Restoration and Church History
Hofmann Forgeries

Hofmann Forgeries

Mark W. Hofmann was a rare documents dealer and skilled forger who exploited public interest in Latter-day Saint and American history by selling authentic, altered, and forged historical documents in the early 1980s. In 1985, apparently worried his fraud might be detected, Hofmann used homemade bombs to murder two people, including one of his clients.

Many of Hofmann’s forgeries focused on Latter-day Saint history. Hofmann was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had privately stopped believing in God. By his mid-20s, he had become interested in historical works about the Church’s history and was familiar with documents that were mentioned in historical accounts but that had never been located, such as the copy of Book of Mormon characters Martin Harris had taken to classical scholar Charles Anthon.1 In 1980 Hofmann claimed to have found a copy of this transcript folded and placed between the pages of a 17th-century King James Bible. Scholars who evaluated the document believed it to be authentic based on the handwriting’s consistency with other confirmed samples of Joseph Smith’s writing and with Anthon’s descriptions of the characters. Acceptance of this forgery launched Hofmann’s career as a dealer of rare books and manuscripts.

A variety of techniques helped Hofmann convince scholars that his forgeries were genuine. He chose projects carefully to target documents that had likely once existed, and he studied their contexts extensively. He stole period paper and other materials from archives, made his own ink and artificially aged it, and carefully recreated postmarks to help his forgeries pass the scrutiny of document authenticators. He studied the idiosyncracies of the authors’ handwriting and could reproduce it with startling accuracy. His historical research and literary abilities allowed him to draft documents that reflected expected patterns of style, tone, and content. He created plausible stories about the origins and provenance of documents, sometimes planting a minor forgery in advance to lend credence to a subsequent higher-profile one. He obtained authentic rare documents by accepting them as payment in trade and then marketed both the authentic and forged materials. Sometimes he would make small changes to authentic documents or materials that would enhance their value. Numerous scholars from various fields unknowingly authenticated Hofmann forgeries.

Hofmann’s forgeries included documents from early American political and literary figures, ranging from mundane documents with forged signatures to short literary works. Hofmann forged several documents related to the Church, including letters by Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, and David Whitmer, among many others. He produced several forgeries focused on provocative aspects of the Church’s history, hoping to stir up controversy. He forged a blessing Joseph Smith purportedly gave to his son Joseph Smith III designating him as his father’s successor. He also forged an 1830 letter from Martin Harris (known as the “salamander letter”), which described Joseph Smith being involved in folk-magic practices.2 Hofmann deceived not only Church leaders and historians with his forgeries but also his family and friends, archivists and librarians, and other experts. The Church acquired several documents from him, and his forgeries became the subject of both scholarly inquiry and public discussion.

In 1985 Hofmann began negotiating for a $1.5 million sale of a forged document to the Library of Congress. At the time, Hofmann’s expenses on travel, luxuries, rare books, and forging materials exceeded his substantial income. Other clients were beginning to ask for items Hofmann had accepted payment for but not yet produced. Fearing detection under pressure, Hofmann dropped off a package with a homemade bomb that killed collector Steven F. Christensen. Hofmann had promised Christensen a collection of documents from disaffected early Apostle William McLellin but failed to produce them. To direct the attention of investigators away from himself and toward Christensen’s other business activities, Hofmann delivered a second bomb to the home of J. Gary Sheets, Christensen’s business associate, which killed Sheets’s wife, Kathy. The next day, near Temple Square, a third bomb exploded in Hofmann’s car before he was able to deliver it to an unidentified victim. That detonation quickly led police to incriminating evidence linking Hofmann to the bombings. Forensic experts examined Hofmann’s forgeries and discovered evidence that he had artificially aged the ink. He ultimately confessed to the murders and forgeries and received a sentence of five years to life in prison, with the judge recommending he never be released.

The greatest tragedies connected to the Hofmann forgeries are the deaths of Kathy Sheets and Steven Christensen. The forgeries also posed challenges to the work of manuscript and book collectors and dealers, historians, and archivists. While police investigation linked Hofmann to numerous forgeries, his networks of trade made it difficult to trace the extent and location of his work. Twelve years after the bombings, for example, a document believed by experts to be a genuine Emily Dickinson poem was linked to Hofmann. False assumptions inspired by Hofmann documents or citations that eventually lead back to his fabricated evidence still distort some depictions of Latter-day Saint history.

Since the 1980s the Church has published extensively on its early history, helping to foster a greater understanding of some of the obscure historical episodes that Hofmann exploited in his forgeries to shed a negative light on the Church. Church historians and archivists have also exercised increased vigilance in corroborating claims of document provenance and historical context with other evidence. The publication and digitization of Joseph Smith’s papers and many other important document collections has helped broaden the base from which to evaluate new discoveries.