From ‘book dealer’ to bomber

What was the real story behind the "Oath of a Freeman?"

Mike Selby

In the afternoon of October 16, 1985, a car bomb went off in downtown Salt Lake City. This was the third bomb to go off in as many days. 24 hours earlier, two separate bombs had killed two prominent Salt Lake business owners. The third bomb detonated in the car of yet another business owner — rare book and document dealer Mark Hofmann. Unlike the previous days events, Hofmann had somehow survived the explosion.  Quick thinking on the part of some passersby ensured Hofmann was rushed to the hospital. Although in critical condition, he was at least alive.

The motive for these murders and attempted murders began in March of that year. That was when Hofmann had discovered the ‘Oath of a Freeman’ in a New York bookstore — the first item ever printed in North America, which was previously thought to be lost to history.

Previously a Mormon missionary and a med student, Hofmann’s discovery of the ‘Oath’ nudged him into a career as a rare book and document dealer.  After the ‘Oath’ was deemed authentic by an array of historic document experts and scientific tests, Hofmann and his partner (a more experienced book dealer) had offered it to the Library of Congress for $1.5 million.  Before they handed over a cheque, the LOC first requested a more detailed provenance of the ‘Oath.’

But then the bombs went off.

At first authorities could find no connection between Hofmann and the first two victims, who were partners in a bankrupt investment company, with fraud and embezzlement charges pending. The police found no shortage of people who hated these two, but Hofmann was different. There appeared to be no connection to him at all.

And then Ken Farnsworth showed up.

As hundreds of FBI, ATF, and Utah police began to comb throw any and all available evidence related to the car bombs, rookie Salt Lake City detective Ken Farnsworth took another route. In trying to connect Hofmann with the other victims, he did a search of Hofmann’s home.

In the basement where Hofmann lived with his wife and four young children, was a room which looked like a middle school chemistry lab. Everything needed to construct car bombs was there, including metal pipes, mercury switches, and various types of gunpowder. Hofmann himself was the bomber (the bomb which almost killed him was an accident — it went off when he was trying to deliver it to a third target). This makeshift lab also contained photo-etching supplies, metal plates, various inks, peroxide, crushed mica, cotton, hemp, tannin and jars of quill pens. Besides a murderer, Hofmann was also a forger.

Which meant the ‘Oath of a Freeman’ was fake — as was his story as how he found it. It also meant the Joseph Smith letter he found in an old bible (last week’s column) was fake as well.

Police discovered Hofmann had been forging items for years, from Emily Dickinson poems to Paul Revere autographs. Although his forgeries were without question some of the greatest in history, and he had bilked close to a million from institutions and churches, by 1985 he was deeply in debt. Losing his house would have exposed his forging lab, so he hoped the chaos of his car-bombing murders would stall his creditors.

Hofmann was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in prison. Although his left hand was maimed by his own bomb, he lost the use of his right arm after a suicide attempt.

He will never forge again.

An actual ‘Oath of a Freeman’ broadside remains lost to history, even though Hofmann claimed he knew where a second one was.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library