Forgery seems like the kind of crime you get into if you're afraid of the really cool crimes. No forger or counterfeiter ever goes down like Scarface -- they go off to a white collar minimum security prison, assuming they can't forge a pardon from the president or something. But Mark Hofmann was no ordinary forger, and his criminal career ended in multiple large explosions. This is the utterly insane story of a man who gave us all a lesson in faking it until you make it, as long as the "make it" is making a bomb.
Mark Hofmann was born in Salt Lake City in 1954, to parents who, as you might guess from the location, were deep into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Or as we've come to call it, the Mormon Church. This will be important later. Anyway, young Mark got into hobbies like stamp and coin collecting ... oh, and also making bombs with his friend, which was a little less than normal back then.
Alongside youthful, exuberant IED construction, Hofmann also started getting good at forgery. He developed a technique that he believed to be undetectable, and he proceeded to forge a rare mint mark on a dime. It worked. By 14, Hofmann had brought a coin before the coin counsel and fooled their asses. He had discovered his superpower.
Of course, every comic book villain origin story needs a crucial turning point, and Hofmann's was when he did a little more digging into the religion his parents had raised him in and decided that it was all at least a little bit bullshit. This would be the final ingredient in the stew of crazy that was about to go down.
It's 1980. The '70s are done and we're in the future now, baby. Everything's about to be ten times more shiny and filled with 20 times more cocaine. Hofmann entered the decade fully equipped and ready to make an absolute killing off of the past. His first target? The LDS Church.
Hofmann claimed to be in possession of a 17th-century King James Bible that happened to have a pretty neat little Post-It inside: a note transcribed by Joseph Smith himself, from the sacred golden plates which were supposedly the foundation of the faith. Such a document would be very valuable to the church if it were real. Or if a dude had done such a good job of forging it that it might as well be. With what became known as the Anthon Transcript, Hofmann successfully fooled the LDS experts and scammed them out of $20,000.
Hofmann immediately dropped out of school. He'd just made $20,000 in the '80s off the religious and the gullible, so why not? The world was his oyster. He then became a rare book dealer, which is absolutely hilarious, because this somehow didn't raise ANY red flags. A young college dropout who claims he's suddenly in possession of stacks of historically game-changing shit? Apparently people were pretty cool with believing Hofmann was Utah's Jack Sparrow, just travelling around and tripping over incredibly valuable artifacts that had eluded all of the world's scholars.
Hofmann started pumping out the fakes at an amazing rate. Knowing now that the LDS Church was craving, well, absolutely anything that could help validate its tenets, Hofmann hit them the hardest. But here's where his plan went from normal genius to evil genius. Think about it: What would be more valuable to a church than an authentic document that proves they're right? How about an authentic document that proves their religion is bullshit? It'd be worth a lot to make sure nobody ever saw it.
That's exactly what Hofmann started creating, and selling, to the church, under the guise of having merely found them. These documents probably had titles like Hey This Is Joseph Smith, Let Me Tell Y'all About This Wild Time I Made Up A Religion! and 101 Reasons I Know For A Fact That Mormonism Is Fake, And Other Interesting Things, by the famous author God.
Eventually, Hofmann forged a document that claimed Joseph Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, was his designated successor, instead of the man who actually received that honor, Brigham Young. Upon presenting it to the LDS Church, he was surprised that they didn't meet his asking price. No worries, though -- he just took it to a rival faction. That was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which claimed Smith's descendants were his rightful successors, but lacked any proof. Hofmann played them all perfectly. He went back to "his" church, the OG LDS, and cut a deal for another $20,000 worth of stuff in exchange for the document.
Oh, and as an additional "Screw you," he let the document slip to the press anyway. Now the LDS had to publicly confirm the discovery and admit that their shit status was "Full Of It." He was, for a brief time, both the King of Forgery and the Grand Master of Fucking With People.
Around the time that he played the LDS and RLDS like a fiddle, Hofmann came to an religious awakening. Except it was less about accepting a faith and its teachings, and more about learning all of the cool ways you can dupe religions out of a butt-ton of money. This is also around the time that Hofmann put together his most brazen forgery yet: the Salamander Letter.
In this document supposedly written by one of Joseph Smith's scribes, Hofmann crafted a vastly different take on the entire faith's origin. The church-sanctioned version of events goes something like this: The Angel Moroni helped Joseph Smith locate the golden plates which had the Book of Mormon written on them. Hofmann, probably struggling to suppress a giggle, "found" a letter claiming that Smith wasn't instructed by Moroni, but rather a talking white salamander. At this point, Hofmann was like an old rock legend who's already done it all, so they just release experimental albums like Mick Jagger Sings The Family Matters Theme Song 12 Times. Just doing it because he could.
Once again, the church bought it in an effort to bury it. And once again, Hofmann secretly released it to the public anyway. The LDS Church was forced to muster the excuse that in the 1820s, a "salamander" could also refer to a "being that is able to live in fire," and that could link back to the Angel Moroni somehow. If you've now decided that Hofmann is your hero, that's understandable, even if it means you've ignored quite a bit of foreshadowing up to now.
Hofmann went on to fake and sell so many damn things to the LDS Church that nobody's sure exactly how many he created and how many are still out there (there are literally hundreds, apparently). And he kept hitting them with that classic move where he would immediately leak the document after selling it to them. There's no denying that for Hofmann, this game wasn't just about money.
Hofmann was, of course, not the type to be satisfied jerking around a whole religion. He was also a master at forging signatures, and he used these skills to fake the John Hancock of John Hancock, as well as those of George Washington, Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and essentially every name you'd see while leafing through a middle school history textbook. He also forged a "lost poem" by Emily Dickinson, which takes an absolutely astounding amount of guts and overestimated literary talent. That's like if a used car salesman from Greenwood, South Carolina suddenly claimed he'd found the only copy of Christopher Nolan's Inception vs. Batman.
But Hofmann's most infamous non-LDS prank was his forgery of the "Oath of a Freeman." One of the most important documents of early American history, his version was said to be a copy of the famous loyalty pledge taken up by the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1630s, and he began negotiations with the Library of Congress for figures well over a million dollars. And here's where the problems started, because when you get into a lie that big, there's no easy way out ...
Despite bringing in some serious coin with his fakes, Hofmann began to find himself falling into debt. Had he been your average Mormon document counterfeiter, he could presumably have continued like that forever, "discovering" a valuable new document every time the rent was due. But this is Utah Jack Sparrow, motherfucker. He had an image to uphold.
With an increasingly expensive lifestyle and something of an obsession with buying legitimate first-edition books, Hofmann simply couldn't keep up. As a last-gasp attempt to make good on his debts, he promised to deliver the "McClellin collection," a series of documents from an early Mormon apostle who broke from the church. But he soon realized that while forging one document is hard, forging a collection under a deadline is nearly impossible.
Unable to make the fakes in time, Hofmann also found his phony-ass Oath of a Freeman coming under serious scrutiny before the deal could go through. But of course that was happening. Hofmann had gotten used to walking into the LDS Church with two sentences scribbled on a Fuddruckers napkin and netting five figures on the spot. He was now dealing with actual skeptics, and they weren't buying it.
Panicking and backed into a corner, Hofmann went back to that whimsical childhood hobby of his: building bombs. He figured that if he started mailing people bombs, he'd get more time to do his thing. You see how this is logical, right? Because when you mail the bombs, they're busy looking at the ... so that you can ... ummm. Huh. I'm starting to think that maybe Mark Hofmann did not have a 100 percent normally functioning brain.
But mailing bombs is what he did, with the first one killing document collector Steven Christensen on October 15, 1985. That same day, a second bomb killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen's former employer. Hofmann graduated from "devious scamp" to "murderous piece of shit" overnight. All to preserve this ridiculous teetering house of cards he called a career.
Hofmann's plan almost worked, too, as the police investigating these bombings began to bark up the entirely wrong tree. But only one day later, Hofmann accidentally blew his own ass up. One of his bombs went off in his car (he survived), and the intrepid officers on the case immediately turned their attention to him.
Hofmann was arrested, and police found a bunch of forgery shit in his basement. Soon after, people started looking a bit harder at his treasure trove of documents, signatures, and Mormon fanfic. Unsurprisingly, everything this guy ever turned in for profit was fake as hell. It's also believed that there are still Hofmann works out there that have yet to be discovered, because of course there are -- the guy could make this stuff look pretty good. Hofmann went to jail, where he currently remains.
So we have here a man who, before the whole Unabomber prequel, could almost be seen as a folk hero. Disillusioned by the religion that was hammered into him from a young age, he found a way to both exploit it and profit off of it. Once found out, he probably could have used his skills for good -- maybe helping catch other forgers -- and gotten a Leonardo DiCaprio movie made about his life. Instead, we see once again that the most dangerous creature on Earth is a pathological liar who's been backed into a corner.
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How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.