Dialoguing About Murder Among the Mormons

March 20, 2021

by Adam McLain

Netflix recently released a three-part documentary about the document forgery that occurred in Salt Lake City in the 1980s. Titled Murder Among the Mormons, the documentary shows what happened when documents like the salamander letter began to appear in the field and business of Mormon documents and archival material. While the documentary effectively captures the story and tale of the event, the pages of Dialogue hold contemporary thoughts to what was happening after the events unfolded. 

How did Mormon historians, archivists, and scholars react to the documents? What was their response when forgery was put forward as a reason for the tragic events that left two dead and millions questioning their beliefs?

In this post, we cover some of the brief points made in the Mormon History Association panel on the document forgeries in 1986, published in Volume 19, Number 4, and discuss an article published a year later by one of the panelists. Check out the links to read more about these accounts and discussions that occurred in Dialogue.

The Document Diggers and Their Discoveries: A Panel, Volume 19, Number 4, Winter 1986.

“The Context,” Cheryll L. May

Opening the published panel in Dialogue, Cheryll May explained that “in the face of such tumult, the program committee for the 1986 meetings of the Mormon History Association felt that the time had come for a wide-ranging assessment of the impact this sensational document series has had on Mormon history” (45–46). The committee “was especially eager to give members of the association an opportunity to take a longer and wider look at the document discoveries of the 1980s, assessing not only the documents themselves, but the controversies stirred by the discoverers” (46).

Staying away from claiming who did the forgery and who was guilty of murder, the panelists assess the field shortly after the events in Murder Among the Mormons unfold.

“The Hofmann Case: Six Issues,” Allen D. Roberts

As the opener to the panel published in Dialogue, Allen Roberts, who would later publish a book with Linda Silitoe on the forgeries (of which, Mary Blanchard and Jeffrey O. Johnson reviewed in Dialogue), asked six questions of the events that had recently occurred. In his own words, his “intention here is to ask and attempt to answer, in a preliminary way, six questions which seem essential to this case.”

  1. “Is it likely or even possible that one person could locate authentic documents of the quality, quantity, and diverse type reportedly found by Mark Hofmann?”
  2. “By what methods do dealers find rare documents?”
  3. “How do document dealers do business and command such high prices for pieces of paper?”
  4. “How did the prices for Mormon documents get so high? Are the prices realistic and a fair representation of value?”
  5. “What measures are taken to authenticate rare documents?”
  6. “How likely is it that all of [the forgeries] are, in fact, forged?”

“The Damage Done: An Archivist’s View,” Jeffery O. Johnson

A former Church History Department archivist and, at the time, a current Utah State Archivist, Jeffrey Johnson spoke to the effect that forgeries have on the Archive and the archivist’s position. Taking a firm stance against the enterprise and business that has sprung up around documents, Johnson laments the harm done to the historical fabric when a forger takes a knife and cuts it up to benefit them and their wallet.

He discusses in further detail the following five effects that commercializing had has, then, on the field of Mormon documents:

  1. “Manuscript dealers tend to violate one of the most sacred values of archivists, a value that reaches back to the Middle Ages—the principle of provenance.” (54–55)
  2. The commercialization of Mormon documents has violated a “cherished value for archivists . . . the division of a collection.” (55–57)
  3. “The commercialization of Mormon documents has directly increased the holdings of the archives; but the consequences are not as beneficial as might be supposed,” namely, higher costs for most documents, which take more taxpayer and tithe-payer money (57–58)
  4. “The commercialization of Mormon history has encouraged faking.” (58)
  5. “The commercialization of Mormon documents has had the direct result of creating an investment market.” (58–59)

“The Documents: A Historian’s Approach,” James B. Allen

An associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, JamesAllen ideates about the effect the forgeries had on the historian’s craft and methodology. He muses theoretically on questions like, “What do historians do when they create history?” (60), “What is the significance and importance of documents to the creation of history?” (62), and “What are the consequences and lessons for the historian from the then-contemporary forgery fiasco?” (62).

“Historians have an awesome task—even, if you will, a humbling one—for the records of the past can assume protean shapes in their hands.” (61)

“Revisions History and the Document Diggers,” Richard P. Howard

A historian for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now Community of Christ), Richard Howard discussed the effects of the forged documents on the RLDS Church—an effect that, according to him, was minimized due to the RLDS Church’s emphasis on historical research and the Church’s changing vision of Joseph Smith.

“Document Dealing: A Dealer’s Response,” Curt Bench

Manager of Deseret Book’s Fine and Rare Books division, Curt Bench was asked by Dialogue to respond to the MHA panel, as a dealer. His response mainly responds to the claims made in Johnson’s paper, nuancing what Johnson called “highly negative” effects. In speaking for dealers generally, Bench assures readers that he and those in his field care about history and “legitimate and ethical transactions”: “My position is that it is right to buy and sell books and documents when the buyer and seller agree on its appropriateness and price and when legitimate transaction occurs. If there were no sellers, there would be no buyers including institutional ones” (76). 

“‘The Truth Is the Most Important Thing’”: The New Mormon History According to Mark Hofmann”, Allen D. Roberts, volume 20, number 4, Winter 1987

Roberts, after being a part of the MHA Panel, returned to the pages of Dialogue to “explore the question of motive in the forgery of early Mormon holographs” (88). In his article, he reiterates the claims around the various forgeries and assesses what could have motivated the creation of each forgery—from the salamander letter to a 1829 letter by Lucy Mack Smith to Mary Pierce. What were the reasons behind the forgeries? What did they do to and for Mormonism, Mormon Studies, and Mormon documents? Roberts delves into questions that Murder Among the Mormons creates.