On the surface, Murder Among the Mormons, a three-part documentary series now on Netflix, is a perfect whodunnit. In 1985, a series of fatal bombings in Salt Lake City open up an investigative rabbit hole into the bizarre underworld of Mormon document collecting. The story comes together through a vivid layering of comprehensive interviews, archival news footage, home movies, and reenactments that are mostly reminiscent of Errol Morris (and, unexpectedly, a bit of Napoleon Dynamite). Twists and turns abound as directors Tyler Measom and Jared Hess constantly direct and undermine our suspicions… y'know, the whole "True Crime" thing.
If that sounds like it might be your jam, it definitely is. Just go watch it already.
But it's the whydunnit -- the mind-bending master plan exposed in the final episode -- that truly sets Murder Among the Mormons apart as one of the strangest and most compelling additions to the true crime genre.
[Be warned: This is a SPOILER-filled review from here on out.]
In broad strokes, Murder Among the Mormons recounts the case of Mark Hofmann, a Salt Lake City document collector who in the 1980s began unearthing valuable writings from Mormon history. Hofmann uncovered an infamous document called the "Salamander Letter," attracting considerable attention from local press and the Mormon Church (the popular nickname for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The letter, apparently written in the early 1800s by a close confidant of Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith, fundamentally challenged the entire origin story of the faith. The standard narrative held that Smith's religious mission began with an angelic visitation. But in the "Salamander Letter," Smith's revelatory experience is not with an angel, but with a talking white salamander -- uncomfortably reframing the faith's origin in the realm of folk magic rather than Christianity iconography. When forensic experts certified the document as genuine -- and the reluctant Mormon leadership publicly accepted it as such -- it threatened a damaging blow to the foundations of the religion.
On the morning Hofmann was due to deliver a new cache of potentially earth-shattering documents, a series of deadly bombings ripped through Salt Lake City, targeting Hofmann and those in his orbit. As the police investigation progresses over the first two episodes, Measom and Hess are slyly setting the stage for the grand reveal. (Final spoiler warning!) The bombings were set off by none other than Hofmann himself, in order to prevent being exposed as one of the most prolific document forgers of all time. Hofmann publicly presented himself as a lifelong Mormon, but privately he had been an atheist since his teenage years -- a proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. His ultimate mission: to prey on faith and greed for the thrill of the grift, to make bank, and to undermine and rewrite the most fundamental beliefs of the Mormon Church. His taped confessions reveal not only a naked psychopathy, but the persona of a dorky, Riddler-like villain gleefully placing puzzles and toying with his victims.
Hofmann's exposure as a forger, con artist, and murderer had profound implications in the Mormon world. Mormon leaders -- who had officially accepted Hofmann's documents as genuine writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith -- were now forced to eat crow. What does it mean for Mormons if their "Prophets, Seers, and Revelators" could not discern Hofmann's lies?
Murder Among the Mormons is a nested story of deception. Crucially, Hess and Measom are just as interested in the story of the deceived as the deceiver. They're fueled by questions like: What makes you vulnerable to being deceived? What keeps you blinded to the evidence in plain sight? What is it like to finally realize you were betrayed, to lose your faith in someone or something? The most difficult, heart-wrenching moments in the series come as interviewees -- Hofmann's friends, family, and associates -- process their own gullibility and culpability.
Shannon Flynn, the documentary's most vivid interview subject, grapples at length with his blindness to the truth about Hofmann, one of his closest friends. "It's easy for people to nowadays say, 'Well, couldn't you see that? What's the matter with you?'" Then Flynn responds to his own question: "In the moment, I didn't suspect 'cause I didn't want to. Just have to be honest about it. I didn't want to."
Hofmann's own taped confession reinforces this viewpoint: "People tend to ignore anything that does not fit within their own beliefs. They reject the facts because it means giving up their beliefs for which they've sacrificed so much. I wouldn't go as far to say I wanted to change Mormon history. Let me take that back. Uh, maybe I did."
A vast majority of the Netflix audience will overlook the message written in invisible ink throughout the series. But for anyone who grew up in Mormon culture, they'll be able to see a central thesis written in big, bold letters: Joseph Smith was the Mark Hofmann of his day. (Only if they want to see it, of course.)
Being raised Mormon in Utah, I heard whispers about the Salamander Letter and the Mark Hofmann bombings growing up, but never heard the full story. It was taboo; the implications were too unthinkable. And for Mormon and Mormon-adjacent audience members, this explosive documentary may reopen some old wounds.
Biographical parallels between Smith and Hofmann are threaded together from the very beginning. For one, 14-year-old Hofmann's disillusionment with religion echoes 14-year-old Smith's oft-cited epiphany that all religions were wrong. And a vignette about teenage Hofmann's treasure hunt fraud will, for Mormons familiar with slightly more obscure history, evoke Joseph Smith's hustle as a treasure hunter at age 19. Though a sensitive subject, this period of his life is openly acknowledged on the Mormon church's website.
Then, both men stumbled on a bigger lost treasure. In Smith's case, this was the Golden Plates, supposedly a set of ancient writings which Smith translated into the Book of Mormon. For Hofmann this was the "Anthon Transcript," a storied but long-lost facsimile of the ancient characters on the Golden Plates themselves, transcribed by Smith's own hand. According to Smith, the Anthon Transcript had offered conclusive proof of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a literal translation of ancient text. Too bad it disappeared, until Hofmann happened to find it.
Take also the revelation that Hofmann planned as his masterstroke to create a forgery of the "116 lost pages" of the Book of Mormon Manuscript. Measom and Hess offer minimal context for the casual viewer here, but average Mormons will immediately recognize the staggering import. These "lost pages" essentially constitute the long-missing opening chapters to the Book of Mormon. If Hofmann was successful in his forgery, his words would be canonized as scripture and incorporated into every printed copy of Mormon scripture forevermore, just as the Salamander Letter had been accepted as foundational fact. (And he could easily have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn't kept that single incriminating receipt.)
But Hess and Flynn's boldest agitation comes during the documentary's final montage. Shannon Flynn shares a stirring monologue over a montage of Hofmann's acts, but some of the shots are composed like paintings of Joseph Smith that would be familiar to any Mormon's eyes. And, more explicitly, shots of Joseph Smith's name and the iconic Salt Lake Temple cut in at deliberate moments. Flynn's concluding statement is laden with double meaning, "I don't wanna make a hero out of him. Because he was fantastic. No one has come close to doing what he has done. The depth of knowledge and understanding and his autodidactic ability is unprecedented. His ability to deceive unparalleled. I should've suspected. We all should have suspected. We didn't. People don't want to know."
Murder Among the Mormons ultimately is structured to subtly plead the case that Mormonism may well be Joseph Smith's own Hofmann-style con, perpetuated by humanity's propensity for self-deception. After all, if a psychopathic homicidal con artist like Mark Hofmann was capable of replicating and convincingly rebooting the most fundamental narratives of Mormon history, all of Smith's achievements are called into question. Hofmann's disturbing philosophy is validated by the film: "If something seems true, and becomes accepted as true, it becomes true." Flynn adds: "Does that mean we're all living lies?"
Directors Measom and Hess have thus far played coy in the press circuit; they're not taking sides, not attacking the Mormon faith, just presenting objective facts, yadda yadda. It's hard to imagine an alternative, when the Mormon church has reportedly used its considerable sway to kill previously attempted TV portrayals of these events. In any case, Murder Among the Mormons' systematic deconstruction of Mormonism -- and perhaps religion in general -- speaks for itself. Still unknown is whether that audience will choose to see the message hidden in plain sight. After all, people don't want to know.
TV Guide rating: 5/5
Murder Among the Mormons is now streaming on Netflix.