LiteratEye #11: Motive for Murder

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the eleventh installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #11: Motive for Murder
By W.J. Elvin III
April 24, 2009

“I felt at the time like someone would have to die, that drastic measures were called for, but I didn’t know who.” … “I even thought of the possibility of killing people who were not involved in the fraud schemes at all … And I could tell the fraud victims I was too busy with those deaths to come through on the frauds. The whole idea was not to get caught for the frauds.” (Quotes from Mark Hofmann noted in the book, “Salamander” by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts).

Mark W. HofmannMark Hofmann would be considered a celebrity genius of literary forgery and fraud if he hadn’t flipped out and killed some people. As a result of the murders, he’ll go down in history as a warped and callous ogre.

Before going on, I’d like to clear the air about one thing. There’s a mistake I’ve been making for some time in referring to Hofmann as “the greatest forger of the past century.” George J. Throckmorton brought it to my attention in one of the few books about the case that I’d overlooked until recently, “Motive for Murder.” What should be said is: “Mark Hofmann was the greatest forger of the last century who got caught.”

Obviously, the truly great forgers will remain forever unknown.

Aside from that, the most interesting aspect of Throckmorton’s book is, as the title suggests, his exploration of Hofmann’s motive for the killings.

There being six or seven books and, just going by my own collection, a hefty notebook-full of news articles about the case, there is no easy summary. Wikipedia of course has its account, a reasonable path to a general overview.

Hofmann scammed the Church of Latter Day Saints, usually called Mormons, plus big-money investors and you-can’t-fool-me experts. He estimated his take at two million dollars. But he’s a totally unreliable informant, so who knows?

Though experts dispute the matter, there are probably dozens, possibly hundreds of unidentified Hofmann fakes residing in various private collections. Some identified fakes have been sold as genuine, and some fakes have brought high prices because they are Hofmann’s work. He’s claimed his expertise extended to forgery of close to a hundred different famous signatures. But, given that he’s a notorious liar, again, who knows?

Though he applied his considerable skills to other artifacts, his specialty was fraudulent historical documents. The game collapsed in a sinister finale in autumn, 1985, when bombs he had placed killed two innocents — a former business associate and the wife of another business associate.

Trouble was brewing at the time of the murders; suspicion had developed that he was a forger or the accomplice of a forger. The question arises, why risk the consequences of murder over that? Courts are often ridiculously lenient with forgers. In Utah at the time, murderers could face a firing squad.

The pet theory, supported by the unreliable claims of Hofmann himself, is that a deal that he thought would bring more than a million dollars had fallen through. He had already spent the money. If bombs were exploding around him, perhaps creditors would back off. And in fact, one of his bombs did explode in his possession, causing serious injury.

Another suggested motive is that the business associate, Stephen Christensen, had caught on to his scams and was about to blow the whistle. That may be so.

And much is made of the fact that, though he appeared to be an intelligent, likeable, upright sort, Hofmann was filled with hate. He may have been attempting to settle scores. Having so successfully concealed his venomous hatred for the Mormon church, it can be assumed he had other hidden targets.

And so now we come to Throckmorton, a top questioned document examiner, and his theory. I call it “his” theory even though he hangs it on someone else. I can’t believe he’d write a book about a motive he considered to be off-the-wall.

Throckmorton is extremely cautious about being pinned down as a primary source of any information, legendary for the comment: “No comment.” He seems to enjoy calling attention to his knowledge of important information that can’t be revealed.

You have to hand it to him though. He’s the guy, along with colleague Bill Flynn, who pried the lid off forgeries that had fooled various experts including those at the FBI forensic lab. He got under Hofmann’s skin to the extent that Hofmann tried, in a coded letter from jail, to hire a hit-man to take Throckmorton out. He offered $50,000.

This is another of those peculiar volumes giving no information on how to contact anyone associated with it. I thought I might track Throckmorton through Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City. I’d spent a few bucks with Sanders for Hofmann-related material, a pricey set of videos and an overpriced book, but that didn’t rate much help with my inquiry. They replied off-handedly that Throckmorton might still be with the Salt Lake City Police. Not. He retired as director of the department’s crime lab last year.

So I tried an email address that’s got some dust on it. No answer so far. On the one hand I’m not surprised, since he’s media-phobic. On the other, he’s shooting himself in the foot because some comments could help with book sales. The book, isn’t exactly setting the New York Times best-seller list afire.

In the course of a one and a half year investigation, Throckmorton and colleagues examined some 6,000 documents. Over 450 of the documents came directly from Hofmann and about a quarter of these proved to be forgeries while another 68 could not be proven one way or the other.

Few collectors seeking to ascertain the credibility of a document could afford the work that went into the examinations. Throckmorton spent 120 hours studying one single page of material – the infamous Salamander Letter, which seriously undermined traditional church doctrine. (Here is the Wikipedia entry on the Salamander Letter, a flawed overview but good for a starting point.) After prominent document dealer Kenneth Rendell (contrary to what the Wikipedia article says) and the FBI authenticated it, Throckmorton proved it fraudulent.

Speaking of Rendell, he gets cuffed around a bit in Throckmorton’s book. Seems to be some rivalry between document examiners and autograph dealer/experts. These days, I would say the document examiners with all their high tech equipment have the upper hand.

The autograph expert often relies on knowledge and a keen eye, perhaps a magnifying glass. The document examiner has quite an arsenal of forensic testing equipment available these days so that not just the handwriting and signature are under study but also the ink and paper. To examine Hofmann-related documents, a make-shift lab was set up including “A stereo/zoom microscope, video spectral comparator apparatus, infrared viewing device, ultraviolet light, and magnifying glasses …”

The dealer/experts get fooled, and some don’t seem all that concerned about authenticity. Many don’t guarantee authenticity; they simply say the buyer will get a refund if there’s a problem. As some buyers have discovered, that can be a “catch me if you can” refund policy.

Throckmorton’s book is an odd little volume, one that collectors of Hofmann material would want but no fount of new information. It’s constructed as a fictional story with some facts interspersed. Strangely, considering the light weight of the work, Throckmorton had two co-authors.

My copy is signed by all three authors. Well, I mean, there are three signatures in the front of it – could be the work of some hired high school kid, I don’t know.

Anyway, about the revelation regarding motive. Throckmorton says Hofmann blew people up to create a diversion. He needed a diversion because an old country-boy skinned for a large amount of money beat the hell out of the forger and promised more unless a refund was immediately forthcoming.

Hofmann didn’t have the money, and he would do anything, including killing others, to avoid getting worked over again.

“I don’t feel anything for them. My philosophy is that they’re dead. They’re not suffering. … They don’t know they’re dead.” (Hofmann to an investigator for the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office, quoted in “A Gathering of Saints” by Robert Lindsey).

Got any questions? Or answers? Drop me a line at Literateye@gmail.com

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)

photo: Autograph Magazine


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