THE WHITE SALAMANDER MURDERS : When Mark Hofmann Brought a ‘Lost’ Mormon Document to Church Elders in 1980, He Was Embraced as a Hero. But His Subsequent Finds Led to One of the Most Troubling Episodes in Mormon History--a Saga of Greed, Forgery, Deceit and Death.
A. J. Simmonds remembers the young man coming to his office. It was a warm April in 1980, what is known in Mormon country as an open spring, when a returned Mormon missionary marched through the doors of the archives at Utah State University. The archives are a peaceful place, lit by a huge picture window with a view of the city of Logan below. Simmonds looked up at the young man; he noticed a worn Bible tucked under his arm.
Mark Hofmann sat down in Simmonds’ cramped cubicle and produced the old Bible; then he produced something else. It was a sheet of yellowed, antique paper, folded twice and stuck together along the open edge with a tarlike glue. The archivist took the sheet and ran his fingers along the glue. It felt like old rubber bands.
“What do you want?” Simmonds asked.
“The sheet won’t unfold,” Hofmann said. He had found the packet stuck between two pages of the Bible. Since the Bible was very old, he thought the sheet might contain interesting material. But there was this problem with the glue. He was afraid he would destroy the paper if he pulled it apart.
Hofmann was no stranger to Simmonds. During his years on the Logan campus, the undergraduate had become a regular in the archives. He would bend over the reading table for hours as he pored through reproductions of early Mormon currency. Not that he was an academic, really. Academics went home at night and read the Journal of Western American History. Simmonds suspected that Hofmann went home and read True West magazine.
But the document Simmonds held in his hand was not a piece of Mormon currency. On one surface there was a clearly discernible signature of Joseph Smith. Was it the Joseph Smith, prophet of the Mormon Church? Simmonds didn’t know, but he was intrigued.
Together the two men tried to separate the pages with Toluene, a solvent. Nothing. Then Simmonds took a scalpel, slowly cut through the fold, and peeled open the sheet. Bending his head down, he peeped at the writing on the page. The first character was an Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol. Simmonds went a little breathless. It looked like the Anthon Transcript.
If Simmonds was right, Hofmann had just found one of the most tantalizing lost documents in the history of the Mormon Church. The church faithful believe that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon by translating “reformed” Egyptian characters from golden plates that were delivered to him by an angel. Simmonds, who is not a Mormon, finds this account somewhat hilarious. Still, there was a famous early episode in which Joseph Smith copied on paper what he said were characters from the golden plates. In the late 1820s, the sheet was taken to New York, where it was examined by a Columbia University professor, Charles Anthon. No one had seen it since.
“Do you think it could be?” asked Hofmann.
Simmonds did not answer directly. Instead, calculating the archives’ bank balance in his head, he offered Hofmann $5,000.
Hofmann smiled shyly in non-commitment. Not quite yet, he said. He wanted to show the document to the church; he believed church officials would want to see what had been found. Hofmann gathered the yellow sheets with their tarry edges and headed for the Latter-day Saints Institute across the campus.
It had begun.
Logan, Utah, is the northern terminus of a miniature Mormon megalopolis running down the front of the Wasatch mountains. It stretches 100 miles south past refineries and steel mills to Provo, after which the desert once again claims its own. The center of this urban empire is Salt Lake City, and the center of Salt Lake City is a grove of buildings that house the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is the Salt Lake Temple rising out of Temple Square, the Tabernacle, and a blank-faced tower that overwhelms everything around it. The tower is named, simply, The Office Building, and it watches over the affairs of the church’s 6 million members.
When Mark Hofmann walked out of the Utah State archives and into the LDS Institute, he was embraced by the church in extraordinary fashion. Within days, all of Mormondom knew of the discovery. There is a news photograph from the period that has achieved a certain fame: It shows a young Mark Hofmann bent over a table in mock study of the Anthon Transcript. At his side are five of the highest leaders of the church. At the center of the photograph stands Spencer W. Kimball, then President, Seer, and Revelator of the Church and a man believed by the faithful to have divine revelation; he is peering at the transcript with a magnifying glass. The accompanying headline reads, “Utahn finds 1828 writing by Prophet.”
For outsiders it is difficult to appreciate the importance of a discovery like the Anthon Transcript to Mormonism. In the language of the church, it is known as a “faith-promoting document,” meaning it supports the church’s official version of its founding events. Alone among all the major religions, Mormonism’s roots lie in the recent past, not mythological time. After all, Joseph Smith died slightly more than a century ago. His life was littered with personal letters, contracts, court proceedings, and all of these can--and often are--used to scrutinize his claims to divine inspiration. Thus, acquiring a credible account of its divine origins has become the church’s great obsession and its peculiar vulnerability. It is as if Jesus Christ’s claim of rising from the sepulcher could be challenged by motel receipts showing he had checked into a Holiday Inn the same day. For Mormonism, that threat is always present.
The Anthon Transcript protected the church from the threat, and it changed Mark Hofmann’s life forever. He traded the transcript to the church archives for a collection of historical documents valued at $20,000. The trade was tactfully omitted from church news accounts, which implied the young collector had made a donation. Hofmann left Utah State without a degree, moved to Salt Lake with his wife and two children, and began life as a professional collector.
From the very beginning, people liked him. At 24, Hofmann was shy and relentlessly eager. He worked at all hours, conducting business in an unorthodox manner. He would appear in a tattered undershirt at midnight to sell a document worth thousands of dollars. Deals were done on a handshake, and if his customers bounced a check now and then, Hofmann took it in stride. He bounced a few himself. Behind it all there was the enduring trust that Mormons have for one another; after all, Hofmann was a returned missionary.
In the next two years, a remarkable phenomenon took place. Hofmann documents were everywhere. With each find, new details of Mormon history unfolded. Hofmann produced the earliest known Mormon document; the last known document by Joseph Smith; letters and memorabilia that offered new information about crucial moments in church history. It was faith promotion of the first order, and church officials greeted the evidence with fanfare and celebration.
But the sword could swing both ways; if some documents could promote the church’s interests, others could damage it. Soon, they did. Hofmann’s efforts produced early church letters that cast doubt on the prophet’s character. Magical rites and the occult were mentioned. One letter, nightmarish for the church, described a white, talking salamander playing a role in the discovery of the gold plates.
Soon an underground economy developed in Salt Lake; certain investors who formerly sheltered their money in oil wells and railroad cars were bidding to become part of a Hofmann document deal. Hofmann had phones installed in his cars. Yet there was a kind of innocence about the affair; it seemed to be the story of an American kid who had made good with a peculiar genius. Hofmann was still shy, still dressed in torn shirts, and never appeared the braggart--an altogether likable man.
It was not expected that Mark Hofmann was, in fact, something very different from what he seemed. It was not expected that the church was more involved with Mark Hofmann than anyone knew. It was not expected, in any quarter, that it would soon turn to betrayal, and to murder.
Two stories help to explain the peculiar mix of joy and fear that Mark Hofmann inspired in the Mormon Church. The first involves a Mormon bishop from Provo named Brent Ashworth, one of Hofmann’s first customers. In the Mormon Church, bishops are the lay leaders who watch over the affairs of a ward, the rough equivalent of a Catholic parish. Ashworth has been devoted to the church his entire life; he believes in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith as a prophet. Since childhood he has collected early American documents.
Ashworth is a gregarious man who speaks about himself with unsettling honesty. He admits, for example, that he cultivated Hofmann because of his own desire to become a famous Mormon, a Mormon known for acquiring documents of a faith-promoting nature. It is a measure of Mormonism’s obsession with history that, for a while, Ashworth succeeded.
In Ashworth’s mind, Hofmann’s role would be simple: He would supply the faith-promoting documents; Ashworth, an attorney with some money to invest, would supply the financing and then let the entire Mormon world know about it.
In June, 1982, after the two men had consummated several modest deals, Hofmann arrived at Ashworth’s door one evening. They went to talk business in Ashworth’s den, a paneled room with walls covered in framed, rare documents. Hofmann reached into his briefcase and handed Ashworth a letter on paper that had yellowed with age.
It was nothing less than the oldest-known Mormon document: A letter written by Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, just weeks after Joseph had reported the discovery of the gold plates. What’s more, the letter revealed new details about the earliest days of the church and demonstrated Lucy Smith’s ardent belief in the divine inspiration of her son’s discovery.
“I have to own this,” Ashworth said.
Hofmann replied that it would be expensive; he was thinking in the neighborhood of $30,000.
Ashworth did not have the cash. He started pulling framed documents off his walls, offering them as trades. He pulled down an original copy of the 13th Amendment, a Benjamin Franklin letter, an Andrew Jackson letter. The only thing Ashworth asked was that Hofmann keep quiet about his role as the supplier. He wanted to ride this discovery himself. Hofmann agreed, tucked the documents under his arm and headed back into the night.
Within weeks Ashworth had become a famous Mormon. He and his letter were featured in the church’s color magazine, the Ensign, which is read by 2 million church members. Ashworth offered his opinions on television and was quoted in the Salt Lake City newspapers. A Mormon scholar published an evaluation that said the letter “knocks in the head” some anti-Mormon criticisms of the early days of the church. It was a faith-promotion festival.
The second story is shorter and less supplied with human detail--because none of the participants, thus far, have agreed to discuss it. Roughly six months after the media bonanza featuring the Lucy Smith letter, Hofmann walked into the church’s headquarters with another letter. This letter was not faith-promoting. Hofmann bypassed the church archives and went directly to the office of Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of the First Presidency. It should be understood that only a handful of people in Salt Lake City could walk into Hinckley’s office on demand. The First Presidency constitutes the highest office in the church; within the office are three men, a troika of elders who make virtually all major decisions.
The letter appeared to be written entirely in the hand of Joseph Smith. That alone made the letter valuable, but it was the content that demanded the attention of a man like Hinckley. It dealt with a side of Joseph Smith the church would like to forget, one that is usually referred to by the ugly name of “money digging.”
In the years immediately preceding the founding of the church, Smith almost certainly had engaged in treasure hunting, a common practice in 19th-Century America. Often, the search for treasure was accompanied by arcane magical rites that, by modern standards, seem to have little to do with dignified religion. This letter referred to “clever spirits” that might guard treasure sites, and recommended techniques for foiling them. Altogether an embarrassment.
It is not known what was said by Hofmann or Hinckley. It is known that Hinckley wrote a check on a church account for $15,000. Hofmann took the check and Hinckley took the letter.
There were no press conferences, no articles in the church magazine. Two years later a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, acting on a rumor, called the church press office and inquired about its existence. The press officer denied knowledge of the letter.
Like all religions, Mormonism has its own special language. In the terms of that language, the Hofmann problem was one of “correlation.” For many years the church has been involved in an gargantuan effort to fit all the teachings of the church into one consistent story. That includes Sunday school lessons, missionary sermons and official history. Conflicting stories are not allowed. This effort is called the correlation program; there is even a correlation committee. Some of Hofmann’s documents definitely did not correlate well.
To understand the Mormon need to correlate, you need only to take the tours through Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. In this collection of Mormondom’s holiest buildings, volunteers tell the story of the church just the way the church wants it told.
The Book of Mormon Tour quickly gets to the crux. In 40 minutes the guide tells you--shows you, actually--the essential details: that Joseph Smith was a 17-year-old farm boy living in Palmyra, N.Y., when an angel named Moroni led him to the gold plates on a nearby hilltop; that in 1827 Smith was given divine power to translate the reformed Egyptian characters on the plates into the Book of Mormon; and finally, that the Book of Mormon is the story of the spiritual ancestors of the Latter-day Saints, God’s chosen people.
That one lesson is repeated over and over: The Mormons are a chosen people, they are the true sons and daughters of Israel in the New World, and this special place is proven by their history. The story of Joseph Smith proves it; the story of the Book of Mormon proves it. Without that history, Mormons are just another group of Christians.
Of course, for the argument to work, the story of Joseph Smith must be regarded as truth, not mythology. That is what the tour guides believe; that is what the church believes. The church needs its history, and it needs it to be told fact by correlated fact.
All of which left Mark Hofmann in an extraordinary position. Documents deemed to be faith-promoting would be snapped up by the church or Mormon collectors and widely celebrated; threatening documents would be purchased quietly and hidden away. There was a market for each.
In 1983, Hofmann and his wife, Doralee, moved to a more upscale neighborhood south of the city. The couple began to hold dinner parties for their widening circle of friends. The weekend crowd would sit in the hot tub in the backyard, and Hofmann would discuss the possibilities. Some were startling.
One of the greatest intrigues in Mormon history involves a set of papers known as the 116 Lost Pages of the Book of Mormon. Early in the process of writing the book, a disciple carried the pages to his home in another town. The pages soon disappeared and have never resurfaced. Hofmann said he thought the 116 pages were out there, somewhere; he was investigating some leads. At one dinner party he told a friend that the church had offered him $2 million for the Lost Pages. He said he thought the offer was low. He would ask $10 million.
On another evening Hofmann said he was also in pursuit of something known as the Cowdery History. Oliver Cowdery, one of the first church disciples, supposedly had written a history of the early church years. Hofmann said it was rumored that the collection contained a dramatically different account of the discovery of the gold plates. Then Hofmann shrugged. He had also heard, he said, that the church already owned the Cowdery History and was hiding it in a vault accessible only to the First Presidency.
Outside of Hofmann’s circle, though, some scholars were skeptical. How, they asked, could one man find more lost documents than dozens of collectors had found over a period of decades? Hofmann was sanguine, claiming that he did what others were not willing to do. At times, he said, he went to extraordinary lengths to make his discoveries, even going door to door in small Utah towns. To a local interviewer he once added, “As far as I know, I am the only person on Earth who is actively pursuing Mormon documents on a full-time basis.”
The authorities seemed to agree. All of Hofmann’s major documents had been checked by scholars who were experts in the handwriting of early Mormon figures. Repeatedly, they had certified the handwriting. The Anthon Transcript was the object of special scrutiny. After its acquisition by the church, archivists took the sheet to Brigham Young University for further tests. It was subjected to examinations by ultraviolet and infrared light, tests that can reveal erasures and alterations. None were found.
In late fall of 1983, Hofmann returned from a collecting trip in the East. He had found something: a letter written by Martin Harris, one of the first converts to the church. Hofmann picked up the phone and called a friend. Could he read it? He needed a judgment.
What the friend heard over the next five minutes was an account of the discovery of the gold plates. But not the standard account, not the church’s account. In the letter, Harris describes a conversation with Smith on his farm in Palmyra. Harris had heard rumors that Smith had found a “gold Bible” near the farm.
In the letter Smith says the rumors are true and then describes what happened: I found it four years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me three times.
After several more attempts and considerable teasing by the spirit, Smith relates that he finally obtains the gold Bible.
There was no fatherly figure of the angel Moroni. There was little religion at all. Just the greedy pursuit of gold and a magical, violent salamander. A cold-blooded amphibian, cousin of the newt.
When Hofmann finished reading, there was a period of silence on the phone. “What do you think?” Hofmann finally asked.
“I think you should be careful how this thing is released,” the friend said. “There could be a real mess with the church.”
On a cold day in the following January, a Harvard Divinity School student who occasionally served as Hofmann’s business partner walked into the church archives with the Salamander Letter folded under his arm. Lyn Jacobs met with the archivist and then went to Hinckley’s office in the First Presidency. President Kimball, at 89, had faded badly; Hinckley was essentially running the affairs of the church, and the student knew he needed a decision from the top.
Jacobs handed Hinckley the letter and gave him time to read it. He remembers that Hinckley’s reaction was hidden; he could not tell what the man was thinking. Jacobs told Hinckley that he owned the letter and had come to offer it for sale.
This was partly a lie. After the phone conversation in Salt Lake, Hofmann had called Jacobs in Cambridge, Mass., and asked his help. The letter would surely produce a furor, and Hofmann wanted to spare his family. Would Jacobs be the front man in Salt Lake? Jacobs agreed.
In Hinckley’s office, Jacobs decided to play a high-stakes game. Fully expecting a member of the First Presidency to be terror-stricken by what he was reading, Jacobs said he would accept a Mormon $10 gold coin as a trade. About 12 such coins exist; the last one sold went for $140,000.
Hinckley was quiet for a moment. That price may be a little high, he said. Jacobs then made a counteroffer. How about an original Mormon Book of Commandments? It was worth considerably less--probably $40,000.
But something was wrong. Hinckley spoke quietly again. “I don’t know if we really want it,” he said, and the meeting ended. Jacobs left the building, confused.
Later that day Hofmann and Jacobs talked about the church’s reaction. Could Hinckley have misunderstood the impact the letter would have if it got into general circulation? Neither man could figure it out. A week later Jacobs was about to return to Cambridge when Hofmann called. The Salamander Letter had been sold, he said. The buyer was a local businessman named Steven Christensen. The price was $40,000.
It is not known why Hinckley refused the chance to buy the Salamander Letter. Perhaps he thought Jacobs would return later with a lower price; perhaps, as Jacobs speculated, he misjudged the reaction it would produce. After all, similar stories about the discovery of the gold plates had been circulated by critics of the church in the 19th Century. Every Mormon historian was familiar with them.
But that analysis did not account for modern newspapers and television. Within weeks local reporters began to receive tips about the existence of the Salamander Letter; many of these tips came indirectly from Hofmann. By early March, 1984, Steven Christensen was forced to issue a statement confirming his ownership. In the statement Christensen said he had intended to keep the letter’s existence secret until experts had confirmed its authenticity.
If there is such a thing as a firestorm in religion news coverage, that is what followed. Virtually every major news organization settled onto the story, describing Harris’ account in detail. For the church the situation became the incarnation of all its fears; people who knew little about Mormonism were being told that a salamander, not an angel of God, had been keeper of the gold plates. The church’s closely guarded history had been turned into something comic and humiliating.
Hofmann himself never seemed to revel in the furor, publicly or privately. One day he and collector Brent Ashworth talked about the pain being inflicted on the church. Ashworth said the whole thing made him feel sick; he wondered what the church should do. Hofmann answered very quickly and casually, “If I were in their shoes, I would say the letter is a forgery.”
The possibility of a forgery had also been considered by Christensen. He submitted the letter to Kenneth Rendell, an autograph expert in Newton, Mass., who had helped unmask the forgery of Hitler’s diaries a few years earlier. Rendell, in turn, subcontracted some of the work to other document experts. After nearly a year of testing the Salamander Letter’s paper, ink and the handwriting itself, Rendell reported that he could find no indication of tampering or forgery.
Still, there were some who were unsatisfied. The most unlikely of those was Jerald Tanner, a born-again Christian who has conducted a genteel campaign of intellectual warfare against the Mormon Church for 20 years. Operating from a Victorian home in Salt Lake, Tanner and his wife, Sandra, publish the Salt Lake Messenger, a newsletter that disgorges any and all items that might discredit the church’s claims to divine origins. A historian at Brigham Young University once remarked that the Salt Lake Messenger was read by more people who denied it than any publication in Utah save for Playboy.
The Tanners wanted dearly to believe that the Salamander Letter was real. But Jerald Tanner had a problem. Like the officials at the church, Tanner was familiar with the accounts of the gold plates contained in a critical 1834 volume titled “Mormonism Unvailed.” The more Tanner looked through the book, the more connections he saw between those accounts and the newly produced letter.
One version referred to a “toad” being transformed into a spirit, and there were other, similar parallels. Could the Salamander Letter be a modern plagiarism of the old affidavits? It was spooky, and Tanner was suspicious. Three times Sandra Tanner sent her husband into their backyard to pray for God’s guidance. Three times Tanner came back and said the letter was a fake.
For Hofmann, these were good times. He began making regular trips to New York, dropping in on auctions and rare-book dealers. He stayed at the best hotels and sometimes left $100 tips for waiters. Shannon Flynn, a new friend of Hofmann’s who went on several of these trips, recalls walking down the streets of Manhattan one night with $16,000 of Hofmann’s cash stuffed in his pocket. “We were Utah boys in New York City,” Flynn recalls. “We wanted to live dangerous, to see how it felt.”
On one of the trips to New York, the two men began to talk religion. Flynn had assumed that Hofmann was a dedicated Mormon; he knew that Hofmann usually wore his “garments,” the sacred underclothing that Mormons are expected to wear throughout their lives. But suddenly, Hofmann was telling Flynn that he doubted the existence of God altogether. His own view was Darwinian, he said. The fit will survive and weaker creatures will succumb. That was the way it was.
In Salt Lake, the salamander furor refused to die down. Mormon historians who in the past had discreetly ignored certain aspects of Joseph Smith’s life announced their intentions to use the letter as a point of departure for new examinations of the prophet. Adding to the injury, the church was forced to admit that it did indeed own the “money-digging” letter that Hinckley had purchased from Hofmann two years earlier. There was a buzz in the small circle of Mormon intellectuals at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.
Ronald Walker, a history professor at BYU, wrote in the journal Brigham Young Studies: “At face value (the Salamander Letter) is explosive. It confirms several other documents that have been recently found indicating the ‘treasure-hunting’ activity of Joseph Smith prior to the organization of the Church. These finds will require a reexamination and rewriting of our origins.”
In 1985 the situation worsened. The Los Angeles Times, in its news pages, printed a story that contained a startling interview with a person the newspaper identified only as a “highly reliable source.” In the interview the person claimed to have read parts of the rumored Cowdery History in the church’s vault. Among other things, he said, the history maintained it was not Joseph Smith who found the gold plates but his brother Alvin.
The church was losing its hold over the telling of Mormon history, and it began showing visible signs of worry. In May, 1985, the church’s Historical Department wrote a letter to the collector they believed had been Hofmann’s source for the Salamander Letter. The letter suggested that the collector establish a direct relationship with the church and eliminate the “middleman.”
“We feel,” the letter continued, “that we can establish a very pleasant working relationship with you rather than go through someone who wants our flesh and blood too.”
At roughly the same time a church official telephoned Brent Ashworth, the Provo collector and local bishop. The official asked Ashworth to make some inquiries; they had heard that Hofmann had located a copy of the Lost 116 Pages of the Book of Mormon. They had also heard that the pages contained numerous references to money digging and treasure seeking. It was explained to Ashworth that the church could not afford another blow like the Salamander Letter.
Ashworth called Hofmann. Oh, yes, Hofmann said; he knew about that. He had located a collection of papers in Bakersfield that he had thought was the 116 pages. But it turned out to be a fake. Interesting, but definitely a fake. Hofmann said he was still looking for the real thing. He would let Ashworth know.
In public, Hofmann claimed to have no sense of growing pressure. His relations with the church remained cordial. Business, after all, was business. But in June, for whatever reason, Hofmann decided to make a magnanimous gesture. He would donate a large and expensive set of early Mormon papers known as the McLellin Collection to the church. One afternoon several weeks later, Hofmann walked into The Office Building with Steven Christensen, the man who had bought the Salamander Letter. They had arranged an appointment with Hugh Pinnock, a member of the Quorum of Seventy, one of the four governing bodies of the church.
Hofmann said he had located the McLellin Collection in Texas, where it was owned by the descendants of William McLellin, an early convert who’d had a long and stormy relationship with the church. There were many interesting items in the collection, he said, and the price was $185,000. He was able to make a donation of this size, he explained, because his agents even now were negotiating the sale of an extremely rare document--the first piece of printed matter in the United States--to the Library of Congress.
The single printed page, known as the Oath of a Freeman, was a long-lost pledge required of all members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hofmann said he had found the oath by serendipity in a New York bookstore. His asking price was $1.5 million.
There was one problem. Funds from the sale would not be available for some time and the McLellin Collection should be purchased quickly. Hofmann warned that other buyers were also nosing around, and some were not friendly to the church. To make the purchase now, Hofmann would need a swing loan. He was thinking perhaps Pinnock could help.
Pinnock could. He called a friend at First Interstate Bank and arranged for a loan. It was not difficult; Pinnock sat on the bank’s board of directors. The church officer smiled and then said there was a favor he would like to ask in return. Christensen recorded the request in his diary:
“Elder Pinnock mentioned to Mark that sometime he would like to talk with him about retaining his services to track down two items. One was revealed as the missing 116 pages. Elder Pinnock was not in a position to reveal the second item.” In his diary, Christensen speculated that the second item might be the gold plates.
It is not clear whether Pinnock’s request was entirely sincere or whether it was a strategy to keep Hofmann’s future discoveries in the arms of the church, to prevent a repeat of the Salamander Letter. In any case, it is clear that the meeting in Pinnock’s office represented the peak of Hofmann’s career. He was about to become a wealthy man and a philanthropist. The highest leaders of the church, by all appearances, had succumbed to his talents and were asking for his help.
Just why the road turned downward at that point remains a mystery. But Hofmann was far from honest at the Pinnock meeting; he had neglected to tell the elder that he had negotiated a separate deal for the McLellin papers with a Salt Lake coin collector. He also failed to tell the collector about the meeting at the church.
The collector, Alvin Rust, had made investments in Hofmann deals before; in April, he had given Hofmann $150,000 to purchase the McLellin Collection. When Hofmann accepted the loan from First Interstate for $185,000, he effectively had collected twice for the same document.
Hofmann had never been a typical document dealer. His customers and partners had come to expect a certain level of eccentricity. In the beginning, the inconsistencies were not greeted with alarm. But gradually it became clear that the young collector was in serious trouble--of some sort.
In late June, the Library of Congress terminated all negotiations over the purchase of the Oath of a Freeman. Among other things, the library indicated, the price was a bit steep. A $1.5-million sale had vanished; the document was returned to Hofmann’s agents in New York. In August, First Interstate reported to Pinnock that Hofmann had failed to repay the loan.
Irritated, Pinnock called Hofmann and there was a testy conversation. Within days Hofmann took a check for the full amount to First Interstate. It bounced.
Several days later Hofmann tried to sell the McLellin Collection, or part of it, yet again. He appeared at the door of Brent Ashworth’s Provo home. Hofmann showed him a piece of Egyptian papyrus. It was part of the McLellin Collection, he said; the papyrus had been used by Joseph Smith in a later work known as the Book of Abraham. He would let it go for $30,000. Ashworth took the papyrus to a local expert on the Book of Abraham. The expert advised him against the purchase; he did not believe it was genuine.
Things had gotten terribly complicated. Where, for example, was the McLellin Collection? Hofmann said it was sitting in a safe-deposit box in Salt Lake City, all three cartons of it. But no one had seen those cartons. And why was it now being sold in pieces? Was there some sabotage in progress? Or had a delicate balance been destroyed when the Library of Congress rejected the Oath of a Freeman? Even Hofmann seemed perplexed.
Steven Christensen began to press Hofmann relentlessly to repay the First Interstate loan. In early October, Hofmann met Christensen and the two drove to Pinnock’s house. Only then did Hofmann tell the two men that the Library of Congress sale had fallen through; he was no longer confident he could afford to contribute the McLellin Collection to the church.
Pinnock was appalled. If this kept up the bank would lose its money, and the church would lose the McLellin Collection. Pinnock had an idea; an old friend, a wealthy businessman who was now head of the Mormon mission in Nova Scotia, might be willing to repay the loan himself. He would then donate the collection to the church. Everyone brightened at this news.
Publicly the church had said nothing about the McLellin Collection. At one point Hofmann showed them what he described as a sample from the three boxes. It confirmed their worst fears. The sample was a document that suggested that Joseph Smith may not have been the author of the Book of Mormon.
Across town, Alvin Rust, the coin collector who had loaned Hofmann $150,000 against the McLellin Collection, also began to press for repayment. Hofmann finally sought out Rust at a coin show. He pleaded for time and then, remarkably, for another loan. “I’m losing everything,” Hofmann said. “They’re coming to get my car, my home. A bank is foreclosing on me for $185,000.” Rust said there was nothing he could do.
Then there was an upturn. Pinnock reported that he had been successful with the Mormon investor. The $185,000 would be exchanged for the documents on Oct. 11, a Friday. But the investor insisted that Steven Christensen attend the closing of the deal; he wanted him to certify that the McLellin Collection was a valuable set of documents, as advertised. To be cashed, the check would require endorsements from both Hofmann and Christensen. Just to be sure.
That Friday, Hofmann could not be found. Christensen was furious; he asked a friend to find Hofmann and tell him he was playing with excommunication from the church. And criminal charges. The closing was reset for the next Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Steven Christensen arrived at his office about 8:15 a.m. Outside the door there was a package wrapped in brown paper and bearing his name. He picked it up; the package exploded. Chunks of metal were driven into his chest. Christensen made crying sounds, like a young child, and then he died.
Three hours later Kathy Sheets returned to her suburban home from an errand. Sheets was the wife of Christensen’s former business partner, Gary Sheets. Next to the garage was a package in brown wrapping paper. Kathy Sheets scooped it up; the package exploded and she died instantly.
The firm that Gary Sheets and Christensen had managed was a tax-shelter business known as Coordinated Financial Services. Christensen had recently left, and the firm was floundering. Many investors had lost money.
A collector friend called Hofmann and told him the news. The friend recalls that Hofmann seemed unsettled. “What do you think it means?” Hofmann asked. Was it connected to the Salamander Letter? Or to Christensen’s business? The friend told Hofmann to be careful.
The next day, Hofmann rescheduled his plans; he would deliver the McLellin Collection that afternoon. He made a few business calls downtown. Shortly after noon, he climbed into his car, parked near Temple Square. A bomb exploded inside. It blew Hofmann into the street. The car was consumed by flames and Hofmann was seriously injured, but he would live.
Three bombs had exploded; two people were dead and one was in the hospital; the McLellin Collection had not been seen.