Commentary on “Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders”, Mark Hofmann, and more
A friend writes:
I have been rereading Salamander. What an experience. It was the first book I read that I would call the new Mormon History. Before that I had read a few Sunstones, but it was Salamander that really changed my life about Mormon history. Rereading it has been interesting, first because I had forgotten much of what I read. It had made an impression on me, but I really didn’t know the players, the history, and the church like I do now. My belief structure has dramatically changed, and that has quite an influence on what one read.
As I am reading, I have become very disappointed in the way the Mormon historians reacted to the entire episode. Even when the police confronted them with the evidence they just ignored it or when questioned about Hofmann’s dishonesty they were incredulous. On page 109 when George Throckmorton asked Dean Jesse how he (meaning the Mormon historical community) detected if a document was a forgery. Jesse’s response was “Why would anyone want to forge a church document?” Then on page 119 when Leonard Arrington would not help Throckmorton with his investigation saying “You’re on the wrong track”. And finally when Mike George of CAO laid out the evidence to Mike Quinn that the salamander letter was a forgery, even pointing out that the woman who owned the Nathan Harris song book said the book did not have the Martin Harris poem, continued to stand by the authenticity of the letter. I believe this gullibleness had to do with Mark being Mormon, and as we all know, Mormons are honest. The historians were also caught up with the documents fitting the historical record.
I am equally disappointed at the leadership of the church (Gordon B. Hinckley, Hugh Pinnock and Dallin Oaks). Gordon B. Hinckley and Pinnock at how they all of a sudden had memory lapses when the police interviewed them, or how they could rationalize their actions. With Oaks, because as soon as he and the others knew about the McLellin Collection they did not notify the police. There is no excuse for it. I am also disappointed at the after math. As I was reading Victims to compare I could see the spin that the church is trying to put on this. Pinnock is the scapegoat. It is like Mountain Meadows Massacre and John D. Lee all over again. Pinnock turns over his journals to Turley and Turley dumps all the blame on Pinnock. Pinnock is such a loyal guy, one who was headed for the Twelve and now he has basically been banished [from moving up further in the hierarchy]. Don’t get me wrong, I think Pinnock was part of the problem, but he was only a part.
I have been told by one of the Hinckleys that Gordon B. Hinckley is always conscious of PR. Even at family gatherings it feels like a press conference. I guess I understand it to a point. Being in his position and feeling the weight of responsibility has to be incredible. But it can also cause a person to do things that they normally would not do. Much of what happened with Hofmann happened because Hofmann played off of the paranoia. Gordon B. Hinckley told Brent Ashworth to “tell the people we’ve got nothing to hide”, and at the same time Gordon B. Hinckley is hiding the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter in the First presidency vault (see page 293). This event leads me to believe Hofmann’s lies and deceit flourished because of lies and deceit that exists in the Mormon church environment.
I realize that it is easy for me to sit back and throw stones after the fact, but this really speaks volumes on our Mormon culture. I have asked myself, if I was there what would I have done. At the time, and if I had lived in Utah, I probably would have believed the experts. Now I am such a cynic, I don’t believe anything.
A few days later he writes:
Since finishing Salamander, I have turned to Arrington’s Adventures of a Church Historian and Victims again. I thought it would be interesting to read all three again while each is fresh in my memory. I think very highly of Leonard J. Arrington. Without a doubt he has done more for Mormon History than any other person. But it is again disappointing to read his account of the Hofmann stuff, it makes me wonder if the rest of his autobiography is laden with errors.
In Adventures beginning on page 219 Leonard J. Arrington describes the finding of the Anthon Transcript. Both Salamander and Victims say that Mark and Dori found the transcript in the Bible, but Arrington say’s it was Mark and AJ Simmons. On 221 he say’s that the LDS church presented the JSIII blessing to the RLDS. This happened only after the RLDS pointed out to the LDS that Mark had promised it the RLDS and reneged. After some hostile words the exchange happened. Now for the most startling revelation! Leonard J. Arrington says on page 222 that by the summer of 1983 “my colleagues and I had concluded that at least some of the documents sold or announced by Hofmann were fraudulent.” and he then says “By August 1985 there were serious questions about the authenticity of all the Hofmann finds.” Well this is news to me. In Salamander and Victims it is clear that Leonard J. Arrington and all the BYU boys were convinced the salamander letter was real and BYU Studies was even going to publish a “translation” of the Anthon transcript, but Ed Ashment convinced them to hold off. Victims only mentions six people that suspected the salamander letter. A genealogist named Ronald Jackson, an instructor of institute at UofU Rhett James, A.J. Simmons of USU, Robert White of Alberta Canada, and Jerald Tanner of Utah Light House Ministry. No BYU people on this list that Turley comes up with.
Victims is very interesting. I had first thought that Pinnock was the scapegoat. Having reread a 1/3 of the book, I am convinced that everyone is a scapegoat except Oaks and Gordon B. Hinckley. Pretty much everyone else is fair game. Turley really does not like Brent Metcalfe. Every dig he can make he makes.