Netflix’s new true crime docuseries, “Murder Among the Mormons,” chronicles the story of Mark Hofmann and the 1985 murders he committed in Salt Lake City. An expert forger, Hofmann’s “discoveries” — and the subsequent bombings — sent waves throughout Utah’s civil and religious communities.
The Deseret News contacted several Mormon studies scholars and experts in Latter-day Saint history, seeking comment on their reactions to the docuseries. Read what they said below.
Barbara Jones Brown: Another part of the historical record
I was 18 when Mark Hofmann’s bombs ripped through Salt Lake City in October 1985. Because I was living in Utah and because my dad was very much into the Mormon history world, the mystery and controversy encircling Hofmann’s crimes and forgeries left an indelible impression on me. Indeed, at that time it seemed there was hardly an adult in Utah — and throughout much of the country, really — who wasn’t swept up in the story.
So after Netflix aired “Murder Among the Mormons” and people all over social media started commenting “Why have I never heard of this!?” or “Why has no one ever written about this?!” I felt surprised, especially because many articles and books were written about the case. Watching this phenomenon of discovery among people younger than me reminded me, again, of the importance of teaching and sharing history with each new generation, never assuming that people will just “know” of events or trends that continue to shape our society today simply because they were once so prominent in prior generations’ experience.
The “Murder Among the Mormons” documentary does just this while also becoming another part of the historical record, capturing first-person, oral histories of people who lived the story — family members and associates, historians, journalists and police investigators — individuals who might no longer be with us in another 35 years. Hopefully the documentary will be a touchpoint that encourages people to learn more and learn from this tragic history, for generations.
Barbara Jones Brown is the executive director of the Mormon History Association. Her book on the aftermath of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, co-authored with Richard E. Turley Jr., is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
W. Paul Reeve: Leaves religion underexplored
For those who grew up in Utah in the 1980s, the documentary offers an evocative look back at an episode that seized local attention and sometimes brought Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unwanted national scrutiny. The directors, however, kept the focus primarily on Mark Hofmann and structured their story as a true crime drama. It was thus more easily translatable to a national audience without getting bogged down in Latter-day Saint theology, prophetic authority, folk magic and the faith’s genesis miracles.
But the directors’ success at telling a crime story, simultaneously highlights the film’s deficiencies in other areas. It is not, for example, a cultural history of the 1980s, or an analysis of the link between Latter-day Saint theology and history, or an assessment of the challenges Hofmann’s forgeries presented to his faith. The film only scratches the surface as to the ways in which Latter-day Saint leaders attempted to make room for white salamanders in their founding stories when Hofmann’s forgeries were believed to be true.
It offers two conflicting versions of prophetic fallibility — one from Latter-day Saint critic Sandra Tanner and the other from retired assistant church historian Richard Turley — but it leaves the various ramifications of those competing interpretations unexamined. Ultimately, the film brings together crime and religion but leaves the religious consequences of those two forces underexplored, especially what it meant to believers when Hofmann’s fabricated truths quite literally blew up in the center of their latter-day Zion.
W. Paul Reeve is the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah.
Cristina Rosetti: A compelling story in context
“Murder Among the Mormons” captured audiences with a binge-worthy story of deceit and murder. However, for those interested in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its own internal wrestle with history, the stories that lie behind the infamous murder is equally compelling.
Time constraints did not allow the directors to delve into the “Camelot years,” a period between 1972 and 1982 when the church archives opened and documents were discovered by both professional and amateur historians. This was a period of increased turmoil, when church leaders and historians grappled with the best approach to narrating the church’s past. During this period, alchemy, magic and the heightened religiosity of the 19th century came into focus, and people questioned the founding prophet’s own involvement with these religious worlds. This is the reason the “salamander letter” captivated audiences. The salamander letter was not merely believable because it was a good forgery. It was believable because its counternarrative was equally believable.
For those interested in the period that gave way to the Hofmann forgeries, and context for his infamous letter, I highly recommend Signature Books’ “Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997” and John L. Brooke’s “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.”
Cristina Rosetti serves as an editorial advisory board member of Mormon Studies Review. She holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of California, Riverside and teaches religious studies at Salt Lake Community College.
JB Haws: Suspenseful storytelling
More than anything, this series does something that I don’t think any previous treatment of the Mark Hofmann saga has done — or likely could have done — quite so powerfully: and that is to give viewers a sense of just how devastating this was for so many lives. So many people were deceived, betrayed, used. The interviews, the honesty, the emotion, the time to reflect — all of that combined in this series to foreground the human impact of this story.
Here’s one of the longstanding challenges with this story (the series trailer is a case-in-point): because Mark Hofmann’s confession and plea deal came almost a year and a half after the bombings, a lot of people likely missed the full story at the time. Media attention to the murders was intense and ever-present; media coverage of the plea deal and confession was, understandably, less prominent and thorough.
“The interviews, the honesty, the emotion, the time to reflect — all of that combined in this series to foreground the human impact of this story. “ — JB Haws
Will the docuseries fill in the story for those who only remember hearing about the murders but missed the part about the forgeries? Yes, but only if viewers make it to the second episode. That creates some suspenseful storytelling in the film, but it could perpetuate the incomplete picture. My guess, though, is that very few viewers will miss watching the second and third episodes. Does this docuseries leave questions unanswered? Yes — that seems inevitable with a story this complex, and the series hopefully will prompt people to do some important additional reading.
JB Haws is an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and currently serves as an associate dean of religious education. He is the author of “The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception.”
Janiece Johnson: The ‘quirky flair’ lessens the story’s weight
As I began to watch Netflix’s “Murder Among the Mormons,” I remembered that “Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders” by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts was the first non-church-produced work of Latter-day Saint history I ever read. I later read Rick Turley’s “Victims.” I’ve always been compelled by the story — it is hard not to be.
Overall, I liked the documentary. It fits in the true crime genre, yet as a historian, I think there is much more that could have been done with the narrative to make its appeal more enduring and expansive. I appreciated the voices of those close to Hofmann and the concern to place the real-life toll of Hofmann’s violence front and center. However, other elements seemed to undo that goal. The near absence of women’s voices highlighted the gender imbalance amongst Latter-day Saint rare document and book dealers, one that still exists today. The inclusion of the footage of an interview with Steve Christensen’s wife with a pushy male news interviewer suggested that they were sensitive to some of this. Yet, the documentary seemed to replicate it by not including more women’s voices and consistently calling Dorie Hofmann “Mark’s wife” as she was interviewed in the present. Some focus on the lives of all of those affected by Hofmann’s violence would have been particularly poignant.
“Historians are only as good as their documents, and the shaping of the past inevitably reshapes us in the present.” — Janiece Johnson
Though the reenactments were aesthetically entertaining and clearly crafted by Jared Hess, with his characteristic quirkiness and fondness for the 1980s, they left me hanging, wondering whether the juxtaposition of the horrific narrative and quirky vignettes was fruitful. In the end, the quirky flair seemed to both diminish the violence Hofmann perpetuated and add to the praise of Hofmann’s genius. I recognize that the FBI might seem more interesting than historians with PhDs, but to really understand the weight of what Hofmann did, you also need to consider the expanse of all of the seemingly innocuous documents that Hofmann produced, making money bit by bit, and bit by bit shifting the narrative of Latter-day Saint history and the larger narrative of American history for his own personal gain. Historians are only as good as their documents, and the shaping of the past inevitably reshapes us in the present.
Janiece Johnson is a Laura F. Willes Faculty Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.
Patrick Mason: A story of manipulated trust
At one point in the Netflix documentary “Murder Among the Mormons,” the veteran Utah journalist Rod Decker comments that the only kinds of people who usually care about rare historical documents are “nerds.” He’s probably right. Yet when it comes to Latter-day Saints, I’ve rarely met one who could resist the pull of seeing or touching a first-edition Book of Mormon, or some other document connected to the founding of their religion.
The origin stories of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims are shrouded in the mists of the distant past, when what we don’t know far eclipses what we do. Not so for Latter-day Saints, whose mere two centuries of history are richly documented. But there are still gaps. Mark Hofmann knew that, and exploited that, in the most calloused, sociopathic ways.
The evilest thing Hofmann did was to kill two innocent people in cold blood. But perhaps the second most sinister thing he accomplished was to undermine our collective confidence in facts. Hofmann was a master forger, yes, but even more deeply he was a master manipulator of one of the pillars of social trust — the ability to agree on what the facts are. When that pillar begins to crumble, it’s not just the Saints and the nerds who have reason to worry.
Benjamin Park: Heavy on crime, light on context
“Murder Among the Mormons” is a well-done contribution to America’s ever-growing true crime obsession. The directors succeed at capturing the anxiety and fear that gripped Utah during the harrowing crisis, as well as the wider attention and gawking it warranted. They are also generally respectful toward the Church of Jesus Christ and, perhaps even more importantly, sympathetic to those who were hurt by the tragedy, and the interviews with those who were close to Hofmann were vulnerable and moving.
But because the documentary is framed as a murder mystery rather than a period analysis, they prioritize the murders and investigation rather than the context and broader significance. The impact of Hofmann’s forgeries on the church and historical communities, as well as the communities’ impact on him, is mostly understated; the context of 1980s America, which, like the Hofmann saga, started with ebullient optimism and closed with scandal and fracture, is ignored. While a wonderful and entertaining documentary that is certain to be both popular and memorable, it could have been improved by engaging the broader picture, as well as featuring more women.
Benjamin Park is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University and author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo.”
Ian Barber: A snapshot into a different historical era
The Netflix documentary highlights the tragic impacts of a very clever, egotistical and ruthless criminal who deceived his own community, including family and associates. But the impacts of the deception — on scholarship, at least — are specific to the 1980s largely, allowing that some of Hofmann’s forgeries may yet be identified.
Hofmann manipulated a fairly unique decade in the collection and study of Latter-day Saints church history. The 1980s was characterized by tensions between Latter-day Saints leaders and independent and even institutional member scholars who produced revisionist histories based on key documents that were available only since the 1960s and 70s from the church’s own archives. Hofmann took advantage of the expectation of new and ongoing document discoveries in this era, and associated church sensitivities. He produced fraudulent materials to enhance his own reputation and increasingly upset and manipulate leaders and other members of his church community.
But in the 21st century, the decision of the church’s history department to endorse the Joseph Smith Papers project means that virtually all Joseph Smith associated documents held in its archives (and some other institutions) are available publicly in high resolution digital copy. Historians employed by the church have produced critical texts and studies of these documents. Later 19th century records have become available increasingly also in digital form from the church history catalog, including previously restricted collections of church presidents Brigham Young and John Taylor.
In short, the ethos is openness and analysis now, at least for the 19th century. (Sensitivities remain around central, post-1900 church records which remain closed largely.) In this more diverse and source-rich Mormon scholarship, the sensitivities and censorship of the 1980s around early church history and origins that Hofmann exploited are largely historical and irrelevant, as is Hofmann.
Ian G. Barber was a University of Utah Tanner Humanities fellow (2018-2019) and is currently associate professor of archaeology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Matthew Bowman: Intimate and human
I think the film’s craftsmanship was superb. Through slightly slowed reenactments, interviews with riveting characters, and extraordinary footage, (Jared) Hess and (Tyler) Measom resurrect the world of 1980s Salt Lake City, and in particular the intellectual Latter-day Saint circles of that time and place. More than anything else, that world was very small. (It still remains so.) One cannot help but feel the violated intimacy of that community, and the pain remains biting.
The documentary’s story struck me — one who is embedded in that world — in new ways, because the filmmakers make the wise choice not to assume that we know the story, and so in a sense I felt it for the first time.
The filmmakers gently and powerfully illustrate how fully Hofmann’s betrayal rocked all of those who lived in this small Zion. In a sense, Hofmann was the snake in the Eden they had built. It was a very different sort of Eden for each, of course — for some, the garden was the archive and uncovering a seemingly hidden and dusty past; for others, it was the trusted embrace of a parental church. But Hofmann broke down the walls of each, and we see their very human reactions — from the bafflement and pain of his friends to the defensive befuddlement of church leaders.
And yet, for all their skill in extracting a very human story out of all this chaos, I feel as though the filmmakers succumbed a bit to the Hofmann mystique in the final episode. Of course, he is a fascinating and enormously enigmatic figure, but the heart of the story is the woundedness and healing of these people whom we get to know, and Hofmann remains —as he should — distant. Yet we close with photos of his walled-off eyes and not with the naked pain of his friend Shannon Flynn or the resilience of his ex-wife Dorie Olds. The forger is compelling and his forgeries remarkable, but those are the ones I relate to.
Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”