Oath of a Freeman

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The “Oath of a Freeman” was a loyalty pledge required of all new members of the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1630s.[1] A supposed original printing of the document surfaced in 1985 and was touted as the oldest surviving print in the United States,[1] but it was later revealed to be the work of prominent forger Mark Hofmann.[2]

Original Printing[edit]

The “Oath” was a vow of obedience to the Company's government and a promise not to conspire against it.[1] Previous examples of oaths in England pledged loyalty to the Crown.[3] The absence of references to the King made the “Oath” a uniquely American document.[3] The earliest known version of the “Oath” was handwritten by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in 1631.[1] Governor Winthrop stated in his diary that the “Oath” was the “first thing” printed by Stephen Daye in 1638 or 1639.[1] Stephen Daye was an English locksmith who sailed to Boston in 1638 with a Puritan cleric who had smuggled a printing press on board the ship.[4] After the cleric and his printer died at sea, Daye and his sons took possession of the press and set up Cambridge Press, the first printing company in America, in Boston.[3] Before 1638, all printed materials in America were produced in England and shipped across the Atlantic.[3] The earliest known American imprint that had been found prior to 1985 was the Bay Psalm Book, which Daye printed in 1640.[1] Daye's printing of the “Oath” had not been reported as seen since 1647, and according to historian Lawrence C. Wroth, “the probability that one will some day be found has never ceased to excite the New England collector.”[4]

Modern-Day Discovery[edit]

The break from English monarchy, combined with the document's status as the first document printed in America, conferred a special status on the “Oath.” Thus, the long-anticipated discovery of an original printing of the “Oath” created a fervent reception when a rare-documents dealer named Mark Hofmann claimed to have found a broadside of the “Oath” in a New York bookstore in 1985. In 1985, Hofmann's print of the “Oath” was offered for sale to both the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society, at a reported asking price of $1.5 million. The Library of Congress declared that the discovery “would be one of the most important and exciting finds of the century” and stated that its examination “found nothing inconsistent with a mid-17th century attribution.” The American Antiquarian Society had possession of the document for two months and announced, “as far as we know, there are no anomalies.” Both organizations wanted to undertake further testing of the “Oath” to determine its authenticity and remained interested in acquiring the document despite some troubling events after its discovery. Steven Christensen, a prominent leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and one of Hofmann's customers, had been killed by a pipe bomb left at his office in downtown Salt Lake City in October 1985. A day later, Hofmann was badly injured by a pipe bomb placed in his automobile.[1] Hoffman later pled guilty to the bombings.

Hofmann's Forgery[edit]

Why the "Oath" Was Forged[edit]

Hofmann's Early Career[edit]

Mark Hofmann's career as a historical-document collector and dealer began in 1980, when he was a student at Utah State University. Hofmann brought an old King James Bible with a document glued between two of its pages to Jeff Simmonds, the archivist at Utah State. The two separated the pages and found an aged piece of papyrus with columns of ancient characters written on it and the signature of Joseph Smith Jr. on the back.[5]

According to LDS Church history, the Angel Moroni directed Joseph Smith Jr. to a set of golden plates buried in upstate New York.[6] The golden plates contained writing in an ancient script and told the story of an extinct civilization.[7] Using a special pair of spectacles, Smith translated the writing on the plates, which he said were written in “Egyptian shorthand.”[7] The result of Smith's translation was the Book of Mormon. Only Smith was permitted to view the plates; however, he gave a small hand-copied transcript of the characters to his financier and scribe, Martin Harris.[8] Wishing to corroborate the authenticity of his investment, Harris took the transcript to Charles Anthon, a professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia College.[7] Anthon wrote that the sample consisted of “Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes. Roman letters inverted or placed sideways.”[9] Harris interpreted Anthon's comments to mean that Anthon had declared the characters to be ancient shorthand Egyptian and had indicated that Smith's translation was genuine. Anthon repudiated Harris's claims, but his protests were ignored.[9] The golden plates and the "Anthon Transcript" subsequently disappeared.[9]

From Anthon's description of the transcript and a comparison of the Joseph Smith signature to other known copies, Simmonds concluded that Hofmann had found the Anthon Transcript. After the LDS Church's history department verified the Smith signature, the Anthon Transcript was hailed as the earliest document in Mormon history. The LDS Church publicized the transcript as evidence that its faith was proven. The Church gave Hofmann $20,000 worth of collectibles in exchange for his gift of the Anthon Transcript to the Church.[10]

Hofmann appeared on several local television shows that covered the discovery of the Anthon Transcript. The publicity he received and the relationship he established with a grateful LDS Church enabled Hofmann to make his living as a professional documents dealer.[11]

Questioning LDS Church History[edit]

Hofmann's later LDS Church history discoveries contained embarrassing details that were consistent with parts of Joseph Smith's history that the Church preferred to overlook, such as Smith's involvement in money-digging and folk magic. Joseph Smith admitted to indulging in magic and hunts for buried gold during a trial in 1826 and was convicted of being a public nuisance.[7] In 1827, Willard Chase, Smith's neighbor, gave an account of Smith's discovery of the gold plates.[7] According to Chase's statement, Smith had told Chase that when he first tried to unearth the plates, a toad guarding them had risen up and struck Smith in the head.[7] In 1984, Hofmann produced a letter written by Martin Harris in 1830 which related similar details to Chase's account.[12] According to this letter, the plates were guarded by a white salamander that struck Smith three times before he was allowed to take up the plates.[12] This letter contradicted the official Church history that told of the Angel Moroni guiding Smith to the location of the buried plates.[13] In place of the official history of divine inspiration, Harris's letter made the story of finding the plates an extension of Smith's previous acts of fraud and folk magic. The LDS Church did not want this letter to become public, and Steven Christensen purchased the "salamander letter” from Hofmann and donated it to the Church.[13]

Financial Troubles[edit]

As Hofmann graduated to trading more expensive documents, he began taking in investors to finance his purchases.[14] Hofmann also collected rare children's books and purchased a home that cost more than $500,000.[3] As his need for money increased, he occasionally took money from multiple investors for the same document, leaving himself unable to pay off all of the debts owed when he sold these documents.[15] In 1985, his debts included a $185,000 loan from a bank that was arranged by Mormon Elder Hugh Pinnock and several hundred thousand dollars owed to other investors.[16] The purpose of the bank loan was to acquire the McLellin collection, the private papers of one the original Quorum of the Twelve who later turned against the LDS Church.[17] The Church did not want these papers to become public, and Hofmann had represented that he had located the collection and needed the loan to acquire it.[18]

When Hofmann failed to produce the McLellin collection, Steven Christensen and Hugh Pinnock pushed Hofmann to either produce the collection or pay back the loan. Hofmann did not tell the Church leaders that he had also borrowed money for the collection from another investor. Even if he had been able to acquire the McLellin collection, he had already sold it twice. The sale of the “Oath” was Hofmann's only hope to satisfy his creditors.[19]


The delay in the authentication of the “Oath” and the search for a buyer increased the pressure on Hofmann, and on October 15, 1985, he resorted to planting the bombs that killed Christensen and the wife of Christensen's business partner. Hofmann severely injured himself while attempting remove a third bomb from his car.[20]

At first, the police did not know if Hofmann was the perpetrator or a victim in the bombings. The clear connection between Hofmann and Christensen was the historical documents business. The investigation led police to track down Hofmann's business transactions, and they found a $2 check to DeBouzek Engraving among his files. Police visited the shop with a copy of the “Oath.” A worker identified the document and turned over a negative for the plate that had been used to print the “Oath.” Mark Hofmann's “Oath” was a forgery, as were most of his high-profile discoveries, including the Anthon Transcript and the salamander letter.[21]

Forgery Skills[edit]

Mark Hofmann demonstrated considerable skill in forgery. He acquired or stole paper that was manufactured appropriate to the time of the documents he forged.[22] He made his own ink and used chemical processes to age his documents in order to make them look authentic.[22] He learned to hypnotize himself in order to fluidly copy the signatures of historical figures.[3] His forgeries fooled experts in the field, such as Charles Hamilton, Kenneth W. Rendell, and investigators at the National Archives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[2] During his confession, Hofmann stated that he did most of his printing from plates that he made himself but “got lazy and had the ‘Oath’ plate made professionally."[22] Ultimately, Hofmann's laziness and lack of paper money, which required him to write a $2 check, exposed him as a forger.


On January 23, 1987, Hofmann was sentenced to life imprisonment on two second degree murder charges.[2] While in prison, Hofmann took an overdose of antidepressants and, after lying comatose on his side for twelve hours, permanently damaged his right arm. His forgery arm no longer functions.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g McDowell 1985.
  2. ^ a b c Lindsey 1987.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Worrall 2009.
  4. ^ a b 150 Years in the Stacks.
  5. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 102–103.
  6. ^ Naifeh 105.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Brodie 2017.
  8. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 105.
  9. ^ a b c Naifeh 2005, p. 106.
  10. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 107-112.
  11. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 127–128.
  12. ^ a b Naifeh 2005, p. 153.
  13. ^ a b Naifeh 2005, p. 40.
  14. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 189.
  15. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 236.
  16. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 192, 228.
  17. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 199.
  18. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 206.
  19. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 203, 248, 257.
  20. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 9, 298.
  21. ^ Naifeh 2005, p. 44, 463-464, 512.
  22. ^ a b c Naifeh 2005, p. 513.


  • McDowell, Edwin (1985). "Gallery Said To Possess First American Imprint". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  • Worrall, Simon (2009). The Poet and the Murderer (Kindle ed.). |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  • Naifeh, Steven; Smith, Gregory White (2005). The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death. St. Martin's Press.
  • "Year 79 – 1939: The Oath of a Free-Man, with a Historical Study by Lawrence C. Wroth". 150 Years in the Stacks. MIT Libraries. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  • Brodie, Fawn M. (2017). No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (Kindle ed.). Arkosh Publishing. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  • Lindsey, Robert (1987). "Dealer in Mormon Fraud Called a Master Forger". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2018.