on November 23, 1999
This is the story of the greatest document forger in history. The LDS Church is only one of many victims of Mark Hoffman. While it primarily involved Mormon historical documents, it also involved the poetry of Emily Dickenson and other historical American documents, especially the Oath of a Freeman.
The book is well written and the story captivating. While some have described Salamander as "Mormon friendly" I would not call it "faith promoting". It provides some insights into Utah culture, politics and religion which in fact overlap quite a bit. What is most extraordinary is that, despite two cold blooded murders, no one, except the police, seemed to want this case to go to trial!
I also read The Mormon Murders : A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death by Gregory W. Smith, Steven W. Naifeh after Salamander. A shame that it is out of print. It takes you deeper into the story and fills in many things missing from Salamander. I would recommend reading Salamander first and then The Mormon Murders.
"Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders" is a very fine analysis of one of the most bizarre stories in Mormon history. It tells the story of the Salt Lake City bombings on 15 and 16 October 1985 that killed Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen B. Sheets and seriously injured Mark W. Hofmann.
One of the scenarios developed during the period immediately following the deaths of Christensen and Sheets on 15 October, associated the bombings with high finance and the crumbling business empire of J. Gary Sheets, husband of Kathleen and former associate of Christensen. Sheets' business, CFS Financial Corporation, was in a well-publicized nose-dive. His investors and creditors were clamoring for repayment and Sheets was considering bankruptcy. Christensen had left CFS a few months earlier unhappy with the direction Sheets had charted for the company. Could Sheets have planted the bombs to collect insurance money on the victims or to keep them from talking about illicit business dealings? Could disgruntled investors have placed the bombs? No one knew.
If this were true, it bore no relationship to the Mormon church. The monkey-wrench in this scenario was what appeared to be the attempted murder of Hofmann on the morning of 16 October. He was not associated with CFS in any way, but he had a business relationship with Christensen revolving around the discovery and sale of Mormon historical documents. Christensen had purchased from Hofmann the so-called "Salamander Letter" of Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps, which had been unveiled in a circus-like meeting of the Mormon History Association in May 1985. After Hofmann's bombing most of the speculation suggested that the murders were linked to that document and the study of Mormon origins.
Dated 23 October 1830, this letter narrated a strikingly different story of Book of Mormon origins than most were familiar with from the standard faith story. It suggested that Joseph Smith was intimately involved in folk magic (one aspect of which involved a white salamander who guarded the gold plates) and money-digging, and that the Book of Mormon was simply one more instance of these practices. Moreover, the messenger who delivered the plates to Joseph bore little resemblance to the benevolent being traditionally associated with the story. Instead, he was a crusty and malicious spirit who jealously guarded the treasure. The document seemed to hold the potential to destroy the underpinnings of faith for many naive believers.
The "Salamander Letter" appeared to be a connecting link between the victims in this scenario for the bombings. Christensen had acquired this document from Hofmann; Kathleen Sheets' husband, who seemed to have been the real target of the bomb in this scenario, had been a business associate of Christensen.
Most Mormon historians dismissed as absurd charges made by police investigators within a few days after the bombings that Hofmann was the primary suspect in the murders and that he had cold-bloodedly murdered Christensen to cover up illegal business dealings and Sheets to make it look like the killings were CFS-related. His own injuries, they thought, coming a day after the first murders were the result of the accidental detonation of a third bomb intended for yet another victim. Mark Hofmann was the closest thing the Mormon historical community had to a genuine celebrity. As the discoverer of several overwhelmingly important Mormon documents, he was both nationally known and invariably well-liked. It seemed impossible that Hofmann was a forger and con-man par excellence who committed two grisly murders to stave off financial ruin and a public unmasking of his illegal business dealings.
As it turned out, the police were right. Authors Sillitoe and Roberts describe how Hofmann had brutally murdered Christensen and Sheets and had injured himself while handling a third bomb in his car. He had committed murder to mask a complex array of white-collar crimes that extended back to his student days in the late 1970s at Utah State University. These crimes demonstrated a pattern of deceit and manipulation that was impressive in its size, scope, and length of time.
The immediate causes of the murders, according to the authors, revolved around a complicated collection of documents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the McLellin Collection. William McLellin had been one of the original Twelve Apostles of 1835 but had left the church in 1838. Evidence suggests that he collected considerable material on the development of Mormonism. The McLellin Collection was fabled as a treasure trove of important historical materials, many of them damaging to the church's traditional view of history.
In 1985 Hofmann claimed to have found the collection and borrowed huge sums--a $185,000 signature loan that Hugh Pinnock, a high-Mormon leader, had arranged in one instance--from several different people, each unknown to the other, for the purpose of acquiring it. In effect he sold the same collection to several different people. Hofmann did not produce the collection for any of his investors and during the fall of 1985 increasing pressure was bore on him to repay his creditors or to produce the collection. He staved them off for a time with some very slick tap-dancing and even secured backing for his bank loan by having Pinnock arrange for a wealthy Mormon to buy the collection from Hofmann and donate it to the church. The money obtained from this sale would not only pay back the $185,000 bank note but also provide Hofmann with a tidy profit.
Christensen, who had dealt with Hofmann before, volunteered to serve as a middle man for the movement of the collection from Hofmann to the church. As such he became a key player when Hofmann defaulted on the $185,000 loan and Pinnock asked him to press Hofmann for settlement. Christiansen was persistent and Hofmann was increasingly unable to avoid his probes. The bombing of Christensen would buy him time since his main protagonist would be out the way, Hofmann thought; maybe the church would drop the matter entirely. The bombing of Sheets was a diversion that would make Christensen's murder appear CFS-related.
The authors suggest that the 15 October murders did not dissuade the church from completing the transaction for the McLellin collection. In one of the most satisfying sections in the entire book they describe how Hofmann was informed after the Christensen and Sheets murders, which most people at first thought were CFS-related, that the deal was still on track and Christensen would be replaced by Donald Schmidt, the retired LDS Church Archivist. Desperate action was required, so Hofmann built a third bomb. The victim would be another decoy, this time one associated with Mormon document dealings.
Brent Ashworth, a successful lawyer and businessman who also bought collectible documents, was the ideal target. He and Hofmann had been meeting most Wednesdays in Salt Lake City for years, 16 October was a Wednesday, and he could easily get him to accept a bomb wrapped in a package similar to the first two. Afterward, Hofmann believed, there would be no pressure to proceed with the McLellin deal. This time, theoretically, all of Hofmann's objectives would have been achieved. But Ashworth did not meet him in Salt Lake City on 16 October and the bomb accidentally detonated. Hofmann was seriously injured and the police investigators at the scene quickly found tell-tale clues implicating him in the bombings.
The police pursued the leads discovered at the site of the third bomb to a logical conclusion and built a tremendously convincing circumstantial case against Hofmann. Although it took months, Hofmann was finally charged with the murders and several lesser crimes in February 1986. The evidence presented in the preliminary hearings thoroughly convinced Judge Paul Grant. According to the authors, "At the beginning of the preliminary hearing, Grant had thought perhaps Hofmann was innocent. But by the end, he thought him clearly guilty, a pathological liar with no conscience and no remorse" (p. 454). A plea bargain resulted, with Hofmann pleading guilty to certain of the charges and promising to answer questions about his operations in return for a commitment not to seek the death penalty.
The authors of "Salamander" perform an admirable service by sketching in most of the details of the bombings, the document dealings, and the character of Mark Hofmann. They describe a man who was outwardedly a believing Latter-day Saint but who was motivated in his crimes by a lust for money and an opportunity to embarrass his church. Always gracefully and with a touch of pathos, the authors narrate the complex events leading up to the murders, the peculiar circumstances of the murder investigations, the discovery of the evidence incriminating Hofmann, and the legal fireworks surrounding the case.
A forensic analysis by George J. Throckmorton, the technician who discovered the secret of the Hofmann forgeries, rounds out the volume and conclusively proves the illegitimate origins of 106 documents coming from the dealer, including all of his major finds.
on August 10, 2000
This is the most reliable book about Mark Hoffman, his forgeries and his murders. It was written by two veteran Utah journalists with intimate knowledge of the Mormon church and Utah culture. They bend over backwards to be fair and objective (two words which have fallen into disuse in the media) but are not afraid to draw the appropriate conclusions. This is one of the most amazing crime stories in American history, and yet it remains little understood and only haphazardly known. Hoffman's forgeries still turn up at auctions of rare documents (most recently, some supposedly lost writings of Emily Dickinson.) Sillitoe and Roberts lucidly lead you through the maze of Hoffman's deception and establish the truth as it is currently understood (although who knows what mind-boggling facts will come to light in the future--Hoffman is on ice in Utah State Prison, still refusing to give up the last details of his crimes.) Not anti-Mormon like "The Mormon Murders" nor a mere parroting of the official church version of events, this is an invaluable work about how Utah and the LDS church really works.
on May 10, 2014
Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders by Linda Sillitoe & Allen Roberts
October 15, 1995 saw Salt Lake City the scene of tragedy. A bomber killed Steven Christensen at his office door. A second bomb killed Kathy Sheets on the sidewalk outside her garage. This bomb was intended for her husband Gary Sheets, but sadly killed his wife instead.
Then there came a third blast. Mark Hofmann was horribly wounded by a bomb that went off in his car, but survived. Someone had it out for document dealers, as all three men mention were in the business of trading in old documents. But whom?
Slowly the police put the case together. It was their belief that Hofmann himself was the bomber. But what kind of motive would he have to kill people associated with him in the document trade?
Hofmann had made several discoveries of old documents which put the Mormon Church in a less favorable light. The Church wanted the documents to place in their highly guarded library, and Hofmann was quite willing to sell. Then he discovered other documents, that while not harming church doctrine would rewrite church history. Again the document sold.
Now Hoffman promised a find of a lifetime that he called the McLellin collection, and hinted about the fabled lost 116 pages of the book of Mormon. But now came a problem. Hofmann kept putting off the purchase of the documents, and he owed a lot of money. A sale he thought rock solid had fallen through. People began to demand documents and/or money.
It was latter proven that the majority if not all of the documents Mark Hoffmann sold were forgeries created by himself. They had passed expert examination, but upon closer study 21 documents proved forgeries. Hofmann could not supply the McLellin collection because it couldn't exist until he had time to forge it.
This book deals with the crimes committed by Mark Hoffman. A though forensic detail of the documents is included as an appendix. The details of the trials, Mark Hoffmann's plea deals, and his imprisonment are included. I recommend this book to people who think the unthinkable can never happen. But one man with an eye for forgery and a knack for business nearly brought down an edifice as large and as hallowed as The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. I give the book four out of five stars as it drags in some places. Yet of course, I am not a member of the Mormon Church...
Quoth the Raven...
on October 8, 2011
This is a great book about the bombing murders of people linked to the forger Mark Hofmann. One of them had nothing to do with him in any way and the other was working to help him obtain financing to bail him out of a banking problem he had created between himself and the Church.
It is clear that Sillitoe and Roberts did a lot of painstaking research in putting together their book and they have carefully sourced their material.
But there is one error that they make repeatedly that just a little more investigation could have corrected or prevented. In the book they frequently make reference to Hofmann's "blue sports car" and documents placed in the back seat or indicated that Hofmann would have tried to get his purported next victim to get a package from the front seat of the car while sitting in the back.
The "blue sports car" that Hofmann drove was a Toyota MR2 which does not and never has had a back seat. Its front seats are placed against the firewall between the seating area and the mid engine. The "M" in its name refers to "midengine", in fact.
Also the MR2 of that time had two trucks, a front and a back. The front contains the space tire and room for other items. In their book they never specify if both trunks were search or if only the front one was.
Why is this important? Because such a glaringly obvious error makes one doubt how meticulous their other reseach might have been. I'd like to think that this is the only one, but it's hard to tell.
Otherwise, somewhat more scholarly than Robert Lindsay's book, but intriguing none-the-less.
on August 28, 2005
Not remembering the alcohol plant mentioned in the quote in the following paragraph, I asked Allen Roberts, my friend and one of the authors of this book, as to what the reviewer was refering. Allen had no clue as there IS no alcohol plant mentioned anywhere in the book. Allen Roberts and Linda Sillitoe are people of high integrity and spent many, many, many hours doing meticulous research for this book so that an objective account of the events COULD be told. Either the following quote does not refer to this book, or the reviewer needs to read the book again.
Don't believe everything you read!, January 8, 2001 Reviewer: A reader: "My family was involved with the alcohol plant in New Mexico that the authors of the book claimed never existed. I know it actually did exist, I was there. If the authors had done a minimum amount of research, they would have known it too. So this makes me wonder what else they got wrong. I tend to think there was a lot that really didn't fit together, so I'll keep searching for the truth. I hope everyone else does too."