The truth is the most important thing

“If we have truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not truth, it ought to be harmed.” -J. Reuben Clark

In my opinion (And I ‘know’ I’m right!)
The Book of Mormon can best shed its light
at four-fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit
–poem written by Mark Hofmann in prison


Eight years ago, I was digging around in an archive of the Mark Hofmann forgery & bombing case in a library in Salt Lake City, when I found a letter he wrote to his mother dated April 29, 1979. I recognized it immediately as one that had been quoted by Allen D. Roberts in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought:

As a college undergraduate, Mark wrote a theme in the form of a letter to his mother. In it, he protested what he saw as Church duplicity and secrecy, particularly surrounding its history. Writing with the arrogance and absolutism commonly associated with youth, he suggested an obviously felt chasm between what Church members really think and how they participate in the Church. He insisted that the Church could withstand the exposures of history, that honesty was best for individuals and organizations. It is telling that he did not express his own religious beliefs.

On 29 April 1979, the date on that letter, Mark Hofmann had already tried his hand at forging. He was familiar with both traditional and highly critical approaches to Mormon history. He had delved into many “mysteries” and, through his systematic reading in special collections, was delving into more. He wrote to his mother, “My conviction is that the truth is the most important thing. Our idea of reality of should be consistent with it.”

As a writer who had done a deep dive trying to understand Hofmann — learning to make ink, to forge (for the book–not real life), to age documents, even undergoing hypnosis and taking a lie detector because he had taken one (and passed)– that line had haunted me: The truth is the most important thing.

And it has haunted scholars, too: Is this Hofmann’s motive? Did he believe he was on a mission for truth?

Allen D. Roberts, in the same Dialogue essay:

The question of whether Hofmann created history-challenging documents for financial gain or whether his agenda included the undermining of Mormonism through its historical Achilles heel deserves close scrutiny. This is especially true since the Hofmann documents have had great impact on how many perceive Mormonism and their own lives in relation to it.

It is the intent of this paper to explore the question of motive in the forgery of early Mormon holographs. At the onset, I want to make it clear that I accept Hofmann’s confessions, together with the extensive forensic evidence presented in the preliminary hearing of April and May, 1986, along with the research that Linda Sillitoe and I have done, as documentation that all the key documents dealt by Hofmann, as well as numerous others, are forgeries.

Hofmann’s forged Americana, including the “Oath of a Free Man,” fit as neatly into American history as his early documents did into Mormon history (Interviews, Exhibit Q ) . None contained revisionist content, and many were highly profitable. Why, then, since Hofmann could make money from either testimonial or controversial Mormon documents, did he produce documents of a revisionistic nature — which were actually impossible to sell to some of his best customers? 

Hofmann, after all, forged many documents that were true — not factually true (fake documents are inherently anti-fact), but true in a capital T sense. Take his biggest forgery: The Salamander Letter. In it, he portrayed Joseph Smith as a money-digging magician–facts long suppressed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

That’s right: Nothing Hofmann “exposed” was new. Fawn Brodie got excommunicated by the LDS Church in 1946 — forty years before Hofmann murdered Kathy Sheets and Steven Christensen with pipe bombs to cover up his forgery schemes — for writing No Man Knows My History, in which the truth about Joseph Smith as a money-digging con artist magician was laid bare.

Open secrets. 

Hofmann had the chops to be a scholar like Brodie. Instead, he planted evidence to prove what he “knew” to be true. “I believe the documents I created could have been part of Mormon history,” he said. “In effect, I guess the question I asked myself in deciding on a forgery, one of the questions was, ‘What could have been?’  In a way, he was hacking the Mormon testimony: A burning in the bosom should be ignited by faith, not forensics. What if your testimony rests on the authenticity of a letter?

As for my deep dive: I became obsessed by the idea of forgeries that were “true.” I wanted to forge my brother’s confession for his crimes, but unlike Hofmann, I would be honest about it. 

I learned to make ink, forge handwriting, and age documents, all from Hofmann’s confession. I got handwriting exemplars from my brother’s Army records, VA records, and high school yearbook. I bought period-correct greeting cards. Once, I burned one of my elementary school stories, collected the carbon, and used it for ink: one of Hofmann’s processes. The forgery process formed a kind of meta-commentary on what it’s like to survive a crime for which there is no evidentiary proof, no criminalistics, only your word — something others have to take on faith. Maybe even something they know is true, but they suppress

(Like Hofmann, I had the chops to do it without forgeries. Eventually, I sued the sheriff and got a copy of my brother’s confession on tape. But the problem with people taking it on faith: evidence never mattered.)

But back to Hofmann’s letter: When I finally got access to the full text in that library archive, something didn’t feel right. At first I was impressed by his eloquence and maturity, the way this young man engaged his mother in an in-depth discussion on institutional honesty. The more times I read it, though, the more it set off all my alarms as a college composition teacher: something in the voice & syntax didn’t sound like Hofmann. I had no evidence, just a gut feeling. I typed some of the text into Google, but no source material came up–not yet.

Later that same year, I got my proof. Here is a letter I wrote to a Mormon scholar at the time (edited for length): 

I believe I have discovered a case of plagiarism by Mark Hofmann that has not yet been noted in any scholarship.

During research for a book, I visited Special Collections in the Marriott Library … I found the full text of a letter written by Mark Hofmann to his mother, dated April 29, 1979, in which he makes the case for personal and institutional honesty within the Mormon Church. Like others who have read this letter, I found it fascinating both in terms of the glaring contradiction between Hofmann’s beliefs expressed in the letter and his actions as a forger and murderer. 

The content of the letter creates the impression that Mark Hofmann may have had a larger agenda with his Mormon document forgeries—as though he were crusading for “truth.” 

I was struck by the letter’s eloquence, but I also noted how it did not seem to be his voice. As a writing teacher, I am finely tuned to shifts in voice that signal plagiarism. I told my husband that if Hofmann had turned this in for an assignment in my Composition class, I would have immediately suspected plagiarism. Since other scholars seemed to accept it as his genuine composition, however, I tried to wrestle with its implications in the context of his crimes. I, too, wondered what it meant in terms of any agenda he might have had. 

Fast forward to September 2013. I was listening to the Mormon Matters podcast episode about the Ordain Women movement, and at the bottom of one of the pages, I noticed a link to a collection of essays by Frances Lee Menlove entitled The Challenge of Honesty and edited by Dan Wotherspoon.

I cannot explain how, but I just knew Hofmann had plagiarized that letter from one or more of those essays. 

And I was correct.

See the attached text of Hofmann’s letter with my underlining where I have discovered outright copying or paraphrasing of Menlove without attribution, all from the first essay in Wotherspoon’s collection, entitled “The Challenge of Honesty.”

Frances Menlove published “The Challenge of Honesty” in the Spring 1966 issue of Dialogue. Mark Hofmann wrote his letter in 1979. We know Hofmann read issues of Dialogue from 1966 because he cites other articles from 1966 issues of Dialogue within the very same letter. [Side note: Later I discovered further plagiarism from other sources published in Dialogue.]

The letter is essentially a patchwork of plagiarized text from Menlove’s essay. Interestingly, Mark Hofmann gives credit to other sources within the letter, but not to Menlove. As a college writing teacher, I can assure you that this is a very common technique students use to hide plagiarism: citing supporting evidence for an entirely stolen argument. After all, the good argument is the hard part. 

While a small footnote to the Hofmann saga, the find is significant, in a way, because so many people believe Hofmann was waging some kind of “truth” crusade against the church, and documents like that letter have added fuel to the fire. They sort of puff up that mythical image. And yet, here Hofmann was, unable to muster his own original words for what honesty means.I suppose a conspiracy theorist-type thinker might respond by saying, “Well, he still found those words valuable enough to steal.” To me, however, stealing those words is a very different thing than actually composing them. He quite literally had no words on the subject of honesty. It is almost as if he was planting this “evidence” of his mythical self way back in the day before he upped the ante, forging his own motives or something. 

There is something very … what’s the right word here? poetic? … about catching Hofmann in something by digging around in special collections, too. I mean, that was his stomping ground for his schemes. 

To my knowledge, no scholars have uncovered this plagiarism as of yet. In the cases where the letter has been cited or analyzed, no mention of plagiarism has been made:

In Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Allen D. Roberts, one of the co-authors of Salamander, described this same letter … it seems clear to me that Allen Roberts took this letter to be an original composition by Mark Hofmann …

In the book Salamander by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, the letter is also mentioned, on pages 229-230 of the paperback 2nd edition. On page 230, Sillitoe and Roberts write:

On paper, Hofmann’s plea for honesty was eloquent, though not, in itself, factual. In a highly rational format, he was confronting his mother on a deeply emotional subject. He spoke of a dilemma—a person who lived in two worlds because doing otherwise was neither possible nor acceptable. He proved his point by not mailing the letter. He kept it.

The “non-factual” aspect referenced in the above paragraph is a false story Hofmann tells in the letter about meeting with Church Historian Leonard Arrington.  The letter itself, however, is taken as Mark Hofmann’s own writing (an “eloquent” “plea”).

Given that no Internet existed at the time for easy access to back issues and plagiarism-checking, and that Menlove’s essay would have appeared some 13 years before Hofmann wrote his letter and 20 years before scholars would have even been analyzing Hofmann’s writings, it is understandable that this plagiarism may have gone unnoticed. I just happened to have read Hofmann’s documents in a very compressed timeframe, comparatively.

So what did it mean that Hofmann plagiarized this letter to his mother–that a document widely believed to reveal his “motive” wasn’t even his own words? Was I correct that he intended to plant this letter to “forge” a motive? After all, he never even mailed it. 

The late Linda Sillitoe, co-author of the book Salamander, might have said Hofmann scholars are asking the wrong question. In a talk entitled “Salamander: A Homespun Tragedy,” she dissected “a rift between the opinions of those who consciously or unconsciously believe that the forgeries are, in fact, more significant than the homicides” and those so disgusted by the bombings that the forgeries are neither interesting nor relevant.

“I often wonder,” she said, “whether that rift is caused by a sense that religious belief, or history, or ideology, is more important than individual lives? Or is it that murder is a messy, not-nice business, while forgeries are cleaner, rational and intellectual?”

Is truth the most important thing?
Which truth?

The 1979 letter is less a statement about Hofmann, and more one about us: a Rorschach of sorts. Why are we laboring so hard to ascribe motivation to the forgeries, when this man committed brutal murders using pipe bombs to cover them up? Nobody is saying it’s worthless or wrong to wonder about a motive for the forgeries, just that it says something about us when we center it.

By this time, I had been writing letters to Hofmann for a few years, often penned in his own iron gall recipe. I talked to him about my project with my brother, about inks, about magic. I wrote a letter to him about his plagiarism, too–not asking him why, not asking him what it meant. I just wanted him to know that I knew

“Aren’t you afraid to send it?” a friend asked. “I mean, he tried to put a hit on investigators from prison.”

“No,” I said. “I think he maybe even wanted to get caught.” It wasn’t just that I wanted him to know that I knew; I wanted him to know I was the one who caught him, that I was just as good at digging around in archives as he had been at the height of his forging. 

And the truth is, some part of me still believed him that he panicked when his forgeries were about to be found out, that he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer by nature. It took a stopwatch at the crime scene & a recording of his Board of Pardons hearing to make me see the truth:

For a long time, I bought Mark Hofmann’s explanation about the bombings: that he cracked. That he wasn’t a violent, murderous person by nature–that he just lost it when he thought he’d be exposed as a forger.

I think I needed to believe him.

He blew up his own car with a third pipe bomb, shattered his kneecap, and claimed it was a suicide attempt. Was this repentance?

1987 Los Angeles Times photograph of the front of Mark Hofmann’s Toyota MR-2 after the bombing.

But I had lingering doubts, too. I went to the Judge Building to retrace his steps on October 15, 1985, the morning he planted a bomb that killed Steven Christensen–purchaser of the Salamander Letter on January 6, 1984 for $40,000.

side by side of the Judge Building the day of the bombing in 1985, with police investigators marking bomb shrapnel and evidence; and the same hallway in 2012

I kept a notebook of decisions Hofmann made at every step.

Decision #1 Entering the Judge Building. Under his left arm, he cradled the booby-trapped package.

Of course, Hofmann disabled the mercury switch for his own safety, ice-picking a hole in one side and taping one wire outside, cutting off the circuit. When he delivered the package to Christensen’s door, he unstuck the outer wire, threaded it back into the hole, and completed the switch.

Decision #2 I press the call button. I am not ringing an elevator; I am ringing the doorbell to a time machine. In the preliminary hearing, witness Bruce Passey said it took 3 to 4 minutes from the time Hofmann walked in to the time the elevator dinged.

Set a timer to 4 minutes: it’s a long time to not change your mind.

Decision #3 A young law clerk slices his hand through the closing doors, as if slitting an envelope seal. At first, I feel like he is intruding on my private correspondence with Hofmann. I wanted to do this alone. Then I realize: he is my Bruce Passey. That is the difference between secrets and history: in history, there is always a witness, always corroboration; otherwise, how does it become history?

“What floor do you want?” He says.

I start to say 6, and I correct myself. Hofmann pressed 5 on that morning. Then, when everyone exited and he had the car to himself, he pressed 6.

“Five,” I say. “Thanks.”

I feel a shiver when he presses 3. That was the same floor Bruce Passey chose on October 15, 1985.

Decision #4 Law clerk out of sight, I press the call button for 6th floor.

Decision #5 The ride takes 50 seconds, during which I do not change my mind.

Decision #6 On the 6th floor, I exit the elevator and turn right, toward suite 609–or what used to be suite 609 in 1985. The doors have changed numbers now.

Decision #7  If today were October 15, 1985, and I were Mark Hofmann, I would be watching insurance agent Janet McDermott from suite 610 as she knelt and almost picked up the box labeled To: Steve Christensen in black magic marker.

“What kind of an expression was on this person’s face?” Prosecutors asked her at the preliminary hearing.

“Noncommittal expression. They weren’t angry at me; they weren’t smiling at me. There was no recognition.”

No recognition. Hofmann knew if she touched that bomb, she would be blown to bits, and he said nothing—did nothing.

Decision #8 Walk away. Leave the bomb for someone to find.

So many moments to turn back. So many times he could have spared Steven Christensen’s life.

And the other bomb? That one killed Kathy Sheets, unlucky wife of Hofmann’s real target, in her own driveway. It had a flaw in the mercury switch. Hofmann knew it, and he left it to fate. It didn’t even have to go off for his plot to succeed: all he needed was someone to find that bomb, throw the cops off course in the investigation of the Christensen murder. From Hofmann’s Board of Pardons hearing:


Hofmann: At the time, I rather, well, as strange as it sounds, it was almost a game as far as, uh, I figured there was a 50% chance it would go off, a 50% chance that it wouldn’t.

Q: It seems to me that a man who created the kinds of documents you create, well, you have a knack for things technical. It seems to me that a man with that sort of technical know-how could ensure that detonator had not gone off, and you could have served your purpose without killing Mrs. Sheets. Was that on option?

Hofmann: It was certainly an option. At the time I don’t think I considered that. Like I said, it was almost a game as to whether it would or wouldn’t.

Hofmann: What I had hoped would happen is that nobody would die by that bomb.

Q: But you knew that it was possible that anyone might die by that bomb, that a child walking by the garage might die by that bomb.

Hofmann: My thoughts at the time when I made that bomb, my thoughts were it didn’t matter if it was Mr. Sheets, a child, a dog, you know, whoever.

A child, a dog, you know, whoever.

The truth is the most important thing. Our idea of reality should be consistent with it.

Looking back now, I wonder if when Hofmann wrote that letter in 1979, he not only planted the evidence for his own motive, but for the complicity of people who wanted to find it.