Wait…Who Wrote This?

Humanity has come a long way with communication and the mediums it takes to make it work – phones, emails, telegraphs, essays, plays, and countless others. It is difficult to think of a method of communication humanity has not tried, but even more important than the mediums used are the ideas that were given priority to be expressed. Yet, the transmission of ideas is not always done for the sake of expression, rather it can be a way for much more influential powers to steer their audience into their desired direction. If one wanted to exert any power over any audience, they are more likely going to go to any lengths to ensure their priorities are met, including  Although an effective medium for communication, letters are more effective when they are forgeries because they manipulate events, people’s reputation, and politics and religion to serve the forager’s objectives and beliefs of changing and rewriting history.

Mary, Queen of Scots, is evidence of one such incident. An heir to the English throne and contemporary ruler of Scotland, Mary appeared to have a solidified position in the upper class. Her second husband, Darnley, was a different story though, as he was described as immature, drunk, and irresponsible. The couple was married in 1565, and only on the basis that they were first cousins and had direct royal blood, did they have equal power over the throne. This sparked a lot of tension between the two, with Darnley demanding full authority over Scotland and Mary defending the crown from him. The arguments between the two would be short-lasting as he would be found dead in 1567, with Mary marrying her third husband Bothwell only a few days after Darnley’s mysterious death. The royal court was outraged and grew suspicious that Mary had married so soon before the investigation of Darnley had even begun. In June of that same year, a servant of Bothwell’s was found murdered in the wild carrying a silver casket filled with letters. These 8 letters, named The Casket Letters, contained exchanges between Mary and Bothwell, detailing how Mary had premeditated the murder of Darnley and agreed to marry Bothwell. 

The authenticity of these letters remains a topic of debate since the original letters are destroyed and are now limited to translations and observations on their physical appearance. Some speculate that Mary was kidnapped by Bothwell and forced into marriage for monetary and power gains on his end due to how short the time was between Darnley’s death and Bothwell’s marriage. Others believing these letters to be true say that she did have a larger role in Darnley’s death because of how secret the letters were kept hidden away.

Despite this, the impact of the Casket letters is undeniable. Mary was brought into court by her sister, Queen Elizabeth, and with the 8 letters presented as evidence, she was imprisoned and beheaded for treason against Elizabeth. With the two heirs of the throne dead, Queen Elizabeth now had control over Scotland and total control over England’s throne. According to historian Dr. John Guy, “The sole evidence that [Mary] was a part to the murder plot comes from them [the Casket Letters]. There is no other proof,” he states “Her guilt or innocence depends on whether the letters are true or false.” With the case of Mary, her reputation as an independent yet strict queen was twisted into being a murderer and treasonous to the throne, making it much easier for elites and the court to turn against her. Small factors such as the lack of her signature at the bottom of the paper, despite it being mandatory for royalty to do so, or even the story of how the letters were even found in a silver casket carried by a murdered footman with an unknown murderer was overlooked because the mobs of the general public wanted her out and off the throne. It is due to these contradictions and lack of investigation and defense on Mary’s half that these letters are definitely forgeries. They played a larger role because it was impersonating a person to show alternate actions that may in reality contradict the truth. They were weaponized to break down Mary’s position, villainize her, and lead to her death.

Another case is with Mark Hofman and the Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saint Days, or Mormonism, is a branch of Christianity that follows the Book of Mormon but has a lack of history due to missing letters and lost information. Due to their lack of physical evidence, it is easy to add or subtract significant historical factors within the religion. Enter Mark Hofman, who began his official career in forgeries in 1980 with the impersonating of a 17th-century king as a ‘reformed Egyptian.’ Because of his deep interest and hobbies with history, religion, and letters, he gained extensive knowledge on how to create convincing forgeries (including aged paper, proper ink, and handwriting studies) and an initial positive reputation for uncovering ‘genuine’ letters from collectors within the Mormon Church. His reputation would then be solidified after being authenticated by the contemporary Mormon historian Kenneth W. Rendell. Hofman’s work would not only change courses of history but religion itself due to his experience as a Mormon. 

Beginning in 1984, Hofman impersonated Martin Harris, a Mormon patron responsible for the first printing of the Book of Mormon, writing to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. These letters supported that Smith turned towards magical practices to discover gold and buried treasure, and instead of an angel messenger for significant religious events, there was a white salamander. Dubbed as the ‘Salamander Letters,’ these letters, as well as Hofman’s later Mormon forgeries would have a great impact on the Church as teachings were revised to include depictions and interpretations of salamanders. Later forgeries would describe how the Book of Mormon came into creation, more details of black magic, and Smith’s personal life, all of which were sold to the Church. 

His downfall would be the Church itself as the public began to become suspicious of the fact he could provide so many historical artifacts on the excuse that he had connections with many collectors and a strong devotion to the faith. These actions wouldn’t continue as Hofman would then be arrested in 1986 for forgery, counterfeit, and primarily murder, killing two people previously for exposing his fake letters in 1985. To this day, the Church struggles to discern its history as Hofman’s forgeries have created a lasting sense of paranoia when Mormons approach church history. The 1987 investigation revealed that Hofman had planned to add the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, but the information hasn’t been proven nor have they been able to discern Hofman’s lies and the Church’s original text. No one is certain how many letters were made up by Hofman.

The question then becomes: How can the audience reading these letters overlook such little mistakes and then believe these forgeries? While letters are a form of communication, letter-writing also can be utilized as a weapon because it impersonates a person of authority. Rather, forgeries and fake information have a greater impact, not just because of the contents or the lies told with the letter, but because of who is writing the letter. If a random independent student published an article stating lies about how there was an extra planet in the solar system, it would go mostly unnoticed. However, if an established scientist would put out the same article, many more people would be on board because of his position and authority bias, as can be seen in the case of Hofman. People are more likely to believe text if the source providing this seems credible and believable. Therefore, the impact of these forgeries is partially reliant on who is being impersonated. With just this one factor, one may rebuttal that an audience may not fall for this information if they trust the writer of these letters, no matter how credible they seem. In this sense, they would be correct but are forgetting an important factor of letters: the recipient’s relationship to the letters contents.

Audience bias for the desired outcome will lead to their interpretation and use of the letters to drastic measures. If a person has favoritism towards a subject or figure, they are likely to lead towards information that supports their cause. In Mary’s case, she was unpopular in her royal court. Whether it was due to Elizabeth’s greater power over her or the character of husbands she had, Mary was not liked by the elite population due to the amount of controversy surrounding her with her multiple marriages, practice of Catholicism, and preference towards her sister. English people were eager to get her off the throne as soon as possible and for Elizabeth to take over. When they were given the chance, they seized it. Her execution was dependent upon 8 letters that aren’t even proven to be real, but the court overlooked small details to fulfill their wishes. With Hoffman, he took advantage of a religion that based most of its beliefs on a history lacking historical items and created ‘evidence’ that completely contradicted its original teachings and intentions. The religion could’ve been easily manipulated to give sense to otherwise outrageous ideas once looked at closer. In spite of this, Hofman was able to accomplish the forgeries because Mormon followers were looking for answers that he could provide.

Letter writing has played an important role in communication, but it also signifies historical events in history. Without the letters of men in the army, perhaps war couldn’t have been won because the information wasn’t received, or two friends couldn’t be reunited. They can also characterize people as role models by showing us different sections in their lives and how they interacted with the people in a given period. That being said, once someone manipulates the information and attempts to play with the timeline of their life and actions, the image of said role model changes. Letter writing can be used as a device to communicate, but it is most impactful when they are forged because they lead to the greatest changes and damage through impersonation and manipulating the audience’s beliefs.

Works Cited

Blanco, J. I. (n.d.). Mark William Hofmann: Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers. Mark William Hofmann | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://murderpedia.org/male.H/h/hofmann-mark.htm

Bryce, T. (2017, September 12). The honest truth: The troubled life of Mary, Queen of Scots and controversy. The Sunday Post. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.sundaypost.com/fp/the-honest-truth-the-troubled-life-of-mary-queen-of-scots-and-controversy/

Edinburgh : Adam and Charles Black. (1890, January 1). The casket letters and Mary Queen of scots : With appendices : Henderson, T. F. (Thomas Finlayson), 1844-1923 : Free Download, borrow, and streaming. Internet Archive. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://archive.org/details/casketlettersmar00henduoft/page/n9/mode/2up

J.B. Haws, “The Lost 116 Pages Story: What We Do Know,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, edited by Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 81–102.

Harper Collins. (2016). THE LEGITIMACY OF THE LETTERS. Almeida Theater. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://almeida.co.uk/the-legitimacy-of-the-letters

History.com Editors. (2010, February 9). Mary, queen of Scots beheaded. History.com. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mary-queen-of-scots-beheaded

Hofmann forgeries. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/hofmann-forgeries?lang=eng&adobe_mc_ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.churchofjesuschrist.org%2Fstudy%2Fhistory%2Ftopics%2Fhofmann-forgeries%3Flang%3Deng

Jones, R. A. (1987, April 5). The white salamander murders : Mark Hoffman’s discoveries had shaken the Mormon church. : Then a bomb went off. and then another. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-04-05-tm-3-story.html

Ridgway, C. (1964, January 1). The Casket Letters. The Tudor Society. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.tudorsociety.com/the-casket-letters/ 

Villius, H. (1985). The Casket Letters: A Famous Case Reopened. The Historical Journal, 28(3), 517–534. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2639137

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