The salamander letter was a document created by Mark Hofmann in the early 1980s.
The letter was one of hundreds of documents concerning the history of Latter Day Saint movement that surfaced in the early 1980s. The salamander letter presented a view of Latter Day Saint founder Joseph Smith's life that stood sharply at odds with the commonly accepted version of the early progression of the church Smith established.
Accepted by some document experts and collectors, and rejected by others, the salamander letter generated much discussion and debate inside and outside the Latter Day Saint movement. Kenneth W. Rendell lent credence to it by stating that the ink, paper and postmark were all consistent with the period; he concluded, "[T]here is no indication that the document is a forgery." The document was later demonstrated to be a forgery created by Hofmann, who had been responsible for the "discovery" of many other notable documents. Rendell then recast his conclusion, stating that while there was "the absence of any indication of forgery in the letter itself, there was also no evidence that it was genuine."
The contents of the letter implied a magical aspect to Smith's life, a controversial subject debated amongst scholars of Latter Day Saint history. The salamander letter was supposedly "written" by Martin Harris to William Wines Phelps, an early convert in the Latter Day Saint movement. Harris served for a short period of time as scribe for the translation of the golden plates, and assisting in the financing of the first printing of the Book of Mormon. A statement by Harris appears in the front of the Book of Mormon concerning his involvement in its translation.
The letter presented a version of the recovery of the golden plates which contrasted with the "orthodox" version of events as related by Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saint movement, which would have, if true, confirmed some controversial aspects of Smith's life. Smith had been accused of "treasure digging" and use of a "seer stone".
According to this letter, when Smith dug up the plates a "salamander" appeared, which transformed itself into a spirit that refused to give Smith the plates unless his brother Alvin Smith was also present. This would have been very difficult, as Alvin was dead at the time of the alleged appearance. This reference may have been an attempt by Hofmann to associate the recovery of the gold plates to a rumor that Alvin's grave was dug up by Smith's family to use Alvin's remains in a magical ceremony.
Hofmann's use of a salamander drew upon legends about certain animals having supernatural powers. Hofmann may have been inspired by an early anti-Mormon work Mormonism Unvailed (1834), which claimed that a toad-like animal was rumored to have appeared to Smith in conjunction with the recovery of the plates.
Text of the Salamander Letter
- Palmyra October 23d 1830
- Dear Sir
- Your letter of yesterday is received & I hasten to answer as fully as I can--Joseph Smith Jr first come to my notice in the year 1824 in the summer of that year I contracted with his father to build a fence on my property in the corse of that work I approach Joseph & ask how it is in a half day you put up what requires your father & 2 brothers a full day working together he says I have not been with out assistance but can not say more only you better find out the next day I take the older Smith by the arm & he says Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of coin money it was Spirits who brought up rock because Joseph made no attempt on their money I latter dream I converse with spirits which let me count their money when I awake I have in my hand a dollar coin which I take for a sign Joseph describes what I seen in every particular says he the spirits are grieved so I through back the dollar in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down Joseph says when can I have it the spirit says one year from to day if you obay me look to the stone after a few days he looks the spirit says bring your brother Alvin Joseph says he is dead shall I bring what remains but the spirit is gone Joseph goes to get the gold bible but the spirit says you did not bring your brother you can not have it look to the stone Joseph looks but can not see who to bring the spirit says I tricked you again look to the stone Joseph looks & sees his wife on the 22d day of Sept 1827 they get the gold bible--I give Joseph $50 to move him down to Pa Joseph says when you visit me I will give you a sign he gives me some hiroglyphics I take then to Utica Albany & New York in the last place Dr Mitchel gives me an introduction to Professor Anthon says he they are short hand Egyption the same what was used in ancient times bring me the old book & I will translate says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from view says he I can not read a sealed book--Joseph found some giant silver specticles with the plates he puts them in an old hat & in the darkness reads the words & in this way it is all translated & written down--about the middle of June 1829 Joseph takes me together with Oliver Cowdery & David Whitmer to have a view of the plates our names are appended to the book of Mormon which I had printed with my own money--space and time both prevent me from writing more at present if there is any thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
- Yours Respectfully
- Martin Harris
The letter was deemed authentic by experienced document examiners, a testimony to Hofmann's superior forgery techniques. The letter also seemed to support the opinions of Reed Durham, D. Michael Quinn and others regarding "magical" aspects of Smith's religious experiences. Hofmann's disenchantment with the LDS Church may have played a role in his selection of subject matter to forge. The more sensational and controversial the subject, the higher its potential market value, but in addition, the content would act to cast suspicion on the Latter Day Saint origins.
Purchase and publicity
The letter was initially offered to Don Schmidt of the Church Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) on January 3, 1984, by Lyn Jacobs, who wanted to trade it for a $10 Mormon gold piece. Jacobs told Schmidt that he got the letter from a collector in the east, referred by Mark Hofmann. Jacobs later changed his offer to a trade for a copy of a Book of Commandments. This offer was also rejected. Jacobs also suggested that Brent Ashworth might have an interest in it, although Hofmann had already showed a transcript of it to him and he had declared it to be fake. The contents of the letter also seemed too similar to Howe's Mormonism Unvailed to others in the church Historical Department. The letter was also offered to other interested parties, including prominent critics of the Mormonism Jerald and Sandra Tanner, who expressed doubts as to its authenticity. A deal with the LDS Church was never reached. Hofmann finally sold the letter to Steven F. Christensen on January 6, 1984 for $40,000. Christensen wanted to try to authenticate it and then donate it to the LDS Church. In a church news release on April 28, 1985, he stated; “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.”
In the same April 28 news release, the LDS Church revealed the contents of the salamander letter. At about this same time, the church also released a letter to its high school seminary program for youth, suggesting that seminary teachers not encourage debate about the salamander letter, but that they should tactfully answer genuine questions on the subject. FARMS (a research group composed of LDS scholars, but which at the time had no formal connection to the LDS Church) published several articles which examined the Salamander Letter, such as "Why Might a Person in 1830 Connect an Angel With a Salamander?"
Suspicion and resolution
Jerald and Sandra Tanner, prominent critics of the LDS Church, were suspicious of Hofmann's salamander letter. Though Hofmann's "discoveries" of important Mormon documents often appeared to bolster the Tanners' own arguments, Jerald had, by early 1984, concluded there was significant doubt as to the salamander letter's authenticity, and "to the astonishment of a community of scholars, historians and students, published an attack on the so-called Salamander Letter." By late 1984, Jerald Tanner questioned the authenticity of most if not all of Hofmann's "discoveries", based in large part of their unproven provenance. The Tanners did concur with Hofmann in contending that the LDS Church's apparent inability to discern the forged documents was evidence against church leadership being divinely inspired. John Tvedtnes, an LDS scholar, responded with Joseph Smith's statement that "a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such," and that purchasing historical materials is a business activity rather than a prophetic undertaking. It is also asserted that the LDS leaders don't claim infallibility and that the church's efforts to obtain and archive historically significant material extends to works even by anti-Mormon authors.
Hofmann was struggling under massive debt and falling behind on delivering on deals that he had made. In 1985, when he learned that the pedigree of the salamander letter was under widespread suspicion, he produced and sent a number of bombs as a diversionary tactic. Two people were killed: Christensen, the main target; and Kathleen Sheets. Hofmann himself was subsequently injured when a third bomb went off prematurely in his car. The police investigated this wave of destruction, and during a search of Hofmann's home found a studio in the basement where he could create counterfeited documents as well as a machine gun which had been converted to full automatic fire. This was later used as the basis for a federal indictment. Many of the documents Hofmann sold or donated were proven to be forgeries by a new forensic technique developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, chiefly to detect his forgeries. Salt Lake City Police Department forensic examiner George Throckmorton and Arizona document examiner William Flynn were the investigators who determined the letter was a forgery. They examined a poem supposedly written by Harris and placed in his old Book of Common Prayer and determined it had actually been created by Hofmann. Hofmann used the poem to authenticate the writing in the salamander letter. Although this was enough proof by itself that the letter was a forgery, Throckmorton and Flynn bolstered their case by getting in touch with Frances Magee, the widow of a descendant of Robert Harris. Magee's family had owned the book for many years, and Magee told investigators that she'd never seen the poem before. She suspected someone had planted it there after she sold the book.
Church leaders, especially First Presidency member Gordon B. Hinckley, continued to field criticism for some time for "being duped" and being "unable to discern the evil intentions of a man like Hofmann". Hinckley later noted: "I accepted him to come into my office on a basis of trust .... I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however .... I am not ashamed to admit that we were victimized. It is not the first time the Church has found itself in such a position. Joseph Smith was victimized again and again. The Savior was victimized. I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens."
Over twenty years later, effects of the letter still linger. The letter was referenced in research by both Mormons and critics of the Mormonism alike. Resulting publications that include conclusions based on the presumption that the letter was authentic are still available and may influence the opinions of those seeking information on "deep Mormon doctrine" or evidence to support a naturalistic or magical historical view of Mormonism or Joseph Smith. In addition, Hofmann produced and sold several other documents relating to significant events in Latter Day Saint history which were fake.
Grant Palmer, author of the book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins stated that his work was influenced in part by his original acceptance of the salamander letter as being valid and supportive of his view. Palmer states that the "salamander letter" caused him to explore Joseph Smith's "mystical mindset".
The salamander letter also influenced the content of the film The God Makers II, an alleged exposé of Mormonism. The film suggests that Joseph Smith was required to dig up his brother Alvin’s body and bring a part of it with him to the hill Cumorah in order to obtain the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was said to be translated. Jerald and Sandra Tanner refuted this suggestion, and determined that the only known source of such a requirement would have been the salamander letter.
References in popular culture
The episode "The Saint" from the third season of Law and Order: Criminal Intent was based on the salamander letter case. In the episode, authenticator James Bennett (played by Stephen Colbert) forges several documents in an attempt to ruin the Brother Jerome foundation, named for a religious figure being considered for canonization. To conceal his forgery, Bennett murders an elderly woman with an exploding, lye-filled balloon.
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- Anderson, Richard Lloyd (August, 1987), "The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction", Ensign 17 (9) .
- Hinckley, Gordon B. (September, 1985), "Keep the Faith", Ensign 15 (9): 3 [dead link].
- Midgley, Louis (2003), "Prying into Palmer", FARMS Review (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute) 15 (2), retrieved 2007-02-01
- Oaks, Dallin H (October 1987), "Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents", Ensign, retrieved 2007-03-19.
- Tanner, Jerald; Tanner, Sandra (1993), Problems in the Godmakers II, Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Lighthouse Ministry.
- Tvedtnes, John A (1994), "Review of: Answering Mormon Scholars:A Response to Criticism of the Book "Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon."", FARMS Review of Books (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute) 6 (2), retrieved 2007-03-20.
- "Salamander Letter transcript", Church News, 28 April 1985.
- "Fraudulent Documents from Forger Mark Hofmann Noted", Ensign, October 1987. Contains a list of various documents forged by Hofmann.
- Turley, Richard E (1992), Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-01885-0.
- Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Forgery, Deceit, and Death (St. Martin's, 2005)
- Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Forgery, Deceit, and Death (St. Martin's, 2005) 169–70.
- Kenneth W. Rendell, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents, 130.
- For example, in his book Mormonism and the Magic World View (page 330, note 14), author D. Michael Quinn stated that the letter's content was "consistent with everything I had found and was learning about pre-1830 beliefs in folk magic and the occult."
- Church News, 28 April 1985
- Tanner, Jerald and Sandra, Tracking the White Salamander, retrieved 2007-03-19
- Schindler, Harold (15 February 1987), "First 'Hofmann' history-mystery", The Salt Lake Tribune. Online reprint by utlm.org
- Tvedtnes 1994, p. 210
- Robert Lindsey, A Gathering of Saints: A True Story of Money Murder and Deceit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
- Dew, Sheri (1996). Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book) p. 432.
- Midgley 2003
- Palmer, Grant. "My Years in the Church Education System, 1967-2001". Signature Books. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
- The film displays a picture of a skeleton (not Alvin’s) as the alleged exhumation of the body is being discussed.
- Tanner & Tanner 1993, p. 7
- DB (February 7, 2007). "Klassic Kolbert – Law & Order: Criminal Intent | No Fact Zone". Retrieved 2011-04-12.
- Dylan Ritson plays