Coming to Netflix this week, Murder Among The Mormons is in some ways an au courant true crime docuseries about a Salt Lake City conman and murderer. Yet it’s simultaneously a woolly dark comedy sending up the particular idiosyncrasies of its Mormon setting and creators. Co-directed by TV documentary veteran Tyler Measom and Jared Hess, of Napoleon Dynamite fame, MATM explores a community that’s outwardly “average” almost to the point of parody (the boxy haircuts, the dorky shirts, the teetotalling) but also uses that facade to mask some extraordinary eccentricities.
To put it another way, everyone in Murder Among The Mormons is quite a character. Most of the talking heads are there to discuss Mark Hofmann, a man who trades in “church documents” — the uniquely Mormon phenomenon serving up runes, old books, and the assorted arcana of a church that was founded less than 200 years ago to enthusiastic collectors. Mormons are, as Measom puts it, “a peculiar people” and Hofmann is a Jared Hess character come to life, a rockstar rare documents trader trying to “live large” in a community so 1950s conformist that long sleeves qualify as rebellion.
Yet Hofmann quickly proves to be in the 99th percentile both of forgers and of sociopaths. One of his creations was “The Salamander Letter,” a document supposedly showing that in Joseph Smith’s first iteration of the Mormon origin story, in which an angel led him to a set of golden plates that became the Book of Mormon, the angel was a salamander.
Hess, obviously, has excelled at exploring exactly these kinds of dowdy villains and esoterica, and there are fanciful recreations in Murder Among The Mormons that feel like cut scenes from Masterminds or Gentlemen Broncos, dry as a bone and with Hess’s trademark matter-of-fact compositions — making Murder Among The Mormons stand alone in an increasingly utilitarian genre.
Of all the Mormon true crime stories of late (and there have been surprisingly a lot — Abducted In Plain Sight, American Coyote), Murder Among The Mormons, directed by current Mormon Hess and former Mormon Measom (a FoMo, if you will), is arguably the one that most explores this push-pull between outward averageness and inner aberration. I spoke to Measom and Hess via Zoom this week, about classic Mormon eccentrics, the true crime canon, and their respective childhoods in the church.
All of the characters in this were so enjoyable to me. Do you think that the Mormon community has different flavors of eccentrics than the larger world?
TYLER MEASOM: Jared being one of them?
JARED HESS: I mean yeah, definitely this particular saga had a lot of very charismatic personalities from across the spectrum. Jerry Dalea, one of the chief investigators, is just so entertaining, as well as Shannon Flynn. Across the board, I think we were not lacking in fascinating personalities.
TM: I think the members of the Mormon faith consider themselves a bit peculiar. In fact, they actually kind of embraced that term, “peculiar people.” They have odd beliefs to the rest of the world. And Salt Lake City in the ’80s was a rather small town. And not only just the Mormon faith in general, but these individuals who were document collectors in particular were cut from a certain cloth. They all had the same kind of interests, a love of history, backgrounds, faith, and also they had a very trusting nature. This is the environment in which Mark Hofmann was able to thrive, and utilize these individuals and their … I don’t want to say gullibility because they weren’t gullible, but their love of documents and history. He used that against them.
You mentioned Shannon Flynn, who shows up with the three-piece suit and he’s got, I think, a pocket watch, and the raspy voice. Is he still in the “rare document” business?
JH: I don’t think full-time. I think it still interests him as a hobby, but I think a lot of people got out of it after what occurred. Some stayed in it. Brent Ashworth, he’s still very much involved, but yeah. Shannon, he’s a bit of a Renaissance man and has a variety of interests. He definitely looks like either Alfred Hitchcock or Winston Churchill depending on who you’re familiar with.
TM: Yeah, he was kind of forced out of the document business. It’s something he always wanted to get into, and so when he was with Mark, he was living the high life. Documents and briefcases of cash, and then when what happened happened, no one would work with him again.
You guys both come from Mormon backgrounds. Was there a sense of wanting to tell this story so that maybe non-Mormons wouldn’t sensationalize the Mormonism aspect of it?
JH: Yeah. We also spent a lot of time figuring out how much information about Mormonism to present. Because really, to understand the stakes of this story, you have to understand Mormonism, the founding beliefs, the world of document dealing, just so you could comprehend what a disruption the Salamander Letter was to the faith. We did have to strike a balance of giving enough information, but not boring people with too much theology. Ultimately, I think we figured out the best way to do that is just to show clips of old Church films that share their own origin story. Which we also love.
Can you explain exactly what the Salamander Letter was and why it was such an important thing?
JH: The founding beliefs of Mormonism start with a boy named Joseph Smith in upstate New York, who had questions about which church to join. He had a vision where he was visited by God and Jesus, and then later was directed by an angel to translate a set of golden plates that ultimately became the Book of Mormon. Here you’ve got familiar Judeo-Christian terms like “God” and “angels,” and it feels familiar with the whole Christian lexicon. And then that’s suddenly getting subverted and challenged by this letter that gave a completely different account and suddenly twisting it to occult witchcraft terms. It seemed like he was part of this folk magic ritual. So that, I believe in Christian communities, seems to totally undermine and threaten what they believed in and paints a different picture of their founding prophet. And again, this is the story that missionaries go out and teach when they’re knocking doors. .
TM: But for some — and I no longer believe in the tenets of the faith, I left the church a long time ago — but some individuals, including our editors, would look at the Salamander Letter and go, why is it so outrageous that a salamander would appear? It’s pretty outrageous that an angel would come down and appear as well. So for some, the parallels were pretty close. The outrageousness is just as outrageous.
Did you guys both do missions?
TM: We both did. Different places, of course. But yes.
JH: I got my mission call to Caracas, Venezuela. I was there when Chavez got elected. This was back in 1988. But I had hernias and I had to come home for hernia surgery. So then I was home for a couple of months and then finished the next year of my mission in Chicago, Spanish speaking. So I kind of had a stateside mission and one in South America. Tyler, where’d you go?
TM: I was in Missouri — Independence. So I spent a lot of time in Kansas and Nebraska as a 19-year-old wearing a white shirt and tie, while my friends were in college going on dates and drinking beer. So that sums it up for me, essentially.
With the Salamander Letter and some of the other forgeries that he made, do you think Hofmann was trying to publicly embarrass the Church or was he trying to forge documents that maybe he thought that they would pay him to bury, like a blackmail kind of thing?
JH: It was both.
TM: Mark’s basis for forgery was multi-fold. If you ask him — of course, he’s a very unreliable narrator, who’s to believe anything he says? — but he claims that it was all for money. However, he does admit that his intent was to bring down the Church and he would do that kind of as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that he would appear a worthy member of the faith. He would meet with this inner sanctum of hierarchy of the Mormon Church, he would sell them documents — and not just one or two documents, he literally sold hundreds of documents. Many of them were genuine, but a lot of them weren’t. Also, I think for Mark, he had the power to change history, literally, when he came out with a document. As he says, if it were verified as true, people would accept it as true, and history books were quite literally rewritten because of the documents that he forged. The power that he must have felt in that must have given him a rise that I can’t even imagine. That need that to deceive I think was part of his DNA, to keep beating that addiction he had of fooling people, fooling everyone.
And then if he’s doing all this for money, I know that he had the little sports car, but what was the secret life that he was spending all of this money on?
JH: He traveled a lot to the East coast, to New York and he would just live large. He had a collection that he was starting to build of first-edition children’s books, so that was something that he did. But he would kind of splurge. He was horrible with money. And that’s what got him into this whole Ponzi scheme predicament that he just couldn’t get out of. He also wanted to buy a half-million-dollar home, and in Salt Lake City in the 1980s, that was a humongous amount of money. It was small things, but again, when he would travel, he would live large, he would make some big purchases, but mostly he was just terrible with money.
TM: You know, at the time of these bombings, the investigators did a composite of all the money he owed and it’s over a million dollars. One of the bills was a $2,000 phone bill, like a cell phone bill. You remember cell phones in the eighties, every call cost 50 bucks. But at the same time, he had bounced a check for a subscription to a magazine for like $50. So he was just broke and in debt. He was very desperate at the time that he committed these crimes.
JH: He did buy a hot tub. That was one of his splurges. We didn’t go into that, but he would host some really nerdy, Mormon hot tub parties — alcohol free, just invite your wife, we’ll eat some rice Krispie treats and play footsie beneath the bubbles.
I read in another interview that you thought this series could have been like six or seven episodes. What are some of your favorite side stories that you ended up having to leave out?
JH: Well definitely the hot tub stories. No, I mean, there was so much stuff. One that didn’t make the cut that just kind of shows how prolific Hofmann was, is that long after he’d been in prison, over a decade after he’d been convicted, in the late 90s, this new Emily Dickinson poem surfaced that nobody had ever heard of. The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts did a fundraiser so they could buy it. It was up for auction at Sotheby’s and they bought it. They were so excited to add this to their collection. Lo and behold, Brent Ashworth, who’s in the film, calls them and says, “Hey, I hate to break it to you guys, but that came through me from Hofmann back in the 80s, and I’m 99% sure that that’s a Hofmann forgery. They were devastated. And that’s just a small sampling of how many more Hofmann documents are out there in the world that people do not know are forgeries, that maybe potentially on some level have rewritten history.
TM: Or know that they’re forgeries and they don’t want to acknowledge it because they spent X amount of dollars on it.
And then he was doing this and getting these forgeries verified by the verifying bodies. How much did his story discredit some of those people that were supposedly verifying these things as genuine?
TM: Well, Mark was great at what he did. He was a craftsman. He didn’t just get the right paper of the era, but he’d create the right ink. He used the right pen. He used the handwriting style of this individual. He used the right verbiage of this individual and he would research intently. And he fooled the top experts. But there’s no shame in being dunked on by Michael Jordan. Mark was the best at what he did. I do think he did set back the collecting world a bit, but in other ways he raised the bar on the verification of documents. What Mark did is what is happening in many ways now. We are being presented with faulty misinformation continually. I think it’s up to us to just not instantly glom onto something that we think is fantastic, like a lot of these people did when they were presented with a document that seemed too great to be true. They wanted to believe it, and they would typically overlook a lot of things. I think there’s Mark Hofmanns everywhere and we need to be a little bit more careful.
What was his first big hit as a seller and/or forger?
JH: Definitely the Anthon transcript. The document that he found that supposedly was a transcription of the symbols that were found on the golden plates that Joseph Smith translated. That was a very apocryphal story within Mormonism. Nobody knew what that document actually looked like. So when Mark supposedly found it in this old Bible that belonged to Joseph Smith’s family, this was groundbreaking for the Church, because it affirmed everything that they’d always believed and hoped for as it relates to the Book of Mormon. That immediately took him to the top leaders of the Church. The paper checked out, the story checked out. And so that really put him immediately in the big leagues of document collecting.
Did you get any sense of childhood trauma or something from him? The fact that he was so sort of cavalier about killing people, usually that comes from somewhere.
JH: I mean, he came from a very strict, devout Mormon family, with very strict parents and he was a closeted atheist at a very young age. He couldn’t really discuss his true beliefs with anyone. So there’s nothing in our research that shows that he was traumatized in any specific way, but I think just having to keep his personal beliefs bottled up in a very strict religious home was probably difficult and definitely shaped certain decisions that came later.
TM: I just think about the mental gymnastics he must’ve done. First and foremost, I think he had an interest in deceiving. I think he gained power from that. You know, it’s covered in the film, but when you’re 14 years old and you create a mint mark on a coin and make that valuable and it fools the US treasury, at that point you think you can get away with anything, especially when you’re a 14-year-old boy. Remember telling a lie and getting away with it? You think you can get away with anything. So I think that early need to deceive just kept getting bigger and bigger until maybe he felt he was infallible in some ways.