The Salamander Mystery: A Tale of Two Forgeries

This post is a big deal to me, since it covers a big topic I have not written about publicly in quite a long time. I am an ex-Mormon, and this will be the first time I have written about my former faith since forsaking it over five years ago. I will be talking about the Hofmann murders, the authorship of the Book of Mormon, and a tantalizing mystery that connected these topics for me.

Forgery is a fascinating subject. How does one create an artifact odd enough to be remarkable, yet familiar enough to be convincing?

Mark Hofmann was arrested in early 1986 after having forged historical documents and having then committed murder to cover up his forgeries. His most notorious forgeries were of documents related to the early history of the Mormon church. The most famous of all was the 1984 “Salamander letter” dated 1830 and written in the voice of Martin Harris, an early and close confidant of Joseph Smith Jr., who was the founder of the Mormon religion. In the letter, “Harris” recounts the discovery of the Book of Mormon as supposedly told to him by Joseph Smith, but the account varies from the canonical story significantly. One striking aspect is that the “spirit” who revealed the book to Smith was said to have “transfigured himself from a white salamander” when appearing to Smith.

As the letter appeared authentic, scholars sympathetic to Mormonism naturally would have wished to reconcile the letter’s “salamander” with the canonical description of a heavenly messenger named “Moroni.” One of the church’s highest officers had this to say:

… there is another meaning of ‘salamander,’ which may even have been the primary meaning in this context in the 1820s…. That meaning… is ‘a mythical being thought to be able to live in fire.’…

    “A being that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the Angel Moroni:… the use of the words white salamander and old spirit seem understandable. (1985 CES Doctrine and Covenants Symposium,” pages 22-23, quoted at http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/trackingconfessions2.htm)

This argument was quite clever and not unfair. Both Smith and the culture he stemmed from were steeped in folk magic, and such a connotation for “salamander” would indeed seem likely. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salamander_%28legendary_creature%29) This explanation resonated particularly with Mormons who had been taught that the glory of God is like a burning fire and only the pure and righteous dead will be able to bear His presence.

Let’s hold that though for a moment while I bring another philosophical thread into the story, which I did not realize was related until after I had wrestled with it for quite some time.

The Book of Mormon is a narrative with many personal and geographical names in it. It purports to be the story of an ancient American culture having Hebrew and Egyptian roots, and some of the names have a vaguely Biblical sound to them. I briefly studied Hebrew at BYU and tried to apply my understanding of the language to what I read in the Book of Mormon. The Hebrew names in the Bible often make statements. “Daniel” means “God is my judge.” “Zedekiah” means “My God is righteous.” And so on.

One puzzling thing I noticed in the Book of Mormon was that three proper names in the book seemed to share a common Hebrew root. But the mystery was: what root? Moron was a land, Moroni was the messenger named above and one of the purported authors of the book, and Morinihah was another person. It was not hard to imagine “Moron” as a root word (“whatever-it-is“), “Moroni” as a word which added the Hebrew suffix for first-person possessive (“my” whatever-it-is), and “Moronihah” having an additional suffix corresponding to the Biblical “-iah” and referring to deity (Jah, or Jahweh; “My God is whatever-it-is“).

It was a nifty theory, but the problem with it was this: I could find no Hebrew root word corresponding to “moron” or to the consonants “m,r,n.” And then my world began to turn upside down when I found a contemporary encyclopedia entry for “moron” listing it as “a kind of salamander.”

Moroni: “My salamander.” Mystery solved.

Had Hoffman done the same exercise in basic Hebrew that I had in preparing his forgery? Apparently not. Regarding the “Salamander” in the letter, he explained that “At the time I chose it only because it was commonly used in folk magic. I didn’t realize until later all the implications other people would associate with it as far as being able to dwell in fire.”

And what does this imply for the authorship of the Book of Mormon? It was obviously a forgery as well, not written by pre-Columbian Americans, but by one or more Americans of European descent well-acquainted with early 19th-century folk magic and more than a little Hebrew. Yes, it was an enormous gaffe to mix Hebrew grammar with a contemporary animal name, but it would not have strained the credulity of the people at the time. And Smith himself is known to have committed just such a gaffe on another occasion as he explained the meaning of the name “Mormon,” the putative ancient author for whom the book is named. Putting on laughable airs of erudition in a way that was hardly atypical, Smith asserted that “mon” was Egyptian in origin and meant “good;” and that “Mor” should be regarded as a contraction of (English) “more.” Hence the pre-Columbian name “Mormon” supposedly meant “more good.” This is the kind of nonsense one learns to overlook as a practicing Mormon with a functional intellect. Eventually, my credulity could not endure the strain.

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One Response to The Salamander Mystery: A Tale of Two Forgeries

  1. Kent says:

    Footnote: The word “moron” was not used as a psychological (and later pejorative) term until the early 1900s. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moron_%28psychology%29

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