The Mormon Murders

Let’s talk about conspiracies.

Let’s talk about lies.

Let’s talk about protecting very important lies.

A content warning, though. I am going to talk about Mormonism, Mormon history, and the Mormon church. I don’t believe in Mormonism’s depiction of history, and I do not believe that the historical record of Joseph Smith is somehow corrupted. If you don’t want to hear an outsider speaking frankly about his opinion of Mormonism — and you probably know what that’s going to be like — then I recommend you skip on out.

The story ends – as much as any story can – with a bomb.

In 1985, a bomb detonated inside the car of one Mark Hoffman, a sixth-generation member of the Mormon faith, injuring him but not killing him. It was the third such car-related bombing in the area in two days, with two people killed the previous day with similar bombs. This one was different, though – it wasn’t attached to the car, it was inside it, which kinda tipped off the police that maybe this was an unintentional explosion and Hoffman had more to do with it than just being a victim – not to mention the only connecting line between the three victims was car bombings and Mormonism. What unspooled from there is what was recorded in the true crime book The Mormon Murders, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

During the 1980s, Mark Hoffman was, he claimed, a full-time purveyor of relics of the Mormon faith. Basically every few months, he’d turn up at the HQ of some Mormon church division, with a newly discovered piece of historical Mormon documentation that accounted for mysterious origins or black magic abilities of characters like Joseph Smith, the founder of the church. He’d offer it to them, then they’d debate the price, so he’d go offer it to someone else, and just do some shrewd business about getting them to pay him money. Some of these texts are a really big deal, in hindsight – like the Anthon Transcript, which holds a transliteration list of the characters of Joseph Smith’s famous golden plates, into English from their

Forgive me,

Reformed Egyptian.

Standard language references such as Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) (990 pages); David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages (Cambridge University Press, 2004) (1162 pages) contain no reference to “reformed Egyptian.” “Reformed Egyptian” is also ignored in Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002), although it is mentioned in Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Another example is the Salamander Letter, which is about how Joseph Smith, after getting divine insights from God, went out into the desert and did a bunch of black magic with a salamander that was probably Satan.

Anyway, he would bring this text to the church, haggle about it, maybe sell it to the highest bidder, and then, like an asshole, leak the existence of the work, which led to the church admitting that they had them, one way or another, leading to increased prices to make sure they had control over various texts.

As it happens, though, uh, turns out they were literally all forgeries, and Hoffman made them to bilk money out of a church that seemed in this really weird position to have all the experts on a subject that were all capable of being completely duped despite being, supposedly, experts in a historical record made by people who really existed. That would be pretty funny right there, but it turns out that Hoffman had to ruin my fun of a perfectly jocular blog post of bilking rich liars out of their money they got by other forms of lying, and instead started building car bombs to try and clean up after himself. And he probably would have gotten through quite a few of them if he hadn’t fucked up and blown up his forging arm with one of the bombs.

When the investigations were done and Hoffman was revealed as the forger, one of the terms of his trial was that he had to confess to committing the forgery in open court, on the public record.

He’s still alive, by the way. He’s in jail, right now, serving life in prison for his two murders. Though I guess if you want to perk up a little, both of his murder victims were involved in investment banking.

But okay, so what the fuck, right?

The Mormon church’s admitted history is one of those things that always messes with my head. Like, I’m just left staring at people relating the story, constantly going: Wait, and people fell for it?

If you have any idea about con artistry, like even the most basic vision of it, like, if you’ve ever tried to set things up so a child can prove they completed their homework, Mormonism has at its heart a host of just pure nonsense. Like, as matters of public record, Joseph Smith was a renowned thief, liar and con artist, who invented nonsense stories about Egyptian myths that were very, very much not true. The mythology underpinning the Mormon faith is not supported by any historical record, and reflects a semi-literate 19th century con artist’s view of history and not any kind of actual true revelation about the history of the Americas.

Like, here’s a basic example. Joseph Smith claimed he had golden plates that had a revelation from god about the secret history of America. No, you can’t look at them. If you did, you’d die. He wanted to translate them, but he was only semi-literate, he couldn’t spell or write well. So he set up a blanket between him and his transcriber, and made that transcriber (Martin Harris) write down what he was saying.

Mrs Harris thought this was bullshit, so she took the 116 pages of translation Martin was working on, and hid them. Or, you know, probably destroyed them. After all, if they were translations from an existing text, it wouldn’t be hard to replicate them at all – you had the original text, you could translate that, go for it.

So Joseph Smith then claimed a divine revelation, that the original 116 pages – and just those pages – were corrupted by Satan and now a new version of the text had to be put forward, which God had provided on another, different set of golden plates, that no, you can’t see them.

This should not pass basic skepticism. This is obviously the actions of a liar caught in a lie they can’t escape. The only option is a bigger lie to escape it, and, that’s the history of Joseph Smith and, subsequently, Mormonism. He kept having convenient divine revelations about bigger and bigger and more ridiculous unprovable things.

Incidentally, Smith died trying to escape a prison, with a gun in his hand after having shot his friend in the face, because the people of the town rose up against him for destroying a newspaper that said amongst other things that he was using his religious position to lure in unsuspecting women to seduce and marry. This is treated as heroic martyrdom by some voices in the church, but you don’t need divine explanations here. The arc of his life, beginning and end, is 100% compliant with a secular reality that relies on exploiting superstitious and faithful people, and when things went wrong for him, people mad at him reacted in a … reasonable? way? I’m not saying shooting a dude in the face when he’s already in jail is a great idea, but like, I can understand being mad enough to do it, especially when the dude is trying to take over your city and make himself the theocratic leader.

And Joseph Smith was the source of the divine revelations and prophecy that drives the whole of this church, this organisation with an enormous amount of wealth and power in our society.

Now when you look at Hoffman, things get a little weirder. See, if you were trying to peddle Egyptian texts to actual Egyptian scholars, they would be able to look at the text, then look at actual Egyptian texts from the same time. There’s a historical record of well-supported evidence to build on what they see. And that doesn’t mean what you present them has to be true — after all, fictional and untruthful things are reproduced from history all the time — Maatkare-or-Hatshepsut, Depending Who You Check Up On from Ancient Egypt, is a great example of something where the historical records don’t necessarily agree with one another, but we can at least look at two different pieces of text and work out that they are historically congruent with one another.

But… uh.


These dudes didn’t seem to have that option.

Like, they seemingly, couldn’t tell if any of this stuff was fake or not true or not. They couldn’t grab their collection of Reformed Egyptian Texts and Joseph Smith handwriting samples and compare them to one another and go: hey, wow, wasn’t this guy semi-literate? They couldn’t compare the spelling or the text or the historical anchoring details or the established artifacts they claim they have about the real history of the Mormon church and the Lamanites and all that or the language of ‘Reformed Egyptian.’

Instead, they treated each of those forged documents as if they might be true.

Even if they said things that they, through divine revelation, believed to be 100% false.

I’m sure there’s no reason for that, right?

I really have had unfortunate luck with my timing this year. I was planning on writing this article since 2020, when I had to bump it from Tricks Month for another article, giving myself time to double check things. But this year, in March, a miniseries based on the book The Mormon Murders dropped. I can’t say how closely that adheres to the book – but it’d certainly a place you can go to check things out.