Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mark Hoffman: A Personal Historical Remembrance

In 1982 three years before Mark Hoffman planted his bombs he was at the height of his noteriety and was considered the number one top Mormon antiquity dealer. He was supposedly blessed to find rare and valuable documents. Hoffman was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Mormon History Association in Odgen Utah at Weber State University. I was a senior majoring in history at the time and trying to break in to the Mormon history circles. I was also working at the time as a volunteer for Richard O. Cowan, a Church History professor for whom I would did some research in the Church History Archives in Salt Lake City.

A couple of my BYU history department classmates Scott Faulring and Mark Grandstaff invited me to share their hotel room if I would split the cost with them. I really had not planned on going but they insisted I needed to go so I could meet the movers and shakers in the field. Being students on a limited budget I thought it was no big deal. Being young I didn't worry about the fact I might have to sleep on the floor. It got a bit complicated when I arrived at our hotel and found that they had invited Walt West to also share our room. It was pretty crowded with four men in a room with two queens.

Walt West was an older man who had retired from the Postal Service and had a bookstore in Provo near Deseret Industries. Walt had wild red hair and wore colorful blue, red, yellow and green jumpsuits. He got most of his books from students and DI as well as the vast collection he had acquired in his life collecting. He described his life to me on a few occasions when I hung out there for five or six hours. I knew his collection quite intimately having spent several hours there. I had a hard time going up to Salt Lake City to Cosmic Airplane or Sam Wellers so his store was convenient. One of my friends Jay Bell turned me on to Walt West Books. Jay was a mega collector and he was in my ward one year. It was weird that he was such a mega collector since he could hardly read or see for that matter wearing glasses that looked like coke bottles or binoculars. He actually got me to go to DI since some guy found a set of journals valued at thousands.

I remember one day go to visit Walt. He had a first edition Book of Mormon that he offered to sell me for about $8,000. I wish I had bought it but I had a good time holding it and discussing its value. Walt and I speculated what it might one day be worth. Walt really encouraged me to buy that book but I never had two nickles to rub together let alone 8 grand. It is a shame because they sell for over a $100,000 today. Walt knew I was poor and would sometimes give me a discounted price on some of the 600 books I ended up owning. He wrote the price in pencil in the front of the book. In my case he would knock off a buck of two. Anyway Walt and I bunked with them. We flipped a coin to see who got the bed during the three nights we were to be there. Walt suggested we all could fit two to a bed but Faulring didn't want to share a bed with anyone. Walt and I slept on the floor the first and third night.

I remember the first night we all went to a barbecue that Jan Shipps the noted IUPUI non-Mormon Scholar spoke at. Hoffman supposedly had found the William McLellin Papers and it is interesting to note that Shipps ended up editing his bonafide journals later. Anyway Faulring and Grandstaff ended up making friends with Lawrence Foster, another non-Mormon scholar who had written a book on the millenarian experience of Mormons and Shakers in Ohio in 1981. The three of them sat on the floor for hours discussing Mormons and their millenarian connections since Grandstaff was thinking about doing a thesis on the same subject. He had written something in one of his classes and had a strong interest. They were also enamored of Foster's attention.

Grandstaff and Faulring were interesting guys. He and Faulring planned on going in the air force and sitting in missile silos for twenty or thirty years then having enough money to devote their lives to Mormon history. I was inoculcated by them in to the Ernest Strack circle earlier in the year. Faulring was always trying to get me to visit Grandpa's Books since Uncle Ernie had some good things that he felt I needed like L. John Nuttall's diaries etc. One day I saw Grandstaff in the library and he took me over to the reprographics area where it turned out that Faurling was working. Faulring would make copies of things and they swapped Mormon documents like trading stamps. I drove the two guys nuts because I was so conservative and would insist they were liberal apostates on the road to hell.

Anyway on the day of the keynote address I was walking with the group when who should come walking by but Mark Hoffman with a group of five or six admirers. I asked Grandstaff and Faulring who the guy with the followers was because I had never met Hoffman and didn't know what he even looked like. I wasn't enamored of him even from what I had read or seen about him. The other men went on about what a lucky guy he was and how he had made some important finds. I told them I was totally unimpressed with him and felt his finds were too good to be true and doubted they were authentic. Faulring told me I was just jealous.

Hoffman and his group of accolytes wasn't more than five feet in front of us. Being the mild manner guy that I am I said almost yelling, which I do very well, I think the guy is a phony baloney. As we walked towards the big session I got madder and madder as they went on about Hoffman.

When we sat down we were near the front row. The Spirit told me stand up and denounce this guy. I told Walt West I am going to stand up and denounce this guy. He told me that I shouldn't do it and that I would embarass myself and everyone there. He also said if he was a phony he would be found out later. As I sat there I continued to get madder and madder and almost stood up. He actually grabbed me by the shoulder. Finally I endured to the end as he gave a few brief remarks and some religion guy I believe named Gage gave the major address.

I wonder what would have happened to me had I stood up and denounced Hoffman. Would he have started his kiling spree sooner. Would I have been one of his first? Or would I have stopped him before he got started. The trajectory of our lives might have been different.

One thing I do know I despised the guy. Later I began to be suspuscious of him even more. I was up at the LDS Church Historical Department waiting to speak to Glenn Rowe and Don Schmidt was in there ranting and raving with G. Homer Durham about how Sam Weller wanted to trade some land for the McClleland diaries. They were very angry about how Weller was taking them over Hoffman's find. I believe Hugh Pinnock took a beating on purchasing some of Hoffman's stuff.

When the bombing started I didn't really give Hoffman much thought until the day he was caught. Ron Walker who was working in the BYU Religion Department was fearful that he might be a target of the bomber. The police had named Hoffman by this point but he was not yet apprehended. Ron said he was concerned because they had found a package in the Religion Department but it didn't turn out to be anything.

I was not overly surprised when it all came out that Hoffman was a murder and psychopath. I was sorry though that I hadn't stood up and denounced him. If I had maybe things would have been different.


S.Faux said...

I went to similar meetings where there was much discussion. I was a graduate student during his period of "great discovery," and I was a natural skeptic -- skeptical of EVERTHING I was ever taught. I never met or saw Hoffman, but I know there was suspicion -- too many "once in a lifetime finds" over a short period of time. Yes, it would have been great if you had denounced him, but you have nothing to feel guilty about. Any number of people could have raised their voices better than they did.

Jettboy said...

As a complete outsider I still had my negative feelings about the guy. Nothing like skepticism or anger, just mild curiosity of why him, why now, and why so many important finds? This was at the age I was just getting my own personal testimony.

The only thing I really knew about was the Salamader Letter that everyone was talking about. Not as many people outside of academia were talking about the McLellin papers. My impression of the Salamader Letter was it as a hoax, but of real historical value and not a recent production.

Once he was discovered, I became fascinated by him and his story. He became a symbol of what greed and atheism can do to a person. I have always wanted to write a screenplay for a movie because of the great drama behind the tragedy.

Never A True Aggie said...

Kathy Sheets was my great aunt. She and my mother were close because she was only a few years older than her and they grew up together. It was a very sad time for our family. What a sad case this Mr. Hoffman. I actually think enough has been said of him and I hope there is never a screenplay about him. I think the better story lies in how the Sheets and Christiansen families have worked through their grief. Mr. Hoffman loves the spotlight. For him to go down in obscurity would be a good conclusion to his story.