Clues from the past: Former LDS apostle's papers figured in 20th-century murder

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 23, 2009

Rare-documents collector Brent Ashworth has found the long-lost journal of a 19th-century Mormon critic whose papers became the focus of a hoax perpetrated by modern-day forger and murderer Mark Hofmann.

On Thursday, Ashworth showed off the journal that had last been featured in a 1920s newspaper published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ.

Ashworth said he verified the authenticity of the journal by comparing the newspaper photographs, which match pages 166 and 167 of the notebook. He located the owners after a getting a tip from a woman who walked into his rare books store in Provo three years ago. He bought the journal for an undisclosed sum in September.

"The journal is a nice capstone to the story of William McLellin," an early Mormon apostle who later broke with the church over doctrinal issues, Ashworth said. "And it's ironic that I would be the one to find it."

Ashworth, 60, is among Hofmann's victims who unwittingly purchased forgeries supposedly written by 19th-century Mormons. Hofmann had been selling bogus documents for years, taking more than $300,000 from Ashworth in cash and trades.

Hofmann's schemes grew more elaborate by the 1980s, when he falsely claimed he had located McLellin's journals and contended they included material that would embarrass The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He sold the collection to two people, sight unseen, before he was able to forge enough documents to pull off the scam.

To divert attention from the hoax, Hofmann set off pipe bombs in October 1985, killing Steve Christensen and Kathleen Sheets, and hoping police would suspect a disgruntled business investor. But when Hofmann became the prime suspect in the murder, the McLellin collection he had been hawking became part of the investigation.

Hofmann based his forgeries on a 1901 letter written by John Traughber, who at the time was trying to sell McLellin papers and journals he had collected over the years. In the letter, Traughber, a devotee of McLellin, provided a list of the documents he owned -- which Hofmann used as a template for his forgeries.

The LDS Church had purchased portions of the actual collection from Traughber, who lived in Texas at the time. His descendants retained many of the remaining documents. During the police investigation, The Salt Lake Tribune tracked down the owners, verifying they had the real documents and indicating that Hofmann had been lying about his discovery of the collection. He is now serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.

Traughber's descendants sold the collection to the University of Utah, and in 2007, Signature Books published the documents in the book The William E. McLellin Papers 1854-1880 . McLellin documents owned by the LDS Church became the basis of The Journals of William E. McLellin 1831-1836 , published in 1994 by BYU Studies and the University of Illinois Press.

Ashworth said he hopes to sell the McLellin journal he located to the LDS Church or to the U. to round out the respective collections.

The 266-page journal, penned by McLellin in 1871-72, chronicles his leadership position as an apostle in the early LDS Church and his interaction with church founder Joseph Smith. It may be significant to Mormons because McLellin in the journal describes his affection for Smith and affirms his belief in the Book of Mormon.

McLellin, for example, wrote of Smith: "He attended my high school during the winter of 1834. He attended and learned science all winter. I learned the strength of his mind as to the study and principles of science. Hence I think I knew him. And I here say that he had one of the strongest, well-balanced, penetrating and retentive minds of any man with whom I ever formed an acquaintance, among the thousands of my observation."

McLellin's description in the journal of his faith in the Book of Mormon is based on discussions he had with men who said they saw an angel who told them of the truth of the book's translation.

Gary Bergera, managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation and a former Signature Books senior editor, agrees the journal is interesting.

"There's been this kind of aura and mystery about the McLellin papers because of Hofmann, but as for the significance to history [of the notebook's discovery] I don't know if it's that significant to history," he said.

Tribune editor Lisa Carricaburu contributed to this story.

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