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What Is The Salamander Letter?
In 1985, in an effort to cover up his years-long forgery scheme, rare documents dealer Mark Hofmann planted three bombs throughout Salt Lake City, killing two people. After he had confessed, Hofmann wrote that he murdered Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets because “I felt like I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed.” But Hofmann’s guilty plea shocked the community for more than one reason. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, but also theft by deception. He was a master forger left undetected for years—and though he was eventually arrested and jailed for his crimes, the damage his forgeries did to the Mormon community was already done.
As the new Netflix docuseries Murder Among the Mormons (from co-directors Tyler Measom and Jared Hess) depicts, Hofmann sold 48 fake documents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the years before he was sentenced to life in prison. But he was best known for the controversial Salamander Letter. The Salamander Letter was a document that he “procured” and sold for $40,000 to Mormon bishop Steve Christensen in 1984, who donated it to the Church. Hofmann later killed Christensen during another phony sale in 1985 for the “McLellin Collection”—a group of documents allegedly written by Mormon leader William E. McLellin, which like the Salamander Letter, Hofmann purported contained information that could be damaging to the Church.
Murder Among the Mormons establishes the tenets of Mormonism so that the viewer can comprehend the full impact of the Salamander Letter on the Mormon faith. Mormon mythology states that Joseph Smith was led to a book of golden plates which contained the text that would become the Book of Mormon in 1823 by an angel named Moroni. The Salamander Letter was a document Hofmann claimed was written in 1830 by Martin Harris, the scribe of the founder of the Mormon Church Joseph Smith. It stated that Joseph Smith was led to the gold plates by a spirit who “transfigured himself from a white salamander” rather than an angel. Not only did a salamander contradict the Church’s version of its history, it also transformed Mormon history from a traditional Christian narrative involving angels to one that involved a folk magic lizard.
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The Church published the letter in April of 1985, six months before the bombings. Mormon scholars argued that it did not contradict the Mormon origin story because folklore was common in the 1800s, and “it is a 20th century mindset that doesn’t understand the foundations of folklore.” At the same time, the Church purported that despite it being authenticated, the letter might still have been a forgery from the period it was created in an attempt to damage the credibility of the Church. “No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document. However, at this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies,” stated President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley in April of 1985.
The Salamander letter, alongside many other Hofmann documents, was proven to be false during the intense investigation into Hofmann’s work following the 1985 bombings. After Mark Hofmann’s 1987 sentencing, the Church declared that it had not suppressed material from its membership, but “could not make its Hofmann documents public to answer these innuendos of suppression without seeming to try to influence or impede the criminal investigation” while it was ongoing. In August of 1987, after Hofmann was convicted and imprisoned, Church Elder Dallin H. Oaks wrote that “What interested me most was the fact that these forgeries and their associated lies grew out of their author’s deliberate attempt to rewrite the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that so many persons and organizations seized on this episode to attempt to discredit the Church and its leaders.”
Though proven to be fake, the Salamander Letter did leave a mark on some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I left the church a number of years ago and part of it was because of the vast history of the Mormon faith and some of the things that they had done in their past,” co-director of Murder Among the Mormons Tyler Measom told Esquire. “I think for a lot of individuals, when they are taught one way that a man saw an angel, then all of a sudden, the document is found that says there’s a salamander, that a church would purchase that and possibly try and hide it from the public. Yeah, I dare say that it did shake a lot of people’s faith both now and then of course…I do think there were some ramifications from the Hofmann incident, without question.”
Today, Mark Hofmann is 66 years old, and remains in a Utah prison.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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