Salamander Letter

From Academic Kids

The Salamander Letter was one of hundreds of documents concerning the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church; see also Mormon) that surfaced in the early 1980s. This document alleged that the Book of Mormon was given to Joseph Smith, Jr. by a being that changed itself into a magical salamander. The document was later demonstrated to be a forgery.



Produced by Mark Hofmann, who had been responsible for the discovery of many of these "new" documents, the letter was subjected to careful examination by experts, who initially believed the letter was genuine.


The contents of the letter detailed a magical world view of Smith's life, where Moroni the angel, transformed himself into a salamander, refused to give Smith the plates unless his brother Alvin was present. As Alvin was deceased, the letter attempts to tie the events of receiving the plates to an early anti-Mormon rumor that Alvin's grave was dug up by Smith's family to use the bones in some magical ceremony, and leads the reader to believe that Emma or Hyrum was dressed in Alvin's clothes when the plates were delivered to Smith. Hoffman's use of a Salamander as the being that appeared to Smith during the plates exchange, draws upon legends within magic circles about certain animals having supernatural powers. Salamanders are often equated with fire and other magical events.


The letter was deemed authentic, particularly in light of Hoffmann's superior forgery techniques as well as (at the time) current research of naturalistic and sensational historians such as Reed Durham and D. Michael Quinn (who was later excommunicated as part of the September Six) and many others whose research was popular in newly-founded Mormon research circles at about the same time (such as Sunstone Foundation), and presented a "Magical World View" of Smith's life. Their research presented evidence that the events in Smith's life was timed according to astrological events, and that Smith held esoteric beliefs not taught publicly, and possessed many magical objects that are commonly found in Astrological, Wiccan, Pagan, Satanic, Oriental Masonic and Magical belief systems, as part of the "Restoration of all things."

LDS purchase

Understandably, the LDS Church was interested in the document, particularly in light of the popularity of recent research. After reviewing the letter, Gordon B. Hinckley, acting President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, apparently took the advice of the experts and conceded that available evidence supported the letter's authenticity.

Hinckley initially intended to purchase this document for over one million dollars, and add it to his organization's archives. However, this deal never happened, and the letter was auctioned around to various interested parties, including Anti-Mormons, for a high purchase price, but was instead sold to a private collector, Steven Christensen, who then "donated" it to the LDS church.


By this time, Hofmann drew suspicion for discovering so many astounding documents that others had missed, including the so-called "Oath of a Freeman", which he was attempting to sell to the Library of Congress. He was also struggling under massive debt, and with delivering on deals that he had made. In 1985, when he learned that the pedigree of the Salamander Letter was under investigation, he produced and packaged a number of bombs that were delivered via packages. Two people were killed -- Christensen, the main target, and Kathleen Sheets, killed as a diversionary tactic. Hofmann himself was subsequently injured when a third bomb went off prematurely in his car.

The police investigated this wave of destruction, and during a search of Hoffman's home found a studio in the basement where he could create counterfeited documents. Many of the documents Hofmann sold or donated were proven to be forgeries by a new forensic technique developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, chiefly to detect his forgeries.

It was not determined until well into the Hoffmann bombing investigation that the letter was a forgery, and well into a decade after the letter first surfaced, allowing the letter to have made a lasting mark in Mormon history.

Lasting effects

Jerald and Sandra Tanner, popular Anti-Mormons were also approached by Hoffman to purchase the letter, yet they immediately questioned the authenticity of the document due to internal statements that conflicted with Smith's world view and their research, and the eagerness of Hoffmann to sell (this eagerness was done at a very high, million-dollar price, likely due to his debts and the beginning of scrutiny of his rare document collection). Later when the letter was deemed to be a forgery their public questioning helped position them and their research as more credible within Anti-Mormon circles.

The effects of the letter still linger within Mormon, Anti-Mormon and ex-Mormon circles, as the letter was used as support in some of the above-mentioned research on Smith's magical world view, which is still widely read and accepted today by those seeking "deep doctrine" and a wider, naturalistic or magical historical view of Mormonism, although many of the documents the research was based on were originated by Hoffmann.

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