Some Quick Thoughts on Netflix's "Murder among the Mormons"

The new documentary “Murder among the Mormons” launched today on Netflix to quite a lot of promotional muscle and the true-crime fans are turning out in force on the interwebs. I watched the series and generally appreciated, finally, a presentation about the infamous Mark Hofmann that didn’t begin and end with the tropes of “duped prophets” and “gullible Mormons.” I didn’t notice any factual errors, although I’m not a subject expert in the Hofmann forgeries. Like most Mormon historians, I have taken my cues from Rick Turley’s excellent book Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992). If you’re looking for the deep dive, this is the only book worth reading, in my opinion. (Other books wax too sensational or polemical.)

However, the documentary slipped in a couple of ways. It accused church leaders like Gordon B. Hinckley and Dallin H. Oaks of engaging in a catch-and-kill operation—snatching up Hofmann documents to keep them from public view. Now, it’s clear from the extensive collection of materials the church acquired from Hofmann between 1980 and 1985 that comparatively little acquired from Hofmann caught the public’s attention; and knowing the posture of church leaders in the early 1980s toward academic historiography and critical intellectualism, it is true that they treated a number of Hofmann documents as liabilities. But they did not suppress the materials. Whereas the documentary interprets sermons by James E. Faust and Gordon B. Hinckley as twisting Hofmann documents to bolster historical claims, most Latter-day Saints received such sermons as apologia that encouraged caution and steadiness in making mental room for new and surprising historical accounts. The directors dangle a kind of religious existential crisis occasioned by Hofmann’s documents but never show how church leaders, members, and historians were quite able to sort out the forgeries, to improve our historical understanding, and to move on from this episode. Considering the intensity of Hofmann’s manipulation, I’m quite impressed by the rebound most Latter-day Saints were able to make, and I’m downright proud of the professional historians and archivists who worked earnestly to mitigate the damage Hofmann caused to the profession. We don’t hear from anyone, like Dean Jessee (who is featured in a dismissive light) or other scholars who dealt and are still dealing with the blow.

The victims who suffered the worst of Hofmann’s crimes—Kathleen Sheets and Steven Christensen—receive some attention, but only as how they related to Hofmann’s fears and activities. I wished to have learned something about Kathy Sheets beyond her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but alas. Photographs of the two crime scenes show their bomb-concussed bodies, a taboo I’m not keen on and something true-crime documentaries ought to excise from the genre.

So much attention on Hofmann and a particular group of prosecutors meant a single line of argument about the motives for the murders. Put directly: the prosecutors concluded that Hofmann killed Christensen and Sheets to throw people off the scent of his forgeries. And due to a plea deal that spared Hofmann risk of the death penalty, Hofmann confessed in detail to his crimes, during which he stated as much about his motives. The confession is chilling to hear, no doubt, but not credible outside of factually verifiable assertions. The FBI didn’t accept all of Hofmann’s confessions, for instance. Hofmann said the third bomb that nearly killed himself was a suicide attempt; but forensics argue against this. He probably intended the bomb for Brent Ashworth, with whom he had arranged to meet at the time of the explosion. In only one brief moment of the documentary, by my recollection, does the more probable motive get any mention: when Steve’s widow Terri Christensen says in a contemporaneous interview that she knew Steve would have exposed Hofmann as a forger. Steve was the threat, the main source of stress on Hofmann’s big McLellin papers sale, which Hofmann knew could implode easily—and, significantly, the first domino with potential to knock the rest down. Hofmann calculated to eliminate Steve and frame the killing to send investigators after Steve’s financial business ties. (I speculate that the third bomb was intended for Brent Ashworth or possibly another documents dealer who was working at the McCune Mansion at the corner where Hofmann tripped the bomb in his car. And this was a Hofmann blunder, a panicky move after he received phone calls from other collectors after Steve’s death who feared they were targets.)

This motive brings with it a more able assessment of the Mormon collectors world (and church acquisition process) because it shows how Hofmann not only feared being outed as a forger but assumed pressure from Steve Christensen’s thorough process before purchasing the supposed McLellin papers. Whereas the Salamander Letter purchase that Christensen brokered was a fast acquisition, the promise of the McLellin journals ran differently and more thoroughly. When Hofmann said he had located a collector who stored the McLellin papers in a safe deposit box, Christensen wanted to open the box with Hofmann—in person. What the documentary doesn’t explain is how Christensen also kept in touch with other historians and dealers on this particular sale, adding witnesses to the deal that Hofmann must have known would complicate passing off the journals. And Christensen also voiced his intention to purchase the whole collection, not a piece at a time. Christensen also began to suspect Hofmann’s methods, and he wasn’t alone. Before the murders, some, including bitter critics of the church Jerald and Sandra Tanner, voiced their suspicions of forgery, and Christensen was behaving like a skeptic, not a gullible mark. Moreover, the church was no longer dealing with Hofmann directly, trusting Christensen to vet the initial acquisition terms. All of this made Christensen especially threatening to Hofmann’s operation. (The documentary relies on Al Rust’s report that the church had agreed to a $300,000 purchase; but Rust only heard this from Hofmann, and when he called church offices, personnel only said they thought the documents would already be delivered for them to examine, not purchase. Hofmann obviously manipulated Rust and can’t be considered credible in how he represented discussions with church leaders or their staff.) Now, the documentary does explain well why Hofmann staged the bombings so as to send investigators after Christensen’s financial business—which also explains why Kathy Sheets, though not a personal target herself, was the second victim. So, tightening up the motive around likelihoods and not Hofmann’s gratuitous confessions shows Christensen and others behaving more scrupulously than dupes.

My greatest disappointment with the documentary was in centering the forgeries on the church and the “Oath of a Freeman” sale. In a brief statement at the end, an interviewee mentions George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Dickinson as forged subjects of Hofmann’s trade. What viewers won’t know from this presentation is how Hofmann went well beyond Mormon Americana and abused the Library of Congress and other major archival institutions with forgeries. He also parlayed many authentic originals with strong provenance into batch sales that included forged documents. He imposed textual manipulations onto originals. (The old Bible in which he sandwiched his forged Anthon Transcript was a legitimate artifact in which he added a fake signature of Samuel Smith; now this Bible is compromised as a historical source.) Archivists across the country have had to contend with anything in their collections that has Hofmann in the provenance record. This means documents known to have been originals and authentic before Hofmann acquired them are all suspect for forged interpolations. Despite a red alert to all libraries and archives about the Hofmann forgeries, we still don’t entirely know every document he touched, and sometimes his name surfaces when archivists dig into an acquisition or transfer. The revisions historians outside the church have had to make are serious enough to have merited some mention in the documentary. The scope was bigger than Utah.

Still, the documentary as a work of cinema is compelling and fascinating. The visuals are excellent and orienting to the events interviewees describe. Hofmann’s disturbed mind and antisocial behaviors come off better than other presentations I’ve seen. It will be less convenient for those critics in the past who have gotten away with somehow blaming Hofmann’s depravities on religious extremism or Mormon culture.