Art and Artifice: A Review of The Poet and the Murderer

Recently, a Bible signed by Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa in 1932, sold at auction for $68,500.  If you’re a fan of “Antiques Roadshow,” it’s not hard to understand the craze for owning the old and rare. Consider, then, how Daniel Lombardo’s heart beat a bit faster when he learned that a newly discovered poem by Emily Dickinson had surfaced and would be put on the auction block by Sotheby’s. You see, Daniel Lombardo was the curator of Special Collections at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson’s hometown.

The poem itself isn’t that impressive. Dated 1871, it was written after her years of genius and has been described as one of her “wisdom pieces” (6). But imagine holding in your hands the piece of blue-lined Congress paper Emily Dickinson held, tracing with your fingertip her penciled spidery script slanting across the page. No newly discovered poem by Dickinson had turned up  for fifty years.

That God cannot 

Be understood

Everyone agrees

We do not know

His motives nor

Comprehend his

Deeds—

Then why should I

Seek solace in

What I cannot

Know?

Better to play

In winter’s sun

Than to fear the snow.

–Emily

 

And, then, what if you learned this poem was a forgery? This is the premise that begins Simon Worrall’s fascinating narrative The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery.

The forger in question is the infamous pipe bomber Mark Hofmann, who killed two people and wounded a third in his efforts to escape a tightening circle of creditors and who pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and twoP and M counts of deception in January 1987. Ten years later in Spring of 1997, Daniel Lombardo led a successful fundraising drive to purchase Hofmann’s forged Dickinson poem.  Why and how Hofmann  embarked on a career of forgery and why the poem he composed, “That God Cannot Be Understood,” was put up for auction as a genuine Emily Dickinson  are several of the many questions Worrall poses and answers over the course of his book.

Mark Hofmann‘s upbringing seems to have split him into two people–outwardly, a devout Mormon with good family values and inwardly, a rebel against these very beliefs.  Two seminal events  occurred almost at the same time: his discovery that his maternal grandmother was a “celestial” wife and his mission trip to England.  In 1890, the Mormons (Church of the Latter-Day Saints) had been forced to renounce polygamy even though such relationships continued in secret. Hofmann’s mother Lucille, born in 1929, was one of eleven children from this union, but that truth was taboo in the Hofmann home.  Hofmann’s mission trip to England put him in the peculiar position of proselytizing a faith  he  despised for its hypocrisy, but  freeing him to search out anti-Mormon books available in English bookstores. One in particular, Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, a critical biography of LDS founder Joseph Smith, detailed Smith’s early career “scrying” or crystal gazing for gold before he became a prophet.

Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni

Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni

In 1823, Smith claimed that an angel, Moroni, came to him in a vision and told him of a set of golden plates buried near the family farm in Vermont, plates written in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith, home schooled and practically illiterate, could read with the aid of magic goggles, known as the Urim and Thummim,  provided by Moroni. Instead of actually finding the plates, Smith buried his face in his hat and looked through the seer stones which enabled him to see and read the hieroglyphs on the plates. What he dictated to his wife became the foundation of the first major  religious faith since Islam.

Probably no religion can stand up to a scientific examination of its mythology. Noah and the Flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water–those stories  might not pass  a scientific test, but, after all, ” Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). However, the Mormon faith, not 200 years old,  should have plenty of written records available for scholarly study. And it does. But there are also missing links, which afforded Mark Hofmann the opportunity to destroy the foundations of the church.

Author Simon Worrall demonstrates how Hofmann first lured church leaders into trusting him by providing them with documents supporting the accepted Mormon story line. Then he created other documents that, if leaked, might tear down the faith. In each case, church leaders were anxious to purchase the documents without painstaking forensic examination. In Hofmann’s mind they were guilty of hypocrisy and, by not detecting his forgeries, proved themselves not to be God’s representatives. What these forgeries were and how he recreated them make absorbing reading. I especially enjoyed the chapters “The Art of Forgery” and “Isochrony,” which discusses how our handwriting is an indicator of our individuality. Did you know, for example, that the handwriting of fraternal and identical twins is as different as that between unrelated people or that “the speed of the pen or pencil, as it follows the curves of a letter, is in proportion to the tightness of the curve” (156)?

hofmann-prison-photo

Mark Hofmann

But the book asks other questions as well. What was it about Emily Dickinson’s life and writing  that made verifying this poem such a challenge? And how did Hofmann’s forgeries–100+ signatures of historical characters, perhaps 1000 documents overall– continue to come up for auction at respected houses such as Sotheby’s after being exposed by experts like George Throckmorton?

One person who wasn’t duped–or not for long–was Daniel Lombardo, who had raised $25,000 to purchase the Dickinson poem for the Jones Library in Amherst. He is one of the heroes of this book. His determination to get at the truth despite the humiliation he must have felt in spearheading the funds drive is inspiring. The evidence of the forgery was certainly not obvious–he could just as well have let his doubts go. But with the help of Dickinson expert Ralph Franklin, Lombardo dug out the truth and forced Sotheby’s to return the money.

Surely, Emily Dickinson, whose poems never blink at hard truths, must be proud of him.

A doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find.

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives.

–E.D.

(Parenthetical page citations are to the 2003 Plume edition of The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall.)

This nonfiction narrative is just as exciting and suspenseful as many fictional detective stories. Do you have a nonfiction book you’d like to recommend? 

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