Netflix’s new investigative docuseries, Murder Among the Mormons, depicts a widely known — yet largely misunderstood — moment in time. In the early 1980s, the cornerstone of how the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormon church, came to be was called into question with the discovery of a controversial piece known as the Salamander Letter.
In December 1983, Mormon document dealing and collecting was at its peak. In the 1970s, church historian Leonard Arrington began encouraging the collection of academic writing related to LDS Church history, specifically through the collection of archival documents. This search created an opportunity for a wealth of document dealers to go on the hunt for letters, old editions of books, and anything that would preserve the history of the religion founded by Joseph Smith 150 years ago. It was during this time that document dealer Mark Hofmann "found" the letter.
What is the meaning behind the Salamander Letter?
Allegedly written in 1830, the letter depicts a view of Smith’s life that was sharply at odds with the accepted narrative of how the early Mormon church was established.
Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830. According to LDS theology, it contains writings from ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from 220 BC to about AD 421. Smith claims that the last prophet to add his writings to the Book of Mormon — engraved on gold plates — was a man named Moroni. Appearing to Smith as an angel in 1827, Moroni revealed the location of the plates to be in Manchester, NY. After sharing their location, he instructed Smith to translate them into English. But the Salamander Letter says something very different happened.
The Salamander Letter was said to be written by Martin Harris on October 23, 1830 addressed to William Wines Phelps, a newspaper publisher who later converted to Mormonism, per the Associated Press. Harris was an early convert to Mormonism. He not only financially supported the first printing of the Book of Mormon, but he also served as a witness who testified that he had seen the golden plates from which Smith translated the book with his own eyes.
"One of our news reporters said, 'That would be like if somebody found a document that said that Moses actually got the 10 commandments from the ghost of Elvis Presley.' Suddenly, it's got a different twist to it."
Murder Among The Mormons Director Jared Hess
The letter states that Smith encountered an “old spirit” that “transfigured himself from a white salamander” when he first came across the golden plates which he discovered through the use of a “seer stone.” If the Salamander letter was proven to be authentic, it would confirm controversial aspects of Smith’s life and introduce more mystical, magical elements to the religion than the original, “orthodox” beginnings.
"One of our news reporters said, 'That would be like if somebody found a document that said that Moses actually got the 10 commandments from the ghost of Elvis Presley.' Suddenly, it's got a different twist to it," director Jared Hess explained in an interview with Refinery29. The director grew up in the Mormon faith. "If these documents were proved authentic, what kind of major disruption would this be? That's what this did to the Mormon community."
What happened to the Salamander Letter?
Experienced document examiners deemed the Salamander Letter authentic which caused an uproar among the Mormon church when it was released. How can you reconcile the two versions of the story? Do you need to? Some suspected that the LDS Church acquired the document in order to hide it. Others say it was in an effort to study it and authenticate it before releasing such a shocking discovery to the Mormon community. Determined to let the LDS Church keep hold of its own history, Steven Christensen, a collector, and member of the church, purchased the letter from its apparent discoverer, Hofmann, for $40,000 in 1984 and later donated it to the church.
As explained at the end of Netflix's Murder Among the Mormons, it took two years before the truth finally came out about the origins of the Salamander Letter. After the bombings, investigators desperately searched to find any motive that would explain who could be behind it. When the Salamander Letter, along with dozens of other historic documents, were discovered to be forgeries, all the pieces fell into place to expose the long con being executed by Hofmann.
Even though it has been exposed as a fake, the magical origin story laid out in the Salamander Letter is still referenced to this day.
Murder Among the Mormons is now streaming on Netflix.