncommon to rural New Yorkers. The region was rich with tales of Indian mounds, buried Spanish gold, and village seers.
In the letter Hofmann brought to Hinckley, Joseph Smith had written with little punctuation, misspellings, and sporadic capitalization:”… since you cannot ascertain any particulars you should not dig more until you first discover if any valuables remain you know the treasure must be guarded by some clever spirit and if such is discovered so also is the treasure so do this take a hasel stick one yard long being new cut and cleave it Just in the middle and lay it asunder on the mine so that both inner parts of the stick may look one right against the other one inch distant and if there is a treasure after a while you shall see them draw and Join together again of themselves …. ”
Hofmann had already had the letter authenticated by Charles Hamilton Galleries of New York before meeting with Hinckley. Hamilton, the author of several books on autographs and forgery detection, was considered a leading expert in authentication.
Hinckley read the letter, then wrote Hofmann a check for $15,000, making the Stowell letter Hofmann’s first major cash transaction with the Mormon church. Hinckley gave the Stowell letter to secretary Francis Gibbons to put into the First Presidency’s vault. Access to the vault came only through Gibbons and was rarely granted.
A few days later, Hofmann visited Brent Ashworth and told him about the letter and its sale. “President Hinckley said that letter will never see the light of day,” Hofmann confided. “I promised President Hinckley that there aren’t any copies, but, actually, I could let you see one.”
“No, that’s all right, Mark,” Ashworth replied.
Hofmann also told Michael Marquardt about the letter and described its contents. Marquardt wanted to see the signature, but Hofmann said no, the sale had not yet closed.
In March, Hofmann sold to the church, again through Hinckley, a second important document: the original contract that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had signed with printer E. B. Grandin in 1829 to publish The Book of Mormon. This time Hinckley authorized a $25,000 check. The church, Hofmann was told, was delighted to own the contract.
Some time later, a church employee noticed eleven faint rows of uninked type impressed into the reverse side of the contract, indicating that the contract had been laid on the type in Grandin’s office, lightly imprinting an advertisement for the shop. He reported to others in the history division that this was proof the document had come from Grandin’s shop.
The E. B. Grandin Book of Mormon contract was made available to the history division for study and publication, as were the testimonial notes from Martin Harris and David Whitmer and the Anthon transcript. Like most of the other documents, the Grandin contract was prominently featured in the church’s Ensign magazine and other journals. But the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter, like the Thomas Bullock to Brigham Young letter, was kept under lock and key. However, word of the Stowell letter surfaced, and soon scholars were petitioning for access to the letter on their own.
Fragments of the original manuscript to The Book of Mormon also continued to circulate. In spring 1983, Hofmann offered his former USU mentor, Jeff Simmonds, a faded fragment with torn edges about five inches long and about two inches high. The paper was covered with handwriting on both sides that had faded to a light gold color.
“What do you want for it?” Simmonds asked.
“Your Hawaiian first edition of The Book of Mormon. I have a friend, Lyn Jacobs, who collects foreign editions.”
“Well, Mark, if this is going to Jacobs, why isn’t he up here making the deal?”
Hofmann said he and Jacobs would work out the transaction between themselves. Simmonds gathered that Jacobs was too shy to deal with him directly. He asked Hofmann to leave the fragment with him.
“That’s fine. I’m going back to New York to look for the lost 116 pages of The Book of Mormon manuscript. I’ve got some good leads.”
“Really! That would be quite a find.” Simmonds wondered what the dollar value would be for lost pages of Mormon scripture. Astronomical, he assumed.
While Hofmann was gone, Simmonds researched the fragment. Then he insured the document, made an appointment to see Dean Jessee to examine the handwriting, alerted sheriffs all along his route to Salt Lake City, and took the fragment to the LDS historical department. Jessee looked it over carefully, then commented that he had seen it before.
Simmonds did not press Jessee but silently concluded that Jessee was telling him he had seen it among the LDS church’s fragments. Perhaps Hofmann had received it in trade. When Hofmann returned, Simmonds closed the deal.
On one of his trips to USU that spring, Hofmann became interested in a register book for Deseret Currency, Mormon money used in early pioneer Utah. The register noted the bills issued by serial number. For a time, Hofmann sat patiently copying notes, then asked Simmonds if he could photocopy some of it. Simmonds agreed.
When Simmonds returned after an errand, he found that Hofmann had photocopied until he had run out of coins.
“I’m glad you only copied half,” Simmonds said edgily. “We have a policy here about not photocopying all of anything.”
“I hope you’re not angry.”
“No. I’m not delighted, Mark, but I’m not angry.”
Some time afterwardsneither Simmonds nor his staff could later remember exactly whenboth Hofmann and Lyn Jacobs called to see if Jacobs could photocopy the rest of the book. Jacobs drove to USU, but the staff could not find the register.