CW: suicide, murder, violence
A slightly different version of this piece originally appeared in Western Humanities Review, Winter 2014, 68.1
interactive Google map with text describing landmarks
The 37 Miracles of Block 37
by Karrie Higgins
The first miracle of Block 37, known today as Salt Lake City’s Library Square, is the miracle that makes all its other miracles possible: it is set apart.
You cannot tell by looking, or even by surveying the perimeter without a level, but Block 37 lies at a low point downtown. Beneath the picnic-perfect gardens lurks a cesspool of water and leaked petroleum. The only thing saving the library’s subterranean parking garage from flooding: a water pump operating round-the-clock. Stick a stethoscope to the parking garage wall: thump, thump, thump goes the pump, like an artificial heart. The block is alive with the specter of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, the ancient lake that once drowned the Wasatch Front all the way up to the top of Ensign Peak—the spot where Brigham Young declared, “This is the place.” Fifteen thousand years ago, only the dome of that gumdrop hill peeked out, an island. Now the lake is resurrecting itself from the water table, a modern-day Great Flood rising up from the earth instead of raining down from the heavens.
During its 35-year-reign over Block 37, the eleven-story tower of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice always appeared delicate and doomed, balanced as it was atop columns as slender as stilts, like a fat hors d’oeuvre on a toothpick or a condemned head atop a spine in the prescient second before the guillotine drops. In vintage photographs, the tower appears to float like a grotesque Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon, a helium-filled filing cabinet tethered to the courtyard, its stilts like strings stretched taut. Strange that a tower so heavy in design, so devoid of light and glass, could appear to defy gravity, and yet for years, the Metropolitan Hall of Justice leaked gas, like a toxic balloon pricked with a pin. Though nobody understood it before Old Metro was laid to rubble—or even for many years after—it was no ordinary tower; it was an oracle, a giant loudspeaker preaching prophecies to Zion.
Manholes throughout downtown radiated high gas readings, like Geiger counters after a nuclear meltdown. One cover even blew six feet high, releasing the bad air trapped in subterranean Zion, like blackdamp lurking in abandoned mine shafts across Utah. In front of Jordan Junior High School, flames erupted from manholes, like plumes of lava. Firefighters pumped fire retardant foam into sewers, chasing leaked gasoline into retreat all the way to the Jordan River, where instead of flowing into the current and drifting downstream, it combusted into flames.
Battalion Chief Curtis surmised arson: a hoodlum, perhaps (though he never said hoodlum), who sniffed the fumes, struck a match, and tossed it into the river. Real arsonists, though, do not wait for gas leaks to strike; they pour the petrol themselves. That is the definition of arson: seizing control of forbidden fire, like Prometheus purloining lightning sparks in a fennel stalk. The police were operating on the logic of this world, but miracles are not of this world—and neither is Zion. Zion, after all, is a divine city grid, a holy plat revelated to Joseph Smith straight from the city planner in the sky.
Follow the gasoline back to the source, and you find your arsonist—all the way back to the Old Metro’s sump, said Assistant Chief BF Andrus. The leak at Block 37 got so bad the Amoco Oil Company donated one of its tankers to pump out the petroleum. Imagine that: an oil well in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. It is not so strange; after all, the Kennecott Copper Mine lies in full view of the city; why not an oil well downtown?
In a city where cars, emboldened by preternaturally wide streets, push pedestrians to the fringes, gasoline is the lifeblood of the city. A river of gasoline is as good as a river of blood.
And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and Zion could not drink of the water of the river.
Like a good magician, the Metropolitan Hall of Justice never revealed how it concealed the spark that set the river aflame, but in 2012, Zion blew the lid off its secret when two manhole covers exploded out of their holes on a hot August day, like missiles launched from secret silos. And it felt like an attack, something personal, something vengeful: If the manhole at 300 S and 200 E had blown up just ten or twenty minutes sooner, I would have been crossing that intersection on my way home from Ken Sanders Rare Books, all three volumes of Mormon forger and pipe bomber Mark Hofmann’s Confession cradled in my arms. I have never felt safe crossing Zion’s wide streets, but I always blamed drivers for exploiting the grid. This felt different: a direct attack from the grid. Would the manhole cover have launched me into the air, too, like a hovercraft or a magic carpet ride? Would the heat have melted the rubber soles on my Chuck Taylors?
The city, of course, concocted a scientific explanation, perfectly rational: an electric arc at the junction of two power lines, the heat of the sparks transforming the vault beneath the sidewalk into a pressure cooker, and boom!
“Tremors like an earthquake,” witnesses said. “Green smoke.”
Like something from outer space, I thought. A flare from Kolob.
Nobody made the connection to the exploding manholes of 1977. Nobody uttered, this has happened before. And yet, there it was, the whole premeditated plot exposed: Thirty-five years prior, the Metropolitan Hall of Justice had siphoned electricity from the grid of the City of God. It had shown the people what it really means to occupy God’s plat.
Deep down in the soil of Block 37, in its sediment deposited by Lake Bonneville, lay yet more proof that a miracle had transpired.
When the Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey excavated Block 37 in 1963, it revealed, on the northeast end, sands “so saturated with a volatile hydrocarbon that the air reeked with the odor of gasoline.” Dr. Mark Griffin of the American Oil Company collected sand samples in a bottle. Then, he played God, sending a flood to force out the volatiles, just as the water table had displaced the hydrocarbons in Block 37’s soil. He created a living microcosm of the block: Block 37 in a bottle.
Like a forensic document examiner authenticating ink, he analyzed the chemical signature of the hydrocarbon and ruled out any gas of this earth:
- Not natural gas: The volatiles contained no methane, as essential to the chemical structure of natural gas as iron to blood.
- Not petroleum: If Amoco or Phillips 66 had sprung a leak, the propane should exceed the amount of ethane—and yet, not a trace of propane to be found.
- Not butane: The smell of natural gas was unmistakable. Think sweet tang at the fillup station, not the acrid burn of a cigarette lighter.
The gas had inscribed on the soil an inscrutible message with no provenance.
In 1948, 1949, and 1950, Salt Lake City had sunk test holes all along a “westerly trending belt of gasoline contamination as far east as the corner of Eighth East and Fourth South Streets and westerly to the Jordan River.” The result: a 60-foot well pumped 100 barrels of gasoline on 4th West and South Temple.
And yet, Dr. Griffin’s sample revealed clearly: no propane.
When excavators exhumed an abandoned storage tank of No. 2 stove oil from the defunct Midwest Meat Market, they cheered the find as if the pit were Zion’s own Hill Cumorah, the gas tank a modern-day golden book, revelating the history of the block. In 1962 owners shuttered the butcher shop and abandoned its tank with 1,000 gallons still inside. Right coordinates, right history, right fuel. Except, as of April 1964, the tank still contained 18 inches of liquid, which equals 1,000 gallons, which means no leak.
Another dead-end lead: Two blocks east of Block 37, a Texaco station leaked approximately 100 gallons a month starting in May 1962, but the owner did nothing to plug the hole. Bleeding gas was one thing, but bleeding dollars during high tourist season was quite another. That fall, an earthquake destroyed Texaco’s tanks, unleashing 3,500 gallons of gasoline into the city.
But again: no propane in Dr. Griffin’s sample. No propane, no gasoline.
The gas on the Old Metro block, as the report states, “remains an enigma.”
This is how science is the genesis of all miracles: by eliminating all possibilities until only the impossible is left.
There in the excavation lay the answer to how the Old Metro siphoned the gas to set the Jordan River on fire. The water table in the area immediately below where the future Metropolitan Hall of Justice tower would stand measured nine feet higher than in the rest of the block. The block gave Old Metro water, and it turned it into gas.
In the Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey report, a curious note appears on page 26: “There is a rumor that a skull of a horned animal was collected from the gravels 25 feet beneath the surface of the east wall about opposite the water well.”
In an archaeological dig where every significant rock, every bone chip, every sample of hydrocarbon, got bagged, bottled, tagged, and cataloged, the only whole bone to emerge from the dig, somehow got lost—if it ever existed at all.
Archaeologists have long attacked the Book of Mormon for its anachronistic ancient American animals:
And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat … (1 Nephi 18:25).
There were no oxen in ancient America.
There were no horses in ancient America.
Unless, of course, that skull in Block 37 proved otherwise.
Perhaps a lone archaeologist feared a future of scientific martyrdom. He is the one who proved the Book of Mormon. The horned skull was the unicorn of archaeological finds.
Or perhaps he was anti-Mormon, and he reburied the evidence where nobody will ever uncover it.
Or maybe he was an agent provocateur, making up fairy tales to feed the wildest fantasies of both sides.
Or maybe Lucifer, puppeteer of all human doubt, stole the proof to exploit your uncertainty. This is not his natural inclination. In Mormon theology, Lucifer became the beast when he lost a competition with big brother Jesus to design a plan for the salvation of man. Lucifer proposed no soul left behind: no free will, no choice but to believe. The devil did not want to make you bad; he wanted to make you good. Jesus was the one who wanted you to doubt, to sin, to fail, just so he could come be your savior. Heavenly Father, of course, chose Jesus. Lucifer, enraged, incited an angel insurrection, and for this crime, Heavenly Father cast him out of heaven. But Lucifer got the last laugh: he is still forcing you to be good, for what better motivation than eternal damnation, eternal torture in hell?
Or maybe, like the story of the golden plates, the Angel Moroni absconded with the skull to the fourth dimension, where it only exists as a matter of faith. A person can get a testimony of a rumor, but an actual skull on a white museum pedestal, with provenance from soil to archaeologist’s hands to bag and tag and lab and display? That is not testimony. That is knowledge. That is science.
Science does not destroy faith because its discoveries contradict scripture; it destroys faith when its discoveries prove them correct—when it renders faith unnecessary. The devil and the angel have the same agenda: keeping you in perpetual doubt. Science preaches skepticism but hands you certainty.
In Block 37, the angel and the devil colluded against their common enemy to save the Mormon faith from the worst possible fate: being proven.
A huge earth-moving machine, digging for the future Monday afternoon, dug up the past instead at the site of the new Metropolitan Hall of Justice”: a 1918 Improvement Era still intact in what was once somebody’s basement, an issue about the “reorganization of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints following the death of Joseph F. Smith.
At first blush, it’s an old issue of a magazine. Look closer, and it is a lost prophecy from a long-lost prophet.
When Joseph F. Smith withdrew official LDS support for senator and Gentile mining magnate Thomas Kearns, he tipped a domino for a wave of anti-Mormon attacks. Kearns resurrected the anti-Mormon Liberal party under the American Party name, bought the Gentile newspaper Salt Lake Tribune, and hired for his editor an excommunicated son of President George Q. Cannon. It was a shot across the bow to the Church, a powerful statement about the separation of church and state: a man could be excommunicated from Zion, but not Salt Lake City.
President Joseph F. Smith, however, could not be ruffled.
“I bear no malice toward any of the children of my Father,” he said.
But there are enemies to the work of the Lord, as there were enemies to the Son of God. There are those who speak only evil of the Latter-day Saints. There are those—and they abound largely in our midst, who will shut their eyes to every virtue and to every good thing connected with this latter-day work, and will pour out floods of falsehood and misrepresentation against the people of God. I forgive them for this. I leave them in the hand of the just Judge.
On a block about to be dedicated to earthly justice, the Just Judge in the sky had been exhumed from his tomb, alive and well and living in Block 37.
If officials in the Metropolitan Hall of Justice are found unconscious at their desks someday, it may be because car motors were left running in the parking lot below.
Picture the scene: delivery vans and police cars abandoned, keys in ignition for any criminal to commandeer, engines idling in the subterranean parking garage, poisoning the underground air intake with carbon monoxide, as lethal as sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. One cigarette butt and boom! Old Metro would blow like a stick of decaying dynamite in an abandoned mine.
The garage was a microcosm of the city. In Zion, too, exhaust fumes threaten to suffocate us. Every winter, high-pressure warm air slides over the mountains surrounding the city in all cardinal directions, sealing cold air in the valley. Car exhaust, incinerated medical waste, wood burning stove ash, and mining dust have nowhere to go. The air thickens, tastes metallic, like sucking on a tailpipe. If Dr. Griffin bottled our winter air, he would find it not all that different from Block 37’s hydrocarbon-tainted sand. In summer, Zion needs no inversion, trapping its air under an Agrippan binding spell, colluding with the intense Zion sun to transmute tailpipe emissions into ozone.
Zion is the Bottle City of Kandor made real: sole surviving city of the planet Krypton, shrunken by Brainiac into a bottle with a pumped-in xenobiotic atmosphere. Zion, too, fell from outer space, identical twin of the City of God in the sky, Enoch’s perfect metropolis, shrunken back down to human proportions—or at least, it was supposed to be. The original Zion Plat was only one-mile-square with an urban growth boundary to cap the population at 20,000. Now, it sprawls for miles and miles, designed for long commutes by automobile.
In 1983, city officials installed a $6,200 ventilation system to spew fumes from the Old Metro garage into the street above, where they claimed wind would disperse and dilute the toxins, rendering them safe. But it was a lie. It was February, the height of inversion season; the fumes had nowhere to go. Officials wanted to poison Civitas Dei for the sake of Civitas Terrena.
The Just Judge had spoken: man cannot shrink God’s justice down to size. “Any people attempting to govern themselves by laws of their own notion,” Apostle Orson Pratt had written, “and by officers of their own appointment are in direct rebellion of the Kingdom of God.” If the city fought for man’s justice, it would lose God’s.
If the Angel Moroni appears, and nobody is there to witness him, is it still a first vision?
This watch was stolen in December of 1969 or 1970 across the street from the Salt Lake Temple during the performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was around the 20th on a Sunday. Hopefully you can find who this belongs to by your records. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Guilt is no fun to live with.
Nobody witnessed the thief delivering his confession; the watch materialized out of thin air.
But here was the thing: That watch bore the stamp of Elgin National Watch, a timepiece manufacturer known for such strict accuracy that its watches are deemed railroad grade. It was made in Elgin, Illinois, not far from Nauvoo—an earlier Zion in which Joseph Smith prophesied:
I have asked of the Lord concerning His coming; and while asking the Lord, He gave a sign and said, ‘In the days of Noah I set a bow in the heavens as a sign and token that in any year that bow should be seen the Lord would not come; but there should be seed time and harvest during that year: but whenever you see the bow withdrawn, it shall be a token that there shall be famine, pestilence, and great distress among the nations, and that the coming of the Messiah is not far distant.
Though no man can knoweth the hour, one thing is certain: the Messiah’s watch is railroad grade.
1984: The same year the Doomsday Clock ticked to 3 minutes to midnight. In the January Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the editors cautioned, “The moving of the clock should thus not be construed as a counsel of despair. It is an expression of alarm, a warning, a call to attention.”
Tick, tick, tick.
1984: The same year a postman popped open a mailbox and discovered a .38 caliber pistol, a wallet, and a note concealed inside a pair of socks. Here’s the gun and wallet, the note read, taken from the guard at the hospital. I don’t want to hurt no one else. I just want to be free. Convicted robber Ronnie Lee Gardner penned those words days after he got transported from prison to University of Utah Hospital. In an exam room, he assaulted his guard so severely that doctors had to saw off one of the man’s ribs to rebuild his shattered eye socket. Gardner fled, hijacked a medical student on a motorcycle, and escaped to a nearby apartment laundry room, where he switched clothes with the student and took off. The date of the note: 30 days after the golden watch.
Tick tick tick.
Still on the lam that October, Gardner shot bartender Melvyn John Otterstrom, in the commission of a robbery at the Cheers Tavern.
Which, in 1985, led to him facing trial in the Metropolitan Hall of Justice for first-degree murder.
Which led to a woman slipping him a gun in the Old Metro hallway during a court appearance.
Which he fired during an escape attempt, shooting attorney Michael Burdell in the eye and injuring bailiff George “Nick” Kirk, the damage to his abdomen so severe he died eleven years later from complications.
Which led to Gardner’s death sentence in 1985.
Which led to him selecting the firing squad. “I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” he was quoted in the Deseret News. “I like the firing squad.”
Six years later, he switched to lethal injection to spare his children the torment he had inflicted on his victim’s children: daddy getting blown away. In 1996, he switched again. By then, his kids were 18 and 16, old enough to understand. But his timing seemed to hint at other motives. Utah legislators were contemplating a bill banning the firing squad, which Gardner blamed on the upcoming 2002 Olympic winter games. “I think it’s basically an image deal,” he said in an interview with Deseret News. “They didn’t want people to say, ‘These [expletive] Utahns, they’re barbaric. This ain’t the 1800s in the 1990s.’”
Which led, in April 2010, to a death warrant summoning the firing squad. Never mind that Utah had already caved to the “image deal,” outlawing executions by bullet. Gardner got grandfathered into the old law, and in this way, the state escaped a battle royale with a convicted killer right before the Olympics.
But the Mormons could not escape history. Gardner’s words got resurrected: I guess it’s my Mormon heritage. Everyone in Utah knew what he meant, even though he never uttered the phrase: blood atonement, the old Mormon doctrine of shedding your own blood to atone for sins so horrific, so beyond the pale, that the blood seeping from Jesus’ pores in Gethsemane was not enough to wash you clean. “I know that there are transgressors,” Brigham Young once preached, “who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course.”
Which forced the Mormon Church to release the following statement:
In mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.
However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.
Tick, tick, tick went blood atonement. The leverage of eternal salvation, the leverage of eternal condemnation: they are both the power of eternity, the power of time. Man cannot steal the timepiece of the Messiah.
The Church had disavowed blood atonement before, demoting it to metaphor, proclaiming any form of execution would do: hanging, lethal injection, guillotine. But this statement was different. This statement suggested: Jesus was enough; no execution necessary. Christ’s blood lapped at the feet of Ronnie Lee Gardner. Atonement was infinite.
Tick, tick, tick, went the death penalty.
And in 2013, this headline in the Deseret News: Is the death penalty dead in Utah?
1984: The same year master forger Mark Hofmann sold the Salamander Letter to LDS Bishop Steven Christensen. Mimicking the lone authentic handwriting exemplar of Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, Hofmann painted Joseph Smith as a money-digging folk magician, not a prophet: a huckster who peeked through a magical peep stone to hunt buried treasure—including the golden plates. According to the letter, a crotchety white salamander guarded the plates, not the Angel Moroni.
“A magical forgery,” Hofmann called it in an interview with prosecutor Robert Stott. Hofmann, too, had stolen the power of time: razor-blading authentic 1830 paper out of the Niles Register in the University of Utah library, concocting authentic iron gall ink to forge the letter, and rapid-aging it with ammonia.
The Salamander Letter set Hofmann’s microcosmic doomsday clock in motion. One year later, buried in debt from his forgery ponzi schemes and facing exposure as a phony, he planted a booby-trapped package containing a nail-packed pipe bomb outside Steven Christensen’s suite in the Judge Building.
Judge Building, 2013, Salt Lake City
When Christensen picked up the package, he tripped the motion-sensitive mercury switch, and boom! A carpentry nail pierced his eye straight through to his brain. One of his shoe heels blew straight off. He never stood a chance.
Hanging on the wall of Christensen’s office above where his body lay: the July 29, 1985, cover of Time magazine, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Quoting Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay, the headline read, “My god, what have we done?”
Tick, tick, tick, 3 minutes to midnight.
The Judge Building. It calls to mind men in black robes, except, the Judge Building was not named for justices on the bench; it was named for Mary Judge, widow of John Judge, who succumbed to black lung contracted in the Silver King Mine. Mary made a fortune in investments and commissioned the building, then known as the Railroad Exchange, nerve center for the railroads, facilitators of the Gentile invasion. The railroads had propelled mining to success—an industry Brigham Young loathed. To him, mines meant the encroachment of Babylon, a plot to dismantle Zion by tempting Mormons with riches of this world instead of the next, turning them all into money diggers.
It was not just paranoia; the mines really were a conspiracy. In 1862, when Colonel Connor marched into Salt Lake City and planted the flag of Fort Douglas, he knew a gold rush would drive a stake through the heart of Zion, attracting Gentiles like flies to honey. Connor’s men made the very first commercial mine claim: Bingham Canyon, home to the future Kennecott Copper Mine, with an open pit so big astronauts can see it from the International Space Station. It looms like a threat over the whole city: atomic-crater like, a premonition of end times.
Strange that a faith founded on gold plates mined out of a hill could be threatened by gold ore mined out of a mountain, but then, isn’t it the same sin that always gets us in the end—confusing riches from above with riches from below? We do not know our beginning from our end.
In its way, the Railroad Exchange building stood as a silent rival to the Mormon Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the LDS department store founded by Brigham Young to vanquish Gentile businesses in Zion—to exile Babylon from the City of God.
It makes sense that Hofmann’s first bomb blew up here, at the nexus of Zion and the railroads. Mark Hofmann, too, commandeered trains to battle Zion, to make off with its heritage, employing a toy train transformer to generate electric sparks inside a sealed fish tank, into which he dropped some of his forgeries, rapid-aging their ink a hundred years in “Pffffft …. 10 minutes,” according to an old friend quoted in Deseret News. The electric sparks split oxygen molecules in the tank, generating ozone—the same chemical floating in Salt Lake City air during the heat of summer, rapid-aging our lungs. We are living in Hofmann’s fish tank. We are living in the city Hofmann created.
Hofmann put us all on railroad time.
The next day, when Hofmann blew up his Toyota MR2 across the street from the old Deseret Gym, eyewitness Bradley Christensen ran toward the flames, carried a critically wounded Hofmann to safety, ripped open his clothes, and discovered he was wearing his garments: the white underwear that reminds Mormons to keep their temple covenants, to be in the world but not of it.
The forger had become his own greatest forgery: the faithful sheep.
“The salamander, an animal like a lizard in shape, and with a body starred all over, never comes out except during heavy showers, and disappears the moment it becomes fine. This animal is so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, the same way ice does,” teaches Pliny in his Natural History.
Mark Hofmann, cocooned in his white garments, had transubstantiated into the white salamander only when police doused his car and its load of papyri and documents with water. The forger, like the salamander, only came out in a heavy shower. In crime scene photographs, the roof of his Toyota MR-2 appears peeled open like a tuna tin, the driver side door stripped of its paint, wires dangling, and yet, Hofmann survived. So cold he extinguished fire by contact.
Like ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, the gunpowder burns on Hofmann’s forehead signified sin—and Hofmann would say repentance, too, for he claimed this bomb was a suicide attempt, an atonement. And indeed, the car bombing happened on a Wednesday, his personal Ash Wednesday, forged with the gunpowder of his own bomb.
Eyewitness Bradley Christensen, however, knew none of this. As an LDS priesthood holder, he anointed Hofmann’s head with consecrated olive oil and delivered a blessing, commanding him to live. Christensen did not know he was blessing a master forger and nail bomber. He did not know he was blessing the devil himself.
And the devil, like his big brother Jesus, was risen.
Nobody knew then, but Hofmann’s forgeries came full circle on that day: papyri and documents seized from the trunk of his car hung on a line to dry in the basement police shooting range on Block 37, where they developed like Polaroids into vivid pictures of his crimes.
Hofmann concocted his plots in libraries; he stole his paper from libraries, and now, his documents were planted like seeds in the soil of the future main library.
But if Hofmann had seized the power of time, so had questioned document experts William Flynn and George Throckmorton, who upon discovering a distinct cracking in the ink on almost every Hofmann document, proved the forger’s methods by becoming him: brewing iron gall, writing on authentic period paper, and rapid-aging the ink. “Since I had to produce a handwriting sample, anyway,”William Flynn testified at the preliminary hearing, “I did my best to simulate the writing of Thomas Bullock on the document.”
Forensic document examiner becomes forger.
The secret of the cracked ink, the thing that did Hofmann in: gum arabic, which when exposed to ammonia, changed viscosity so quickly it hardened and shattered, its texture like alligator skin. Ink makers add gum arabic as a preservative, and it had done its job. It preserved time. Hofmann was not busted because he altered the timeline, but because he bound his words to it.
And when science turned Hofmann into a forger, it made him a prophet, too, for as the Salamander Letter portrayed, Joseph Smith really was a folk magician; he really did peep into a seeing stone. Mormon historians and scholars had already set about proving it. But Hofmann was not just any prophet; he was the devil himself: Like the beloved angel Lucifer, he wanted to make people believe; like the cast-out insurrectionist angel, he wanted to make people doubt.
Forensic science had saved the faith, for if you believe in the devil, you have to believe in God.
And maybe this is why, when the time came to prosecute Hofmann, the state made a deal with the devil: Hofmann would give prosecutors the details of his forgeries—the science of turning back time—and they would give him life, not death. For if you blood atone the devil, you are picking a fight with Heavenly Father: you are pounding on heaven’s door demanding, let your son back in.
Tick, tick, tick. This is the way Zion concedes, not with a revelation, but with a plea deal.
What if the golden watch in the Metropolitan Hall of Justice was a modern-day golden plate? What if 1984 marked the beginning of a new dispensation?
Man cannot steal time from God, Moroni was warning us; it only works the other way around.
What if the watch thief was us?
In the years leading up to the demolition of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, the city, desperate to quell a surge in prostitution, renovated the tenth floor of the tower into a jail for prostitutes. A cell with a view, newspapers snickered.
If the stilts—the tethers of that grotesque Macy’s balloon—had been snipped, Old Metro would have floated into the Phantom Zone, the humane prison world of Krypton, where the condemned inhabit a wasteland somewhere between life and death, where they can witness all things, know all things: omniscience as atonement. Tucked inside a top drawer of that ugly oversized file cabinet of a building, the women served the ultimate sentence for their life of vice: contemplating the City of God below. They had been given omniscience, but not omnipotence, just like the God of the Book of Mormon, the God who can witness evil but cannot stop it, who can witness good but cannot encourage it. They would know God’s pain when he watched them.
And so it came to pass that the Metropolitan Hall of Justice defeated the whores of Babylon by sending them on a blimp ride to the Phantom Zone.
When a 1994 Supreme Court decision threatened the granite plaque of the Ten Commandments on the lawn of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson did not cite scripture to defend it; he cited case law: “We won’t turn tail and run,” he said. “We have a court case in our favor.”
He meant Anderson vs. Salt Lake City Corporation, which said, “an ecclesiastical background does not necessarily mean that the Decalogue is primarily religious in character–it also has substantial secular attributes. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs in our case, a lawyer, admitted while testifying that, “… the Ten Commandments is an affirmation of at least a precedent legal code.”
If you act now and remove the Ten Commandments monument voluntarily, you will demonstrate a commitment to defending our right to decide religious issues privately without government intrusion. If you wait for the courts to order you to do it, you will come off looking like the religious bigots in Cobb County, Georgia.
For city commissioners, it created a double bind: Deny the law imposed by their God, or deny the law they imposed on the city.
Salt Lake County Commission Chairman Jim Bradley attempted to forge a third way: “We’re going to add an 11th commandment,” he said, “that the 10 above are secular suggestions.”
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above …
Thou shalt not take the name of they Lord god in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
To save God’s law, the commission had to make it man’s, the ultimate fusion of church and state.
It did not stop the Summum— a religious sect with a pyramid in Salt Lake City, preaching mummification and the “rite of transference” to the spirit world —from demanding to place its own tablet at Old Metro, right alongside Moses’; after all, if the Justice Block gave voice to one religion, it had to give voice to all.
Summum is MIND; the universe is a mental creation.
As above, so below; as below, so above.
And that was what finally did the Ten Commandments in. In 1998 “with much less fanfare than Moses,” the tablet got uprooted like a dead tooth as the county prepared to vacate Block 37.“We felt we needed,” Commission Chairwoman Mary Callaghan was quoted in Deseret News, “to be careful in separating church and state. If we didn’t remove it or move it to another location, how large would the forum have to be to provide space for all the different views?”
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
As above, so below.
March 5, 1994, the old Salt Lake City library , next door to the Metropolitan Hall of Justice: Clifford Lynn Draper leapt atop a table and shouted, “Have a nice life. Mine’s probably over.” In one hand, he wielded a handgun; in the other, a curling iron with a trail of wires leading into a shoulder bag concealing a crude, DIY bomb. He took 18 people hostage and shuffled them into a conference room where he demanded money and a pardon from President Clinton. At one point, he forced the hostages to draw straws for who would get shot first.
Draper might have achieved his endgame were it not for a cop who snuck in with the hostages. Lieutenant Lloyd Prescott happened to be teaching a police course in the room next door, so when he heard the commotion, he insinuated himself in the hostage room and waited 5 ½ hours for a window of opportunity to shoot Draper dead.
It was a prescient moment, a parable in action: librarians shooing children out a back door, shielding them from violence; a police officer firing bullets in the library, as if practicing in the police shooting range next door. It was a microcosm of the future of the block, a warning of things to come.
Two years before Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, the United States government released a sulfur hexafluoride gas plume into a 5-block-square area of downtown. Dubbed Urban 2000, the experiment was part of a U.S. Department of Energy study called the Vertical Transport and Mixing Experiment or VTMX, examining wind patterns of winter inversions. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense, jumped on the opportunity to test and calibrate its anti-terrorism monitoring equipment, tracking the sulfur hexafluoride as it penetrated doors and windows and snaked its way through ventilation ducts. The end game: fine-tuning prediction models in case of a biological or chemical attack.
Although the DOE positioned ground zero for the gas plume kitty corner from Block 37, it embedded in the study a hint about its genesis: sampling locations numbered sequentially beginning with 37. Number 37 was the genesis.
The government reassured residents: sulfur hexafluoride is inert, harmless. Never mind sulfur hexaflouride can burn the eyes, cause pulmonary edema, damage the liver, and trigger seizures. Or that it is not just a potent greenhouse gas, but the most potent.
Given the history of genetic mutations and cancer suffered by Utahans downwind of atomic bomb test detonations in the Nevada desert during the 1950s, one might think the Mormons would protest their subjugation to this invisible gas cloud, especially when the federal government, playing the anti-terrorism card, subjected the experiment to tight-lipped security, keeping locations and equipment so secret that at one point, the SLCPD bomb squad detonated a sampler, unaware of its purpose.
But the Mormons did not revolt. The Mormons did not protest. In the land where Brigham Young once declared federal troops to be hostile forces, who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction, the people submitted for the ultimate payoff: a Winter Olympics without a hitch. For those few weeks when athletes converged in Deseret from all over the world, the heart of the Latter-day Saints would be the heart of the United States, too. For the first time in the church’s history, it would go mainstream. All Zion had to do was sign away its air.
And so it came to pass that President Heber C. Kimball’s prophecy came true:
We think we are secure here in the chambers of these everlasting hills, where we can close the doors of the canyons against mobs and persecutors, the wicked and the vile, who have always beset us with violence and robbery, but I want to say to you, my brethren, the time is coming when we will be mixed up in these now peaceful valleys to that extent that it will be difficult to tell the face of a saint from the face of an enemy against the people of god.
Then is the time to look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting of time, and many will fall.
For I say unto you there is a test, a Test, A TEST is coming.
Civitas Dei transformed into Civitas Terrena, all for the sake of the Olympic Games. Who could tell a saint from an enemy now?
video of demolition, which shows the fall of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice as described below
When demolition crews hooked cables to Old Metro’s stilts and yanked with a Caterpillar and two monstrous backhoes, the delicate, doomed robot-head-on-a-stake should have sliced clean as a guillotine. A fall as final as a gavel. The Old Metro, however, refused to surrender its neck. The cables snapped, and the demolition team shifted strategy: this time, they yanked the building apart in two directions, north and south, like an apostate on the stretcher, until its body could withstand no more.
Finally the stilts snapped, and the tower buckled forward, as if slit ear-to-ear by a Danite knife. It fell into the pit the demolition team dug for it. It fell into its own grave.
“It symbolizes the dropping away of the old thought forms and unnecessary structures so we can enter a new millennium,” an employee of the old city library next door was quoted in Deseret News.
It was 2001, one year before Salt Lake City’s prized Winter Olympics.
The millennium had begun. But the meaning of millennium had shifted from end times to future times. The library stole the millennium from God.
When Salt Lake City redeveloped Block 37 into Library Square, it threw it off its axis: “Planners add tilt to once-boring block,” read the headline in Deseret News. “Diagonal aspect of S.L. buildings is called ‘healthy.’”
In place of the stolid, institutional and, according to architects, boring buildings there now, consultants who drafted the master plan for the block are recommending buildings that are skewed—not going straight north-south-east-west, but diagonally.
Until the new library, every block in Zion had been “boxed to the compass,” as Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley wrote. Which is to say boxed to the temple.
The only way to locate oneself in Zion was N, S, E, W: the purest of the cardinal directions, unambiguous. Every building façade faced north, south, east, or west. The main gate of the temple faces east, and in fact, according to Nibley, it “must face east. The sun, the moon, and the stars—the three degrees—are represented there. It is a scale model of the universe, for teaching purposes and for the purpose of taking our bearings on the universe and in the eternities, both in time and space.”
Block 37 throws our bearings off kilter. Block 37 teaches us, you do not have to use the compass the temple gives you.
In place of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, the new main library building appeared, shaped like a waxing crescent moon as if it had spun out of its orbit from the temple a few blocks northwest: a renegade moonstone, one of the fifty moon phases of 1878 carved all the way around the temple façade, the year astronomer-Apostle Orson Pratt plotted them so Zion could use the temple to keep time. Pratt, however, left out the points of transition, when time is on the cusp: waxing and waning gibbous or crescent.
The library is a transition point: non-temple time.
The temple is supposed to be the zero meridian, the Polaris, the star around which all life in Zion orbits. This is why Apostle Pratt aligned the Big Dipper carved into the West Central Tower with the North Star: the temple is the center, the still point, the axis mundi. Joseph Smith designed Zion so every action, every thought radiates from and to that still point.
And yet in 2006, after the library had been open for just three years, the Library Journal lauded it for “establishing itself as the center of town.”
Old Metro and the old library had co-existed on Block 37 for decades, a harmony of democracy and justice, but the new library represented a new vision for the block, a nod to its Wild West roots: no cops, no justice. In 2009, when the city considered building a new public safety building on the block, citizens protested. “A police station is a symbol of oppression and control,” said one City Weekly staffer in a roundtable. “Library Square should be about freedom, accessibility, and openness.”
“If the cops become librarians, does that mean librarians will take over police work?” Asked another staffer.
In 2006, Illinois resident Thomas James Zajac drove cross-country with a mission to plant a pipe bomb in the Salt Lake City Main Library. He had a bone to pick with the Salt Lake City Police for arresting his son on a DUI charge. When the bomb blew, it damaged a window on the 3rd floor and sent 400 people fleeing outdoors. Nobody got hurt.
But why the library? If he wanted revenge on the cops, he should have driven straight to the Public Safety Building. Instead, he homed in on the library. Maybe he wasn’t after revenge, but maximum psychological anguish. The library, after all, symbolized the new Salt Lake City. Or maybe he wanted the element of surprise; after all, nobody expects violence inside a library. Never mind Clifford Lynn Draper and his DIY bomb.
Maybe he chose it because it was so open, so accessible.
Or maybe he was a messenger. Just one year before, he had bombed a train station in Hinsdale, Illinois, not far from Elgin, Illinois, where the golden watch that appeared in the Old Metro had been manufactured, the watch so efficient it was railroad grade.
Zajac was on railroad time, too.
But the very openness, the very transparency, that made it easy to carry in that bomb also rendered the infernal machine futile, for in the library, the glass is designed to dissolve into tiny pebbles, not shatter. Not even an earthquake can shake the library down: its pedestrian bridges glide on Teflon plates, mimicking plate tectonics; light fixtures split into pieces. You cannot destroy a building built to fall apart, a building built for the end.
When a new Public Safety Building finally did appear in 2013 one block to the east of Block 37, it had carried the lesson of the library with it: “They wanted it to stand up to the library and City Hall,” one of the architects told the Salt Lake Tribune. “They wanted it to be an open and inviting public safety building, which is kind of an unusal stance for public safety. The entire north elevation is glass. It invites people to have a look at what’s going on.”
If the police become librarians, do librarians become the police?
–Reavely Engineers and Associates, Inc., who assisted the architectural team for the library.
Ninety percent of the structural elements of the new library lie exposed: no secrets; nothing sacred, the opposite of the secret chambers of the temple, the Holy of Holies where the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator receives divine messages through his anointed antennae. On the library’s southeast enclosure, a 60-foot tall 220-foot long pane of curved glass forms the lens wall. Lens, as in camera. Stand before it and click!: a Thomas Moran-worthy portrait of the Wasatch Mountains.
Lens, as in laser beam. With the new Public Safety Building only one block to the east, I sometimes gaze out the lens wall at that super-surveillance nerve center, known as the Fusion Center, where databases hoard images and data about suspicious citizens: people lying down on TRAX lines and taking photographs of the undersides of trains—that’s all they’ve got so far, one Tribune article jabbed. I imagine the library as a spaceship: the lens wall shoots Brainiac’s laser and shrinks the City of God into a bottle, zap! Our sins saved for all eternity on those servers: a card catalog of bad deeds. The police are librarians.
The honeycomb crescent wall wrapping partway around the plaza and all along the north side of the library leans inward like a rollercoaster track to prevent it tipping over in an earthquake—a total of 21 feet.
video from point of view of walking up and around the crescent wall; it shows the lens wall, which is a wall made entirely of glass, as well as the public square and water fountain and the brick City & County Building beyond. The sounds are mostly wind whipping around and some voices, as well as footsteps. At the end of the video, there is a 360-degree view of the city, and the camera turns slowly to show all sides of the surrounding urban area, including the mountains.
Unlike the 15-foot wall enclosing Temple Square, visitors can climb the crescent: “To experience it is uplifting,” said the Library Journal. “The building is circular and suggests climbing. It is like a ‘walkable’ wall. A visitor can walk a circle from the heavily used outside public plaza all the way up into the main library building”—and all the way to the rooftop beehive. Unlike the beehive-engraved brass doorknobs on the temple, this beehive is unlocked, open to everyone, produces honey for everyone: no “temple recommend” required, which sounds so idyllic until you read this little detail on the library website: “retaining walls, on either side, make it quite difficult to jump off.”
The librarians are police.
If Pythagoras was right, and every celestial body in the universe emits an orbital resonance, each one a vibrational instrument in the heavenly orchestra of the spheres, then on June 26, 2008, when artist Bill Close attached 3,000 feet of brass musical wire to the brick wall on the east side of the library to create an enormous Earth Harp, it was surely a miracle: he aided and abetted the library in stealing the music of the moon. He made it the moon for real, “for so inferiors are successively joined to their superiors, that there proceeds an influence from their head,” teaches Agrippa. “If the string of one end be touched, the whole doth presently shake, and such a touch doth sound to the other end, and at the motion of the inferior, the superior is also moved, to which the other doth answer, as strings in a lute well tuned.”
And if Close could fool the universe that the library was the moon, then it was de facto the moon. For what is anything except believing it so? The lunary forgery worked: Block 37, wearing the moon like an amulet, channeled the real one, taking on its mass the same way a baby planet, a planetesimal, collides with a smaller celestial body, devouring and absorbing it like food, dirt of my dirt, flesh of my flesh, gaining mass until the planet exerts enough gravitational force to suck in gases, and someday, grow up to be a gas giant just like Jupiter: cloaked kavod-like, supernatural storms raging, lightning bolts like electric javelins from an angry god.
Jupiter: the governing planet of 1805, birth year of Joseph Smith, the first Decan in his astrological chart, the planet he channeled with the talisman he wore around his neck, dangling near his heart. Under the power of Jupiter: air, religion, and law. Here in the City of God, cocooned inside our manmade kavod-cloud of combustion byproducts and ozone, the more we become like Jupiter, the more we become like Joseph Smith.
Our end is our beginning: Planet Earth was once celestial, floating near the star Kolob, before Adam and Eve lusted after knowledge, before they partook of the forbidden fruit. “And when man fell, the earth fell into space and took up its abode in this planetary system, and the sun became our light,” Brigham Young said. Elohim knew this would happen, because it happened before and had to happen again, worlds without end, falling and falling and falling into their suns. This is how humans earn their ticket to salvation, how they become gods like him: first, they fall.
Look to the skies, and you will see we are not alone. In 2013, astronomers at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii discovered a “rogue planet” drifting through outer space with no star to call home. A mass six times greater than Jupiter’s. Free thinking. Lonely. All alone. Twelve million years old, still drifting like a runaway. Astronomers call it PSO J318.5-22.
Echo of our original sin: We cannot tell a new beginning from an end. The tidal downsizing theory says planets form when massive gas clouds contract. Dust falls into their centers like the thousands of collapsing mines in Utah. But some planets fly too close to a sun, and the star steals their kavod. They undergo a transformation: from gas giant to terrestrial planet. They fall.
We are witnessing the fall of PSO J318.5-22 into its sun; somewhere on its surface, a tiny Adam and a tiny Eve are watching planets float by in their sky. When they gaze at their stars, they will see us: enrobed in our kavod cloud, our celestial garments of gas and smog, on our way home to Kolob—or so we think.
“Imagine if we could break the Earth free from the Sun’s gravity and travel the universe like this planet,” wrote another commenter. We think we are piloting this planet. We think we can steer ourselves back to God.
The Salt Lake City main library “embodies the idea that a library is more than a repository of books and computers; it reflects and engages the city’s imagination and aspiration.” But which city? Zion or Salt Lake? The library, with its 176, 368 square feet of glass, is like a scale model of the celestialized earth, the “sea of glass” prophesied by Brigham Young, the sea that “a person, by looking into it, can know things past, present and to come.” Maybe, just maybe, books fulfill that prophecy: histories like peep stones into the past, science fiction a crystal ball into the future.
video footage inside the library, looking up at the glass ceiling: this footage shows an outdoor still shot of the library from the side that reveals the glass “lens wall.” It then cuts inside to show the glass ceiling, the glass elevators going up & down, and a janitor cleaning up shattered glass shards from the floor due to an unknown accident.
But do not let the library’s sea of glass fool you: it is not glass as Brigham Young knew it. This glass, library glass, forbids Zion’s omnipotent, omniscient sunlight from penetrating it full strength. This glass blocks ultraviolet radiation to protect the precious materials inside from fading, becoming brittle, aging. It is, in essence, a forgery machine: filtering time out of the light so there is no past, no present, no future. The light inside the library is as secular as a light bulb.
Dangling inside the atrium: a sculpture of a giant human head comprised of 1500 tiny books and butterflies, wings fluttering in the still air, almost imperceptibly. Written on those wings: words from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into twenty languages, like Babel without the tower. An electrical current forces the wings to flap, so the sculpture really does mimic its namesake, the Psyche, alive with electricity.
How many flutters of one electric butterfly’s wings does it take to generate the ozone of one lightning flash?
Sometimes, when I stand beneath Psyche, I imagine Hofmann leaning over his fish tank, plugging in his toy train transformer, and zap! We are inside the fish tank. We are the forgeries. The forgeries are us.
Hofmann never set foot in this library; it was built long after he got sentenced to life at Point of the Mountain. Even still, he casts a shadow over this place. He hatched his plots in libraries, retrieved copies of old documents in libraries, and stole end papers from books in libraries. “You know he ruined it for everyone,” a Special Collections librarian at the Marriott Library said, as she explained all the rules before allowing me in to see Hofmann documents: no bound notebooks, no bags, no pens, only loose-leaf yellow paper for notes. “We cannot be so open anymore.”
July 18, 2005, 12:24: A 39-year-old woman breaches the safety railing on a bridge between the library roof and a 5th-floor emergency exit, crawling ten feet across the glass atrium roof to the ledge, where she falls to her death.
walking in steps of woman who committed suicide; video shows point of view of approaching the roof area where she jumped, which is a glass area that overlooks the plaza. It shows her footsteps from the roof down a flight of steps to the glass door where she exited the building and then over the edge of the glass.
One witness hears her shout “Carmen!” Another describes her flailing arms, like the hands of a watch being wound.
Delta minus condition, emergency code for in need of advanced life support.
In other words: death is not instant. She suffers 41 minutes before LDS Hospital declares her dead. Is she dreaming of Carmen? In her dreams, is she peering over the ledge, making up her mind?
For the first time, the library keeps a secret: Director Nancy Tessman asks the media to keep it hush-hush, not for the library’s sake, but for ours: the library does not want to give people ideas.
The librarians are police.
But the secret is already out: an employee has live blogged it, lamenting how local reporters will pretend it never happened, how suicide in the City of God is taboo. The blogger does not know he is supposed to be in on the secret, that by virtue of working in the library, he is a keeper of public secrets.
“The library is where democracy happens,” the slogan says. “The City Library is the center of the city’s civic dialog.”
And the building, that sea of glass in which one could see the future and the past at the same time, is showing the people what openness really means.
video from roof looking down through glass ceiling area: the camera moves slightly to the right, panning to reveal the glass ceiling looking down on people inside the library. It then moves back. It almost has a carnival ride appearance since the footage peers through the railing bars.
April 10, 2008: A homeless woman climbs over the railing of the third floor balcony and pauses just long enough for a witness to attempt to talk her down. She refuses. He flees to find help.
Ten to fifteen seconds is all it takes.
The hospital cannot locate next-of-kin.
Her suicide, unlike the first, makes the news, which is strange since it happened inside the building, out of the bright light of day, away from the prying eyes of rubbernecked witnesses on the public sidewalk. The library should be able to sweep the body under the rug, but it cannot, because this jumper exposed its darkest public secret, the thing that should have been apparent in the architectural plans: openness is dangerous. Anyone can get on top of a roof and jump to her death, but not just any building makes it easy to take the leap from inside.
March 11, 2011: A Japanese woman is caught on surveillance cameras as she walks onto a fourth-floor pedestrian bridge connecting the stacks to the public restrooms, climbs the rail, and jumps.
video showing walk toward railing area where she jumped: the footage shows walking through library stacks, past a payphone, to a back bridge area where this woman jumped. The walls are yellow. Sunlight is shining through the glass ceiling. Sounds are ambient library sounds of voices and pages.
Guttural noises. Face down.
Echo condition—a step down from delta, but still not instant death.
Inside her pocket: a note listing her husband’s name, her employer, and the location of her car. Inside her car: a box full of letters written in Japanese, which detectives can only decipher with the aid of an LDS interpreter.
Later that month, I stand on the same bridge and peer over the railing, my calves and the arches of my feet tickling, the same way they always do when I get too close to a ledge, when I feel the potential energy of a jump in the fibers of my muscles. The building is making them do it, I think.
“The building design is very transparent,” current Library Director Beth Elder tells a reporter. “It has great advantages to how it can be used, but we will be exploring ways we can make it safe.”
But altering the open design would mean altering the ideology of the library, its whole purpose for being: the library embodies an “open mind,” something former director Nancy Tessman praised. “There are 360-degree views of the city from it,” she said. “You can look outward in every direction.”
Like the tenth floor jail in Old Metro, you achieve omniscience without omnipotence. You enter the Phantom Zone.
And nobody with that kind of omniscience wants to live.
Imagine how God feels.
Which is why, perhaps, the citizens of Zion defend their library in spite of the danger:
I feel sorry for the family. Now because of these people being so selfish the library is looking at a way to make it “safer.” These people will find another way to do their deed even if you make it “safer” Who are you making it safer for? I love our library. I just can’t believe people find a way to ruin a beautiful thing. – Non de Plume, commenter on Salt Lake Tribune online news article
Just like Adam and Even in the garden, the people want omniscience, even if it means being helpless, even it means a great fall. The library dangles the promise of Mormonism like a carrot: that every man can one day become a god. But in the library, men do not have to wait. They are gods on Earth as in heaven.
April 26, 2012: 10:30 AM on a Thursday, with a group of schoolchildren gathered below, a man in his early 30s plummets 95 feet to his death in front of the library’s entrance. Just before he jumps, he waves to the children. Is it a maniacal wave? A playful one? A theatrical one? Does he think the children will feel comforted by it? Fooled by it? Maybe they will think he is a daredevil or a clown.
video of dead bird on ground approximately in same spot where this person would have landed: footage shows the dead bird on the plaza and then pans up to the entrance of the library and all the way to the roof and then down again.
Or is it, as some locals commenting on online news articles believe, something sinister, something malicious?
This person waved to a class of 5th graders who saw them sitting on the edge right before they jumped. The 5th graders now get to deal with the trauma of this event for who knows how long. –EnjoyTheMadness, commenter on The Salt Lake Tribune article.
The daredevil lands head facing due north. Boxed to the compass. In his pocket: 26 cents. Next to his body, loose papers with contents unspecified in the police report—a suicide note, most likely, but maybe also a prophecy of the future, of what it means to not spare the children. We, like our big brother Lucifer—for in Mormon theology he is as much our sibling as Jesus, for we are all spirit children of the same Heavenly Father—are not giving the children any choice but to be dragged down with us.
December 14, 2012: A man climbs the ledge of the fire escape on the northwest corner of the library, spreads out his arms, and leaps feet first to his death at the front door, 100 feet down. A witness hears a loud thud behind her, turns around, and finds him semiconscious on the ground. She holds his hand while he attempts to speak. He tells an EMT his name.
Blocks away, police discover his red Volvo wagon crammed full of clothes, windshield shattered, air bags deployed.
This time, citizens do not leap to the library’s defense:
Do they need electrical cattle guards around that place?
One long plexiglass tube could preserve the panoramic views.
—online commenters on the Salt Lake Tribune article
The library is making them do it. The library is too open. The library is where suicide happens.
And yet, we still do not, as Beth Elder once urged, look for ways to make it safe.
June 10, 2013: A 21-year-old man props a chair next to a railing and jumps, his body landing in the worst possible place: the Children’s Patio, a sunken area at the back door of the children’s library. No children witness his body in free-fall, but because the patio lies lower, it adds a few feet to his drop, for a total of 80.
And perhaps because of the children, commenters on the Salt Lake Tribune online news article turn religious, concerned about the immorality being passed down:
Who taught you decent living? Who taught your parents? Who taught your grandparents? Chances are they got it from a religious source.
Without religion we only have people deciding their own guilt and shame. As the US standards of decency get lower, its no wonder people aren’t able to find happiness.
Instead of waiting for the end of the world, we have created a scale model of the celestialized Earth: Brigham Young’s sea of glass, his giant seeing stone. We cannot wait for God to come to us; we are going to him.
We are doing it again: stealing the power of time. We have ignored the warning of the golden watch. We think we can reset the clock to railroad time. We think we can steal the millennium from God.
And our punishment is to have the future stolen from us: the children, witnessing the corpses, will never allow a library like this again.
Perhaps because of the 37 miracles of Jesus—healing a leper, restoring movement to paralyzed limbs, walking on water, driving out evil spirits, making the deaf hear again, raising the dead—most people think miracles are welcome events. Faith affirming. Life affirming.
Crawling from the wreckage of a plane crash.
A baby even after failed fertility treatments.
Chemotherapy killing cancer.
But flip to the Old Testament, and the definition of a miracle changes:
For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.
And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the Lord; the plague is begun.
Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven
Lot’s wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.
Miracles are not a change of God’s mind, the deus ex machina that yanks humanity back from the brink. To think so ascribes far too much power to Heavenly Father and not enough to man. Nor do miracles represent a change of mind, for that would require logic, reason, and strict adherence to the laws of nature. Miracles begin and end in the heart, but they are not a change of God’s heart; they are a change of ours.
The 37 Miracles of Block 37 teach us what a miracle really is.
And every time someone jumps, the fall of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice is resurrected. And so, in a sense, are the jumpers: every time a jumper makes a headline, all the others get dredged back into the news, like a genealogy with dates and no names, blank branches on the trees, forever joined at a stump rooted in Block 37.
I read the police reports and search their obituaries. Beloved wife, son, father. Celebrate his life at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Dry wit. Goofy. Fluent in sarcasm. Philosophy degree. Loved writing novels. Loved her cats.
I search their names in newspaper archives. I search their Facebook profiles.
One led police on a high-speed chase a few years before he jumped.
One lost his job a few months previous.
One became a father less than one year before.
One left this earth with unexplained markings around her throat, markings that could not have been inflicted by a fall.
I read the obits again. None mention suicide.
I have seen this before. On the day my new neighbor in the adjacent apartment jumped to his death, his welcome mat appeared at my threshold like a suspicious package. At first I thought the SWAT team kicked it there, but whoever left it took time to center it and lay it flush against the door. It felt personal, like an accusation or condolence. I peeled the rubber backside from the carpet using the toe of my shoe—I could not bear to touch it—and kicked it down the hall.
My husband and I were the only ones awake in the early morning hours when the SWAT team kicked in his door, the only witnesses. Do you know a human body does not sound like a living thing when it thuds? That it is not even one thud? Think card catalogs wrapped in felt, stacked floor to ceiling in an elevator. Cut the cable.
The next day, I checked the police watch logs: no entries for our address. The welcome mat reappeared at my door. This time, my husband took it to the lost and found. It returned three hours later like a ghastly boomerang. I started holding my breath when I walked past the neighbor’s door, averting my eyes from the SWAT boot print.
My husband and I could not sleep. We clung to each other under the sheets. It felt like the loneliest thing in the world to know what we knew.
Nothing in the papers.
When I asked a neighbor why nobody seemed to know about it, why nothing appeared in the police logs, she said, “Let it go.” No doubt in her mind, the dead neighbor was connected to something—or someone—high up in the LDS. Certain things here, the church does not want you to know. Certain things are unknowable.
I taped a note to the front door, written in all caps: PLEASE STOP LEAVING WELCOME MATS.
Later, searching the obits one-by-one, I found him. It described his fall: an accident, it said, a twist of fate. On the phone, a detective told me they all suspected a jump, but what can you do when nobody witnesses it? The SWAT team showed up in case it was murder, in case someone pushed him and was hiding up there.
When I heard the thud, I had no idea what it was, not until I saw his bare foot sticking out from under a police blanket on the driveway. A short time before, a passerby had found him and administered frantic CPR, not knowing he was palpating a deflated balloon of a heart: it had imploded on impact.
My neighbor only occupied the apartment a few days. No signature on a lease. Illicit sublet. He chose a high-story apartment. Chose it. He must have known when he saw the ad in the paper: this is the place. The day after his jump, he was due in court on a sex offense charge.
His family, however, refused all reason: do not taint the death certificate with a diagnosis you cannot prove, they implored. They were LDS, sealed in the temple, and they would not allow forensic science to tear open their cosmic envelope and spill their son into outer darkness. They did not want certainty; they wanted doubt.
But does a death certificate fool God?
Does God accept the findings of forensic pathologists, of science, over what he already knows from his surveillance in the sky? God, after all, chose Jesus over Lucifer when designing his plan for salvation. He chose doubt. Does he give humans the benefit of it?
Maybe jumpers choose the library so there will be no question, so nobody can try to fool God. Eyewitnesses. Surveillance video. EMTs.
Maybe, just maybe, the library is attracting them. The library “engages the aspiration of the city,” its website declares. But what does that mean in a city that was built out of longing for the apocalypse, for the end, for the city of Enoch to descend? “We have the power,” Brigham Young said, “to continue the work that Joseph commenced, until everything is prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. This is the business of the Latter-Day Saints, and it is all the business that we have on hand.”
Beneath the reflecting pool of the library plaza, in the basement, hides the Crystal Cave, a play space for children with glittering white walls like an ice cave in the arctic. If I were a kid, I would crawl in there and play Superman, the scene from the 1978 movie when the crystal hologram seeing stones teach Superman all the knowledge of the earthly world and the secret powers of his home planet of Krypton. In that scene, he received his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, just as the faithful in the temple receive their new name, the one they must remember to pass through the veil to Heavenly Father in the afterlife. If I could crawl into Crystal Cave, I would call it my Fortress of Solitude, and I am not alone: The Salt Lake Tribune once described Crystal Cave as the fortress, which I discovered in the news archives when I wondered if I was crazy for noticing the resemblance.
Crystal Cave’s ceiling lights are even patterned into constellations, including the Big Dipper, the same constellation on the west central tower of the temple, the constellation that guides the way for lost souls. There, in their fortress of solitude, children stand on a proxy North Pole—the only unambiguous true north on earth—and know, really know, their position relative to the stars. Just like at the temple, they can stand at the hierophantic center of the universe. They can stand in the center of the clock dial, outside time. Crystal Cave transforms every child into a prophet, gives every child a Holy of Holies. Crystal Cave is a revelation anyone can receive: Superman is your temple recommend.
The kids have no idea their Fortress of Solitude sits deep in a cesspool of leaked petroleum. They do not know their Holy of Holies is positioned in perfect alignment with the ghost of the underground police gun range on the old Justice Block—the same gun range where police once clothes-pinned documents recovered from Mark Hofmann’s blown-up Toyota MR2.
The kids have no idea they are steeping in it.
all videos (except the demolition of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice) in collaboration with Alan Murdock
photos by Karrie Higgins
Thank you to the Salt Lake City Police Department for graciously providing police reports for each of the library suicides and for my neighbor’s suicide. Thank you to Special Collections at L. Tom Perry Library at Brigham Young University for access to documents and photographs from the Hofmann case.