excerpt – Salamander

The Salamander LetterChapter 12
The Birth of the Salamander Letter

The boom in Mormon documents continued into 1983, though Camelot was gone, replaced by a grim professionalism. A change was coming, too, in the new Mormon history, for the faith-promoting finds that blossomed in 1982 now seemed in short supply. Information swapping in the “Mormon underground,” however, became even brisker as photocopies of purported document texts circulated.

The letter Mark Hofmann took on January 11, 1983, to Gordon B. Hinckley, by now second counselor in the LDS first presidency, was of major significance. Dated in 1825, when Joseph Smith was only nineteen years of age, the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter replaced the Anthon transcript as the earliest Smith holograph. More importantly, the letter described an occult means of finding buried treasure and portrayed Smith as a treasure digger, an image the church had tried to deny ever since the young preacher proclaimed himself a prophet and his parlor-full of followers became a church.

Stowell, a farmer in Pennsylvania, had hired Smith and his father to hunt treasure for him—an enterprise not uncommon to rural New Yorkers. The region was rich with tales of Indian mounds, buried Spanish gold, and village seers.

In the letter Hofmann brought to Hinckley, Joseph Smith had written with little punctuation, misspellings, and sporadic capitalization:”… since you cannot asertain any particulars you should not dig more untill you first discover if any valuables remain you know the treasure must be guarded by some clever spirit and if such is discovered so also is the treasure so do this take a hasel stick one yard long being new cut and cleave it Just in the middle and lay it asunder on the mine so that both inner parts of the stick may look one right against the other one inch distant and if there is a treasure after a while you shall see them draw and Join together again of themselves …. ”

Hofmann had already had the letter authenticated by Charles Hamilton Galleries of New York before meeting with Hinckley. Hamilton, the author of several books on autographs and forgery detection, was considered a leading expert in authentication.

Hinckley read the letter, then wrote Hofmann a check for $15,000, making the Stowell letter Hofmann’s first major cash transaction with the Mormon church. Hinckley gave the Stowell letter to secretary Francis Gibbons to put into the First Presidency’s vault. Access to the vault came only through Gibbons and was rarely granted.

A few days later, Hofmann visited Brent Ashworth and told him about the letter and its sale. “President Hinckley said that letter will never see the light of day,” Hofmann confided. “I promised President Hinckley that there aren’t any copies, but, actually, I could let you see one.”

“No, that’s all right, Mark,” Ashworth replied.

Hofmann also told Michael Marquardt about the letter and described its contents. Marquardt wanted to see the signature, but Hofmann said no, the sale had not yet closed.

In March, Hofmann sold to the church, again through Hinckley, a second important document: the original contract that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had signed with printer E. B. Grandin in 1829 to publish The Book of Mormon. This time Hinckley authorized a $25,000 check. The church, Hofmann was told, was delighted to own the contract.

Some time later, a church employee noticed eleven faint rows of uninked type impressed into the reverse side of the contract, indicating that the contract had been laid on the type in Grandin’s office, lightly imprinting an advertisement for the shop. He reported to others in the history division that this was proof the document had come from Grandin’s shop.

The E. B. Grandin Book of Mormon contract was made available to the history division for study and publication, as were the testimonial notes from Martin Harris and David Whitmer and the Anthon transcript. Like most of the other documents, the Grandin contract was prominently featured in the church’s Ensign magazine and other journals. But the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter, like the Thomas Bullock to Brigham Young letter, was kept under lock and key. However, word of the Stowell letter surfaced, and soon scholars were petitioning for access to the letter on their own.

Fragments of the original manuscript to The Book of Mormon also continued to circulate. In spring 1983, Hofmann offered his former USU mentor, Jeff Simmonds, a faded fragment with torn edges about five inches long and about two inches high. The paper was covered with handwriting on both sides that had faded to a light gold color.

“What do you want for it?” Simmonds asked.

“Your Hawaiian first edition of The Book of Mormon. I have a friend, Lyn Jacobs, who collects foreign editions.”

“Well, Mark, if this is going to Jacobs, why isn’t he up here making the deal?”

Hofmann said he and Jacobs would work out the transaction between themselves. Simmonds gathered that Jacobs was too shy to deal with him directly. He asked Hofmann to leave the fragment with him.

“That’s fine. I’m going back to New York to look for the lost 116 pages of The Book of Mormon manuscript. I’ve got some good leads.”

“Really! That would be quite a find.” Simmonds wondered what the dollar value would be for lost pages of Mormon scripture. Astronomical, he assumed.

While Hofmann was gone, Simmonds researched the fragment. Then he insured the document, made an appointment to see Dean Jessee to examine the handwriting, alerted sheriffs all along his route to Salt Lake City, and took the fragment to the LDS historical department. Jessee looked it over carefully, then commented that he had seen it before.

Simmonds did not press Jessee but silently concluded that Jessee was telling him he had seen it among the LDS church’s fragments. Perhaps Hofmann had received it in trade. When Hofmann returned, Simmonds closed the deal.

On one of his trips to USU that spring, Hofmann became interested in a register book for Deseret Currency, Mormon money used in early pioneer Utah. The register noted the bills issued by serial number. For a time, Hofmann sat patiently copying notes, then asked Simmonds if he could photocopy some of it. Simmonds agreed.

When Simmonds returned after an errand, he found that Hofmann had photocopied until he had run out of coins.

“I’m glad you only copied half,” Simmonds said edgily. “We have a policy here about not photocopying all of anything.”

“I hope you’re not angry.”

“No. I’m not delighted, Mark, but I’m not angry.”

Some time afterwards—neither Simmonds nor his staff could later remember exactly when—both Hofmann and Lyn Jacobs called to see if Jacobs could photocopy the rest of the book. Jacobs drove to USU, but the staff could not find the register.

Mark Hofmann talks to reporters outside the courthouse before pleading guilty to murder and forgery. (Photo by Jack Monson, courtesy Deseret News)Meanwhile, Brent Metcalfe was running afoul of his superiors in church security because of his interest in church history and his ties to independent Mormon publications. After a reprimand, he agreed to restrict his research and writing. But his probation ultimately ended in his dismissal. Church security accused him of copying sensitive material; Metcalfe insisted he had followed their instructions to the letter. He and his wife, Jill, were both disillusioned and bitter about what seemed to them an arbitrary and politically-motivated dismissal. A disappointing experience in the temple afterward further shattered their religious expectations.

That spring Metcalfe had become interested in Joseph Smith’s involvement with money digging and folk magic. Soon he was discussing magical symbols like toads and peepstones with Hofmann, Marquardt, and others. He even outlined an article he hoped one day to write on New England folk magic and the Book of Mormon. Despite Metcalfe’s love of research, the paper was never written. But Hofmann was interested and showed Metcalfe a metal talisman, or magical amulet, inscribed with characters like those on the Anthon transcript. Metcalfe was impressed, realizing that the Anthon document might tie Joseph Smith directly to the occult.

Metcalfe hunted employment for the next several months before Steve Christensen heard about his dismissal and called him in for an interview. Christensen hired Metcalfe as an assistant at J. Gary Sheets Associates to help Christensen organize his own books into a lending library and hired Jill Metcalfe to type notes for Andrew Ehat, a graduate student whose research in Mormon history Christensen was supporting. Ehat, in turn, prepared an index of his own extensive files for Christensen’s use.

Late in the fall of 1983, word began to circulate, slowly at first, that a letter had been found somehow linking Joseph Smith with a magical white salamander. Hofmann approached Boston antique document and book dealer Kenneth Rendell at the Boston Book Fair and asked if he would authenticate such a letter. “Where does it come from?” Rendell asked.

“Lyn Jacobs. You know him.”

Rendell knew that Jacobs dealt in rare books but he was not interested in authenticating a letter that would arouse as much controversy as Hofmann predicted this one would.

A little before Thanksgiving, Hofmann told Ashworth that Jacobs had found an important Martin Harris document. Weeks later, when Jacobs came home for Christmas from Harvard, where he was a master’s candidate in New Testament studies, Hofmann mentioned he was in town.

“What about the Martin Harris document?” Ashworth wanted to know.

“Oh, well, it was probably just a document signed Martin Harris or ‘M. H.,’ but it’s not really Martin Harris.” As Hofmann told it, Jacobs had thought the document was a genuine Martin Harris, but when Hofmann had picked him up at the airport, he had convinced Jacobs otherwise.

Yet on November 29, Michael Marquardt got an intriguing call from Hofmann. “I found a letter written by Martin Harris,” Hofmann said.

“Really. Where did you find it?”

“It’s in private hands. It has a Palmyra postmark on it.”

“What’s the content like?”

“Here, I’ve got a copy. I’ll read it to you.”

Marquardt took notes frantically as Hofmann read through the astonishing letter.

“I hear Joseph found a gold bible,” Hofmann read, “& he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment.” The letter continued, “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 trans-figured 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 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 …. ”

The story of Joseph Smith finding the gold plates was present but embedded in a context that suggested ceremonial magic and ghoulism, a strange contrast to the traditional story of the Angel Moroni.

After some discussion, Hofmann hung up, but Marquardt stayed on the telephone, calling friends. About a week later Hofmann called back, and Marquardt got him to read the letter again. Again, Marquardt took notes. Then they discussed authenticity.

“How can you authenticate the handwriting?”

“There isn’t really a sample to compare it with,” Hofmann said. “The letter does have correct postage, though. I checked that.”

On December 11, Marquardt went to the Hofmanns’ house, now in Millcreek, east of Salt Lake City, for Mark and Dori were purchasing Mark’s childhood home from his parents. Marquardt stayed about five hours, joining Mark, Doff, Michael, and their most recent addition, Karen, for dinner.

After dinner, Hofmann and Marquardt went on talking. Hofmann said he was taking a cashier’s check for $18,000 to Boston to purchase the letter. He wanted to make sure that somehow the contents of the letter would be made public. “How do we get it out?” Both agreed that it should not be dismissed as anti-Mormon propaganda.

Marquardt took notes as they listed “positive” elements that could be emphasized in publicizing the letter. For one thing, it was important to describe Martin Harris. After all, he had been a responsible citizen of Palmyra, New York, and had financed the publication of The Book of Mormon.

“Grandin contract,” Marquardt noted, remembering a recent article in the Ensign.

“There’s Harris’s trip to Charles Anthon with the characters from the Book of Mormon,” Hofmann added.

“Anthon transcript,” Marquardt jotted beside the notation.

“Also there’s the note Harris dictated to Walter Conrad. I sold that to Brent Ashworth. It might balance out the salamander letter in some Mormons’ minds.”

The salamander letter was so controversial it would have to be supported by respectable Mormon historians, they thought. “I’ve got an 1828 dictionary,” Hofmann contributed. “Why don’t we look up ‘salamander’ and see what it meant then?”

They found that a salamander could be a mystical creature, capable of living in fire. Someone living in the 1820s could equate a glorious angelic messenger with a salamander that changed into a spirit.

Hofmann ran downstairs and returned with a triangular metal amulet. He showed Marquardt that some of the engraved characters were identical to those on the Anthon transcript. This, too, might link Joseph Smith with magic at the time he was translating The Book of Mormon. As they returned to the subject of the salamander letter, they agreed that Hofmann should get an interview with the New York Times and have the letter reviewed in Newsweek. Exhausted, Marquardt finally gathered his notes of the five-hour discussion together and went home.

Two days later, he heard from Hofmann again. “Word about the Harris letter has leaked. It’s gotten back to the person who has the letter—and I just got a call from the owner.”

“Where was the leak?” Marquardt asked, wincing.

“The leak was in Idaho. I figure you must have told somebody.” He had. Hofmann had never said the letter was confidential, and Marquardt knew that a friend in Idaho had called three eastern dealers to learn more about the letter. Word had obviously gotten back to Hofmann, so Marquardt assumed that one of the dealers was the owner. He passed that word on. Marquardt’s friends, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, were interested in the letter but could not afford Hofmann’s high asking price. If they could not buy the letter, they at least wanted a certified copy of the original.

Shortly before Christmas, Lyn Jacobs, home from Harvard on vacation, took the original of the letter to Donald Schmidt at church archives. Schmidt got a brief look at the letter before Jacobs pulled it back. “I expect six figures for this one,” Jacobs said. “I want one of the early pioneer $10 gold coins the church has.”

“You can forget that,” Schmidt responded. “Where are you going to sell that letter if the church doesn’t buy it?”

Jacobs shrugged, then made an appointment to see Gordon Hinckley. He took the letter with him, but the interview was brief and unsuccessful. Jacobs was put off by the fact that Hinckley asked more questions about him than about the letter. Jacobs later met with Hofmann and told him that he had been unable to interest the church in purchasing the letter. Undaunted, Hofmann telephoned Ashworth and said he and Jacob were offering the Martin Harris letter for sale. “I thought you said it wasn’t anything.”

“Oh, I was just pulling your leg. Really, it’s the most fantastic letter. Lyn wants $50,000 for it. We’re offering it to you first.”

“Whose letter is it, yours or Lyn’s?”

“Lyn would get $40,000 and I’d get $10,000, because I had the necessary contacts. Lyn did a great job finding this letter.”

Hofmann and Ashworth got together. “Here’s the typescript,” Hofmann said.

Ashworth read the long letter. He had just finished reading E. D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed [sic], published in 1834, the first major anti-Mormon publication. Howe’s influential book contained several affidavits from Joseph Smith’s neighbors regarding his involvement in magic and treasure seeking. To Ashworth, the Harris letter seemed too familiar, too pat. He handed it back. “Mark, this thing’s got to be a fake. Besides, this really ought to go to the church. You shouldn’t put any collector in the position of owning a letter like this.”

Mark Hofmann, left, shows the newly discovered Anthon transcript and Samuel Smith Bible to the LDS First Presidency: N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor; President Spencer W. Kimball; and Marion G. Romney, second counselor. Apostles Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer (rear), advisors to the church's history department, look on. (1980 LDS press photograph)Hofmann went back to Schmidt and told him he thought he could get the letter for the church, if Gordon Hinckley were interested. Hofmann knew that the letter’s price and its controversial contents required higher approval. Schmidt had heard that Hofmann was somehow involved with the letter and had gathered that Ashworth and perhaps other collectors had seen it. He read the letter through. “Well, if there’s a reasonable price I’m interested in it.”

“Okay, let’s talk about it.” But that afternoon Hofmann dropped by again and said that the letter had been sold. The church was interested to know where the letter was going. Hofmann obliged.

During the first days of January, Brent Metcalfe had brought a note to his employer, Steven Christensen, informing him that Hofmann had found a document linking the coming forth of The Book of Mormon and money digging and that Hofmann was on his way over.

“Tell me as soon as he gets here,” Christensen replied.

Hofmann arrived and showed Christensen a copy of the letter. Christensen was very interested but questioned the letter’s authenticity. Metcalfe, who had only heard about the letter, was overwhelmed. True, he had read similar information in other sources. But in the letter, the experience with the salamander was so poignantly stated. As a result of his research, Metcalfe had already concluded that Harris had a supernatural world view, linking religion and the occult. For Harris, there would not have been much difference between an angel of God and a talking white salamander.

Hofmann consulted with Jacobs, and the two agreed on an asking price of $40,000 to be paid in several installments. On January 6, business-like as always, Christensen presented Hofmann and Jacobs with a contract in which the document passed from Jacobs to Hofmann and then to Christensen. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement and, at Hofmann’s insistence, an authentication clause. Christensen suggested they rely on Dean Jessee for authentication, but Hofmann wanted more extensive tests, and Christensen agreed to split the cost. Hofmann suggested Kenneth Rendell.

Now that Christensen owned the controversial early Mormon letter, his excitement was high. He wanted Mormon historians to study and authenticate the letter and was anxious to enlist Ronald Walker, a member of BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History (named for a prolific but dogmatic former Church Historian and church president), and other experts.

Soon after the contract was signed, G. Homer Durham, the general authority who had replaced Leonard Arrington as Church Historian, inquired about the letter. On January 9, Christensen responded, describing his purchase and plans. “I’m sure you agree that it needs some commentary,” Christensen wrote wryly, adding that the letter seemed to be the only extant sample of Martin Harris’s handwriting. Some day, he added, he would donate the letter to the church. He closed respectfully, “I hope this meets with your approval.”

On January 13 Christensen received Durham’s reply. “We appreciate you buying the letter,” Durham wrote, adding that he was also pleased Christensen intended to donate the letter.

Christensen’s salamander letter project began taking shape. He spoke with Walker about helping to research the newly discovered document, then invited Jessee to join their ranks. Durham’s letter, a copy of the salamander letter, and a cover letter from Metcalfe, who had been assigned to the project, were forwarded to Walker’s and Jessee’s supervisor, Leonard Arrington.

Walker, who had not read the letter for himself, visited Arrington at home the morning of January 18, 1984. “As I entered his living room,” Walker later wrote, “Leonard showed me rather matter-of-factly a copy of a recently found document, which I found unsettling. ‘At face value,’ I wrote that evening in my journal, ‘it is explosive …. It confirms several other documents that have been recently found, indicating the ‘treasure-hunting’ activity of Joseph Smith prior to the organization of the Church. These ‘finds,’ I wrote, ‘will require a re-examination and rewriting of our origins.'”

Walker was appalled by the letter’s contents. However, Arrington did not find the letter necessarily troubling. “This is Martin Harris’s account, not Joseph Smith’s,” Arrington said. “Anyway, he’s quoting Joseph Smith, St., not Joseph Smith, Jr.”

Arrington had seen depictions of salamanders in European art galleries and knew that Napoleon’s soldiers had been called salamanders because they could supposedly withstand fire. Undisturbed, Arrington encouraged Walker and Jessee, in separate meetings, to work on the project if they wanted to.

Walker thought that their initial study—one that would give the letter a context in early New England folk magic—would be a hasty, dirty job but one that had to be done responsibly. As more information on Mormon origins accumulated, however, the study Walker envisioned became a major project that would require more time. He and Jessee saw Hofmann as a victim of his own luck, for Hofmann reflected their own discomfort with the letter.

Christensen formalized each person’s projected participation in a letter. He would pay Walker and Jessee each $6,000 for their time and make a generous donation to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute. “I am in a position to support… this venture,” he wrote, adding with characteristic irony, “and I will be greatly rewarded for whatever quiet involvement comes my way.”

No sooner had Christensen finalized his research project than Hofmann was back with another proposal. If Christensen would immediately pay him the $5,000 payment on the salamander letter, due on July 24, Hofmann would sell him literary and legal rights to the transcript of an 1825 money-digging agreement he had just found. The contract involved Joseph Smith, Sr., Joseph Smith, Jr., and Josiah Stowell. Hofmann had thus far been unable to procure the original, he said, but was still trying. Christensen agreed, writing to his attorney, Alan Smith, that he was hoping to buy the original on February 6 for $15,000.

The transcript of the money-digging agreement paralleled the 1825 Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter, still unknown to Christensen and the public. One version of the agreement had been published in the Salt Lake Tribune in 1880, but the whereabouts of the original was unknown. The agreement lent credence to the salamander letter and to the rumors of the Stowell letter, Christensen explained to Alan Smith.

Smith and Christensen talked about the salamander letter often. Smith, who was not only Christensen’s attorney but a friend and fellow history buff, had benefitted from Christensen’s vast private files. The two cultivated a religious faith that remained open to discovery. Smith concluded that Christensen could believe that Joseph Smith had produced The Book of Mormon through whatever means the evidence supported. Whether Smith used seer stones, witchhazel wands, or the Urim and Thummim, whether Smith spoke with angels, salamanders, or old spirits, Christensen was prepared to back responsible research, regardless of its conclusions.

While Christensen coped with the challenges of his new letter, Hofmann was occupied with other customers. Ashworth, who had turned down the salamander letter, had his heart set on another document more to his liking. Some months back, he had visited the RLDS archives in Independence, Missouri. There he had seen two letters Joseph Smith had written from Carthage Jail on the day of his death. Smith had surrendered to a Missouri posse, knowing that his life was in peril. He spent his last few days jailed with his brother Hyrum. Days later, both brothers were killed.

Smith’s assassination made him a martyr to his people, and he remained so to modern Mormons. Reading these letters, Ashworth was deeply moved. When he returned home, he had asked Hofmann about the possibility of finding another Carthage Jail document.

Repeatedly, Hofmann had assured Ashworth that he would give Ashworth first right of refusal on any item coming from Carthage Jail. Finally Hofmann told him he had actually located a little-known plea for help written by Joseph Smith to General Jonathan Dunham of the Nauvoo Legion, the Mormon city’s militia.

“Remember, Mark, when you get that letter, it’s mine,” Ashworth had said. Hofmann agreed.

Yet at about 9:00 p.m., on January 27, 1984, Ashworth answered a telephone call from his mother-in-law in Tempe, Arizona.

“Brent?” she began. “I thought I’d better tell you. I just read in our local LDS newspaper that Mark Hofmann sold a Carthage Jail letter to Dick Marks.” Ashworth knew Marks, a collector in Phoenix.

“What? That can’t be. Are you sure?”

“There’s an interview with Marks about the letter.”

Ashworth was too upset to talk further. Late as it was he hung up and drove to Salt Lake City. He pulled in the driveway beside the wrought-iron sign reading, “Haus Hofmann,” then pounded on the front door until Mark appeared, wrapped in a bathrobe.

“What is it, Brent?”

“Mark, I’ve just heard about the sale of the Jonathan Dunham letter to Dick Marks! What’s going on?”

They stepped inside, closing the cold January night behind them.

“Is it true?” Ashworth asked, taking a deep breath.

“Yes, it is.” The Dunham letter, in fact, had sold late in 1983.

“But you promised that letter to me. You remember our agreement that I would have first right of refusal on that letter?”

Hofmann shrugged. “I had to put the deal together in a hurry.” He fell silent.

Flabbergasted, Ashworth got up to leave. “You’re a liar.”

“Brent, come back and get it off your chest. Don’t leave mad.”

“Mark, I just got it off my chest, and I feel worse now than when I first came. I’m really disgusted with you. You’re dishonest, and that’s all there is to it.”

Driving west along Interstate-80 to Interstate I-15, then south to Provo, Ashworth felt no better. Their conversation replayed itself in his head. At one point, he had exclaimed, “Mark, it’s not just the money. It’s our friendship that’s at stake here.”

Hofmann had not said much. Well, Ashworth thought, what can you expect from a guy who keeps saying he’s not in this for the historians or for the church but for the money. Obviously he wasn’t in it for friendship, either, Ashworth decided. Still, Hofmann’s documents were remarkable. He had better keep their business relationship intact, Ashworth concluded, even though their friendship would never be the same.

By February 1984 when Dean Jessee’s The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith appeared, many members of the Mormon historical community knew that at least one Joseph Smith document—a letter to Josiah Stowell—was missing. Unfortunately, nothing could be done about it since no historian had seen the original and church officials would not confirm its existence. Everyone knew that the church restricted certain materials from public use and kept others totally unavailable; but now the whispers were growing that the church had something to hide.

Brent Ashworth was not the only Mormon history buff to buy Jessee’s book the moment it came off the press, but soon he was the angriest. Not only was the Joseph Smith to Jonathan Dunham letter included, but Ashworth also found a photograph of a brief revelation Joseph Smith had sent to his brother Hyrum, dated May 25, 1838, that hinted at treasure digging. Called the Far West letter, Hofmann had promised Ashworth first right of refusal on that letter, too. Within the hour, Ashworth was at the Hofmanns’ front door. Dori answered.

“Is Mark here?”

“He’s not home.”

“I’m really mad, Dori. You see this book? Dean’s book is out. This letter, right here, was promised to me, but it went to the church.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about it.”

“I’m really ticked off. Where’s Mark?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t really know when he’ll be home.”

Ashworth left, his anger settling into discouragement. He got on the freeway, followed the 600 South loop downtown, parked, walked to church headquarters, and went to Don Schmidt’s office.

“Don, I was promised a letter that you’ve ended up with—this ‘treasure letter,’ the Far West letter from Joseph Smith.

“Schmidt looked at the photograph. “Yes, I have that.”

“And you got it from Mark Hofmann?”

“That’s right.”

“That liar!” Ashworth burst out. “He promised me that letter!”

Schmidt was unruffled, as usual. “Come on, Brent, settle down. Sit down a minute.”

“Look, Don, if you don’t believe me, okay. I know we’re competitors of sorts. But as a member of the church, I’m warning you. In confidence, I ask you to be careful, Don. That’s all. Just be careful.”

Ashworth left, but the incident followed him. By the following week he had calmed down and was ready for business as usual when he and Hofmann met at their spot in Crossroads Mall. Almost immediately, however, Hofmann confronted Ashworth, angrily quoting back to him his words to Schmidt, including calling him a liar.

“Well, it wasn’t quite that way, Mark.”

“No? Let’s go over to Don’s office and tell him that. I want you to take it back.”

Ashworth, surprised that Schmidt had told Hofmann about his warning, decided he had better talk his way out of this one to stay on Hofmann’s good side. “No, I’m not going over there. Don’s no friend of mine, anyway, you know that. You know I was upset about those letters, but I didn’t accuse you like that.”

Hofmann dropped it, but the cloud between them lingered.

Those involved with Steve Christensen’s research project were trying to keep the salamander letter and the related study quiet. Hofmann had warned Michael Marquardt that the letter’s buyer did not want publicity.

Ron Walker and Dean Jessee had been pressing for the letter’s provenance, Christensen had promised them he would camp on Hofmann’s doorstep until he got it. Finally, they were told the letter had come through an autograph collector in the East named Elwyn Doubleday, who, in turn, had sold it to another collector named William Thoman, Jr., who sold it to Lyn Jacobs. Jessee talked with Doubleday, who said he was 99 percent certain the letter had come through him. Jessee’s next task was to locate all signatures or other handwriting samples left by Martin Harris.

On February 7, Christensen wrote to his attorney Alan Smith. He wanted to know how he could best control releasing the salamander letter and the money-digging agreement transcript. Hofmann had not offered the original of the money-digging agreement for sale after all, he told Smith, but had instead brought him a notarized statement attesting to the document’s authenticity. Christensen’s concern about information leaks was justified when Richard Ostling, a Time magazine reporter based in Los Angeles, called for a story. In addition, Peggy Fletcher wanted Christensen to write an article describing the letter for an upcoming issue of the Sunstone Review.

In late February, Christensen was apparently scheduled to meet with President Gordon B. Hinckley to discuss the letter. On February 24, he jotted a note to himself: “President Gordon B. Hinckley – 1:30 p.m. 1. don’t cave in. 2. will not embarrass the church.” But in another note, Christensen implied that the scheduled meeting did not take place. Hinckley subsequently acknowledged meeting twice with Christensen—at a United Way luncheon in October 1984 and when Christensen donated the letter to the church in April 1985. Christensen “may have telephoned me on one or two occasions to confirm that he was having research done on the letter,” Hinckley remembered, “and that when this was completed he would give it to the church.”

Despite the confidentiality of Christensen’s research project—or perhaps because of it—word of the unusual letter spread quickly among historians—with sometimes convoluted interpretations. Michael Quinn was told by a BYU colleague, “There’s a new document in which the messenger who came to Joseph Smith appeared as a worm.”

“I don’t believe it!” Quinn exclaimed and telephoned Leonard Arrington. Arrington, aggravated by the description, told Quinn he knew the letter’s content and that its buyer had engaged researchers to study it. Quinn made calls until he learned that Ron Walker was one of the researchers. He called Walker, who was reticent. Quinn persisted, telling Walker he had heard that Smith’s messenger had the form of a worm.

“It’s not a worm,” Walker said. “It’s a salamander.”

“That helps a lot! What does it mean?”

“We’ve been working on it a long time. We can’t release the letter before we find a way to prepare the public for it. The salamander is just one issue it raises.”

“Well, can you read it to me or let me have a copy?”

“No, I’d need Steve Christensen’s release.”

Quinn knew Christensen. He had sponsored several of Quinn’s speeches at the annual Sunstone Symposium, had invited him to participate in a short-lived foundation to study Mormon history, and had even given him gift certificates for clothes. Quinn telephoned, but Christensen was not giving out copies either; in fact, Christensen seemed cold on the telephone. Before long, transcripts of the letter began to circulate, but Quinn refused to read them. He would wait for the letter to be officially released.

For a time, Christensen managed to maintain some control of the salamander letter. On March 7, he issued a press release titled, “Letter from Martin Harris to William W. Phelps.” Christensen did not release the text of the letter but described the research project he had organized and announced that authentication procedures were planned.

Meanwhile, Christensen’s friend and administrative assistant, Randy Rigby, had become worried about the project. He felt that Metcalfe told him about the salamander letter with glee and an expectation that Rigby’s faith would be shaken.

“It doesn’t bother me, Brent,” Rigby said. “In fact, in some ways, it just reinforces my testimony of the church.”

Rigby observed the project’s progress, assuming that Metcalfe’s association with Christensen, Walker, and Jessee would help him handle the conflicts he found in church history. Rigby concluded it wasn’t working and confronted Metcalfe. “What do you think about the church now, Brent?” he asked one day.

Metcalfe explained that he thought The Book of Mormon emerged from the mind of Joseph Smith. “I believe it’s spiritually beneficial but not historically correct.”

“How are you doing, now that your feelings about the church have changed?”

“I’m doing okay. I really love my family. They mean a lot to me. You know, when you lose something in your life, you turn to your family and other things that are meaningful.”

Rigby was bothered by Metcalfe’s response. When he could, he caught Christensen alone and leveled with him.

“Look, Steve, I don’t know what’s going on with your project or how much it means to you. But I personally feel that Brent’s lost his testimony of the church working on that letter. To tell you the truth, I’m very worried about him.”

“I’ll talk with him,” Christensen said.

He and Metcalfe had several conversations about the salamander letter. “You know, Brent,” Christensen said, “even if I knew that the money digging explanation for Joseph Smith were true and that the church’s traditional account was not, I would still remain a member. I need religion in my life and I need it for my family. There are so many good things the church does for people.”

But Metcalfe, still smarting from being fired by men he thought should be inspired to act differently, could not agree. He saw the church’s revelatory claims closely bound to the church’s requirements for individuals. When one couldn’t take the church’s claims literally, he concluded, then neither need one take literally the church’s commands.

As research on the letter progressed, Christensen wrote to Gordon B. Hinckley, inquiring about the rumored 1825 Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter. He also asked about an early history of the church purportedly written by Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s scribe during the translation of The Book of Mormon and first official church historian. Jerald and Sandra Tanner had suggested some months earlier that the church might be suppressing a Cowdery history that was said to contain references to the occult.

If the letter was answered, it took the form of a telephone call from Hinckley to Christensen inquiring about the project generally. The specific inquiries were not mentioned, and Christensen and Brent Metcalfe both were left to wonder if Hinckley’s silence was his way of confirming the church had the 1825 letter and the Cowdery history.

By now, Metcalfe’s curiosity was piqued. Hofmann had been rumored for years to have full run of Church Archives, including the First Presidency’s vault. “Have you ever seen the Oliver Cowdery history in the First Presidency’s vault?” he asked Hofmann. “It would be the church’s earliest history and could shed some light on the salamander letter.”


But earlier Hofmann had asked Michael Marquardt, “If ever I’m in the First Presidency’s vault, what documents should I look for?”

Marquardt had considered, then checked with the Tanners, who suggested the Cowdery history. Marquardt put the Cowdery history at the top of his wish list. He gave the list to Hofmann but heard nothing back.

Because of the salamander letter’s potentially controversial impact, Ron Walker and Dean Jessee were still pressing for provenance and authentication before publishing anything. However, Walker was finding considerable circumstantial support in other historical sources for the letter’s occult imagery, and Jessee had, with Hofmann’s help, located several Harris signatures and a few additional words in Harris’s hand. All the handwriting samples appeared to be consistent with that on the letter. With that much support, Walker and Jessee discussed with Christensen the possibility of finding an eastern publisher for a book-length analysis of Mormon origins. Christensen agreed that the project was far-reaching and should receive wide exposure.

In August, the Salt Lake Tribune picked up an article by L.A. Times religion writer John Dart, headlined, “Joseph Smith: His Image is Threatened, Letter Attacks Origin of Book of Mormon.” Beside the article ran a sidebar, “LDS Spokesman Says Letter Is Not Threat.” As the salamander letter incited a war of words between the press and the Mormon church, at risk were the church’s image and the faith of its members.

But in the periodic newsletter Jerald and Sandra Tanner issued from their bookstore, Jerald Tanner expressed doubts about the letter’s authenticity. Tanner claimed that the letter’s close parallels in content to E. D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed were suspicious.

Hofmann found Tanner’s challenge to the letter a serious one, and on August 23 he visited with Sandra Tanner. “You, of all people, should not be attacking this letter,” he insisted.

Later that month, John Dart, conscious of his large Mormon audience in California, wrote another L.A. Times article, titled, “Mormons Ponder 1830 Letter Altering Idealized Image of Joseph Smith.” In it, he included Tanner’s criticisms.

While published articles speculated about the letter’s effect on Mormon history, several dozen people in the Mormon history community received a typescript of the Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell letter, mailed anonymously from New York. The typescript offered proof that such a letter existed and lent contextual support to the salamander letter’s authenticity.

Meanwhile, the press battle continued. “Historians Testing Authenticity of Martin Harris Letter,” announced the Salt Lake Tribune, “Tests May Not Be Known Until 1985.” A week later, the LDS Church News, a weekly supplement to the Deseret News, ran an article entitled, “Harris letter could be further witness.” If authentic, the article explained, the letter was not a threat to the church. But, the article concluded, the letter might not be authentic, anyway.

Early in October, in this embattled atmosphere, Christensen asked Brent Metcalfe to represent him at a convocation at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Following his generally well-received talk on the salamander letter and its historical context, Metcalfe began answering many questions that lasted well beyond the allotted time. As the discussion became heated, a religion teacher brought the topic to a matter of personal testimony, not scholarship.

Gary Sheets had paid scant attention to Christensen’s salamander letter project, until an apostle remarked in General Conference in early October that no one should write or sponsor a book that would lead some into disbelief. JGSA was paying Metcalfe, and Sheets gathered that Metcalfe had “lost his testimony” while researching the letter. Christensen and Sheets had discussed publishing a book on Mormon origins with an eastern publisher, and Sheets thought some money might be made. Now, however, Sheets decided that since he and Christensen were both bishops, they should not be involved in something so controversial. He raised the subject with Christensen.

Christensen agreed to end JGSA’s support of the project, partly for his own reasons. Walker and Jessee were not going to mesh with Metcalfe as co-authors of any book, he had already concluded. Also, he was beginning to have second thoughts about owning a document that was so volatile. He informed Metcalfe, Walker, and Jessee they were welcome to continue researching and publishing on their own but his direct involvement would discontinue. He left the clear impression with Walker that if a book manuscript was ever finished, he would be interested in sponsoring its publication.

On October 16, Christensen attended a United Way fundraising luncheon and sat beside Gordon B. Hinckley. “I was introduced to” Christensen at this time, Hinckley later wrote. “There was no discussion of historical documents, our only conversation concerning the business at hand, the United Way.” Christensen had been deliberately seated beside Hinckley by a friend making the luncheon arrangements. Afterward he told friends that the luncheon, as hoped, gave the two men an opportunity to discuss the salamander letter at length. When he returned to his office, Christensen wrote Hinckley a long letter documenting the end of the letter project. Christensen outlined the project’s inception and personnel, including “a young man by the name of Brent Metcalfe” to work on the letter, “while still in the full employ of Gary Sheets and myself.

“I was also successful and fortunate in obtaining the research skills and services of Dean Jessee and Ron Walker to work on the project,” Christensen wrote. “Since that time I have been careful to see that I personally covered their expenses and remunerated them for their time.” He described his intended financial donation to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at BYU and his wish to provide “appropriate research” to “accompany a document of such varied contents.”

Christensen then complimented Hinckley on his recent General Conference speech, leading him to the conflict the salamander letter posed to church tradition. His next few sentences, as he wrote, revealed his own ambivalence. “Most likely we will always be learning new things historically from our past; however, I believe that the Church has more pressing work to accomplish than to be consumed by questions and contradictions from the past. While it is better that we lead forth in historical inquiry rather than leaving the task to our enemies, those so engaged must have sufficient faith that the day will come when all is revealed and the pieces will all fit together.”

Christensen raised the possibility of donating the letter to the church or selling it back to Hofmann for more than $50,000. “What I would appreciate knowing,” he concluded, “is whether or not the Church feels strongly about owning the letter. If it would be more of a thorn than a rose, I would gladly let Mr. Hofmann sell it to Yale or some other institution which would pay his ‘highway robbery’ prices. If the Church would like it, it is yours for the asking—just tell me when.” Christensen added a personal note about his experiences as a bishop, then closed the three-page single-spaced letter, “Very Truly Yours.”

One day, as he visited with Hofmann at his Millcreek home, Ashworth glanced at the bookshelf by the door and noticed a book on LDS mission presidents. “I wish I’d realized you have that book,” Ashworth told him. “I could have used that. I just gave a whole collection of letters by a mission president in the South Seas to the church.”

Hofmann’s ears pricked up. “What mission president?”

“His name was William Gailey Sears. I’ve had a whole bundle of his family correspondence with and between his wives. Since I’ve been getting documents from you, I’ve been disseminating a lot of my other stuff.”

Suddenly Ashworth noticed that Hofmann appeared upset. “That’s my grandfather,” Hofmann said. “I didn’t know you had his letters!”

“Well, I don’t have them now. Sorry, but I didn’t know there was any connection, so I donated them all to the church.”

Frustrations went both ways that autumn. “Mark, your name is mud around here,” Ashworth told him during one of their regular meetings at Crossroads Mall. “You two guys”—he included Lyn Jacobs—”are really screwing the church. You’re getting a horrible reputation.”

Hofmann shrugged. Ashworth tried to hold him personally accountable for the rumors and transcripts circulating through the history community. “You promised me that the salamander letter wouldn’t go anywhere. Also that the Josiah Stowell letter wouldn’t go anywhere.”

“Well, this whole salamander letter problem is really Lyn’s fault. Lyn sold it to Steve Christensen as a tax investment. Christensen had always intended to hold it for a year, then donate it to the church.”

“Well, what about the 1825 Stowell letter?” Ashworth pressed. “You had the only copy of that.” He did not add that Hofmann had offered to show him that copy immediately after promising Hinckley there was none.

“No, that leak wasn’t me. Charles Hamilton, who authenticated it, blabbed it all over.”

“Anyway,” Ashworth continued, “you’re getting a bad reputation around Utah County and around the church, too.”

“President Hinckley knows the truth.”

“Well, have you seen him recently?”

“Yeah. I was up there just the other day.”

There was not much Ashworth could say to that. Hofmann always had the inside track, it seemed. “Well, Mark, what would you do if you were me? I’m out there telling people about the Lucy Smith letter and the Martin Harris testimonial letter, and they bring up the salamander letter. What would you do in my place?”

Hofmann looked at him coolly. “I’d just say it was a forgery.”

By early 1985, Boston rare documents dealer Kenneth Rendell, whom Christensen had engaged to aid in authenticating the salamander letter, had sent the letter to William Krueger, a paper specialist in Wisconsin, and to Al Lyter, an ink expert in North Carolina. Rendell then personally examined the postmark, the handwriting, and the physical appearance of the paper and on February 13 wrote to Christensen that there was nothing to indicate that the salamander letter was anything but authentic. Christensen, Walker, Jessee, and Metcalfe all felt secure with the analysis.

By that time, Christensen had been promoted to vice-president over syndication at CFS and was trying to cope with the company’s mounting financial problems. Hofmann’s offer to buy the salamander letter back from him at a profit was tempting. But, as Christensen explained to a new friend, businessman and sometime collector Franklin Johnson, the letter threatened the balance he had managed to achieve between the institutional church and his own independence. He did not want to appear to church leaders as an “enemy of the church,” as critics and whistle-blowers were generally labeled.

On February 26, Christensen again wrote to Gordon Hinckley asking if the church would like him to donate the letter. He noted that the proceeds from a sale would be useful but added that he was not interested in selling the letter to the church. If the church wanted the letter, he would donate it as promised and trust in the Lord to help him financially. Hinckley responded with a telephone call. Yes, the church wanted the letter. Accordingly, on April 12, 1985, Christensen brought the salamander letter to Hinckley as a gift to the church. Ten days later he received a thank-you letter from the First Presidency.

That same month, Brent Ashworth went to see Gordon Hinckley. He felt comfortable dropping by without an appointment. Once when Hinckley had entered his office with two apostles and saw Ashworth waiting, Hinckley had excused himself and talked with Ashworth for a few minutes.

These days Hinckley’s greeting was often, “Well, Brent, what’s new on the lost 116 pages?” a half-humorous prod. Hinckley could also be depended upon to mention the church’s enemies and the threat to the membership he felt they posed.

This particular meeting stayed with Ashworth because it was unusually tense. The Josiah Stowell letter was by now an open secret in the historical community. Recently, a church spokesman had been quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune denying that the church had such a letter. But scholars were preparing papers on the treasure-seeking letters, including the Stowell letter, for May’s Mormon History Association meeting. Also, Ashworth had known personally for two years that Hinckley had bought the letter from Hofmann.

Preceding his visit, Ashworth had written Hinckley that he had just spoken to his 10,000th church member about his documents. Now Hinckley brought up Ashworth’s addresses to church gatherings and made a suggestion. “Tell people we’ve got nothing to hide.”

The Stowell letter jumped into Ashworth’s mind. He did not know what to say. After an awkward pause, the expression on Hinckley’s face changed, as if he wondered—or knew—why Ashworth was silent.

On May 3, as the Mormon History Association was meeting in Kansas City, Hinckley called the church’s public communications department and told them the church had the 1825 Stowell letter. He recommended they announce that they had made a mistake. The text of the Stowell letter was released along with a carefully worded statement that did not acknowledge authenticity. Both the local and national press gave the two spectacular letters extensive coverage.

The same day a high-level church official called Ashworth. “The Brethren want to know about the story that the 116 pages are coming forth.”

“Really? What’s going around?”

“Rumor has it that the lost pages have material on money digging in them. Do you know anything about that?”

“I don’t,” Ashworth said, “but I’ll check around. I’ll get right back to you.”

Ashworth phoned Hofmann, “Do you know anything about a copy of the 116 pages that talks about money-digging?”

“Oh, it’s an old fake,” Hofmann said. “It’s on thirty-one leaves, sixteen and a half pages. It folds like an insurance policy.”

Ashworth was stunned by the specifics. “You’re kidding. What else?”

“Well, it says the ‘Book of Lehi’ on the outside, and it’s tied with a pink ribbon. It would cost about $5,000. I wrote down excerpts from it for Don Schmidt in 1982.”

Later Ashworth called Schmidt. “Don,” he said, “I’m working for another department, but it’s the same church. I need to know about this 116 pages business.” He related Hofmann’s information and asked about the excerpts.

“Oh, I don’t think I’ve got a copy of that,” Schmidt said. Ashworth thanked him and called Hofmann back. “Well, maybe I can find a copy of my notes.”

Ashworth contacted the man at church headquarters, who was newly alarmed. “The Tanners say they’re going to publish it,” he reported.

Ashworth called Hofmann again. “What’s this about the Tanners? Do they have a copy of the fake, or what?”

“No, don’t worry, they don’t have a copy of anything. I’m going to fly to Bakersfield and get it. In fact, I’ve got the tickets.”

“Okay. Listen, you mentioned $5,000 for the original of the fake. If you get it, I’ll pay you $10,000 for it.”

But Hofmann did not go to Bakersfield. The next week he again told Ashworth he had bought tickets, but for the second time did not go. Finally, Ashworth said, “Mark, what are you going to do about this?”

“I don’t really want to go down there, Brent. It doesn’t interest me that much.”

Ashworth thought of all his calls to the church hierarchy and bit back his exasperation. “Well, I’d like to at least get the sheet you promised me with your notes.” Eventually Hofmann gave Ashworth a photocopy of a single page that read “Book of Lehi” at the top.

“You can have this, but it’s fake,” Hofmann said. “Every time it says, ‘My father has written about this on the plates,’ it’s underlined. That made me suspicious.”

After Hofmann left, Ashworth stared at the page. He could tell that one page had been trimmed and another pasted on before the photocopying had been done. Nevertheless, he called his friend at church headquarters and told him to quit worrying about the lost 116 pages.

Almost immediately, church leaders had something new to worry about—accusations in the press that they were suppressing an early Mormon history written by Oliver Cowdery.

Press reports of a suppressed early Mormon history had their genesis in a hamburger restaurant not far from Hofmann’s home, where Hofmann and Metcalfe were eating lunch. They talked casually at first, then Hofmann began relating an experience he had had that Metcalfe suddenly realized was important.

Hofmann said he had been at a meeting with Gordon Hinckley and secretary Francis Gibbons. “Hinckley was asking about the salamander project,” Hofmann said, “and so I asked, ‘Well, what other documents does the church have that contradict the traditional story of the Book of Mormon?'”

Gibbons left the room, Hofmann continued, and returned with a book he opened on the desk. “President Hinckley looked at it and I looked at it,” Hofmann said. “I thought then that Hinckley might not even know what that volume was, but I recognized Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting. I read a part about Alvin going to the hill, and I saw a reference about the salamander.”

As Metcalfe listened, spellbound, Hofmann detailed the differences between the account in the Cowdery history and the content in the salamander letter. Metcalfe had him confirm the similarities: yes, Alvin Smith, Joseph’s older brother, was in the history. Yes, there was a talking salamander, but not a white salamander.

“What about flames?” Metcalfe asked. “Did it mention flames?”

“No, there’s nothing like that in the part I heard. This passage came about a quarter of the way into the book.”

“Wow,” Metcalfe breathed. “If the story of the plates is a quarter of the way in, think what must come before that.”

Before leaving the restaurant, Hofmann swore Metcalfe to secrecy. “If anyone hears about this, Hinckley and Gibbons will know immediately that it was me who leaked it. You can’t tell anybody.”

Metcalfe endured the secret for a while, but by summer, he convinced Hofmann to let him leak the story to the press. Metcalfe met with Salt Lake Tribune reporter Dawn Tracy and told her the story, which she reported without knowing Metcalfe’s source. Metcalfe also arranged for Hofmann to meet with L.A. Times religion writer John Dart on the condition that Hofmann remain anonymous. As Hofmann recounted the story to Dart, Metcalfe listened closely. He found no discrepancies in Hofmann’s retelling.

“Mormon Origins Challenged Anew Over Purported History,” Dart’s resulting article announced. “Church Alleged to Possess 150-Year-Old Evidence.” Dart explained the significance of the Cowdery history and the emergence of the salamander and Stowell letters. “The source interviewed by the Times,” Dart wrote, “described the Cowdery history as a book bound partly in leather, with marbled cardboard covers measuring about 8 inches by 10 inches in width and height and between half an inch and three-quarters of an inch thick. The pages are lined, he said.

“The source said he decided to be interviewed about the history because the Cowdery documents provide corroboration for the salamander references in the Harris letter, which some Mormons are claiming is a forgery.

“‘I don’t remember the exact wording, but it said that Alvin [Joseph Smith’s older brother] located the buried gold plates with his seer stone,’ he said. ‘I remember clearly that it was not a private venture. Alvin had other people with him, including Joseph.'”

Church leaders found such stories difficult to handle. They did not know the source or even if they had in their possession a Cowdery history. A different Cowdery manuscript existed, but no history matching the description in the reports and rumors could be found. Still the secrecy that had already developed around documents and the church’s mistrust of historians fueled suspicions that the volume did exist—perhaps in a secret vault. The church’s inability to deny categorically that it possessed such a history seemed to some a verification.

As intriguing as the Cowdery history was, Brent Metcalfe was even more excited by Hofmann’s apparent discovery of some of the missing 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. Metcalfe knew about the Bakersfield forgery, but Hofmann had also indicated the possible existence of a second manuscript, one that could be real.

One evening over the telephone, Hofmann quoted part of the Bakersfield manuscript that read, “I writeth the manuscript with my own hand.”

“What do you think, Brent?” Hofmann asked. “Don’t you think we would expect it to read, ‘I wrote it with mine own hand’?”

Metcalfe agreed that the second version would sound more natural. The first section of The Book of Mormon contained an account written by Nephi, a young man who traveled with his family from the Old World to the New and kept a history on plates of gold. In the newest manuscript he had found, Hofmann said, there were prophesies by Nephi’s father, Lehi, made in Jerusalem before the family emigrated. Lehi was evidently a miner by profession and had a “cornucopia mine” producing gold, silver, and precious stones.

Metcalfe almost dropped the telephone. He had studied The Book of Mormon extensively and had been fascinated by its mention of Lehi’s family abandoning gold, silver, and precious stones in the Old World, only to discover treasure in the new land.

Twelve-year-old Mark Hofmann, center in a plaid shirt, and his Boy Scout troop enjoy a hike. Jeff Salt is at the far left.“There’s a strong parallel,” he told Hofmann, “between Lehi and Jacob in the Old Testament with Joseph Smith, Sr., and between Nephi and Joseph the son of Jacob and Joseph Smith, Jr.”

“I see what you mean,” Hofmann said, sounding impressed.

“The thing is,” Metcalfe said, warming to his argument, “since Joseph Smith, Sr., was a money digger, Lehi as a miner is exactly what you would expect. Fawn Brodie, in No Man Knows My History, showed that Nephi was the fruition of Joseph Smith’s desires. For instance, Nephi found gold and silver and Joseph had been a money digger. Nephi was the third son but was strong and became a leader in his family. Joseph had a lame leg and was the third son. And then Lehi’s family left Jerusalem and came to the valley of Lemuel. Joseph Smith’s family lived on Lemuel Durfey’s property in New York before they acquired their own farm.”

“Well, it makes sense that Lehi and his family would return to Jerusalem to get their gold, silver, and precious things and get the plates of Laban,” Hofmann said, “especially if Lehi was a miner.”

“That’s right.”

Metcalfe, watching history unfold before him, was beside himself. Each discovery seemed more momentous: the salamander letter, the Stowell letter, the Oliver Cowdery history. Wait until the lost 116 pages sewed together the truths about the real Joseph Smith.

On May 27, 1985, Christensen, in a letter to President Hinckley, rather disparaged the gift he was making to the church of the transcript of the money-digging agreement Hofmann had sold him for $5,000. If released, it would support the other money-digging documents, something he knew would not please church leaders. Still, he informed Hinckley, he and Hofmann were trying to acquire the original contract.

The following day, Hinckley answered by return mail, thanking Christensen for the text of the money-digging agreement, adding that “the enemies of the church are having a great time. Their efforts will fade as the church moves forward,” he promised.

The next month Hinckley responded to questions by a group of Mormons touring the Mesa, Arizona, Temple near Phoenix. “You don’t worry about salamanders,” he admonished. “They don’t trouble me. I have those letters—one I purchased, the other was a gift. I knew the uproar those letters would cause. So why release them? Why not? Let the storm blow over so we can get on with the work. Let’s get it behind us.

“I’m not concerned about Martin Harris’s description W. W. Phelps,” he continued. “What concerns me is what happened to Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps. I know that the man [Martin Harris] went on to testify of Jesus Christ and later came across the plains, hat in hand, so to speak, to rejoin with the Saints. That says more to me than all the letters in the world. Fifty years after the date of that letter Martin Harris bore a strong testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”