Murder Among the Mormons

The Netflix documentary about the 1985 bombings in Salt Lake City is being widely promoted and watched.

The documentary is broken into three parts, initially immersing the viewer in the confusion that reigned in the 1980s regarding Mormon history, fomented in part by documents that suggested the Church’s narrative was hagiographic and, frankly, false.

[The idea that an angel appeared to Joseph Smith strains the credulity of the average non-Member. Cut in excerpts from Church videos circa 1980 and toss in the so-called Salamander Letter, and it’s understandable why many watching the first episode could come away with a less-than positive view of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.]

The bombings, of course, were the work by Mark Hofmann, a man who was eventually revealed to be a forger of many documents, including the Salamander Letter. His forgeries were so good that even the FBI declared them authentic, and this after he had become a suspect for the bombing deaths of Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets.

Having watched and re-watched the series, I have recommendations regarding how you might wish to experience the documentary.

Episode 1 depicts the milieu of the early 1980s, where the historical openness of the 1970s and “new” documentary evidence was creating massive shifts in understanding regarding the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This episode culminates in the bombing deaths of Christensen, Sheets, and the bombing damage inflicted on Hofmann himself. I recommend you watch this last.

Episode 2 depicts the investigation that tried to identify the bomber, as many, including the FBI, insisted that Hofmann was selling authentic documents. Eventually, minute details that had escaped even the FBI led to a break in the case. The $2 check Mark Hofmann had written to complete purchase of an engraved plate was another key, found through a single errant receipt found at Hofmann’s home. In other words, he almost got away with it.

Episode 3 takes us through Hofmann’s taped confessions regarding his development into a forger and bomber, which support a narrative of how Hofmann, from childhood, honed his skills at deception and forgery. He was thrilled with his ability to produce convincing fakes, feeling that a thing that was declared true by authorities became, in fact, true. Once convicted to life in prison (rather than the mere 5 years he thought possible), Hofmann tried to get his fellow inmates to kill members of the parole board that denied him release as well as the forensic document expert that detected his fraud. I recommend you watch this first.

As someone aware of the larger damage (which still continues) inflicted by Hofmann’s forgeries, I have seen how numerous historians working in that era formed their theses regarding the history of the Church to fit the Salamander Letter and it’s implication that Joseph Smith was a boy steeped in folk magic and fraud. Even after Hofmann’s documents were proven to be forgeries and precisely excised from books in progress (e.g., Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview) or subsequent editions of published works (e.g., the biography of Emma Smith, Mormon Enigma), the core framework suggesting Joseph Smith was a magic-influenced fraud remained.

Hofmann’s forgeries have also made it challenging for many to accept well-founded shifts to historical paradigms, as many have decided it is risky to trust new views regarding the past. Many in the historical community, therefore, will ignore or distrust solid evidence, such as DNA, or conclusions based on documents the Church archives have held from the 1840s, long before Hofmann’s forgeries.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

10 thoughts on “Murder Among the Mormons

  1. Hi Meg,
    Fascinating topic. But your conclusion begs the question: Who in the historical community ignores solid evidence (including DNA evidence)?

  2. Hi Old Man,

    My final comments are not things people associated with casual scholarship might detect. However, as my topic of interest has been the emergence of plural marriage, my research has often been vigorously rejected on minor points, such as the raging debate on a different forum in 2016 insisting I was utterly and irrevocably wrong, such as the assertion that I had gotten the definition of “striker” wrong. I spent a couple of years participating in the Mormon Historians Facebook group, where I continually saw the persistence of the old narratives (e.g., that Joseph was a rube who tupped feckless women at every opportunity).

    On the DNA front, I pointed out the finding confirming that Josephine Lyons was not a biological descendant of Joseph Smith to two historians at the 2019 MHA. I think I remember the name of at least one of these historians. Suffice it to say that they decided this evidence was somehow flawed and announced their intent to continue their position that Joseph engendered Josephine.

    The Public Square article points out some laudable instances where the Church was transparent, yet didn’t get credit for being transparent. However there is plenty that the Church could have published earlier and more thoroughly that is only now starting to be made available. For example, the Clayton journals were still being close held, last I heard. It turned out the Church had the McLellin papers in its holdings (and they were innocuous) – which would have played much better if the Church, having not previously publicized the presence of the McLellin papers in their archives, could have used that to out Hofmann as a fraud.

    Before Mark Hofmann started selling his forged documents, there had been a decade of institutional turmoil over the warring desires to be transparent and to protect the faith of the members. In the RLDS Church, they tended to lean towards transparency. In the LDS Church, they tended to lean towards hiding disturbing content that had been en route to publication by the Church. For better or worse, this incited creation of Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Signature Books press.

    [Added] I feel the current Church Historian folks are working at breakneck speed to make all manner of content available. For example, the High Council minutes are published, and even the rather scandalous details associated with the women’s confessions are now available for all to see. But there has been widespread perception that the Church actively suppressed scholarship, based on various individual situations, such as the September Six debacle. I know when I shared my plans to research the plural marriage situation in Nauvoo with my Naval Postgraduate School thesis advisors (not for NPS, obviously – for NPS I did something on strategic planning), my advisors were very concerned for my fate at the hands of my Church. I told them I wasn’t worried and there was no reason for them to be concerned. But that perception is wandering around in the wild in academia, and it isn’t all caused by Hofmann’s hijinks.

  3. Re the McLellin papers – as I understand it, part of the issue was that the contents of the storied “First Presidency Vault” (located in the Church Administration Building, not with the rest of the archives in the Church Office Building) had never been formally cataloged and were not known to Church’s archivists. IIRC at one point the Church’s PR guy, informed by Archives, explicitly denied that the Church held the documents; only to subsequently hear from the First Presidency that “actually, yes, we do”.

    People refused to believe that the management of the First Presidency Vault might be more akin to Grandma’s attic than the Smithsonian, so they naturally assumed a deliberate cover-up.

  4. Then there are things you don’t want wandering about, like detailed minutes of disciplinary hearings. Though there are times when history needs to be illuminated by such documents, as in the case of John D. Lee’s excommunication, which was done at the First Presidency level (historians had presumed the excommunication would have been done at the Stake level, so (lacking evidence of an excommunication at the Stake level) they presumed John D. Lee hadn’t ever been punished ecclesiastically for his role in the Mountain Meadows massacre.

  5. One of the myths that endures is that church leaders completely fell for Hofmann’s forgeries. If you go back to what Gordon Hinckley actually said before the bombings, it was more like “These are interesting documents. We may never know if they are genuine or not.”

  6. Agreed. But then you have James Faust giving a talk trying to explain that the Salamander Letter proved the Book of Mormon true. Which Elder Faust no doubt regretted when it was proved the Salamander Letter was a forgery.

    This is why it is useful to watch episode 3 first. Because then you know Hofmann is a lying and murderous forger before you see the chronological events depicted in episode 1, where someone unaware of Hofmann’s guilt might suspect the Church or one of the “faithful” was going around killing people to suppress “truth.” Even though we hope people don’t believe stuff like that, it was a common trope in 19th century literature (evil Mormons willing to kill). And since the first Sherlock Holmes novel (A Study in Scarlet) revolves around a plot with evil Mormons willing to kill, the trope isn’t just limited to obscure 19th century pulp fiction.

  7. “But then you have James Faust giving a talk trying to explain that the Salamander Letter proved the Book of Mormon true.”

    I can’t find this talk, though I can find one where he talks about the Lucy Mack Smith to Mary Pierce letter. He doesn’t say the letter “proves” the Book of Mormon true. He says that it was “evidence of the Divinity of the Book of Mormon”. That P is evidence for Q does not mean that the absence of P is evidence for not-Q. The Church has annotated this talk with the statement: “This letter was later discovered to be a forgery, a fact that in no way affects the truth and accuracy of the Book of Mormon.” I agree. I see no reason for Elder Faust to have regretted this talk.

  8. Good catch. The documentary shows a clip of Elder Faust saying something, then cuts to discussion of how Hofmann, having forged the documents, would have been delighted to see the Church saying things like this. If not said outright, it was implied that Elder Faust was talking about the Salamander Letter.

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