With all of this talk about someone forging a Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, I was reminded of a fascinating article I read many years ago in the Guardian.
Mark Hofman was a really good forger. He conducted careful research and he chose his victims well. They were people who bought the forgeries because they wanted to believe they were real. Or in the case of the Mormon Church, the church wanted to destroy “real” documents which contradicted existing Mormon Orthodox. They made their purchases to destroy the documents. Here is an excerpt. The whole article is a great read.
The man he was describing is no ordinary murderer. Poetry and literature were the accomplices in his crimes; parchment and ink the tools of his trade. His name is Mark Hofmann and, until he was incarcerated, he was America’s greatest literary forger: a man who combined obsessive historical research, extraordinary craftsmanship and an unerring instinct for what his customers wanted. Two years ago, one of those forgeries, a masterfully-executed poem by the much-loved American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886, turned up at Sotheby’s, New York, where it was sold for $21,000 to the Jones Library, in Dickinson’s home town, Amherst, Massachusetts.
“I thought: this is just extraordinary,” says Daniel Lombardo, the former curator of special collections at the Jones Library, recalling the moment when he first saw the poem in Sotheby’s catalogue for its June 1997 auction of fine books and manuscripts. “A complete poem, not a fragment of a poem. In my recollection, it had been decades since a poem came up this way.”
And part two is here.
Update: It occurred to me that an excerpt of the Mormon bit of the article might stir some interest.
Forging coins had taught him two lessons: that things have no intrinsic value, and that people will believe what they want to believe. The Church of the Latter Day Saints was the perfect victim. Since its beginnings, in 1863, it has been a religion in search of authentication. The hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of documents that Hofmann sold to the church were faith-promoting documents of the highest order. They included the earliest known Mormon artefact – a letter from the mother of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith – and the last: a letter written by Smith from jail just before he was murdered.
Hofmann’s real intention, however, was to destroy the faith he despised. Like a virus planted in a computer, he began to feed the Church of Latter Day Saints with documents that called into question some of the fundamental tenets of the faith. His most famous forgery came to be known as The White Salamander Letter. In it, Hofmann portrayed the Mormon church’s prophet, Joseph Smith, as a money-grubbing gold prospector who dabbled in black magic. Instead of angelic inspiration, he invented a diabolic, talking lizard. The Mormon Church bought the document for $250,000, and locked it away so that no one would see it.