The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story Of Literary Crime And The Art Of Forgery. 7/10

By Simon Worrall. Trade paperback edition published 2002, by Penguin books. 270 pgs. ISBN: 0-452-28402-3.

Literary forgery might be my favorite aspect of the true crime genre. Throw in the sociopathic anti-hero, Mark Hofmann, his prolific forgery career, high-lighted for his ‘discovery’ of a spurious poem attributed to the 19th century poet, Emily Dickinson, and we have the makings of a great read.

That’s not counting Hofmann’s forays into the Mormon church (LDS); his resentment against the faith he had rejected that led to a vengeful plan of forging historic LDS documents. Of course, although righteousness served as his weapon, so to speak, money became the spoils of his war on the LDS.

Along the way, Worrall treats us to a fairly detailed, yet succinct history of literary forgery, back to the days of stone tablets and hieroglyphics. Also, we get the minutiae of the printing craft, and of course, the processes involved in forgery. That is to say, the artificial aging of documents, and, we might say, the artful combination of authentic and contrived materials.

Paper from blank pages in the back of old books makes the perfect canvas for the forger’s ink. The alchemy of making ‘antique’ ink is a subject in itself. One would think, that since most of these unscrupulous techniques can be identified by experts, how is such widespread forgery possible?

It seems that there’s a cluster of reasons for enough forgeries to pass as authentic, so that guys like Hofmann literally make out like bandits. For one thing, not every buyer is capable of doing the often extremely rigorous testing necessary to ferret out the fakes. It’s expensive and time-consuming.

Which begs the next question. The buyer wants to believe in the item’s authenticity; in many of the cases detailed here, the examination was less than professional. Believing that one made ‘a good deal’ won out against objective analysis. Also, there’s an inherent ego factor at stake.

For the buyer (or the ‘mark,’ in crime slang) to admit that he/she was taken in, then that person isn’t after all the expert that they (and their peers) thought they were. For other reasons, mostly to groom their mark for duplicity, Hofmann sometimes turned the tables on other forgeries. Who is better placed to spot a forgery other than a forgerer?

Then, Hofmann, having rendered this valuable service, was ideally situated to pass his forgeries off on the same client. This roundabout of deception and fraud was fun and games compared to murders undertaken to fend off debts. The financial problem multiplied exponentially when the provenance of some of Hofmann’s forgeries became suspect.

Provenance is the ownership trail of something–in the case of rare manuscripts or documents–which may have very many pathways. The problem is difficult in a double sense; one honest, the other, less so. Unless, say a letter attributed to George Washington, which became part of his family’s estate, and was subsequently donated to a museum, where it has been ever since, the chances of establishing ownership may prove impossible.

The other problem, given the very real danger of weak links, so to speak, in the provenance, is that an item’s authenticity will remain in question. The result, thanks to the creation of spurious histories, is that inauthentic stuff gets the seal of approval, and authentic stuff sometimes does not.

Despite Worrall’s comprehensive attempt to define and illustrate literary forgery, he warms maybe a little too much to his topic here and there. In his historical rundown of forgery, among the examples we get the intriguing Thomas Chatterton story. This teenage poet (he died before he turned eighteen in 1770) of the early-Romantic era is unfortunately best known for reputed forging of medieval manuscripts.

The author states that Chatterton “forged a series of seductive medieval poems that in their day were as popular as Beatles songs were in the 1960s” (p. 123). What he did, as I pointed out in an earlier review of a book on the poet (please see The Family Romance Of the Imposter-Poet Thomas Chatterton, by Louise J. Kaplan. Review date: 12/12/2019, in this category) what Chatterton did was write a prodigious amount of poetry in medieval dialect.

He invented the ‘author’ and the ‘discoverer’ of the archaic poetry. He wrote the poetry. Why did he invent the elaborate frame story? Perhaps he liked creating historical characters. It’s been suggested that, as these fictional worthies were said to be from his native city of Bristol, he was practicing a form of boosterism.

What’s clear is that “He [Chatterton] invented an entire imaginary world, and the writings that explained, supported, and celebrated that world” (Kaplan p. 183). In a sense, the local connections gave a sort of cultural glow to that relatively small coastal city; none of which was lost on Calcott and Burnett, two Bristol business men who stood to gain from the outside attention.

Very strangely, despite a good deal of praise from later Romantic poets Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, Chatterton continued to reviled for allegations of plagiarism. If that wasn’t enough, Chatteron’s work was itself plagiarized (Kaplan, p. 254-257).

Luckily, Worrall moves onto much firmer ground when he continues the fascinating history of literary forgery, including two of the most notorious modern forgereries: the ‘diaries’ of Jack the Ripper and Adolf Hitler ‘discovered’ in the 1980s and 90s. Then we move on to the LDS forgery of the twentieth century, the so-called Salamander Letter.

The letter, written in 1830, described the LDS “epochal moment…its founding legend, its virgin birth” (p. 135) in its history: founder Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden tablets–proportedly inscribed with the Book of Mormon, gift from the angel Moroni.

The salamander, however, represents a revisionist myth. The letter, after recounting the traditional, accepted angelic version of the tablets’ discovery, now enjoins a shape-shiftings spirit “instead of an angel, there was a talking lizard” (p. 136). I got to hand it to the author, that’s a heck of a great juxtaposition–what a line.

As always with the best deceptions, there’s some truth mixed in with this letter, as there’s a “seer stone” (p. 136), to translate the tablets. That is, someone claimed to have found such a thing; a believer will take the discovery at face value. By far the best part of Hofmann’s Salamander Letter charade was how he got the LDS to buy it.

For about $40k. Since he’d been selling the church so many documents, he used a middle-man. So did the church; incredibly, Hofmann himself was among the ‘experts’ hired by the church to authentic the document. Hofmann used the same guy to assist in this endeavor as he would later in the Emily Dickinson forgery deal. In logical terms, A. sells something to B., based on A.’s recommendation. It’s absurd alright; mostly because x (the document) has no value, and B. thinks that there’s a C. (his expert), but, no, because C. is A.

Hofmann certainly crossed-up the LDS. The spurious implications of black magic imputed to Joseph Smith was ridden into the ground, so to speak. After the Salamander Letter had appeared Hofmann was ready with more forged ‘historic’ documents. When this new juicy batch appeared in the hands of Time magazine (“Challenging Mormonism’s Roots” p. 146) the church had to scramble.

In effect, Hofmann set out to reinvent by forgery the entire scripture of the LDS, that is, The Book Of Mormon. He stood to gain c.$10 million in blackmail from the church. But there was some legwork to do first; he had (from p. 147) “To embark on a systematic deconstruction of the language, syntax, and imagery of the Book of Mormon” [no computer tech for this feat in 1985]. That was one task he had to keep on the back burner.

Whenever I think that I’ve got to the bottom of this Hofmann character, Worrall shifts into a higher gear; from p. 151 we learn that Hofmann forged the handwriting of 129 “historical characters.” Is Hofmann a wizard as well as a criminal?

To help us answer that question, Worrall delves deep into the cognitive processes at work in the practice of handwriting. “Numerous factors shape our handwriting: where we were born, our level of intelligence, and age; which writing system we were taught; the instruments we learned to write with, even the size of our wrists and fingers” (p. 154).

Later in the same paragraph though, the author makes a fundamental lapse by claiming that “men and women rarely display discernable differences in their handwriting.” Much to the contrary, the most striking feature of handwriting, even taking into account all of the variables I quoted above, is the near absolute difference between genders’ handwriting. I’m not saying there should or shouldn’t be: there just is.

I base this on reading the handwriting of literally thousands of children of school age in my career as a teacher. That makes it easier to detect the occasional deception. I only witnessed one student who was different: a boy who genuinely wrote like a girl. I’m talking about cursive writing, of course; which is what I assume Worrall means by ‘handwriting.’ Actually, Joseph Smith himself probably didn’t use cursive.

Back to our subject (my excuse for straying is that Worrall digresses into Hofmann’s world, leaving Dickinson to float about until he summons her again in the epilogue). Hofmann spiraled downward, eventually owing individuals and creditors over half a million dollars.

We can definitely say that his schemes finally ensnared him. He was robbing Peter to pay Paul; not only that, he couldn’t sell what didn’t exist (even a forgery exists, in its tangible way). His Fail-Safe plan had to be eliminating immediate threats, via pipe bomb.

Still, he was sort of gaming the situation, even if inadvertently. After he’d killed two people (one accidentally) he almost killed himself. He got so cocky that he thought he could handle the primed devices, which were set to detonate if tilted or slightly jarred. So bomb #3 went off because he dropped it. The obvious upside though, was that it might appear to the police that the bomber was a disgruntled LDS or documents guy.

The bad news for Hofmann came in the form of two astute antagonists–Detective Farnsworth of he Salt Lake City P.D., and his meticulous documents expert, Throckmorton. Farnsworth quickly deduced that Hofmann was their guy. Just as devastating was that Throckmorton, alone amongst all the other experts who had pored over Hoffman’s documents for years, found enough anomalies to discover that, indeed, Hofmann had forged many of them.

Despite Hoffman’s subsequent prosecution for the sum of his crimes, auction houses continued to sell items that were by then known to be his forgeries. Having delved so deeply into this pit of crime, Throckmorton couldn’t help admitting that Hofmann “is the best there ever was ” (p. 229) at the forgery craft. Of course that didn’t negate the accuracy of another characterization by an LDS historian of the forger was “a ruthless nihilist” (p. 231).

A more elaborate description “I think his passion was disturbing the truth, deceiving people into having their truth shattered” (p.233). All of these takes on Hofmann were in fact reflected by his own statement at his trial: “it was almost a game…at the time I made the bomb, my thoughts were that it didn’t matter if it was Mrs. Sheets [the third victim], a child, a dog…whoever was killed” (p.239).

Like many psychopaths, Hofmann relished attention–from his prison cell, of course. But now he had notoriety. Whatever. Meanwhile, after leaving Emily Dickinson floating in the netherworld for a large part of the book, Worrall finally gets back to his title character in the epilogue.

We get a look at Samuel Bowles, the editor who admired Emily, but not her poetry. After a bit of a courtship in the 1850s, he didn’t come calling again until 1877. Even then, despite the fact that she’d loved him all this time, she hesitated to receive him. But she did. The end.

Even with my two major differences with the author (on Thomas Chatterton and gender differences in handwriting), I thought this was a pretty good book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s informative–to the nth degree on forgery processes–and well-written. I wasn’t expecting a Dickinson biography; so I didn’t mind the topic shift from her to Hofmann.

The early but limited focus on the poet has the positive effect of furthering my interest in Dickinson. I’ve had enough of Hofmann. Take a look; there’s a lot going on here–maybe too much for one book.


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