There’s a fascinating article about Mark Hofmann in the Salt Lake Tribune today (the condensed version is in the Deseret News, natch). The article discusses Hofmann’s four-page letter entitled “A Summary of My Crimes,” which he wrote to the board of pardons in 1988.
I’ve often wondered what it is that can drive a person to perpetrate a fraud and then continue in it, even when other people’s lives and livelihoods may be destroyed. I can’t relate to that. I guess I don’t have it in me to do such a thing to other people. But throughout history, fraudsters have destroyed anyone they could get their hands on, and this letter helps me understand. Here is a man who carried out a five-year career of forgery, and rather than allow himself to be caught, he was willing to kill two others and himself.
His career as a forger seems to have started with a childhood need to impress others:
“As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions,” Hofmann wrote in a January 1988 letter to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. “Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority. I believe this is what led to my forging activities. … [At age 12] I figured out some crude ways to fool other collectors by altering coins to make them appear more desirable,” Hofmann wrote. “By the time I was 14, I had developed a forgery technique which I felt was undetectable. I exuded [sic] in impressing other collectors and dealers with my rare coins.”
“Money was not the object,” insisted Hofmann, who said he never sold a forgery until he was 24. By then, his interest had shifted from U.S. coins to Mormon money, which he created with the help of old ink recipes.
From an early age, then, successfully deceiving people gave him a “sense of power and superiority,” and that was enough to motivate him to create an “undetectable” forgery technique. Obviously, it’s impossible to know why Hofmann needed or wanted that power and authority. Perhaps he had a narcissistic personality or maybe he was just a psychopath, incapable of caring for anyone but himself.
At times he apparently felt some guilt from his activities: “He writes that during what he called his ‘life of crime,’ he had ‘learned to live with the inherent stress, guilt and fears through rationalization and hypnosis.'”
He was able to rationalize quite a bit, apparently. When planning the murders, “for example, for the first time in my life I took an interest in the obituaries,” he wrote. “I believe I was trying to convince myself of the worthlessness of life and of life’s unfairness. I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing.”
Hofmann also told himself that his intended victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack, and he thought about “the Nazi Holocaust, the earthquake in Mexico and other disasters.”
He spoke of his “toying” with the religious faith of other as “”experimentation … to see why they believe what they do.”
Ultimately, however, what mattered was not getting caught. “”The most important thing in my mind was to keep from being exposed as a fraud in front of my friends and family,” Hofmann wrote. “When I say this was the most important thing I mean it literally. I felt I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed. … At the time I was not even sure who the victim(s) would be, only that drastic measures were called for.”
Think about that: his identity was so intertwined with the fraud that he would rather kill others and himself than be exposed for who and what he was.
For years, people have been telling me that no one would willingly go to their grave to avoid being exposed as a fraud. Hofmann is solid evidence to the contrary.