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There was no "Aha!" moment when police documents investigator George Throckmorton looked up from his microscope and proclaimed, "The 'salamander letter' is a forgery!"
Reaching that conclusion was more like peeling off layers of an onion. Throckmorton spent nearly 120 hours hunched over his microscope, inspecting every millimeter of the purported historical document, front and back. He subjected it to infrared and ultraviolet tests. He studied the handwriting, the chemical composition of the ink, the folds in the paper and the wax seal that once purportedly kept it sealed.
In many cases, he learned how to replicate what he saw - cracks in the ink, for instance. Through this painstaking process, Throckmorton eliminated one possible explanation for the document's origins after another, leaving the inescapable conclusion: The letter was a fake.
Taking similarly methodical looks at other documents connected to Mark Hofmann, Throckmorton determined all involved forgeries. "I never said Mark Hofmann did it," the 62-year-old emphasized recently, "only that every document that came through his hands had been altered in some manner."
Throckmorton's findings reverberated immediately through the world of antiquarian book and document dealers, particularly those specializing in Mormon memorabilia.
The disclosures "probably shut everything down for two years. Everything," said Gaylen Rust, owner of Rust Rare Coin in Salt Lake City. His father, Alvin, was taken for $150,000 by Hofmann, who claimed he had access to the "McLellin Collection," papers allegedly written by early Mormon apostle turned apostate William McLellin.
After the 1985 bombings exposed Hofmann's deceptive dealings, Rust said questions surrounded every historical artifact Hofmann could have touched. "Even now, if an item comes up that Mark could've done, they're still questioned."
Although Hofmann's notoriety is linked to early LDS documents, his illicit handiwork is scattered throughout what is known as Americana, including forged signatures of luminaries such as national-anthem writer Francis Scott Key, flagmaker Betsy Ross, author Jack London and frontiersman Daniel Boone.
"To this day, people don't realize that, yes, Hofmann forged hundreds, if not thousands, of LDS documents. But he likely did more non-Mormon documents," said rare-books dealer Ken Sanders. "For 10 years after Hofmann, it certainly left a big hole in Mormon documents, especially. But it also put a chill on document trading in general."
Memories, however, fade with time. And the Internet makes it easy for the unscrupulous to market materials of dubious authenticity. "Never at any time in our history has there been the ability to defraud people with less time and effort than now," Sanders said.
Jennifer Larson, a bookseller in upstate New York and an adversary of forgers while serving as a vice president with the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, concurred.
"Maybe people in the field of Mormon memorabilia remain spooked, to an extent. But on the national level, I believe the lessons of Hofmann's awful career remain unlearned," she said. "I don't know how many [forgeries] got through the [investigative] net, but I believe several dozen documents did. I know some people believe the numbers are in the hundreds."
Every now and then, one pops up for sale.
Because of that, and to hinder future forgers, Throckmorton has helped the Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners organize "The Hands of Hofmann - Motive for Murder," a four-day seminar that begins at 8:30 a.m. today with a public session at the Red Lion Hotel in Salt Lake City. Police investigators, prosecutors, victims, historians, forensic document examiners and journalists will discuss the Hofmann case. Then the doors will close to the public for three days as Throckmorton and selected colleagues educate five dozen law-enforcement personnel from 31 states about intricacies of Hofmann's forgeries.
"I don't want Mark Hofmann wannabes sitting in the audience," said Throckmorton, now director of the Salt Lake City Police Department's crime lab. "But a new generation of document examiners doesn't know the techniques he used. . . . Hofmann documents are going around, so it's important to teach document investigators to determine their authenticity so they don't make the same mistakes as in the past."
At the conference, Throckmorton also will unveil advance copies of his new book, which puts forth a motive for the murders. He will not disclose the motive yet, only that "the 'salamander letter' was quite controversial, but had nothing to do with the murders. It sounds good, but the real reason will probably disappoint some people. It's not as enthusing."
It was that letter that got Throckmorton involved in the investigation.
He was working in the Utah Attorney General's Office at the time of the bombings; he was a one-time street cop in Ogden who had transferred to the crime lab and undergone 4,000 hours of advanced training in police science.
Then-Attorney General David Wilkinson reluctantly allowed Throckmorton to apply his expertise to the case after an investigator asked Throckmorton to inspect the "salamander letter." Throckmorton ended up spending 16 months on it.
"It was a process of elimination to duplicate the phenomenon we saw on paper, to go back and forth and find out whether something should be there, why it is there and how did it get there."
The probe took Throckmorton to the State Archives, where he learned about the "overhand round system" of penmanship in vogue when the "salamander letter" and other early Mormon documents purportedly were written.
By looking at documents with ultraviolet light, he detected what could not be seen with the naked eye: a consistent pattern of ink drips below written letters, indicating the paper had been hung vertically to dry. Analysis with a video spectral comparator enabled him to determine how Hofmann had chemically altered the paper to make it appear older.
He found that fold marks on the "salamander letter" were not where they should have been and that Hofmann applied sealing wax to the paper before the letter was written, "an anomaly that proved it was done in reverse order."
Throckmorton's biggest challenge was determining what ink Hofmann had used on the "salamander letter" and how he aged it. His answer came while doing some holiday shopping. Throckmorton saw a kid's chemistry set that used precisely the chemicals he was looking for. "You get lucky sometimes. That made my Christmas."
Point by point, Throckmorton figured out how Hofmann had created documents so believable he could trick the FBI, Library of Congress, University of California and noted collectors such as Charles Hamilton into vouching for their authenticity.
"You tell me. Was he any good?" Throckmorton asked rhetorically.
When Hofmann pleaded guilty to reduced charges, Throckmorton found himself out of a job. Embittered, he moved to San Diego for a six-month stint before returning to Utah, working at the Weber State University crime lab before securing his current position.
Throckmorton's colleague Steve Mayfield, a crime-scene photographer and fingerprint-taker, is an amateur historian with an obsession for all things LDS and a special interest in Hofmann. He also is helping run the seminar.
"Like George says, 'Mark Hoffmann is the best forger who was ever caught,' " Mayfield said. "Even though Mark Hofmann was caught, somebody will come along and try to learn from his mistakes. So we need to be on our toes."
What: "The Hands of Hofmann - Motive for Murder
Sponsored by: The Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners
When: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today
Where: Red Lion Hotel, 161 W. 600 South, Salt Lake City
How much? $40