The Salamander Letter in a nutshell

So, what is this scary Salamander Letter that the church is hiding from everybody?   

Start with some background.  In the 1970s, church historian Leonard Arrington took over and began a policy of strong support for academic writing about LDS history, especially using archive documents.   A number of important books came out of this “Camelot” time period.  Also, the increased buzz about LDS history led to an expanded and very lively market for early LDS documents. 

One more piece of academic background:  In the early 80s, various writers were discussing Joseph Smith’s use of folk magic.  The most detailed descriptions and far-reaching conclusions came from D. Micheal Quinn, and they were extremely controversial at the time.  (They still are, to some extent).  Quinn’s name has become synonymous with folk magic, but the fact is that other people discussed folk magic at the time (e.g., Bushman’s _Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism_), though not everyone accepted all of Quinn’s conclusions.   

This set the stage for a novel and ultimately deadly instance of document fraud. 

Document dealer Mark Hofmann was one of the players in the rare Mormon documents scene.  He launched his careeer by “finding” the original transcript from Martin Harris to Charles Anthon, which no one had seen before.  He subsequently “found” several other important, original documents.  He was able to sell some of these to the church and to private collectors, for moderately large amounts of money.  Hofmann owned some genuine documents at some points in time; however, the documents which he “found” tended to be forgeries.  Hofmann was a talented forger who generally used authentic era paper, and who developed complicated techniques for making documents appear old.  Notably, all of Hofmann’s new discoveries had major provenance problems — no one had seen these documents until they suddenly appeared in Hofmann’s possession.  

Hofmann fooled many of the leading scholars of the time.  He fooled Dean Jessee, who accepted Hofmann’s forgeries as real.  He also fooled a number of experts in antique documents.  And he fooled church leaders. Hofmann sold forged documents to the church, under the direction of then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley.  

In 1984, Hofmann produced his Salamander Letter.  It purported to be a letter from Martin Harris about Joseph Smith’s magical practices.  It talked about a magical salamander spirit guarding the golden plates who demanded that Joseph bring his dead brother Alvin to get the plates.  The letter was designed to highlight the sensational and then-controversial ideas about folk magic.  It suggested that folk magic was not an early stage that Joseph Smith abandoned, but was crucial in the Book of Mormon translation process.  Because of its controversial content, Hofmann hoped the church would buy the letter in order to hide it.  

The church was not willing to buy the letter for Hofmann’s asking price, but Hofmann was able to sell the letter to a private collector who wanted to donate it to the church.   The letter was mentioned a few times in church contexts, and appeared in books like Dean Jessee’s _Personal Letters of Joseph Smith_.  [Update: Actually, I don’t believe it was the Salamander letter in Jessee’ volume, I think it was another Hofmann forgery]  Meanwhile Hofmann continued to produce fake documents, and was able to borrow a lot of money, in part through his business contacts with church leaders.  Hofmann’s scheme fell apart when he was unable to produce a set of forged documents against which he had borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He sent pipe bombs that killed two people — a document collector and the wife of the collector’s business partner.  Hofmann was seriously injured in a premature explosion of one of his own bombs.  He was charged with murder, took a plea, and is currently serving a life sentence.  

What does it mean?

Church critics suggest that the Hofmann forgeries show that the church is too secretive about its history; that church leaders want to suppress or whitewash negative aspects of church history; that church members do not know about controversial parts of history.  Critics also suggest that the incident shows lack of inspiration in church leadership — if they are prophets, why didn’t they realize Hofmann was a forger?

On the question of document suppression, I’m not sure that the incident is particularly damning.  The church bought documents of questionable provenance, and generally made them available, even before the forgery was known.  The church could have been more forthright about them — I’m a fan of Arrington’s approach myself — but I can understand the desire not to emphasize controversial documents.  Elder Oaks wrote a lengthy discussion of the Hofmann incident, including a defense of the church’s policies, in the Ensign in 1987.  

Are there more hidden documents, smoking guns about early church history?  Let’s see — the church is currently engaged in a publishing 30-odd volumes of original documents on Joseph Smith.  Yes, there are some items that may not be published (C50 minutes, BLL, KEP: Go here for detail).  Yes, there have been some serious past problems, and periods of very bad historical practices.  Right now, I don’t worry much.  I don’t have time to read all of the new primary documents that come out anymore.  Take a look at Signature, Illinois, Arthur H Clark lately.  

On the question of duped church leaders — well, yes.  Church leaders were duped.  That’s embarrassing.  Is it anything more?  It does mean that if you think that Thomas S. Monson has a bat-phone directly to God, then you probably need to rethink your testimony.  (And I’ll grant that quite a few CTR-8s probably have that understanding.  And probably some adult members, too, which is unfortunate.)  For those of us who don’t subscribe to the bat-phone model of prophetic guidance, well, the incident doesn’t mean a whole lot.  

Come on, people, ask us something harder.  The Kinderhook Plates, for instance.  :)

32 comments for “The Salamander Letter in a nutshell

  1. Nice summary, Kaimi. The continuing popularity of “the Church is hiding things!” meme seems strangely unaffected by the flood of original documents the Church has been putting out over the last ten or fifteen years. Almost like that view has no particular relation to facts.

  2. FYI, here’s from the Preface to the revised edition (2002) of Jessee’s Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. The first edition was also produced about the time several new Joseph Smith holograph writings were discovered but which have since been judged as forgeries. Those documents—six in number—do not appear in this revised edition.

    The six excluded documents are not identified in the revised edition.

  3. Regarding Church leaders being “duped,” Gordon Hinckley said of the forgeries

    I am glad we have them. They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be. However, assuming that they are authentic, they are valuable writings of the period out of which they have come. But they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

    So, yes, Church leaders were dealing with a conman and future murderer and didn’t know it. But they didn’t make any claims regarding the authenticity of what the conman was selling.

  4. I thought Robert Lindsey’s book on the subject “A Gathering of Saints” was fascinating. Lindsey is not LDS and had previously penned the best-seller “The Falcon and the Snowman.” It was interesting to see this story told from an “outsider’s” POV.

  5. “The other woman killed” was my mother’s aunt. This period of time has been a source of pain for the families involved. I hope they do not make a movie of it.

    As for the church buying documents and not releasing them, I don’t care. I am sure lots of things happen without our knowledge and I am not worried about it. Perhaps it was the whole Hoffman weirdness that gave the Elders pause? I am glad that there is more out there, warts and all.

  6. +1 for “A Gathering of Saints”, though I read it so long ago, and have learned so much about Church History in the interim, that I really can’t say how accurate it was re every minute detail. In general, though, a great and compelling read.

  7. It is worth point out too that Quinn’s Magic World View was not published until _after_ the Hofmann docs were shown to be forgeries–leaving what Stephen Robinson called a “salamader-shaped hole” in the book. :-)

  8. It is also worth pointing out, that the Church also published the full text of the Salamander Letter in the Church News.

    Yes, it is worth pointing out. I’ve never understood the “Church-bought-it-to-hide-it” meme for this and the (forged) Joseph Smith III blessing, since the Church published both texts in its own publications.

    As far as the “batphone to God” meme (great phrase, btw), I would have thought that Joseph Smith’s support of John C. Bennett would have put that to rest right from the start.

    I’ve read speculation that Hoffman’s next great forgery effort might well have been part of the lost 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript. Instead, things fell apart, and he started killing people. ..bruce..

  9. (10.)

    The Joseph Smith III blessing is particularly enigmatic for someone claiming that the Church was trying to cover it all up; Then Elder Hinckley devoted an entire General Conference address to the blessing and it’s possible meanings in 1981. For those unfamiliar with it, the link is here.

  10. For those of you not familiar with the story, “Salamander”, by Deseret News reporter Linda Sillitoe makes a good read. I believe the paperback edition was updated a few years ago with some new information.

    I remember at the time that the church was very careful in their announcements, yet actually forthcoming about the acquisitions. I also had a friend who worked in the COB and was directly involved with some of Hoffman’s forgeries. I actually saw the Salamander letter in person there one day.

    What turns out to be interesting is that Hoffman “seeded” a false provenance, to use Ardis’ favorite word. He took an early church hymnal and wrote an inscription supposedly by Martin Harris, and arranged for someone else to “find” it. I believe he did the same with one other document, so that by the time he produced the Salamander letter, he had established his own efforts as the authoritative samples of Martin Harris’ handwriting. Common suspicion at the time was that he was working towards “finding” the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon.

    A sad time for the church, and church history. We appear to have successfully come through. I was not aware that there were rumors about the church burying the Salamander letter. It was all pretty open at the time.

  11. “I’ve read speculation that Hoffman’s next great forgery effort might well have been part of the lost 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript.”

    Pinnock is quoted in Lindsey’s book (with Hoffman as the source I believe) as telling Hoffman that it would be great if he (Hoffman) could locate the 116 pages.

    @ Scott (#8) I reread “Gathering” a couple of years ago. THere were problems with it, though minor. I found it compelling though that it was written from a non-LDS POV. THere were a few insights he provided that I thought were impressive.

  12. I actually lived in Utah and was 13 at the time. My parents sat us down and told us about the salamander letter. They told us that there was a letter that had been found and it Joseph Smith supposedly described weird things about a salamander and they didn’t know what he meant, but it didn’t change what they did know about the Book of Mormon and about the gospel being true.
    It later came out that it was a forgery, of course. I absolutely LOVE that whole experience. I love that my parents told me about it. I love that they didn’t let it change what they knew.
    I love that it eventually was discovered to be a forgery but no one could know that at first (and what if it had taken 50 years??). It was a very interesting experience for a 13 year old and I still think about it.

  13. I worked with Ron Walker on the Salamander letter when it was first purchased by Steven Christensen and before it was first made public. The information I received is that a person by the name of Lyn Jacobs had verified that he had seen it in a collection in the East as part of a larger collection before Hofmann got it. At that time, Dean Jesse was confirming that it was authentically Joseph Smith’s handwriting.

    Once we began to work on it, I became firmly convinced that it wasn’t genuine. I did at least three firesides before it was exposed as a forgery where I attempted to place it in context but emphasized that it didn’t fit into a context because it just didn’t fit anywhere. It didn’t fit Joseph’s views or expressions. It didn’t fit with the language of the Book of Mormon. It just didn’t fit. I got roundly heckled at a meeting of more “liberal and knowledgeable” folks who insisted that I was just trying to protect my faith from uncomfortable facts. Was I? I just didn’t see it that way.

    The plan was always to make the letter public with a more complete explanation of its provenance and the thought-world of magic in the early colonial era. I just couldn’t make it fit. My foremost focus was the connection between the anti-masonic party and the folk-magic of those who took part in it. I still couldn’t make it fit.

    When the bombs went off we were all a little bit scared and very sad that a man as wonderful and decent as Steve could be killed. While I see Hoffman’s exposing his own fraud by his own stupidity with explosives as divine providence, I never could reconcile that death.

    For me the story isn’t about the Church’s attempt to hide anything. It is about the scholarly rush to put down those who rejected it. It was about the scholarly insistence that it just had to be real because it was uncomfortable and fit into the world of early colonial magic so perfectly. For me it is a cautionary tale about scholarship and historians rather than about anything the Church supposedly did to try to cover up because . . . it didn’t.

  14. “it just had to be real because it was uncomfortable”

    I don’t know much about historiography, but you’ve explained a basic principle of textual (biblical) criticism (namely, lectio difficilior) to a T. Interesting to see it fail so spectacularly in this case.

  15. I’ve been a vocal advocate of “inoculation.” When the salamander letter was at its height, I did an experiment in major league inoculation. I was GD teacher, and I devoted a class to the letter. As it so happened, both the bishop and SP were in attendance for that class. By that point the letter had been published in the Church News, and it was widely believed to be authentic. I believed it to be authentic at that time. I did this completely on my own motion; no one asked me to do it.

    Quite honestly, that was probably one of the best lessons I’ve ever taught in a church classroom. We talked about the folk magic background. went over the letter itself, examined what we knew at that time about its provenance, both positive and negative. No one left that room feeling bad about it or any loss of faith; to the contrary, everyone was fully engaged (no sleeping in that class!). The topic was eventually mooted, but teaching that class convinced me that *anything*, no matter how sensitive or seemingly troubling, can be taught in a faithful context.

    (And I’ve simply never understood the batphone complaint. Those people have a hyper-fundamentalist understanding of what a prophet is that is far removed from my understanding.)

  16. Bibliographic note: For those who want to read up on the Hofmann affair, there were three books published: Salamander (for insiders), A Gathering of Saints (for outsiders), and Mormon Murders (for masochists). Later, Rick Turley published Victims, which tells the story from the institutional church’s position.

  17. #17 – Just to echo Julie’s comment, I have seen over and over in the Bloggernacle a core assumption that truth is correlated to the level of uncomfortability – both directly and inversely. It’s really fascinating to watch people argue exactly opposite conclusions based solely on that one factor.

  18. The genius of the Salamander letter was the way that Hoffman played so brilliantly off of the zietgiest of Mormon historians at the time. The letter was accepted because it seemed to confirm so many arguments that didn’t quite have the documentary evidence to close the deal. In other words it was accepted because it seemed to confirm what lots of scholars already believed. I don’t think that this shows any particular intellectual depravity on the part of historians, only that they are subject to the same intellectual passions as anyone else, passions that can be played upon by a clever manipulator. It is just not all that often that someone is interested in manipulating historians, rather than say large institutional investors.

  19. Steve was our first cousin, a decent man with a young family who had a death sentence simply for trusting. The family seemed to agree at the time with Elder Hinckley that it is better to trust and to be found in error than to face the world as a cold, doubtful place. After all these years, it still hurts.

  20. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Thanks in particular to comments from those who knew and loved the deceased.

    I didn’t mean to be short in my brief description of the events, though this was rather short and to the point; I put this post up to briefly describe the facts, because the topic was coming up in another thread.

  21. I was just reading In Sacred Loneliness. In the preface, the authors discuss trouble with getting access to the archives and certain manuscripts. The publication of so many primary documents is wonderful, in that forbidding access to this material can’t happen again. Around the bloggernacle I read the constant refrain – they are hiding very little. When, in fact, we don’t know exactly what is the archives because there is no comprehensive list. Not to mention the archived material that has been purposely destroyed.

    As for the salamander shaped hole – Quinn revised the book and it’s excellent. It is disingenuous to defame his work because the letters turned out to be forgeries. There is a lot of great evidence in that book with the footnotes to back it up to demonstrate folk magic as an integral part of JS’s life.

    It seems that Mormons can’t handle the folk magic aspect of JS. I arrived at that conclusion from a recent visit to church museums in SLC where all signs of folk magic have been removed from display, from the comments posted here, and from the changes to the Doctrine and Covenants.

  22. TiredM- have you ever tried to get a document that you were denied? I haven’t. I have had access to everything that I wanted. One reason that there isn’t a list is that the number of documents is huge and it is a gargantuan project — and even listing a name for a document would fail to capture what is often hidden in a document of historical significance.

  23. I spent most of a year researching in the Church Archives during Arrington’s administration. I was reading transcripts of church court hearings, on the topic of how the bishoprics and high councils did the kind of dispute resolution that we now rely on civil courts to do. I was using the original records, and as far as I could tell no one else had bothered reading them before. Someone who is interested in Utah legal history needs to read the journal of Seth B. Lee, who served as US Attorney for Utah and had fought alongside Sam Houston in Texas.

    When the Salamander Letter and other Hoffman documents were acquired, they were reproduced in the Church News with discussion of them by Dallin Oaks and others. One of the things Hoffman produced was a supposed transcript from the Golden Plates, not the one we are familiar with, that I later saw displayed (in reproduction) at the Martin Harris house in Palmyra. The alleged Joseph Smith III blessing was featured not only in LDS publications but also in a brochure that the RLDS Church handed out at the Kirtland Temple. These “documents” were used by critics to beat up the Church over its history, but the Church was very open about them, just as it had been a decade earlier with the Joseph Smith Papyri from the Metropolitan Musuem of Art in New York.

    It was clear at the time of Hoffman’s ascendancy that his most enthusiastic cheerleaders were people pushing the “New Mormon History”. They had itching ears and Hoffman’s documents were scratching that itch. Some historians who were critical of the “official history” of the Church embraced the Hoffman forgeries with enthusiasm, waving them as they called for a revision of the official version of events.

    It is clear that (a) the “official history” has proven much more durable than many of the alternative views, (b) the Church did nothing dishonorable, did not waste a lot of Church funds buying documents from Hoffman, and disclosed the significant ones very openly, while (c) many of the critics of the “official history” called into question their own credibility by forcefully advocating the Hoffman documents in a display of remarkable credulity. Yet if you see an occasional story nowadays referring to the episode on TV or in a magazine or non-Mormon author’s book (e.g. Mormon America by the Ostlings), the stories try to depict the historians as heroes and the Church leaders as dupes, when the truth was more the opposite.

    In a way, the Hoffman episode was evidence that Church history had achieved enough importance that it was the target of an effort to undermine it. Yet it also uncannily harks back to the Lord’s description of how the people who stole the original 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript were planning to use it to attack Joseph Smith’s credibility. Standing alone, it seems like a scheme that is unlikely just because it would involve so much work to carry out a deception against something that was not even yet an organized church. Yet Hoffman demonstrates that hatred for the Church can inspire a skilled liar to tremendous feats of forgery. And as has been pointed out above, Sillitoe and others have guessed that Hoffman’s long-range goal was to use these planted documents both as a field test of his skills and to authenticate the handwriting of Martin Harris for his coup de grace: producing the “lost 116 pages”, and fulfilling Satan’s original plan 150 years late.

  24. Kaimi, excellent summary. I would echo previous points about the Church’s purchase of the document not indicating in any way that they accepted it as real; the Church has a standing policy of being open to the acquisition of every document related to Church history, not just documents from Church leaders but those from enemies of the Church (up to and including anti-Mormon literature.) Purchase of a document in no way implies acceptance of it; and I could be mistaken, but I believe it the letter itself is still in Church Archives.

    As to the issue of the Church leadership not immediately identifying the true nature of the letter (or of the Kinderhook Plates), I would refer to the experience of Elisha the prophet:

    27 And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the feet: but Gehazi came near to thrust her away. And the man of God said, Let her alone; for her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me.

    So much for “Batphone to God”. That God can, and does, deliberately withhold information from the prophets for reasons of his own is plainly evident here.

  25. This is a little bit of a threadjack, but I’d like to mention it anyway:

    In relation to KB’s comments about openness and innoculation:

    For those who didn’t go to BYU, Church history is taught in three sections: 1820s-1844, 1844-1900, 1900-present. The courses are taught by history professors even though they are under the auspices of the religion department (I think). Anyhow, I took all three courses and had professors for the second and third thirds who approached controversial subjects in almost opposite ways.

    My teacher for the last third (1900-present) asked us on the first day of class if we had heard about anything from church history that bothered us. As folks raised their hands and volunteered “polygamy,” “priesthood restrictions,” “MMM,” and the like, she gave one sentence “answers” for each controversy. For instance, on the priesthood restrictions she said “that was a policy, not a doctrine.” After about five minutes of this, she informed us this was all we needed to know about those subjects and then we did not discuss them again for the rest of the term.

    Now, maybe that helped some people, I don’t know. But for me, that seemed to try to stuff the monsters back in the closet, so to speak–it just made people fearful of what they might find if they opened the door.

    The professor I had for the second third, on the other hand, often spent almost half of our class time talking about these subjects. He would have us read (often primary) sources ahead of time and then come to class to discuss what it would have been like to live a polygamous life, or why the MMM might have occurred. He opened the door to let the monsters out. After he did that, we found that most of the “monsters” were really just mice and even those that still seemed kind of strange were not nearly as scary as they might otherwise have seemed.

    It seems to me that with the almost universal proliferation of information, most members of the Church (at least in the U.S.) are eventually going to find the monsters. So much better, it seems, to let that encounter happen in a faithful place where the events and ideas can be placed in proper context and where faithful discussion can follow. Otherwise, we risk this happening in a strange place inimical to faith and often the shock that comes when a person discovers the gap between what he thought he knew and what seems to be the case can really shake a person’ testimony.

    It means so much, I think, to have someone say, “I know all about [whatever], and I still know the Gospel is true.”

  26. Excellent comments, Tyler.

    I should add something to what I wrote above. I have a very laid back, easy going personality. I don’t let much rile me. These days I’m familiar with every major argument against the Church, but none of that stuff bothers me, and I can let it slide off my back.

    But I remember that when I first read the salamander letter, I was really thrown for a loop. That easily could have been the one that knocked me off the ledge. Nothing I’ve encountered before or since bothered me as much as the salamander letter did.

    I didn’t panic, however. I rolled up my sleeves and learned what I could about folk magic. (This was before Quinn’s book came out.) I actually started in non-LDS history writing, such as Jon Butler, which dealt with a slightly earlier period of American history. And having an actual historical context to put that into helped me tremendously not to wig out over the letter.

    That was part of the reason I taught that class. I made special trips to university libraries to be able to read some of the historical literature, and I knew that the ordinary members of my class weren’t going to do something like that, so I needed to share what I had found with my brothers and sisters.

  27. Interesting. This information would discourage me from basing a testimony (or lack of) on any one particular old document.

  28. Steven Christensen, Hoffman’s first victim, is the only brother-in-law that I never had the chance to meet (in this life); I was in Jr. High when he was killed, and wouldn’t end up meeting his younger sister for another ~5 years or so.

    I look forward to meeting him someday.

    President Faust, in his final conference address recounted the blessing of peace that my in-laws found through choosing to forgive.

  29. I never mind honest questions about the early or current church
    aa long as they are fair and without hatred. The early prophets
    were just human and made mistakes, just like everyone, some
    were foolish mistakes too. I admit that. But this has nothing
    to do with the fact that this church is the Church of Jesus Christ.
    If you are really sincere about seeking the Lord he will reveal it to
    you. I am a theology expert who was converted to the church.
    Imagine that! But in all seriousness the Holy Bible goes hand in
    hand with the Book of Mormon. The Bible is full of proof of the
    principles of doctrine of the Mormon Church but you must have
    the gift to look “through the glass darkly” to see it. Or in other
    words have the Holy Spirit enlighten you. NO -the Prophet is also
    working out his life on earth and is NOT given a free pass to all
    things. Mark Hoffman was perhaps the most talented forger who
    ever lived. God allowed him to work his evil because evil men are
    allowed to do that on this earth to seal their eternal fate. I.E.
    Hitler, Sadaam, Amin and other human demons. But you can
    be sure the church will be fine. It is the only complete doctrine
    the earth has and Satan and those who hate it fight it every
    day with a zeal unmatched by any thing else they do!

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