At dawn and in silence so that his wife and children would not hear him, Mark Hoffman reviewed the elements as he had read: tubes, gunpowder, electrical tape, nails, a battery, a mercury switch (Later it would be known that he learned to build bombs with a strange specimen that he got from The Anarchist Cookbook; He loved books and collected them since he was a child and his interest in chemistry accompanied him since adolescence).
With the two objects that were to detonate hours later, two powerful bombs, he got into his car. He left one on the doorstep of an imposing residence, trying not to be seen by anyone. He returned home, continued a while checking his basement for no traces, and went out again to leave the second explosive at the door of an office in downtown Salt Lake City.
The news came out later: the fatal victims of the attacks were a collector of old documents named Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets, the wife of a former Christensen employer, who found a suspicious package at the door of his house and wanted to know what it was about.
With those two explosions and a third, which left Hoffman himself wounded, who in an attempt to find a way not to be linked as the author of the two murders was a victim of his own weapons, in 1985 the story of that man, until then shy and mysterious. The investigations were arduous, but they led the world to meet one of the greatest literary forgers of all time.
The fatal victims of the bombings were an ancient document collector named Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets, the wife of a former Christensen employer, who found a suspicious package on her doorstep.
Life among mormons
Mark Hoffman was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the most religious districts in the United States. In fact, he grew up linked to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)., founded by the American Joseph Smith in 1830, because his parents and grandparents were fervent Mormons.
As a teenager he stood out for a passion: he collected coins. He was also interested in electronics, magic and metalwork. In fact, he worked so hard and sophisticated his technique with this element that at the age of 14 he carried out the first of a long list of frauds: came to counterfeit a coin and managed to sell it to experienced collectors.
As he grew older, Hoffman’s anger grew at his church authorities. He saw them as contradictory, authoritarian, he felt that they did not represent him, as he pointed out many years later.. However, he continued to form within his community, stood out as a young religious and was even sent as a missionary from his church to the city of Bristol, in England, for two years.
During his stay in the UK, at just 19 years old, he dedicated himself to something to inquire in bookstores of religious texts, something that with time would become a huge obsession. He researched Mormonism, found books in favor and others that were critical of his family’s faith.
Back home, he entered the University of Utah to study medicine. In parallel, he carried out chemical tests in his house, visited antique shops and places where there were old books, reviewed any religious text that fell into his hands. In 1979, he married Dorie Olds, with whom he had four children.
In the midst of this seemingly ordinary life, Hoffman began researching a chemical method in the basement of his house with inks. He wanted to find a way that, on papers also made by him, it would look as old as the writings that so intrigued him.
Thus he was slowly first introduced into the world of holography and then on that of counterfeiting and large-scale sale.
Among the first victims of his scams were the Mormon authorities in his community, those who in his early youth had aroused suspicion in Hoffman.
Hoffman began researching a chemical method in the basement of his house with inks. He wanted to find a way that, on papers also made by him, it would look as old as the writings that so intrigued him.
In 1980, the forger announced that by doing a thorough investigation he had found a genuine gem for members of his church. He claimed that inside a 17th-century King James Bible, he detected a folded paper that appeared to be a document with Egyptian characters that were taken by Smith for what later became the Book of Mormon.
After having the find reviewed with leading specialists in Mormon scripture, the church purchased it from Hoffman for 20 thousand dollars.
From then on, although he began to act in the shadows, The saga continued with more apocryphal writings, alleged letters, statements by the founder of the Church, relevant documents, that the forger, an extreme retailer when it came to making them, was selling to faithful who then donated to their community.
Meanwhile, he worked as an antique bookseller, went to auctions, contacted collectors, and honed his technique.
He thus circulated and sold for thousands of dollars various documents supposedly relevant to the Movement of Latter-day Saints – to this day it is incalculable what he collected and how many religious texts he falsified in total -, such as the so-called Salamander Letter and some letters that supposedly the mother of the founder of the church had written. Nobody suspected and every time a new find appeared the Church announced it with enthusiasm.
To continue without raising suspicions, Hoffman continued his business as an antiquarian, while his collection of books increased. He was especially interested in getting first editions; He even spent thousands of dollars on incunabula volumes and got into debt for it.
Despite the fact that he had made good money by selling his fake creations, Hoffman’s debts continued to rise and so did the problems: He promised to deliver different materials, but then he did not have time to finish falsifying them. Then the interested parties made him money advances and, when they began to insist that he deliver the material, the forger would go around.
In those days, in addition to religious writings, Hoffman offered relics written by great people in the United States. Among others, he came to negotiate with the authorities of the library of Congress of his country for the alleged discovery of the Oath of a free man of 1639, a historical document that was lost. The sale never went through.
Hoffman continued his business as an antiquarian, while his collection of books increased. He was especially interested in getting first editions; He even spent thousands of dollars on incunabula volumes and got into debt for it.
To try to earn some easy money, he came to offer among collectors and faithful a supposed collection of writings of William E. McLellin, one of the first Mormon Apostles who finally broke with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hoffman claimed that these documents hurt the good reputation of SUD, so it was important that someone keep them safe. Some collectors offered to buy these writings, but Hoffman delayed delivery, until they began to distrust him.
When his tricks were about to be discovered, the forger decided to make those two powerful bombs and killed two people. Soon after, the police found the evidence of his hoaxes in the basement of his home and the case ended in a resounding trial.
For the perfection in the line and the materials used, even the most experienced experts had a hard time detecting, when the evidence was put together, which of all the documents gathered for the hearings were apocryphal and which were authentic.
For the murders of Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets and their many scams, Hoffman was sentenced to life in prison.
However, already in prison Hoffman raised suspicions: the investigators they believed there were still more of their forgeries going around. In 1988 they found a list of his creations in his cell, made by himself, with the name “Autographs of Mormons or Mormon Relationship.” It contained 61 names. At the same time, another writing was found, called “Non-Mormon Forged Autographs”, which included various figures such as former presidents of the United States, writers and all kinds of historical figures.
The poet and an impossible manuscript
“Emily Dickinson’s name was the sixth from the top,” wrote British narrator and journalist Simon Worral on that list in his book The poet and the murderer (Impedimenta), a detailed reconstruction of Hoffman’s life and work, which was released in 2002 and is now back in bookstores these days.
Shocked by a news story he learned many years after the forger’s incarceration, Worral investigated the character until he rebuilt another of his great scams.
In 1997 the universe of literary collectors was shaken by the appearance of the manuscript of an unknown poem by Emily Dickinson which went on sale at auction at the prestigious Sotheby’s. It was talked about for days, offers of all kinds were made.
The greatest experts on the work of the great American poet they were ecstatic with that sharp calligraphy on the paper that she used to use at home, moved by the words that could be hers to one of her nephews.
Finally, after a collection made among various fans and friends of the institution, the document was purchased by the Jones Library of Amherst, Massachusetts, the town where the lonely and reserved Dickinson lived.
The writing that contained 39 words written in handwriting by the most famous woman in that city. Until shortly after, after calls and doubts among collectors, academics and those who knew in depth the work of the writer, The name of a Hoffman appeared and with it, the clue to find another of his surprising and most perfect frauds.