Before the Bombs: A Mark Hofmann Interview

In September 1982, the Sunstone Review published an interview with Mark Hofmann. At the time, Hofmann was known for having found a series of extraordinary historical documents. One was the Anthon transcript, which contained symbols Joseph Smith allegedly copied from the golden plates and sent to New York scholar Charles Anthon. Another contained an alleged blessing Joseph Smith had given to his son Joseph III apparently ordaining him to become his successor. And finally, a letter from Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith’s mother.

At the time of the interview, each of these were considered authentic documents. But by 1986, after Hofmann killed two people with bombs, these documents would be shown to be forgeries created by Hofmann himself. Thus, a contemporary reading of this interview brims with irony. Here are a few excerpts.


Review: Once you have found an item, how do you determine if it’s authentic?

Hofmann: Actually, to authenticate a Mormon item—at least so far—has been easier than the same process for, say, Lincoln or Washington letters. There have been all kinds of Lincoln forgeries around and even though I’m in the business, I wouldn’t buy a Lincoln letter without getting one of the few persons I respect as experts to authenticate it. To date that hasn’t been a real problem with Mormon documents. Now, however, with the publicity that’s been given the tremendous amount of money to be realized (for example the Trib mentioned a $30,000 figure for the Lucy Mack Smith letter), there may be some temptation to forge.

Review: Do you know of any Mormon forgeries?

Hofmann: Only a couple. There was a forgery of a journal from a soldier in the Mormon Battalion.

Review: A whole journal?

Hofmann: Yes. But as far as a Joseph Smith letter, there are several laboratory tests that can be performed. In terms of handwriting, usually Dean Jessee speaks for the Church. He is conservative enough in his judgment that he’s pretty well respected by his supervisors as well as those outside. If it’s something spectacular or earth shattering, something with important doctrinal or historical implications, an all out effort would likely be made. There is a very complicated science involved. For example, it is possible to determine the rate of oxidation of the ink in relation to the paper. This would show how long the two were in contact. And so forth. The Reorganized Church did some rather extensive tests on the Joseph Smith III blessing, I understand. But in the case of the Anthon transcript, they haven’t done everything I thought they were going to do. For example, there’s a black glue-like substance which held it in the Bible. They still don’t know what that substance is. I know that laboratory identification could be made on that. Perhaps someday the Church will do it.

Review: Do you consider yourself an active Latter-day Saint?

Hofmann: Yes. I’m an eighth-generation Mormon, and my mother is a stake Relief Society president right now.

Review: Has your profession affected your beliefs at all?

Hofmann: I guess I am a lot more callous than I was. But generally I just don’t worry about some things. I don’t have to figure everything out, have an explanation for everything. I can just say, “Well that’s the way it is.”

Review: Do you look for specific documents to substantiate the Mormon historical claims?

Hofmann: You can’t really do that; you have to take what you can find. I don’t think documents really change anyone’s mind anyway. For example, the Anthon transcript. The anti-Mormons used it for their purposes and the Mormons used it for theirs. The same thing with the Lucy letter. I think most people are a little like me. You have your beliefs and you don’t really let things change them too much.

Review: If you found a document that was potentially embarrassing to the Church, would you consider hiding or destroying it?

Hofmann: Oh no. That gets into a matter of ethics. It’s not my role to burn a document just because I don’t like what it says. (Not to mention that it’s not a very profitable thing to do in the business world.) The closest I’ve ever come was the Joseph Smith III blessing which shook up a few people in the Church. It surprised me a bit that the Church didn’t buy it up quick and stash it away somewhere, but I guess the historical department is trying to be more objective and get away from that sort of thing.