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The Case of the Murderous Forger

Newspapers report Hofmann’s “discovery” of a letter supposedly by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, in May 1980

Mark Hofmann, reasonably well known as a dealer and sometime collector in the rare book and manuscript world in the early 1980s, was universally regarded as a queer fish.

Self-effacing, and with a creepy limp handshake, he was nevertheless more than tolerated in the rare book trade. He was quite active at the major book fairs, and had a knack of “regularly producing” (as one rare book dealer put it) just what people wanted. He seemed to have both a good eye and good sources of material, and such dealers always do pretty well, however unprepossessing their characters. Maybe, in fact, such an ineffectual persona is a positive advantage, in that it makes your fellows and customers confident that they are not in the company of a shark. Surely such an inoffensive person was both harmless and trustworthy? It turned out he was neither of the above.

Mark Hofmann had plenty to hide. He has been described as “the most skilled forger this country has ever seen” by American manuscript dealer and expert on forgery Charles Hamilton, who added ruefully, “He fooled me – he fooled everybody.”

Hofmann was something of a genius, the kind of worthy antagonist Sherlock Holmes would have been glad to unmask: The Case of the Murderous Forger. Born in 1954, Hofmann was the son of devout Mormons, a Boy Scout, and by all accounts, a curious and active child, interested in chemistry and magic, as well as collecting stamps and coins. His description of his early years is fascinating: “As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions. In fact some of my earliest memories are of doing magic and tricks. Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority. When I was about 12 years old I began collecting coins. Soon afterwards I figured out some crude ways to fool other collectors by altering coins to make them appear more desirable. By the time I was 14 I had developed a forgery technique which I felt was undetectable.”

When you add to these precocious interests and abilities the fact that he also enjoyed bomb-making with his friends, setting off the occasional explosion in the safety of the desert, all of the skills and indicators were in place for an interesting future.

In 1973 he began a term of duty for the Mormon Church knocking on doors in search of English converts, though he later claimed he had lost his faith some years earlier and had only gone to England because it had been expected of him. From his base in Bristol, Hofmann began exploring the local bookshops, collecting material relating to the Mormons and schooling himself in the major antiquarian texts and their authors.

If you are going to become a forger, start with what you know. After a brief and unpromising period as a medical student, Hofmann soon reverted to his interests in Mormon documents and in forgery. In 1980 he “discovered”, neatly tucked into a copy of the King James Bible, a letter supposedly by the prophet Joseph Smith, in his “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphic hand, which according to some authorities went some way to confirming the truth of the Book of Mormon. Hofmann got $20,000 for it, and established his reputation.

He continued, for the next few years, to mine this rich seam of Mormon forgeries – he was both the coalminer and the coal – selling documents that were dangerous to the Mormon faith even more profitably than ones that appeared to confirm it. The major purchasers of this material were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah and Missouri, who were gullible, rich, acquisitive and discreet. It’s a tempting combination of attributes to a man like Hofmann. He had discovered within himself a capacity to “menace and manipulate its leaders with nothing more sinister than a sheet of paper”. Anxious to get such stuff out of the public domain, the Mormon hierarchy were unprepared to come forward when questioned about their purchases, even after Hofmann was exposed.

Newspapers report Hofmann’s “discovery” of a letter supposedly by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, in May 1980


But you can only “discover” a limited number of new Mormon documents, and people were beginning to be suspicious of Hofmann. What could be more sensible than to expand his range? Over the next few years autographs from figures as diverse (and saleable) as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, John Hancock, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere and George Washington flowed from his pen and fooled customers and experts alike.

Not enough, never enough. As the income poured in, expenditure rose alarmingly, as Hofmann and his wife soon began – a nice irony – to collect rare children’s books, those emblems of nostalgic innocence.

The grift begins

As both his income and his debts rose, Hofmann conceived the most ambitious of his projects, which, if successful, might well have netted him a million dollars. The content of Hofmann’s audacious new project ran to a single page, and is known as the ‘Oath of a Freeman’, a Puritan document which was drafted in 1631 and first printed by Stephen Daye in 1639. No copy of this first printing has been located, though there are examples dated 1647 and 1649.

The ‘Oath of a Freeman’ not only marks a seminal moment in American history; it would also (if a copy were found) be the first document printed in North America. It is highly significant historically because it is implicitly a document of revolution. It requires its free men to swear allegiance to God and to the Colony of Massachusetts, but not – striking in his absence – the king. And those, as would implicitly have been understood by all who swore to such an oath, were fightin’ words.

If Hofmann could produce an undetectable forgery, there was little question in his mind that he could get at least a million for it. Where to begin? Hofmann was fortunate – wise – in having chosen a document that might be presumed to have a stable text. Though individual printings, especially at this early date and with a tyro printer, always show subtle variations, there would be nothing to compare the 1639 Oath to.

“As both his income and his debts rose, Hofmann conceived the most ambitious of his projects, which, if successful, might well have netted him a million dollars”

So, having been given the text, and a good look at its further printings only ten years after it first appeared, Hofmann had only the usual problems of paper, ink and design, which a sufficiently able forger might well be able to solve. But there was the problem of provenance. Where would Hofmann have found his copy, and where had it been all these years?

Easier the former than the latter. Hofmann made up a rough-and-ready, provisional forgery of something entitled ‘Oath of a Freeman’, which had nothing to do with the original Massachusetts document, and surreptitiously salted it away in a drawer full of obscure nineteenth-century broadsides [large sheets of paper, printed on one side] at Argosy Bookshop in New York. It was a sensible choice of venue: Argosy is renowned for its enormous stock, and inexpensive material (such as Hofmann’s ersatz broadside) would come and go without any of the sales staff being likely to remember either the piece or (even if they did) where it came from. On 23 March 1985, having extracted the broadside from the drawer into which he had just placed it, Hofmann purchased it (plus a few other unremarkable pieces) for $25 and asked for a handwritten receipt in which the title of each piece appeared. He was now the certified owner of a broadside entitled ‘Oath of a Freeman’.

Hofmann’s forgery of the Oath of a Freeman, a Puritan document drafted in 1631 and first printed in 1639

All he had to do now was to introduce ‘Oath’ into the rare book world, but the problem was that he hadn’t yet printed the “real” thing. Another two weeks went by before he produced his document, at which point he informed his favourite dealer of the “discovery”. The amiable Justin Schiller was an ideal foil: he had no reason to distrust the innocuous Hofmann, was anxious to retain him as a customer, and unlikely to conceive an immediate distrust of the broadside, which was out of field for him. When Hofmann suggested not merely that Schiller and his partner Raymond Wapner sell it on his behalf, but that they receive half the proceeds if it fetched over a million dollars (instead of the usual modest commission), he immediately had the dealers on, and at, his side. (The offer was too generous, and though it might have been construed as naive, it should have set alarm bells ringing).

Schiller and Wapner were enormously excited by the discovery and its commercial possibilities, but also fully aware that authentication of the broadside would be a necessary and lengthy process and were anxious to make it transparent.

With one proviso: Hofmann was unwilling to be named as the owner of the document. That it had been purchased by a private individual from Argosy Bookshop was acknowledged, and the receipt was offered as evidence, since it did not bear the buyer’s name.

Authenticating a fake

On 28th March, Wapner rang James Gilreath, a curator at the Library of Congress, which was the obvious buyer and best repository for a document of such importance, to announce that he and Schiller had a copy of the Oath for sale “at a price”, which was eventually revealed as $1,500,000. The dealers insisted that all negotiations were to be confidential, and that it was up to the Library to satisfy itself with regard to authenticity.

Some six weeks later, after exposing both the paper and ink to the usual rigorous tests, Gilreath announced that his investigators “could find no evidence of forgery based on their examination of the material used to make the document”. This position, later misrepresented in the press as an “authentication” of the document, merely confirmed that both ink and paper were consistent with the date of 1631, though no conclusion was drawn as to whether the ink had been on the paper since that date. But the report provided ample justification of Hofmann’s later claim that he was “a pretty good forger”.

Gilreath, shrewdly, was also pursuing another line of inquiry: he had been told, in conversation with Wapner, that the owner was a collector of children’s books who lived in Utah. A few discreet inquiries later, and the name Mark Hofmann was on the table. Further inquiries in Utah revealed Hofmann as “an untrustworthy person with suspicious friends”, as well as the discoverer and seller of a considerable number of previously unknown Mormon documents.

“Hofmann convinced himself that anything was better than the humiliation of exposure, and was easily able to rationalise homicide”

Add to this disquieting provenance further doubts about title, and a great resistance to the price, and it was clear there was no deal, and on 5th June the Library of Congress withdrew its interest in purchasing the Oath. But Hofmann, with the curious innocence of the wicked, had rather assumed that the deal would go through, and begun to spend the proceeds. He bought a new house, and added to his burgeoning book collection. He was able, though – being a convincing fellow – to talk the First International Bank of Salt Lake City into advancing him $185,000 as a loan against the alleged sale of the Oath, though the document had already been returned to Schiller and Wapner and was now on offer to the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a likely customer in view of the Oath’s origin.

Early in September there was both good and bad news from the American Antiquarian Society. Like the Library of Congress, they could not offer proof that the document was a fake, and unlike the Library they were prepared to make an offer for it, subject to reasonable conditions. But that offer was only for $250,000, which, even if it was that little bit negotiable, was hardly likely to stretch to a million. On 11th September the document was returned to New York, and Hofmann was informed that there was no buyer in the foreseeable future.

His response to this was remarkable, audacious and not as stupid as first appears. He forged another copy. He did not, of course, disclose this to his partners in New York. Instead, he found new partners (including his brother-in-law) in Salt Lake City. The receipt from Argosy could double as authentication for the second copy, and he could be frank about the fact that it had been on the market for over a million dollars.

So long as neither of his partners knew about the other, it might just be possible to market two copies at the same time, under the pretence either that they were the same copy, or (his later version) that he had purchased a second copy from Argosy. It was rather a fun plan, but it never came to fruition, because the money ran out. Aside from forging his Oath, Hofmann had also been running what were in effect Ponzi schemes with rare books and manuscripts, soliciting investments which he then paid off with further money from new investors. It worked for a while, but now his creditors were closing in, and high-pitched salesmanship was no longer able to deter them.

Mark Hofmann sits in a wheelchair during his 1986 trial in Salt Lake City on charges of murder, fraud, theft by deception and bomb-making

From broadsides to bombs

It was time for Plan B: initiate some spectacular and eyecatching activity that might, for a time, divert attention from Hofmann and his collapsing home industry. It was time for murder.

Why this would help is not clear. Perhaps it would simply take up a lot of police time, or maybe it would focus his creditors’ minds on other things? But Hofmann convinced himself that anything was better than the humiliation of exposure, and was easily able to rationalise the forthcoming homicides. After all, he reasoned, “my victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack anyway.”

A month after he forged the second Oath, on 15th October 1985, Hofmann manufactured two pipe bombs, with which he murdered Steve Christensen and Kathleen Sheets. He had connections with both victims, but no particular animosity towards either: Christensen was a collector of documents and manuscripts, and the son of a prominent local businessman who had previously employed Kathleen Sheets. A day later, as he attempted to transport yet another bomb, it blew up and Hofmann was critically injured. Police attention, as you may imagine, immediately focused on him.

By now it was clear that Hofmann was not a mere bibliographic felon but a full-blown psychopath. The murders were the result of his financial crisis, and he later claimed that if a sale to the American Antiquarian Society of Massachusetts had made $1 million, he would not have killed his victims.

Mark Hofmann pleaded guilty to his various crimes – he was initially charged with 28 felonies – so his case never went to trial. He was convicted of the two murders, the forgery of a Mormon letter and the fraudulent sale of a fictional collection of manuscripts, but he was never charged with having forged the ‘Oath of a Freeman’. The copy offered through Justin Schiller never sold; the second one defrauded two Utah businessmen of $150,000.

But there was no sense charging Hofmann with this crime when the sentences for the two murders would be much more severe. So we have the nice irony that the greatest forger of our time, eventually caught red-handed, was never punished for the most famous of his forgeries.

Rick Gekoski is the author of ‘Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature’, published by Profile.

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