The Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, February 15, 1987, p. 2E


First ‘Hofmann’ history-mystery

    Tracking the White Salamander: The Story of Mark Hofmann, Murder and Forged Mormon Documents, by Jerald Tanner; Utah Lighthouse Ministry, second edition, 185 pp., $6.95 paperback.

    When the plea bargain agreement between Salt Lake County prosecutors and confessed murderer and forger Mark W. Hofmann was signed, sealed and delivered, it signaled the stampede by writers to be the first in print with a book on the bizarre case.

    A week after Hofmann walked through the gates at Utah State Prison to begin his "life sentence," the first appeared. While Jerald Tanner’s Tracking the White Salamander: The Story of Mark Hofmann, Murder and Forged Mormon Documents is more of a chronology of Hofmann’s efforts to spread his tainted work among scholars, collectors, dealers and archivists, rather than a concise narrative of his criminal career and downfall, Tanner nevertheless has added enough peripheral information drawn from his own contact with Hofmann to make it an interesting and timely account.

    Tanner and his wife, Sandra, have devoted nearly 30 years to an outspoken evangelical criticism of the Mormon Church, a crusade which, quite naturally, draws controversial documents to them as moths to a flame.

    Thus, when the now-infamous "Salamander Letter" surfaced, purportedly written by Martin Harris, one of the original witnesses to the golden plates of Mormon, to W.W. Phelps, a newspaperman in Canandaigua, N.Y., in October, 1830, and describing Joseph Smith’s involvement in money-digging and magic, Tanner was keenly interested.

    Such a document, if genuine, would go far to support Tanner’s contention that the Book of Mormon was not divinely inspired; in fact, the letter’s reference to the gold plates being protected by "a white salamander" which "transfigured himself" into a "spirit" and struck Joseph Smith "3 times," would, in Tanner’s view, "deal a devasting [devastating] blow to the Mormon Church."

    Because Hofmann, then in his late 20’s and already recognized as a young "discoverer of rarities" enjoying a meteoric success in rescuing important letters and documents from oblivion, had played a prominent, if slightly nebulous role in bringing the "Salamander Letter" to light, he was something of a boy wonder among historians and collectors who marveled at his consistent good fortune.

    But, ironically, Tanner, who perhaps had the most to gain if the "Salamander Letter" was authentic, raised the first discordant note when, in his dogged search to connect Harris’s account with verified historical fact, "made a discovery that shook me to the very core."

    That discovery, Tanner explains, was the sudden realization "that the account of the transformation of the white salamander into the spirit was remarkably similar to a statement E.D. Howe published in Mormonism Unvailed [sic] … four years after the date which appears in the Harris Letter…"

    Tanner goes on to say he began to find other remarkable parallels to the Salamander letter in the Howe book. (He lists the parallels in Tracking the White Salamander). And so, as early as March, 1984, Tanner published – not the expose’ of Mormon occultism he had hoped – but to the astonishment of a community of scholars, historians and students, published an attack on the Letter, tossing the ugly spectre [sic]of forgery smack into their laps.

    (It wasn’t the first time Tanner had refuted "accepted documents." In 1967, he announced he was convinced that two accounts dealing with the defection and return to Mormonism of Oliver Cowdery, second Elder of the Church, were spurious. Both documents [the confession of Oliver Overstreet and Cowdery’s Defence (sic) in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints], he said, were fraudulent.)

    By August of ’84 in Tanner’s mind at least, the evidence against the Salamander Letter cast a shadow on all the important discoveries Hofmann had made since 1980. And in describing this period, Tanner offers an interesting look at Hofmann’s methods.

    In fact, Tanner believes he has traced Hofmann's chicanery as far back as 1978 when a handwritten document purporting to describe a secret Mormon Temple ritual known as the "Second Anointing" was shown to Sandra Tanner by a young man who "did not dare reveal his name to us because he belonged to a very prominent Mormon family." He gave the Tanners a photocopy of the document and kept the original.

    Tanner says that original was later sold to Utah State University by none other than Mark Hofmann. Tanner says the document is of questionable authenticity.

    He also speculates that Hofmann may have been planning to use the Tanners as "a publisher" for his documents, leaking information through them to generate publicity and thus create a market for his forgeries.

    While Tracking the White Salamander is not a smooth-running narrative in the traditional sense, Tanner has painstakingly followed newspaper and magazine accounts and tape recorded court hearings to "tie the evidence together in such a way that the average person will be able to grasp what is going on."

    In his haste to publish, Tanner did not wait for the plea bargain announcement, but rather leaves his readers with, "Perhaps the truth about this matter will come out when the case goes to trial."

    Even so, Tanner pursues most of Hofmann’s known "discoveries" including the "McLellin Deception," in which Hofmann claimed to have located a cache of early Mormon documents and papers which would have netted him a fortune and set historians in a confusion of research; the so-called "Spalding-Rigdon Letter," the Anthon Transcript, the Joseph Smith III Blessing, the 1825 Joseph Smith Jr. "Money-Digging" Letter, the Grandin contract, the Lucy Mack Smith Letter, the Isaac Galland note, the Jonathan Dunham Letter, the Betsy Ross Letter, and the Oath of the Freeman, and many more now confounding police experts.

    His discusses the Mormon Church’s involvement with Hofmann, and devotes some space to the fundamentals of forgery as explained by the experts.

    But in the final analysis, with this blizzard of counterfeit and tainted documents the reader must come to the realization that any future confession by Hofmann under the terms of the plea bargain, will have to be incredibly convincing to explain away the dozens of different handwritings and lengthy manuscripts he would have had to master and create to bring off such a monumental caper over nine years and more.

    Acquaintances of Hofmann agreed that he was intelligent, clever and enigmatic, but no one will say with confidence that he could have perpetrated all of what he confesses without an accomplice.

    After Hofmann had been injured in the explosion of his own bomb and subsequently came under suspicion of having murdered Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets in hopes of covering up his forgeries and document deals, newspaper editorials and public asked in wonderment, how could he have been so successful in his deception?

    The answer seems simple: It was easy to cheat a friend, and for the most part, Mark W. Hofmann preyed on friends who trusted him.

    As for Tracking the White Salamander, what Jerald Tanner lacks in writing skills, he makes up for with his close and personal knowledge of many of the principals in this intriguing game of history-mystery.

–Harold Schindler


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