A lurid chapter in the recent history of the Mormon Church is dramatized in playwright-director Charles Morey’s new play The Salamander’s Tale, seen in recent developmental readings in New York and Salt Lake City. At once a police procedural and a rumination on institutional and personal ego, the drama tells the story of Mark Hofmann, a notorious member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who forged documents in the 1980s and pulled the church into a swirl of crimes — including murder by pipe bomb.
It’s the stuff of great drama. I got curious about the roots and goals of the play, so I asked Morey to share some history with me: how he first learned of the true crime, how he approached it as a play and what challenges the project posed.
For more information about the seven-actor drama The Salamander’s Tale, one of many plays penned by the former artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s repped by Mary Harden of Harden-Curtis Associates. Check out my earlier profile of Morey, in which he talked about his New Hampshire-set comedy The Granite State. The play has a prequel, too, called Crotched Mountain.
Here’s how The Salamander’s Tale was billed for its workshop in October 2015 in Salt Lake City and the subsequent reading in February 2016 in New York City: “Mark Hofmann, on the surface a faithful, mission serving Mormon, forged and sold hundreds of documents to collectors all over the country. His creations included letters and autographs of Washington, Lincoln, Mark Twain and even an ‘unpublished’ poem by Emily Dickinson. All were authenticated by acknowledged experts in their fields. Principal among his forgeries were documents relating to the early history of the Mormon Church, some of which were embarrassing to the Church as they cast doubt upon the motives of its founder, Joseph Smith, and the official origin stories. When Hofmann’s schemes began to unravel, he killed two people with pipe bombs in an attempt to conceal his crimes. This play is part ‘who did it’; part ‘how he did it’; but mostly ‘why did he do it’? At its core it is a play about the relationship of faith to fact, the very nature of religious faith itself and an investigation into the psychology of an individual who is utterly without faith while wearing all the outward trappings.”
Your play is a thriller, a character study, a crime procedural, and a look at how some believe that church law trumps civil law. How did you first come across this fascinating story of fraud, forgery, greed, murder and faith?
Charles Morey: I was just starting in my second season as artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, fall of 1985. I was in rehearsal for The Tempest. On a break, someone came into the room and said, “A bomb just went off downtown at the Judge Building. A guy is dead.” A couple of hours later — another break — someone else came into the room: “There’s been another bomb, this time out in Holladay,” a suburb of Salt Lake, “two people have now been killed.” This was years before terrorism was on anyone’s mind, a decade and half before 9/11. This was quiet, safe, peaceful, Salt Lake City where I had just relocated from New York with my wife and then one-year-old son. The whole city was spooked. The next day, a third bomb! Downtown again, in a car parked a short walk from Temple Square, the LDS Church Office building, the Hotel Utah, Crossroads Mall — the center of downtown. This time, there was a survivor. It was shortly revealed that the victim was Mark Hofmann — a name well known in Salt Lake City at the time as a dealer in historical documents who had made some spectacular finds: autographs and letters of major historical figures, a lost Emily Dickinson poem and “The Oath of a Freeman,” the only surviving copy of the earliest known printed document from the Massachusetts Bay Colony which had been lost for centuries and was rumored to be soon acquired by the Library of Congress for a million and a half dollars.
But most particularly, Mark Hofmann, a mission-serving, faithful Mormon, had discovered large numbers of early Mormon documents, several of which caused a sensation in Mormon circles because they shed doubt upon the veracity of the Church’s founder and first Prophet, Joseph Smith and the origin stories of the Book of Mormon. Principal among these discoveries was a document known as “The Salamander Letter” written by Martin Harris in 1827. Harris was one of the “scribes” who transcribed the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith “translated” it from the gold plates. The letter stated that Joseph Smith had told Martin Harris that a “white salamander” had spoken to him and lead him to the Golden Plates, not an angel as Joseph had subsequently claimed. This tied Joseph’s story of the gold plates to early 19th century folk magic and made the official origin story which included appearances to Joseph by an angel, Jesus Christ and God himself appear to be essentially a tall tale.
These are documents of great interest to the Mormon Church.
Charles Morey: What compounded the sensational nature of such documents as “The Salamander Letter” (there were several others of equally “explosive” content for the Church) was the revelation a few years prior to the bombings that LDS Church leaders had been purchasing some potentially damaging documents from Hofmann with the purpose of hiding them away in Church vaults and not revealing them to even their own in-house historians and scholars.
At first, the police and the press all believed Mark Hofmann, the discoverer of the “Salamander Letter,” to have been the third victim of the unknown bomber. There was wild speculation that the murders had been committed by ultra conservative fundamentalist Mormons offended by the Salamander Letter’s affront to the reputation of Joseph Smith. Others speculated that it was a Mafia business deal gone bad. The first victim, Steve Christensen, in addition to being a partner of Hofmann in the document business, had been involved in a failing Salt Lake City investment firm (Consolidated Financial Services) that had dealings in Las Vegas possibly with “shady” characters. As the second victim of the bombings was the wife of Steve Christensen’s former business partner in the investment firm, the connection inspired wild notions of a possible “Mob hit.”
A great character would soon be revealed in that third “victim.” He’s your villain.
Charles Morey: As the story began to un-roll in the daily papers and the evening news through the following months, it became clear that Mark Hofmann was no longer being considered a victim, but was now the chief suspect. And then, almost six months later, it was revealed in the pre-trial hearing, that analysts could now prove that not only were all of Mark Hofmann’s documents forgeries, but that he was operating what was essentially a Ponzi scheme by selling the same documents to multiple buyers. It became clear that Hofmann was anything but a victim, rather, he was perhaps the greatest forger of the late 20th century who had found the perfect victim, an organization so defensive about its history that it was willing to acquire any documents that might be harmful to its image and simply hide them away.
And in addition to being a forger and con-man, Mark Hofmann was a vicious sociopath who had killed two people with pipe bombs. Steve Christensen had been murdered to stop a deal with the Church from closing because Mark had not yet created the documents he said he was going to deliver, but also had already sold those non-existent documents to two other parties. He set a bomb at the home of the second victim, the wife of Steve Christensen’s former business partner in the investment firm (CFS) simply as a diversion, killing a completely innocent mother and grandmother to turn suspicion away from himself. The third bomb, which had gone off accidentally in Hofmann’s car and injured Hofmann, was intended for an unknown third party — very possibly a church leader.
As the facts piled up against him in the pre-trial hearing Mark Hofmann ultimately accepted a plea deal. He remains incarcerated in the Utah State Penitentiary in the 30th year of a life sentence from which he has no chance of parole.
What was your research process like? You had access to a lot of media coverage.
Charles Morey: It would have been very difficult not to have been completely arrested by this story as it un-rolled in not only the local press, but the front page of the New York Times, Time magazine, the TV news-magazines, etc. Over the next few years a number of books appeared on the subject by national and local journalists. I read every one, among them: “A Gathering of Saints,” “The Mormon Murders,” “Salamander” and “Victims” by Richard E. Turley — head of public relations for the LDS Church, probably the most biased on the side of the Church.
Did this crime story make you more aware of the role faith plays in your own life?
Charles Morey: I was fascinated by this “true crime” story that seemed to operate at the center of the LDS culture, of which I was most certainly not a part but which I observed closely and with great fascination as a resident of Utah and leader of one of the state’s major cultural institutions. The story of Mark Hofmann vibrated right at the center of the tension between faith and fact. As a once active Episcopalian, now firmly atheist, but nonetheless deeply conflicted, that issue resonates strongly within me. I am — and I believe we all are, in a sense — hard-wired for God. But I cannot make myself truly believe any of it. I have no faith whatsoever — but wish I did. As my composite character, “Jerry,” the Investigator in The Salamander’s Tale says: “I believe in this… insatiable human hunger for the spiritual. The fact, the fact, that we are hard wired for God. But, it’s a genetic trick — an evolutionary side track like our vestigial tail — that developed right alongside the thing that really keeps the species going, the capacity for curiosity, for rational thought, to find out how and why the universe ticks, to dream of what might be… But you know what really pisses me off, what really keeps me going, are the assholes who fuck with that hunger, who prey on that need for God, for either their own financial gain or, or, or worse, to stroke their own ego.”
That speech is what drives my fictional investigator in the play. It is also what drove me to write the play in addition to a fascination with the character of Mark Hofmann — a brilliant young man and probably a sociopath. A man who could write a poem the world would accept as from the hand and mind of Emily Dickinson on the one hand and on the other: con his church, his family, his friends and murder two people, one whom he called “his best friend” in cold blood. Add to that my personal anger and bewilderment at the fact that there are religious institutions that would hide the truth from their members; that would bury facts — or in this case documents — that might be embarrassing to the institution. I need not point out that the LDS Church is hardly alone in this regard.
You worked at Pioneer for 28 years and maintain a home in Salt Lake City. You must count LDS members as friends.
Charles Morey: I have enormous affection and deep respect for many, many members of the LDS Church as well as admiration for the humanitarian work the Church does around the world and for many of the values it espouses. I have no respect whatsoever for the LDS Church stance on same sex marriage and sexual preference and how they have thrown their political and financial weight around in an attempt to force their beliefs on others and deny the civil rights of an entire group of Americans. But the fact of the matter is, there are many practicing Mormons who quietly oppose their church on those issues in the same way there are practicing Catholics who do not follow the tenets of their Church on similar issues.
But the Mormon journey over the past 190 some years is a fascinating and uniquely American journey. And early Mormonism in its search for a new spirituality on a new continent — in its reach for the ecstatic — is not only fascinating but an important part of the historical and spiritual fabric of this nation. And that, too, drove me to write this play: “a wonder and awe,” you might call it, at the potency of Joseph Smith’s frontier spiritual vision which still speaks to people today. As Mark says in the final speech of Act One — his aria, if you will, that expresses all the emotional and spiritual conflicts that have torn him apart: “And it’s all, it’s all, it’s all just nonsense, you know! … But if you believe. But if you could believe… This new religion, Joe Smith’s spiritual vision, was way out there and reaching… reaching for something … huge. It was this big, wild, raucous, raw, primitive, filled with contradictions, sometimes almost pagan, what’s that word? … ATAVISTIC, frontier spiritual revolt against convention and poverty and corrupt governments and the banality and repression of everyday church-going sit-quietly-in-your-pew Christianity — and it scared the shit out of his neighbors. And it should have — it scares the shit out of me. In the early days, did you know they all spoke in tongues? Men and women, falling to the floor and flailing about and speaking in tongues and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, that was the first one, in Ohio, at the dedication Joe Smith said when one of the apostles began to prophesy, ‘a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose… began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels… a thousand angels … and people came running together hearing the sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple’ …. And you know, say what you like about it, they were all striving… reaching for something, reaching for, reaching, reaching, reaching for… THE ECSTATIC. You know? The ecstatic…. Now … Nobody’s reaching for … Reaching for anything. They’re striving to become accountants, you know, maybe a mutual fund manager, a real estate developer. The only thing Mormons are reaching for is another bowl of Snelgrove’s ice cream. Another anti-depressant. It’s all so… small. The Church today, you could pack it up in a library box and put it on a shelf. … And God help you if you try to wiggle out of that box! … It’s grown so small. But if you could believe in something huge and wild like it once was… then … but if you don’t… If you can’t … if you simply can’t believe, no matter how hard you try…”
In addition to researching the details of the crime, you must have explored Mormon Church history.
Charles Morey: Over the years [the creation of the play] drove me to read…copious amounts of Mormon history and multiple biographies of Joseph Smith. I can’t not mention Fawn Brodie’s definitive “No Man Knows My History,” for which she was excommunicated from her Mormon faith. I read several Brigham Young biographies as well as the three Mormon scriptural texts: “The Book of Mormon,” “Doctrine and Covenants” and “The Pearl of Great Price.” (I have to agree with Mark Twain who described the “Book of Mormon” as “chloroform in print.”)
Did you see this crime drama as a play even as the events were unfolding in the 1980s?
Charles Morey: I don’t remember when the notion occurred to me that maybe this material could be made into a play. But the thought began to gnaw at me at least a decade ago. I knew this was a play I could not write while I was still artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company. First, it would take a solid six months to a year of near full time work to do and organize the research. And, second, it was never going to be produced at PTC or any other theatre in the state that would have the resources to do it adequately.
But once I decided it was time for me to retire as artistic director at PTC after 28 years, I knew this was the first major writing project I would undertake once I had the time. I retired in 2012, but had a commission from the Pearl Theatre Company to write a new adaptation of Figaro, which opened in October of 2012. I concentrated solely on that with a couple of directing gigs in the summer of 2012. But once Figaro opened, I began to concentrate upon the research intensively, working eight hours plus a day. I re-read all the materials I had previously read on the case, this time making extensive notes. I acquired the transcripts of the pre-trial hearing and Hofmann’s so-called 540-page prison confession to the Salt Lake County attorney to which he had agreed in the plea agreement. Hofmann’s “confession” is anything but. He dances around any issues of substance, is utterly non-committal as to motives, preens over his abilities and methods as a forger. To read it is to be frustrated to the point of anger, Hofmann remains so elusive. I went through the archives of the Salt Lake Tribune on the subject, called up archived articles from Utah Holiday magazine and the New York Times.
I thought about but ultimately chose not to try to interview Hofmann himself. First of all, he has refused all interviews from the day he was arrested and made a joke of the so-called “confession” to the County Attorney. I had no illusions that he would accept the request from me. But most importantly, the play I wanted to write was ultimately about the deep-seated spiritual conflict in the very soul of a man who on the surface was a deeply religious, “temple worthy” Mormon, trusted in his community — but, who, in actuality was a sociopathic nihilist intent upon destroying the church to which he publicly avowed allegiance.
After six months of full-time research and note-taking, on top of almost 30 years of reading in the history of the LDS Church, I was ready to write. I completed a first draft late in spring 2013.
The play is a detective story in many ways. Who’s the investigator, and is there something that drives him beyond the search for truth?
Charles Morey: The investigator, “Jerry,” is a composite character who in many respects is a stand in for the playwright as well. He is a composite of all the detectives and prosecutors who pursued the case, at least half a dozen separate individuals. In an attempt to make a stageworthy play that someone might produce, I’ve held it to seven actors with a fair amount of doubling, and pulled all the investigators into one character.
There’s a truth-is-better-than-fiction quality to the source story. What event or element surprised you most in your research?
Charles Morey: I think what surprised me most during the research process were the conversations, documented by various police officers and County Attorneys’ notes and testimony, in which some of the LDS Leadership simply flat out lied while others artfully skirted the truth when questioned about the Church’s relationship with Mark Hofmann. And the fact that the Church withheld a crucial piece of evidence during the pre-trial hearing. Some suggest the Church leaders might have been guilty of obstruction of justice. Ultimately Hofmann went to jail for life, so the issue is somewhat moot — but it is possible things could have gone another way. It is possible if he hadn’t confessed under pressure from family and the growing weight of evidence that he might have been found innocent in a trial. However, in any event, no prosecutor in the state of Utah would dare jump down that rabbit hole by filing obstruction of justice charges against high-ranking Church officials.
You were artistic director at Pioneer Theatre Company for 28 years, one of the longest artistic directorships in American theatre. Is the Hofmann crime too hot for Salt Lake City audiences?
Charles Morey: I didn’t need to live in Utah more than a few months to understand a play like this could never be produced at Pioneer Theatre Company, whose audience is about 50 percent LDS and 50 percent non-Mormon. It would be impossible for some people not to take it at as Mormon-bashing and even for those Mormons who would appreciate the play and were close friends to the theatre, it would put them in a very awkward situation. And some of those people I consider personal friends, so in some ways, even if someone wanted to produce the play in Utah, I doubt I would allow it right now, simply because I don’t want to put my friends in an awkward position. I have shared the play with a few people in Utah, however. Two of them are good friends who happen to be former board members of Pioneer Theatre — and both are as fascinated by Mormon history and the Mark Hofmann case as am I. They approached me with the idea of doing a reading in Salt Lake City for a close group of friends as they really just wanted to hear the play. I responded that there was no real point in doing it unless I had a chance to work on the play for a week or so with a group of talented actors. And, much to my surprise, my friends said, “O.K., how much would that cost?” I said, “Way too much.” And they responded, “Well give us a figure.” So I worked up a budget and they agreed to it to my utter astonishment. We negotiated a deal with Actors’ Equity Association, brought in a couple of actors from New York, hired local Equity actors from Salt Lake, workshopped the play for a week and did one reading for 250 people, our combined friends. My “backers” did it for the purest of motives. They love the play and wanted to hear it out loud with all their friends. (A group that was a pretty impressive representation of the non-Mormon literary, artistic, academic and business elite of Salt Lake City.) It went over very well; was very well received — and everyone seemed to agree without much argument that this is a play that’s not going to be produced in Utah anytime soon by a major institutional theatre.
Does the play explain and answer what forger-murderer Mark Hofmann’s motives were? Was it clear to you as a dramatist what the facts were, or did you have to come to conclusion to create satisfying drama?
Charles Morey: Mark Hofmann has never fully explained his motives for the murders, beyond the obvious. The first bomb was to stop the closing on a deal with the Church that the victim, Steve Christensen was brokering; the second was a diversion. The third, in which he injured himself, was an attempted suicide, so Mark claimed. But the Steve Christensen bomb was not only to stop the closing. There was deep animus towards Steve for a number of complex reasons, I think, and which the play delves into a bit. I believe the second bomb, the one that killed Kathleen Sheets, was indeed a diversion, to divert suspicion from Mark. I believe the third bomb was intended for one of two possible senior LDS officials and it blew up on him before he was able to deliver it. But, I could never prove that. He says he created the forgeries just to make money. Ultimately, since the story was interesting to me as a case of spiritual crisis and a study of a brilliant sociopath — I make spiritual crisis his motive, essentially, for everything. But, I’m guessing ultimately. So did Shakespeare as to Richard III’s motives.
What was the overwhelming challenge of writing the play? Was there something that would keep you up at night?
Charles Morey: The major challenge was to boil down an extremely complicated series of cons, forgeries and crimes and a wildly complex multi-part investigation into a relatively concise evening on stage. And it is a story that is wrapped up in some fairly arcane Mormon history and theology, so I have to explain the theology and history in a hopefully concise, entertaining and dramatic manner. No mean feat. Pieces of the play are pulled directly from court testimony, Hofmann’s confession and his statement to the Utah Board of Pardons; other segments are pulled from notes of various investigators as reported in a variety of sources — but most of it is simply invented. I try to deliver scenes that I think are truthful in their essence, though I don’t have, nor will anyone ever have, any real knowledge of the private conversations that went on between some of these characters. And that does keep me up at night. Have I been fair to people? There are a number of real people in this story who are still alive. I hope I am not calumnizing the reputations of the living or the dead without cause.
Also, to tell the whole story in all its complexity, you would probably need at least nine hours and a cast of 30 — and they’d all be doubling like crazy! I’m wise enough to realize that ain’t gonna happen. So, there’s that challenge too: pare it down to the essence. And maybe if I can tell this story in two and a half hours with seven actors, I might have a chance of finding someone who is crazy enough to produce this thing.
I was charmed by the character Mark Hoffmann when I read an earlier draft of the script and later saw the Manhattan reading. Did you need to “goose” the charm factor, or was it there in real life?
Charles Morey: Above all, Mark Hofmann was a salesman. He was getting people to buy things and invest in deals sometimes on nothing but a certain quiet, un-assuming charm and a mutual membership in the Mormon Church. I mean: “Who wouldn’t trust Brother Hofmann? He’s a temple-worthy elder, served in the First Presidency of his Ward [parish], Sister Hofmann, his wife, is the relief Society President in their Ward. How could you not trust Brother Hofmann?” But, I may have built his charm a little. One of the reasons I didn’t want to try to meet him is the fear that I would find him so banal that I would lose interest in him as a character.
What’s coming up for you as a writer and director?
Charles Morey: I just directed Twelve Angry Men down at Florida Repertory Theatre in a terrific production that is still running. L.A. Theatre Works’ national touring production of my adaptation of Dracula just closed last week. I did a reading of my play The Yellow Leaf last week at the Players Club which went very well, I think, and I’m doing some rewrites on that so my agent can make a new push to find a second production for it. Laughing Stock is in the third year of its run in Moscow (the Russian title is Balagan) and is also in the continuing repertoire of three Russian regional theatres. I will direct a production of my play The Ladies Man, an adaptation of Feydeau’s Tailleur Pour Dames for the Peterborough Players in August. And after August — who knows?