"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott certainly was not describing the intriguing story told in "The Poet and the Murderer" by Simon Worrall, but his prophetic words fit perfectly. Worrall has taken hold of a complex and interesting subject -- forging historic and literary documents -- and untangled its many strands to weave a coherent and eye-opening narrative.
This true story might seem impossibly opaque if not for the author's dogged journalistic pursuit of the facts and his ability to construct a plausible chronology and credible motivations of the many people involved.
In 1997, Worrall's interest was piqued when he read that an unpublished poem by Emily Dickinson had been discovered and purchased for the Jones Library in Amherst, Mass. Dan Lombardo was the curator who had raised the necessary $21,000 to bid on this gem at Sotheby's auction house and bring it home with pride. But a further horrid discovery revealed to Lombardo the poem was a fake, a fraud perpetrated by a master forger named Mark Hofmann who was serving a life sentence in Utah for murder.
Lombardo's career could be ruined. His only hope lay in exposing the hoax along with Sotheby's suspected complicity and thereby restoring his reputation.
Worrall takes the reader into the mind and mission of Hofmann, a man of extraordinary talent who as an adolescent began forging rare coins. Raised in the Mormon faith in Salt Lake City, he broke with the church emotionally and intellectually while maintaining a surface compliance. He wanted to exploit the arrogance and weakness he saw in the entrenched hierarchy and rattle the foundations of Mormonism.
Hofmann began to practice the art of forgery, manufacturing documents so seemingly authentic, yet so potentially damaging to the church, that the chief officers paid him huge sums for them, hoping to hide them away. In a period of five years, they bought 450 documents for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet Hofmann leaked news of his "discoveries" to the press in devious ways and made fools of the church leaders.
All this while, Hofmann led a placid existence in the Salt Lake community. An upright married man with three children, he set up a laboratory in his basement, mixing chemicals for ink and aging elements for paper. As his reputation as a dealer in rare documents grew, he gained access to the finest library collections and was not above stealing volumes or ripping blank pages from books to use for his forgeries.
He expanded his range. For chump change, he would purchase first editions of 19th century novels and "autograph" them by Mark Twain or Harriet Beecher Stowe to enhance the value. He created "letters" by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone.
Hofmann was a clever genius who manipulated people at first for the sheer fun of it. Worrall makes the point that a forger is like an actor, immersing himself in the part, using a "feeling for dialogue and character" to create documents with the "ring of authority." Hofmann's forgeries fooled examiners at the top libraries. Even the FBI could not debunk his work.
In some ways, this part of the story is enticing and Robin Hood-ish. The dazzling creativity of forgery, the exacting research necessary to emulate authenticity is, well, admirable. This man was dedicated and mostly taking advantage of the highly gullible and wealthy people who hang out at Sotheby's or Christie's, trying to impress their friends by owning something important.
I recall so well the hysteria surrounding the sale of Jackie Onassis' personal belongings and the crowds paying thousands of dollars for her wastebaskets. The auction market is big business indeed, driven by hype and supported to the tune of $30 billion a year by people with huge amounts of disposable income.
Worrall's astonishing revelation is that even in this charged and highly voracious atmosphere, getting away with selling phony documents is not that difficult! People want to believe, they want to be told stories. That is the plain truth. They participate in their own deceptions.
Say as a child, you had fun-loving parents who carefully placed an old-looking map somewhere for you to "discover," and that map had a big black X marking the spot of buried treasure. If you wanted to believe so much that you went digging, then you understand the wisdom of Worrall's insight.
Hofmann rationalized that if he created a document that was so well done that even experts could not detect the fakery, there was no fraud. So, what's the harm?
I remember an afternoon in the British Museum -- the old British Museum -- when I pushed aside a blue velvet drape over a locked glass case and peered down at the original manuscript of "Jane Eyre." The thrill is with me now -- Charlotte Bronte's neat writing, her occasional scratching out of a word, the palpable sense of the moment of creation.
The real scholars -- several of whom are the heroes of this book, and the reverence they hold for precious and immortal work, the hours and years they spend toiling away to collect and preserve manuscripts and letters -- are harmed and mocked by the Hofmanns of the world. Hofmann wanted to make powerful people look stupid, but he snared good and trusting people in his crimes as well.
Hofmann's snarled schemes blew up, literally, as he became more ambitious and desperate for money. Caught in his own many traps, the only way out seemed to be plotting the murder of two men who were squeezing him for payment, threatening him with exposure and bankruptcy.
As skillfully and scientifically as he mixed his forging potions, he constructed bombs and carried out two murders. He was caught and put in prison in 1985. He was 31 years old.
The consequences of his crimes go on. A dozen years later, the Emily Dickinson poem surfaced, auctioned off by the people at Sotheby's who, according to Worrall, knew better. Hofmann is not the only villain here.
Even though this book is excellent reading, I must note some jarring weaknesses. One unforgivable paragraph compares Hofmann's art to Dickinson's, as though the two were analogous. Also, his lengthy psychological analysis of Emily Dickinson depends on gossip and conjecture, unproven to true Dickinson scholars. He makes a lot of assertions about Dickinson's impenetrable inner life that seem disrespectful. After all, this book has little to do with Dickinson per se, only to the extent this criminal found it possible to fabricate a poem of hers that fooled a few people for awhile. Such was Hofmann's hubris, he thought his poem was better even than some of hers!
Worrall includes facsimiles of the forged poem and a real poem of Dickinson's -- a useful display. Read this book for its solid reporting and interesting characters. Skip the passage on Emily's psyche and read one of her poems instead -- this one, for instance.
"Between My Country -- and the Others --
There is a Sea --
But Flowers -- negotiate between us --
(The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery by Simon Worrall, Dutton, 263 pages, $23.95)