Categories
Latter-day Saint History

What Was the Salamander Letter?

The Salamander Letter was a Mark Hofmann forgery that led to chaos and murder in 1980s Utah.

The Salamander Letter (also called the “White Salamander Letter”) was a Mark Hofmann forgery that led to chaos and murder in 1980s Utah. Purportedly written by Martin Harris, it detailed Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates in New York from a white salamander rather than the Angel Moroni. Many historians believed in the document’s authenticity and tried to place it in the context of its times. The Salamander Letter was purchased by Steven Christensen (later killed by a Hofmann bomb), who ultimately donated it to the Church.


Learn more by reading the story of the Salamander Letter in Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.

This article includes Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


Who was Mark Hofmann?

Mark Hofmann (sometimes misspelled “Mark Hoffman”) was a forger who killed two people with bombs to cover up his crimes. He specialized in documents associated with the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but is also known to have forged other secular documents.


Who wrote the Salamander Letter?

Mark Hofmann wrote the Salamander Letter. However, his forgery attributed authorship of the letter to Martin Harris, who was purportedly writing to W. W. Phelps.


Is the Salamander letter real or fake?

The Salamander letter exists—but it’s a forgery written by Mark Hofmann. So, you might say that it’s a real fake.


What does the Salamander Letter say?

The Salamander Letter strongly tied Joseph Smith to a culture of magic—something hotly debated in the 1980s. Additionally, it attributed the discovery of the gold plates to a white salamander rather than the Angel Moroni, and included instructions for Joseph to bring his deceased brother Alvin to the Hill Cumorah in New York. It also indicated that the white salamander transfigured into a spirit and assaulted the Prophet multiple times.1

The full text is roughly 600 words:

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 [sic] 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 [sic] 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 [sic] 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 [sic] 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 hieroglyphics 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 [sic] 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 spectacles 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 Respect
Martin Harris


Who found the Salamander letter?

Technically, Mark Hofmann “found” the Salamander letter that he forged. However, the story was further set in motion when it was discovered by Lyn Jacobs, a member who tried to trade the document to the Church for items valued at roughly $100,000. The letter’s provenance was thought to have been traceable from Elwyn Doubleday, a rare stamp dealer in New Hampshire.

As Dean Jessee wrote:2

According to Doubleday, the Harris letter was very probably a part of a large collection of New York hand stamped letters he obtained in 1982.


Did the letter fool Latter-day Saint history experts?

Yes, many historians were fooled by Mark Hofmann forgeries, including the Salamander Letter. For example, prominent historians such as Richard Bushman and Ronald Walker either attempted to place the letter in an 1800s context or urged church members to be more tolerant of early Latter-day Saint culture.2 Similarly, Joseph Smith historian Dean Jesse included six Hofmann fakes in the first edition of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.3

Ironically, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, two prominent individuals who often attacked the Church’s history, doubted the authenticity of the Salamander Letter:4

Beginning as early as 1984, we suggested that the Salamander Letter might be “a forgery” and noted that if this were the case, “it needs to be exposed.”

Sandra and Jerald Tanner

Were Latter-day Saint leaders tricked by Hofmann’s forgeries?

Yes. Hofmann boasted of tricking Latter-day Saint leaders, and Church representatives like Gordon B. Hinckley admitted as much:5

I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however. We bought those documents only after the assurance that they were genuine. And when we released documents to the press, we stated that we had no way of knowing for sure if they were authentic. 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.

Gordon B. Hinckley

Is it possible for Church leaders to be led astray?

“Of course it is,” said Keith Erekson, in an interview about his book, How to Dispel Latter-Day Myths.6 “There is no teaching in any scripture that grants prophets immunity from deception. When the 116 manuscript pages were stolen, the Lord told Joseph point-blank: “You cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (D&C 10:37).”


Did Hofmann forge non-Latter-day Saint works?

Yes. A sheet was found in his prison cell bearing the names of famous individuals Hofmann had forged. One side of the sheet listed names associated with the Church of Jesus Christ, but the other side was much different. It includes scores of names associated with secular history, including:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Betsy Ross
  • Billy the Kid
  • Daniel Boone
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Francis Scott Key
  • George Washington
  • John Adams
  • John Brown
  • John Milton
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Mark Twain
  • Martha Washington
  • Paul Revere7

Why did Hofmann create the Salamander Letter?

Richard E. Turley thinks that Hofmann had three motives for forging the Salamander Letter and other Church-related documents:7

  1. To defy authority.
  2. To make money.
  3. To undermine the Church’s history.
Richard E. Turley Jr. discusses the Salamander Letter as part of his Benchmark Books presentation about the updated edition of his book, Victims.

Who first photographed the Salamander Letter?

Shannon Flynn was the first person to photograph the Salamander Letter. He recalls being floored by the letter—and also remember’s Hofmann’s secretive approach:8

He was keeping it under tremendous secrecy. I was one of a select group this big that was privy to the bombshells. But that was his world, and there was a reason for it. Because everybody did that to a certain extent. They would never reveal where they were getting their best materials. So that world, it was not that odd to keep secrets.

Shannon Flynn

Why didn’t Brent Ashworth buy the letter?

Brent Ashworth declined to buy the Salamander Letter from Mark Hofmann because he thought it was a fake. However, rather than a modern forgery, Ashworth assumed it was based on a book called Mormonism Unveiled, and fabricated earlier in the Church’s history.2


What did Leonard Arrington think?

According to Greg Prince, former Church Historian Leonard Arrington thought that the Salamander Letter was authentic—even after Hofmann confessed to murder and was exposed as a forger.9


Why didn’t the Church buy the Salamander Letter?

The Church appears not to have purchased the letter for two reasons. First, the asking price was too high. In particular, Lyn Jacobs was reported to have asked for two items in trade that were appraised at $100,000 or more.

For example, Richard Turley records that the minutes of a meeting between the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve included a discussion of the topic, and that “Hinckley felt ‘the Church would not be justified in paying such an amount for this letter.”2

Second, several stakeholders thought the White Salamander Letter was suspiciously similar to Mormonism Unveiled, and passed the information up to President Hinckley who declined to purchase it.2


Who bought the Salamander Letter?

Steven F. Christensen purchased the Salamander Letter from Mark Hofmann, who had purchased it from Lyn Jacobs. Christensen paid $40,000 for the document and later donated it to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.2


How did the media cover the Salamander Letter story in the 1980s?

Many media outlets chose to emphasize the sensational aspects of the Salamander Letter at the expense of facts. For example, the Los Angeles Times Magazine published the contents of the letter and wrote about how it “shook The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” However, the first 10 pages failed to mention the document as a forgery.

“In an inexplicable and reprehensible breach of journalistic integrity, that disclosure was delayed until the second installment, a week later,” said Elder Dallin H. Oaks.10

Another key omission in many news stories was the fact that the Church didn’t suppress the Hofmann forgeries:10

Also conveniently omitted from mention in most of the repetitious media recitals of the Church’s “suppression” of documents is the fact that the most prominent Hofmann documents used to attack the origins of the Church—including Martin Harris’ so-called Salamander letter, Joseph Smith’s treasure-hunting letter to Josiah Stowel, and the Joseph Smith III blessing—were all made public by the Church many months before the bombings triggered intense public interest in this subject.


Did the Church ever use the Hofmann forgeries in its manuals?

Yes. The Church used some of the Hofmann forgeries after announcing the discoveries. For example, an October 1987 Ensign article indicates that some of these forgeries may have been “used in manuals and discussions by leaders, teachers, and members of the Church”:11

  • The White Salamander Letter (also known as the Martin Harris letter)
  • The Charles Anthon transcript
  • The Joseph Smith III blessing
  • The Lucy Mack Smith letter of 23 January 1829
  • The Martin Harris letter of 13 January 1873 to Walter Conrad
  • The David Whitmer letter of 2 April 1873 to Walter Conrad
  • Two pages of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon
  • The E. B. Grandin contract of 17 August 1829
  • A Joseph Smith Jr. signature
  • The Josiah Stowell letter

How did Hofmann’s forgeries impact the Church?

“The most immediate public impact of the Hofmann forgeries for the Church collections involved the establishment of a formal access policy,” said former Church History Library Director Keith Erekson. “Internally, the forgeries helped shape thinking about security, acquisitions, and ongoing work activities.”12


Is there a Salamander Letter documentary?

Sort of. The Salamander Letter is featured in a Netflix documentary about Mark Hofmann, but there isn’t a show devoted to the White Salamander Letter alone.

A trailer for Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons introduces Mark Hofmann’s forgery known as the White Salamander Letter.

Are there any books about the Salamander Letter?

Yes, there are four notable books about the Salamander letter, including one (“Victims”) which was written using internal notes and evidence from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Salamander Letter Books
Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case: Updated Edition (Find Book)
Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders (Find Book)
A Gathering of Saints: A True Story of Money, Murder, and Deceit (Find Book)
The Mormon Murders (Find Book)

Do any accounts include internal Church documents?

Yes. Richard E. Turley was given “full access to all evidence on Church leaders’ involvement” with Hofmann, including the journals of Elder Dallin H. Oaks. After reading Turley’s Victims manuscript, Elder Oaks was satisfied that an accurate story had been told:13

The facts are there, and his efforts will set the record straight for the purposes of history. Those who want to believe the worst about the Church and its leaders will do so, but those who want the truth and have ears to hear and hearts to understand will at last have the complete facts on the Church . . . involvement in the Hofmann affair.

Dallin H. Oaks

How many documents did Mark Hofmann forge?

It’s unknown how many documents Mark Hofmann forged, but it’s a lot. For example, while the Church had identified approximately 40 Hofmann forgeries in its possession in 1987,10 the number had grown exponentially by 2005 (the Church has now identified at least 446 Hofmann forgeries).14


What did the Church say after Mark Hofmann’s confession?

The Church released a statement after Mark Hofmann’s confession which grieved the loss of life, explained that the Church wasn’t involved in the legal process, and expounded on its use of Hofmann forgeries. It was read on 31 July 1987 by Richard P. Lindsay, the managing director of the Church Public Communications Department:15

On behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders and members, we extend again our heartfelt sympathies to the families and associates of all whose lives have been so deeply affected by the bombings and related events of the past months. It is our hope that the healing process may now be hastened for those who have suffered from these tragedies.

Church leaders were not involved and were not consulted in the plea bargaining that culminated in today’s judicial proceeding.

The Church, its early leaders, its doctrine, and its members have been abused by much of the commentary about the meaning and impact of the questioned documents which are at the center of these tragic events.

Like other document collectors throughout the nation, the Church has relied on competent authorities in document acquisition and with the others has been a victim of the fraudulent activities which have now been acknowledged in the courtroom. As earlier announced, the Church acquired forty-eight documents directly from Mark W. Hofmann—seven documents for a total cash purchase price of $57,100, and forty-one others, less valuable, by donation or trade.

The events of this day confirm the statements made by Church leaders throughout this regrettable episode. For example, when the Church accepted the gift of the purported letter from Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps, the so-called ‘salamander letter,’ President Gordon B. Hinckley, then the Second Counselor in the First Presidency, cautioned:

“‘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. It is, however, an interesting document of the times.

“Actually, the letter has nothing to do with the authenticity of the Church. The real test of the faith which both Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps had in Joseph Smith and his work is found in their lives, in the sacrifice they made for their membership in the Church, and in the testimonies which they bore to the end of their lives.

“Martin Harris died in 1875 in Clarkston, Utah, in full fellowship in the Church and bearing a fervent testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. W. W. Phelps passed away in Salt Lake City in 1872 as an active high priest with a distinguished career of Church service.”


Where is the Salamander Letter now?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns the Salamander Letter. The original is currently in the possession of the First Presidency.16


Stay informed

Sign up to receive an email when we publish new content!


Further reading

Salamander Letter resources

  • Salamander Letter Text (Wikipedia)
  • Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Amazon)
  • Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Amazon)
  • Hofmann Forgeries (Church History Topics)
  • Materials Received From Mark W. Hofmann, 1980-1985 (CHL)

Sources

  1. Wikipedia. “Salamander Letter,” Nov. 30, 2022. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  2. Turley, Richard E. Jr. “The Salamander Letter.” In Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, 79–111. University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  3. Jessee, Dean C. “Preface.” In The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith: Revised Edition. Deseret Book, 2002.
  4. Sandra Tanner and Jerald Tanner, “The Salamander Letter,” Veneer Magazine. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  5. Dew, Sheri. Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, 432. Deseret Book, 1996.
  6. Manwaring, Kurt. “How to Dispel Latter-Day Myths,” August 16, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  7. YouTube, Benchmark Books, “Rick Turley—Victims (Updated Ed.)/Dallin H. Oaks Biography,” March 8, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  8. YouTube, Netflix. “Murder Among the Mormons | The Salamander Letter | Netflix,” March 5, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  9. Prince, Gregory A. “Mark Hofmann” In Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, 429. University of Utah Press, 2016.
  10. Oaks, Dallin H. “Speaking Today: Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” October 1987. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  11. Fraudulent Documents From Forger Mark Hofmann Noted.” Ensign. October 1987. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  12. Manwaring, Kurt. “Behind the Scenes of the Latter-day Saint Church History Library in Salt Lake City,” January 4, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  13. Turley, Richard E. Jr. In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks, 209. Deseret Book, 2022.
  14. Jarvik, Elaine. “Tales of Hofmann: Forgeries, Deceit Continue to Intrigue 20 Years Later.” Deseret News. October 15, 2005. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  15. First Presidency. “Church Releases Statement on Mark Hofmann Interviews.” Ensign. October 1987. Accessed July 9, 2023.
  16. Church History Library. “Materials Received From Mark W. Hofmann,” 1980-1985. CR 100 306. Accessed July 9, 2023.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “What Was the Salamander Letter?”

In an address to CES teachers, Elder Bruce R. McConkie recited this experience:

At this last general conference, in April [1981], I was doing what we are pretty much required to do now. I was reading the expressions I was making. And then at the end I said a few sentences extemporaneously. As I said them I had in my mind the document that had recently come to light purporting to be an account of a blessing given by the Prophet Joseph to one of his sons. 1 And so I felt impressed, after my formal remarks were concluded, to bear a witness of what was involved in succession in the presidency. And I named all of the Presidents from Joseph Smith to Spencer W. Kimball and said that down that line the power and authority and keys of the kingdom had come. Then I said something that highly offended all the intellectuals. I said, “What I am saying is what the Lord would say if he were here” (Conference Report, April 198l, p. 104). Now, the only way you can say a thing like that is to be guided and prompted by the power of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is a revelator and places in your mind the thoughts that the Lord wants expressed.

Our intellectual friends reading that in the account were offended and annoyed. And in decrying the stand I had taken, one of the chief among them said, “Well, what can you expect when they have incompetents like Bruce R. McConkie running loose?” (See statement of Sterling McMurrin, reported in Fred Esplin, “The Saints Go Marching On: Learning to Live with Success,” Utah Holiday, vol. 10, no. 9, June 1981, p. 47.) I read about it in one of the semi-anti-Mormon publications. And when I read it, it gave me a great feeling of personal satisfaction. I thought, “This is marvelous. It is just as important to know who your enemies are as your friends.” And of course, the intellectuals in the world view our teachings as foolishness, or as Paul calls it, “the foolishness of God” (1 Cor. 1:25).

In a note in his compilation of his father’s teachings, Mark L. McConkie wrote the following extra information regarding the referenced Mark Hofmann forged “Joseph Smith III blessing” document and his father’s Conference reference to it:

The document, or purported blessing to which Elder McConkie refers, called the “Joseph Smith III Blessing” (see Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984], pp. 565-66), is one of the forgeries fabricated and sold by Mark Hoffman. The conference experience alluded to here is one in which the simple promptings of the Holy Spirit led a man to say something which offends the wisdom of the worldly wise but which reaffirms a gospel truth. Elder McConkie was uncomfortable with this particular document from the moment it surfaced. Shortly after it first appeared, in a conversation with his brother, Oscar W. McConkie, Jr., Elder McConkie said: “Joseph never gave that blessing. I know what Joseph taught on doctrine, and Joseph didn’t make doctrinal errors—and this blessing has mistakes in doctrine.” One of the bothersome doctrinal errors was the failure to mention priesthood keys. (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, Chapter 20, Teaching the Gospel, note 1.)

See:
https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1981/04/upon-this-rock?lang=eng
and,
https://rsc.byu.edu/voice-my-servants/foolishness-teaching

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading