Salamander Letter

Mark Hofmann

The salamander letter was a controversial document about the history of the Latter-day Saint (LDS) movement that presented a view of LDS founder Joseph Smith’s life that stood sharply at odds with the commonly accepted version of the early progression of the church Smith established.

The letter was one of hundreds of documents concerning the history of the LDS movement that surfaced in the early 1980s. Initially accepted by some document experts and collectors, the document was later demonstrated to be a forgery created by Mark Hofmann, who had been responsible for the ‘discovery’ of many other notable documents.

The contents of the letter implied a magical aspect to Smith’s life, a controversial subject debated amongst scholars of Latter Day Saint history. The salamander letter was supposedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps, an early convert in the Latter Day Saint movement. Harris served for a short period of time as scribe for the translation of the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have derived from, and assisted in the financing of the first printing.

The letter presented a version of the recovery of the golden plates which contrasted with the ‘orthodox’ version of events as related by Joseph Smith and the LDS movement, which would have, if true, confirmed some controversial aspects of Smith’s life. Smith had been accused of ‘treasure digging’ and using a ‘seer stone.’

According to the letter, when Smith dug up the plates a ‘salamander’ appeared, which transformed itself into a spirit that refused to give Smith the plates unless his brother, Alvin Smith, was also present. This would have been very difficult, as Alvin was dead at the time of the alleged appearance. This reference may have been an attempt by Hofmann to associate the recovery of the gold plates, to a rumor that Alvin’s grave was dug up by Smith’s family to use Alvin’s remains in a magical ceremony.

Hofmann’s use of a salamander drew upon legends about certain animals having supernatural powers. Hofmann may have been inspired by the early anti-Mormon book, ‘Mormonism Unvailed’ (1834), which claimed that a toad-like animal was rumored to have appeared to Smith in conjunction with the recovery of the plates.

The letter was initially deemed authentic by experienced document examiners, however this conclusion was reached by using Mark Hofmann’s previous forgeries as comparisons to the salamander letters. When examined against authentic letters written by Martin Harris the forgery was discovered.

The letter was initially offered to Don Schmidt of the Church Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) on January 3, 1984, by Lyn Jacobs, who wanted to trade it for a $10 Mormon gold piece. Jacobs told Schmidt that he got the letter from a collector in the east, referred by Mark Hofmann. Jacobs later changed his offer to a trade for a copy of a Book of Commandments. This offer was also rejected. Jacobs also suggested that Brent Ashworth might have an interest in it, although Hofmann had already showed a transcript of it to him and he had declared it to be fake.

The contents of the letter also seemed too similar to Howe’s ‘Mormonism Unvailed’ to others in the LDS Church’s Historical Department. The letter was also offered to other interested parties, including Jerald and Sandra Tanner, prominent critics of Mormonism. Although the letter seemingly bolstered the Tanners’s claims against the church, they expressed doubts as to its authenticity. A deal with the LDS Church was never reached. Hofmann finally sold the letter to Steven F. Christensen on January 6, 1984, for $40,000. Christensen wanted to try to authenticate it and then donate it to the LDS Church.

In Church News on April 28, 1985, the LDS Church revealed the contents of the salamander letter. At about this same time, the church also released a letter to its high school seminary program for youth, suggesting that seminary teachers not encourage debate about the salamander letter, but that they should tactfully answer genuine questions on the subject. FARMS (a research group composed of Mormon scholars, but which at the time had no formal connection to the LDS Church) published several articles which examined the salamander letter, such as, ‘Why Might a Person in 1830 Connect an Angel With a Salamander?’

Hofmann drew suspicion for discovering so many astounding documents that others had missed, including the so-called ‘Oath of a Freeman,’ which he was attempting to sell to the Library of Congress.

By early 1984, Jerald Tanner concluded there was significant doubt as to the salamander letter’s authenticity. He even went as far as to publish an attack on the document, which surprised many scholars and students since this and other ‘discoveries’ of important Mormon documents by Hofmann often appeared to bolster the Tanners’s own arguments. By late 1984, Jerald Tanner questioned the authenticity of most if not all of Hofmann’s ‘discoveries,’ based in large part on their unproven provenance.

Hofmann was struggling under massive debt and falling behind on delivering on deals that he had made. In 1985, when he learned that the pedigree of the salamander letter was under widespread suspicion, he produced and placed a number of bombs. They were detonated with a mercury switch, but without a safety switch. Two people were killed: Christensen at his office, the main target; and Kathleen Sheets at her home. That bomb was intended as a diversion, to draw off investigators by causing them to focus on unrelated business dealings between Christensen and Sheets’s husband.

Hofmann himself was subsequently injured when a third bomb went off prematurely in his car. That bomb exploded in a way that most of the blast did not hit Hofmann. The police investigated these bombings, and during a search of Hofmann’s home found a studio in the basement where he could create counterfeited documents as well as a semi-automatic carbine which had been converted to full automatic fire.

Many of the documents Hofmann sold or donated were proven to be forgeries by a new forensic technique developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, chiefly to detect his forgeries. The Salt Lake City Police Department used Utah State special agent and forensic examiner George Throckmorton and Arizona document examiner William Flynn to examine a poem supposedly written by Harris and placed in his old Book of Common Prayer and determined it had actually been created by Hofmann.

Hofmann used the poem to authenticate the writing in the salamander letter. Although this was enough proof by itself that the letter was a forgery, Throckmorton and Flynn bolstered their case by getting in touch with Frances Magee, the widow of a descendant of Robert Harris. Magee’s family had owned the book for many years, and Magee told investigators that she’d never seen the poem before. She suspected someone had planted it there after she sold the book. Hofmann ultimately pleaded guilty to his forgeries and murders, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Church leaders, especially First Presidency member Gordon B. Hinckley, continued to field criticism for some time for ‘being duped’ and being ‘unable to discern the evil intentions of a man like Hofmann.’ Hinckley later noted: ‘I accepted him to come into my office on a basis of trust …. I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however …. I am not ashamed to admit that we were victimized. It is not the first time the Church has found itself in such a position. Joseph Smith was victimized again and again. The Savior was victimized. I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens.’

More than twenty years later, effects of the letter still lingered. The letter was referenced in research by both Mormons and critics of Mormonism alike. Resulting publications that include conclusions based on the presumption that the letter was authentic are still available and may influence the opinions of those seeking information on ‘deep Mormon doctrine’ or evidence to support a naturalistic or magical historical view of Mormonism or Joseph Smith. In addition, Hofmann produced and sold several other documents relating to significant events in Latter Day Saint history which were fake.

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