Salamander letter

Salamander letter

The salamander letter was a forged document created by Mark Hofmann in the early 1980s.

The letter was one of hundreds of documents concerning the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church; see also Mormon) that surfaced in the early 1980s. The Salamander Letter presented a view of LDS founder Joseph Smith's life that stood sharply at odds with the commonly accepted version of the early progression of the church Smith established.

Variously accepted and rejected by document experts and collectors, the Salamander Letter generated much discussion and debate inside and outside the LDS Church. The document was later demonstrated to be a forgery created by Hofmann, who had been responsible for the "discovery" of many other notable documents.


The contents of the letter implied a magical aspect to Smith's life, a controversial subject debated amongst scholars of LDS history. The Salamander Letter was supposedly "written" by Martin Harris to William Wines Phelps, an early convert to Mormonism. Harris was also an early member of the LDS church, serving for a short period of time as scribe for the translation of the golden plates, and assisting in the financing 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 forged 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 LDS church, 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".

The fictional story in the letter related that 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" (sic) (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(sic)


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. [ 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."] Hofman'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 LDS Church's origins, relieving Hofman of some burden of his then failing faith.

LDS purchase and publicity

The letter was initially offered to Don Schmidt of the LDS Church Historical Department 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. Later that day Jacobs also met with Gordon Hinckley, who said; "I don't really know if we [the LDS Church] want it." Jacobs 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" (sic) to others in the church Historical Department. This was communicated to Hinckley who decided not to recommend to the First Presidency that the Church purchase it. The letter was also offered to other interested parties, including prominent critics of the LDS church Jerrald and Sandra Tanner, who also 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. A year later, Hinckley's doubts about it were still clear. 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.”Fact|date=May 2007

The LDS church publicly released the contents of the Salamander Letter in April 1985. [Church News, 28 April 1985] At about this same time, the church also released a letter to its high school seminary program, 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?" [cite book|last=Tanner| first=Jerald and Sandra| title=Tracking the White Salamander|url=| accessdate=2007-03-19] Richard Turley also authored a book on the subject entitled "Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case."

uspicion & Resolution

Hofmann drew suspicion for discovering so many astounding documents that others had missed, including the so-called "Oath of a Freeman", which he was attempting to sell to the Library of Congress.

Jerald and Sandra Tanner (Salt Lake City residents who left the Mormon church after coming to doubt the legitimacy of the church's claims) 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." [cite journal| journal=The Salt Lake Tribune|date=February 15, 1987| title=First ‘Hofmann’ history-mystery| url=| accessdate=2007-03-19] 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. LDS scholars respondFact|date=September 2007 by quoting Joseph Smith's statement that, "a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such." The Tanner's argument perhaps fails to account for the fact that the LDS leaders have never claimed infallibility. It also ignores the fact that the Church's efforts to obtain and archive historically significant material extends to works even by anti-Mormon authors. [Harvnb|Tvedtnes|1994|p=210. Tvedtnes states: "The Tanners’ expectation 'that the president of the Mormon Church,' as a seer, should be able to 'translate all records that are of ancient date' (quoting Mosiah 8:13) is unrealistic, since the Book of Mormon passage has reference toone possessing the Urim and Thummim. As far as I know, these instruments were not returned to the Church after Joseph Smith gave them back to the angel Moroni."]

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 discovered that the Salamander Letter was a forgery.

Church leaders, especially 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." [Dew, S. (1996). Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, p. 432.]

Lasting effects

Over twenty years later, effects of the letter still linger. The letter was referenced in research by both Mormons and critics of the LDS church alike. Resulting publications that include conclusions based on the presumption that letter was authentic are still available and may influence the opinions of those seeking information on "deep LDS 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 LDS history which were fake. (see Mark Hofmann)

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. [Harvnb|Midgley|2003] Palmer states that the "salamander letter" caused him to explore Joseph Smith's "mystical mindset". [cite web| last=Palmer| first=Grant| title=My Years in the Church Education System, 1967-2001| publisher=Signature Books| url='s2.htm| accessdate=2007-02-01]

The Salamander Letter also influenced the content of the film "The God Makers II", an alleged exposé of the Mormon church. 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. [The film displays a picture of a skeleton (not Alvin’s) as the alleged exhumation of the body is being discussed.] Jerald and Sandra Tanner refuted this suggestion, and determined that the only known source of such a requirement would have been the Salamander Letter. [Harvnb|Tanner|Tanner|1993|p=7]

References in popular culture

The episode "The Saint", from the third season of "", 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.

The episode "Hollywood A.D.," from the seventh season of "The X-Files", was also based on the Salamander Letter case.



first=Richard Lloyd
author-link=Richard Lloyd Anderson
title=The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction
year =1987
date= August, 1987
first=Gordon B.
authorlink=Gordon B. Hinckley
title=Keep the Faith
year =1985
date=September, 1985
pages = 3
author-link=Louis C. Midgley
title=Prying into Palmer
journal=FARMS Review
publisher=Maxwell Institute
place=Provo, Utah

first=Dallin H
authorlink=Dallin H. Oaks
title=Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents
date=October 1987
authorlink=Jerald and Sandra Tanner
title= Problems in the Godmakers II
publisher=Utah Lighthouse Ministry
place=Salt Lake City, Utah
first=John A
authorlink=John A. Tvedtnes
title=Review of: Answering Mormon Scholars:A Response to Criticism of the Book “Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon.”
journal=FARMS Review of Books
publisher=Maxwell Institute
location=Provo, Utah
title=Salamander Letter transcript
journal=Church News
date=28 April 1985
title=Fraudulent Documents from Forger Mark Hofmann Noted
date=Oct. 1987.
. Contains a list of various documents forged by Hofmann.
first=Richard E
title=Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case
publisher=University of Illinois Press

External links

* [ The Official Website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]
* [ LDS Documents and Murder]

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