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Fraud, Fortune, and Fame in the Search for Religion’s Origins

What Netflix’s ‘Murder Among the Mormons’ reveals about controversies of faith and history.
March 7, 2021
Fraud, Fortune, and Fame in the Search for Religion’s Origins
Mark Hofmann’s burned-out car. From ‘Murder Among the Mormons,’ episode 1. (Courtesy of Netflix © 2021)

As long as there have been products to buy and sell—and covet—patrons and merchants have been plagued by counterfeiting. Across the ancient Mediterranean, wine traders found buyers for inexpensive local wine by claiming it was fine Roman wine. Factories across the Middle Kingdom churned out faked imperial pottery and woodwork, fooling millions. Even today, museums, galleries, libraries, and online retail marketplaces are full of objects that are not as authentic as they seem. According to one estimate, more than half of all artwork on the market is misattributed, has been manipulated, or worse, has been faked.

Art forgery has long been a favorite plot point in Hollywood—think The Thomas Crown Affair and How to Steal a Million—and its less sexy cousin, document fabrication, received prominent attention in 2018 with the release of the critically acclaimed biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? Now comes a Netflix documentary, Murder Among the Mormons, which unites document fabrication and religious controversy to tell a real-life story oozing with greed, lies, and violence.

As a murder mystery, Murder Among the Mormons is well worth your time. Directed by Jared Hess—the writer-director of Napoleon Dynamite—and Tyler Measom, both of whom were raised in the Mormon faith, the three-part documentary tells the story of a series of pipe bombings in Salt Lake City in October 1985. The victims of these bombings were among the last people you would expect to be targeted in such a crime: individuals involved in antique investing.

Warning: Spoilers below.

The third bomb exploded in the car of Mark Hofmann, a rare-book dealer who had in the previous half-decade discovered several old documents significant to Mormon history. Hofmann had made a name for himself when, as a pre-med student in 1980, he discovered and sold a document which he claimed was the Anthon Transcript—a transcription of part of Joseph Smith Jr.’s famous golden plates. Hofmann quickly became a leading figure in the obtaining and selling of rare Mormon documents. The one that captured the most attention purported to be a testimonial stating that Smith had privately confessed he had obtained the golden plates not through the guidance of the angel Moroni, as the Latter-day Saints (LDS) church held, but through the auspices of a magical white salamander. This “salamander letter,” which went up for sale in 1984 and was first revealed to the public in 1985, posed a severe challenge to Mormon orthodoxy.

But it was fake.

After the bomb exploded in Hofmann’s car, police soon focused their attention on him—not as a victim but as the perpetrator of the bombings. Authorities concluded that the attacks were the desperate culmination of years of deception.

Police examining evidence. (Courtesy of Netflix © 2021)

Without getting too deeply into the details—because, again, it is worth going along for the ride by watching Murder Among the Mormons—Hofmann was an accomplished counterfeiter, producing fake papers by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; a fake poem by Emily Dickinson; and a fake copy of the first document ever printed in Britain’s North American colonies, the Oath of a Freeman, which would likely have brought him over a million dollars had he not been caught.

As a forger of several other Mormon documents beyond the Anthon Transcript and the salamander letter, Hofmann joins the ranks of those counterfeiters who made a special point of faking religious texts in pursuit of fame and profit, an undertaking that often requires specialized religious knowledge. Recent years have seen scandals aplenty involving faked religious texts. The Secret Gospel of Mark remains a hotly contested manuscript, with numerous biblical scholars accusing its discoverer of having forged the document (a charge he denied to the grave). Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King ignited a firestorm in 2012 when she presented a papyrus fragment that referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ “wife”; following an onslaught of questions regarding the papyrus’s origins and authenticity, and an investigation first published in the Atlantic, King said the balance had tipped “towards forgery.” Washington, D.C.’s Museum of the Bible, already beset by scandals involving antiquity smuggling and theft, revealed last year that all sixteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments in its possession were fakes.

Mormon documents were Hofmann’s specialty not only because of his LDS upbringing but because of the imperative that Mormon tradition places on preserving its history. Joseph Smith, speaking as a prophet of God, proclaimed “there Shall a Record be kept among you.” Writing, gathering, and preserving Mormon documents isn’t just a pastime, it’s a divine mandate. Faithfulness to this calling was demonstrated in 2017 when the LDS Church purchased the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon for $35 million from the Community of Christ, another branch of Mormonism with links to Joseph Smith’s antipolygamy son, Joseph Smith III.

Yet in the drive to collect its history, counterfeits have long been a problem for the LDS church.

Because of the subject matter and its presentation style, one cannot help but compare Murder Among the Mormons to The Da Vinci Code. With sensational flourishes, the documentary paints the LDS leadership as fearful of its unsuspecting laity learning about their church’s origins and history. Through crafty editing and clipped comments, the documentary implies that Gordon B. Hinckley, a future president of the church, could have been behind the bombings, before finally coming around to revealing Hofmann’s responsibility. Hokey 1970s footage depicting the origin of Mormonism, from Joseph Smith’s First Vision to his discovery of the gold plates, is juxtaposed with serious interviewees, such as Sandra Tanner, a former church member turned notable critic.

Much of this plays to old tropes about the LDS as a sinister and secretive religious cult whose leadership has a mafia-like stranglehold over its followers. This stigma was predictably prominent in evangelical circles with the countercult movement, as seen in anti-Mormon literature like The Kingdom of the Cults (1965) and films like The Godmakers (1982). Some pundits and scholars of religion attribute Mitt Romney’s struggles to energize white evangelical voters in 2012 to their negative perceptions of Mormons; it was at any rate an issue that his campaign felt it had to neutralize.

An important element missing from the documentary is the academic and cultural milieu in the mid-1980s in which the salamander letter could emerge and its occult contents become instantly controversial. To understand how that could happen, we need to look back four more decades.

Fawn M. Brodie’s 1945 book No Man Knows My History is credited as the first serious non-hagiographic biography of Joseph Smith Jr. The book offered faithful Mormons an image of their founder dramatically different from the one taught by their church. Combining psychological arguments with analysis of lesser-known documents, Brodie argued that Smith started out as a young charismatic conman and became a self-deceiving pious fraud who gave birth to a new American religious movement. Included in her unorthodox biography were tales of Smith’s use of magical rocks (“seer stones”) for digging treasure, as well divining rods, magic incantations, and the like, not to mention his 1826 trial for being a “disorderly person and an Impostor.”

Brodie’s claims prompted a fierce backlash from the church leadership—she was excommunicated in June 1946, despite not having been an observant Mormon for several years—and the LDS academic community. That same year, Hugh Nibley, who would go on to become a prominent scholar and LDS apologist at Brigham Young University, released No, Ma’am, That’s Not History, an extensive response to Brodie’s book. He called her claims regarding Smith’s involvement in magical treasure-seeking the “weirdest extravagances of . . . local gossip.” Yet Brodie’s biography, despite its shortcomings, had struck a nerve and disseminated some of the more awkward facts associated with Mormonism’s origin story.

In the decades that followed, responses from LDS leaders, academics, and the laity varied. Some eagerly studied the past, seeing such scholarship as a holy calling and believing that true religion would withstand historical scrutiny. The movement that came to be called the “New Mormon History” reinforced the faith of some while dismantling the beliefs of others. Just as some corners of Mormonism were embracing secular and dynamic historical methodology, other Latter-day Saints came to discourage the study of Mormon origins, fearing that the findings would make room for doubt and disbelief to creep in. As new facts from Mormon history emerged, some members of the church felt like they had been lied to.

Mark Hofmann “didn’t create the wars over Mormon origins,” as LDS historian Benjamin E. Park rightly notes, “but he certainly escalated them.”

On the eve of the salamander letter’s “discovery,” LDS historian Richard L. Bushman published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984), which touched upon Smith’s youthful dealings with folk-magical practices. At a 1984 symposium about the letter, Richard L. Bushman remarked that he was not surprised that magical practices were one of Smith’s “pastimes,” urging fellow believers to tolerate “this culture of magic invading the life of the prophet.”

Around the same time, D. Michael Quinn, a BYU history professor, was researching early Mormon magical beliefs, practices, and artifacts for what would become his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987). (Quinn would later be excommunicated by the church.)

Non-Mormon historians were also digging into the relationship between Mormon origins and the occult in the early American republic. Jan Shipps’s sweeping history of the Mormon tradition, published in 1985, discussed how Joseph Smith’s embarrassing early days as a “practitioner of magical arts” were revised and suppressed in later accounts of LDS history. And Alan Taylor, who would go on to be one of his generation’s most esteemed historians, released a journal article in 1986 on folk-magical practices of New Englanders, including those of Joseph Smith.

The reverse of the “salamander letter.” (Courtesy of Netflix © 2021)

It was precisely because of this kind of scholarly attention being paid to Smith’s early life, and the turn that the field of Mormon studies was taking, that the salamander letter was deemed important and considered plausibly genuine. “The importance of the salamander letter,” Jan Shipps told the Sacramento Bee in November 1985, “is that it ties Joseph Smith to magic—not in the eyes of his enemies—but in the eyes of his very first follower, Martin Harris.” The salamander letter, Michael Quinn is quoted as saying in the same article, does not “challenge Joseph Smith’s claims that through revelation he obtained the Book of Mormon” but does indicate “that the events of early Mormonism were influenced within a context of a very common practice and belief in folk magic.”

To the faithful well versed in early Mormonism, while the salamander letter certainly challenged other accounts about how Smith obtained the gold plates, it was one fascinating document among many concerning the magical worldview of their founder being reexamined. But to those less familiar, including outsiders, it was a disturbing alternative history, a point the press capitalized on then—much as how the documentary does now.

Despite being fake, the salamander letter and other documents produced by Hofmann demonstrate the interest in religious origin stories, the artifacts that tell those stories, and the struggles these things can set off. Historians of religion have long examined the births of various religious movements and the lives of their founders. From issues like how it is unlikely a Jewish man like Jesus ever called himself God to Muhammad’s marriage to a nine-year-old to how little we know about the Buddha, no religious figure who has undergone historical examination has been spared entirely from embarrassment or scandal. Perhaps, as New Testament scholar Anthony Le Donne argued in his book examining the “Jesus’ wife” furor, the commotion says more about us than anything in the documents:

Our ancient texts will never reveal enough to convince us, and our modern scandals will always be too tempting to resist. As long as we project our insecurities . . . we will continue to stare at our own uncomfortable reflections.

Given how much interest Murder Among the Mormons has generated, the same certainly could be said about Mark Hofmann and his counterfeit Mormon documents. It is darkly ironic that, with his forgeries, Hofmann took advantage of both those invested in preserving the LDS church’s history, warts and all, and those more than happy to see its orthodox accounts undermined.

Perhaps it is due to the ever-present reality of scandal that the LDS church has become increasingly transparent and accessible about its past. The Joseph Smith Papers have become the envy of many scholarly papers projects, outdoing even the U.S. presidential papers projects in their scanning, annotating, and contextualizing. A few years ago, the church and LDS historians released an essay acknowledging and explaining Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, a subject that for decades they had seldom wished to discuss. In 2015, the LDS church released never-before-seen photos of the seer stone that Smith said he had used to translate the Book of Mormon. This was followed up the next year by the publication of the minutes of a secretive theocratic council formed by Smith in 1844.

All of which is to say that the church’s increasing transparency well serves not only scholars but also the faithful less well versed in church history. And while there are still many documents and artifacts from Mormon history that scholars and church officials would love to get their hands on, and Mormon history might still seem a fat, juicy target for would-be counterfeiters, the church’s increasing willingness to look squarely at uncomfortable facts is at least somewhat of a safeguard against future forgers of the past.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.