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One of the country’s most audacious forgeries sold at auction Wednesday, more than three decades after it was revealed as a fraud. And if you’ve seen “Murder Among the Mormons,” you know its author was also a murderer, still locked up to this day.
“The Oath of a Freeman,” the first document printed at an English settlement in North America, sold for $52,500 to an anonymous buyer at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The oath, published around 1638-1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, required all new settlers who joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony to pledge their loyalty to the fledgling government; unlike similar oaths from England, it doesn’t declare fealty to a king, making it a uniquely American document. While the text is known from other sources, a genuine printed copy hadn’t appeared for hundreds of years—antiquarians assumed “The Oath of a Freeman” likely would never be seen again.
In 1985, Mark Hofmann, an ex-Mormon and dealer in rare manuscripts, claimed to have discovered a copy in a rare book shop in New York City while visiting from Salt Lake City. By then, Hofmann had already gained a reputation for trading rare documents, including many related to early Mormonism, which he often sold to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
His first major discovery purported to be a long-lost transcript by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr.; Hofmann sold it to the church for $20,000. Later he produced a blessing from Smith that challenged the Mormon line of succession; Hofmann sold that artifact to the church too, while making sure its contents became public. His most controversial find, known as the ”Salamander Letter,” challenged many accepted details about Smith’s biography and suggested that the Mormon prophet had been shown his revelations not by an angel but by a magical white salamander.
“I felt I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed.”
The recent Netflix documentary series "Murder Among the Mormons" details how Hoffman—“unquestionably the most skilled forger this country has ever seen,” according to one document expert—fooled so many with his deceptions. It’s unknown how many forgeries Hofmann may have created, seeding out through networks of private collectors; as late as 2010, researchers were still uncovering his fakes. He faked signatures by George Washington, Mark Twain, John Hancock, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, and more. He even forged an “original” Emily Dickinson poem.
All that fakery had paid off for Hofmann. Investigators later estimated he’d cleared more than $800,000 in cash, plus another $200,000 worth of genuine rarities, but by 1985 he found himself deep in debt and pressured by his business partners to produce more documents he’d promised. “The Oath of a Freeman” became a way out of the debt hole he’d dug.
In spring 1985, Hofmann called Justin Schiller, an antiquarian bookseller he owed money to, about a 4”x6” print he’d recently acquired. Might it be possible, he asked, that he’d discovered an original “The Oath of a Freeman”? (In reality, he’d planted a forged copy in the bookstore where he “found” it.)
Schiller was hooked, and, soon after seeing the work, he was convinced. He agreed to help Hofmann sell it in exchange for part ownership and a 50 percent stake if they sold it for more than $1 million. Schiller recalled Hofmann didn’t want to be identified as the source. Hofmann, of course, had printed the document in his basement, using a plate he’d commissioned from a Salt Lake City engraving company. He later printed a second copy to help pay off his debts.
Schiller tried to authenticate the oath with experts at the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society, who reported that they found nothing to indicate it was a forgery. He then offered it to the Library of Congress for $1.5 million but was eventually turned down, in part due to questions about the document’s provenance. The American Antiquarian Society offered $250,000, but Schiller and his partner believed it was worth far more.
Without a sale, Hofmann turned to desperate measures. On October 15, 1985, he placed a pipe bomb wrapped in nails at the office of Steven Christensen, a Mormon businessman who’d frequently dealt with Hofmann. The bomb, disguised as a package, exploded and killed Christensen. A second bomb that day killed Kathleen Sheets, the wife of a former Christensen business associate, Gary Sheets—the intended target. The next day, a third bomb exploded in Hofmann’s car, in what was either an accident or a suicide attempt. Severely injured, Hofmann became a prime suspect in the bombings.
He later claimed the bombings were designed to prevent him from being discovered.
"The most important thing in my mind was to keep from being exposed as a fraud in front of my friends and family," he wrote in a prison confession. "When I say this was the most important thing, I mean it literally. I felt I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed."
“I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing. That my victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack anyway. I thought about the Nazi Holocaust, the earthquake in Mexico, and other disasters,” he wrote.
Police investigating the bombings soon exposed Hofmann’s forgeries. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder; to avoid the death penalty, he gave interviews detailing his forgery techniques to prosecutors. For “The Oath of a Freeman,” he confessed, he’d stolen 17th century paper from the library at Brigham Young University, made his own ink using a 400-year-old recipe, and then printed it using the plate he’d had engraved. On the back, in his own hand, he’d written “The Oath of a Freeman.”
At his first parole hearing, Hofmann expressed no remorse for those he’d killed. He was sentenced to spend his life in prison.
Hofmann went to prison owing Schiller more than $300,000, and a court order allowed him to sell “The Oath of a Freeman,” more than 30 years after its debunking, to recoup part of the losses—even if $52,500 is a far cry from the $1.5 million he once sought. In a recent roundtable, Schiller described knowing the document is a forgery yet still wondering if it might somehow turn out to be genuine.
“Thrifty-five years is half my lifetime,” he said. “You can’t let go so easily.”