A Great Salt Lake City Forged Cover

The following is an adaptation of an article, “The Case Of The Alligator Ink”, that appeared in Opinions VI – Philatelic Expertizing – An Inside View, published by the Philatelic Foundation in 1992. The cover is believed to have been manufactured by the master forger, Mark Hofmann.


 Figure 1 .  An 1849 cover from Great Salt Lake City to Council Bluffs , Iowa .

             On October 15, 1985, two bombs exploded in Salt Lake City , Utah, killing two people. On the following day another bomb exploded injuring Mark Hofmann, a well-known dealer in Mormon manuscripts and seller of the so-called “Salamander” letter. On January 23, 1987, after a plea bargain agreement had been reached, Mark Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception, including forgery. Articles have since appeared in various manuscript publications regarding detection of some of the forgeries. A cover, believed to have been forged by Mark Hofmann, was submitted to the Philatelic Foundation for expertization in 1991.

             The cover (Figure 1) addressed to Iowa, bears a “ G. S. L. City, Cal, April 12, 1849” two-line postmark of Great Salt Lake City and is rated “40” in manuscript. The marking was unrecorded prior to 1984 when a photocopy of the cover was submitted, with impressive supporting evidence, to David Phillips for listing in the 1985 edition of the American Stampless Cover Catalog. The marking was subsequently listed under California , Utah and Unorganized Territory with an asterisk denoting institutional ownership.[1]

             The historical background will be examined first. Brigham Young, leading a group of Mormons, began a permanent settlement in the Great Salt Lake Valley in September 1847. On January 18, 1849 , Great Salt Lake City was awarded a post office, under California jurisdiction, and Joseph L. Heywood was appointed postmaster. By the end of February 1849 bimonthly mail service between Great Salt Lake and Kanesville ( Council Bluffs), Iowa , had been approved but no contract to actually carry the mails was awarded. In the interim until regular mail service could be established, private expresses were sent out at irregular intervals under the direction of Brigham Young. A mountain express man, Allen Compton, was employed to carry a mail express from Great Salt Lake to Kanesville in April 1849. Rather detailed information regarding this trip exists because a journal was kept by Thomas Bullock, supervisor of this express. Compton left Salt Lake City on April 14, 1849 with nine other men carrying a total of 502 pieces of mail. The mail party arrived at Kanesville on May 26, 1849 , and its arrival was duly noted in the local newspaper on May 30, 1849 .

             The cover bears a two-line, handstamped postmark dated “ April 12, 1849 ” in a highly unusual type style. Dated two days prior to the departure of the express to Kanesville, the date is certainly plausible. The use of the unusual script type style is also supported by historical fact. On January 20, 1849 , the first printing in the valley was performed by Truman Angell, using the only type fonts available. He produced Mormon currency of various denominations (Figure 2). It can be seen that the fonts used to produce the currency are identical to those that appear in the postmark. The ink of the postmark has a somewhat grayish cast to it and the individual letters of the impression are slightly broken. The grayish cast is reminiscent of some modern fakes produced using ink formulated without enough oil. However, a non-standard ink formulation could be expected on such a usage, and the breaking up of the individual letters is not uncommon on covers postmarked during the colder months. There is no postmark offset on the reverse of the cover. 


Figure 2 .  Currency prepared using the same style type font as found on the cover.  Note the signature of Thomas Bullock, supervisor of the express.

             Next, attention was turned to the manuscript portions of the cover. The cover is addressed to George A. Smith, Esq., Council Bluffs, Iowa. George A. Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith, was a prominent Mormon and is known to have resided in Council Bluffs in 1849. The manuscript rate of “40” is more of an enigma. The ink, at first glance, appears to be identical to the ink used in addressing the cover; and the rate, for a cover carried east to Iowa, is unusual. The address is written in a handwriting very close in appearance to that of Thomas Bullock, mentioned above as being a secretary to Brigham Young, and involved in supervising the express. His handwriting frequently shows letters drawn individually rather than connected to adjoining letters and has a slant approaching the vertical. It is not surprising, then, that the rate and the address are in the same hand.

             The rate designation is the fist really troublesome feature of the cover. Effective July 1, 1845 , letters carried over 300 miles were subject to 10 cents postage. By the act of August 14, 1848 , letters from places on the Pacific Coast in California to places on the Atlantic Coast were subject to 40 cents postage. The other 1849 usages from Salt Lake City, posted after contract mail service had been established, both bear 10-cent rates. However, an 1850 cover is reported that does bear a 40-cent rate, it was probably sent via Panama rather than overland.  A 10-cent rate should have been sufficient for carriage of the subject cover, in spite of the fact that the Salt Lake Office was listed as California for administrative purposes, because the mails were not carried via San Francisco and Panama to the east. The other possibility is that the “40” appearing on the cover represents an express charge. A 40-cent express charge is reported to have been collected by A. W. Babbitt for one of his 1848 express trips from Great Salt Lake, excepting letters “to the poor, widows, and solider’s (sic) wives.”  An express charge, however, would almost certainly have been pre-paid rather than collect as on the subject cover. No express fee due to a private carrier would have been collected by the receiving postmaster.  Later in this article I’ll discuss what I think an express cover, carried on the April 1849 trip, should look like, if one exists.  It is still possible that a governmental rate of 40 cents was charged, but I consider it improbable.

             The cover itself is noteworthy. It is of very pale brown paper and homemade. The flap is affixed with a wax seal. It is not made from a single piece of paper, as most are, one side flap being a separate cutout. The fact that it is a cover rather than a folded letter is in itself bothersome. If genuine, it would represent an early usage of an envelope, especially from the Far West . Envelopes did not see wide-spread general usage until the second half of 1849. The very pale brown paper that the cover is made from is almost exclusively associated with the period after 1853.


 Figure 3.  “Alligatoring” of the ink of the “0” of the “40” manuscript rating.

             The physical appearance of the ink, especially in the “40” rate area, next drew special attention (Figure 3.). In this area there is a lightening of the ink that is not consistent with interruption of the ink flow when the numerals were fist written. It appears to the naked eye as though there was some kind of chemical manipulation of the area, possibly from stain removal. The cover was then examined under the ultraviolet, black light lamp (Spectroline model B-100) to see if anything could be learned about the weakness.

             Under the ultraviolet light all of the ink on the cover, including the ink splotch at the right-hand edge of the cover, exhibited peculiar characteristics.  There was a distinct hazing around each letter and a peculiar deep reddish coloration.  Both the front and back of the cover showed signs of a chemical treatment but nothing exceptional appeared in the area of the weakness of the numeral that would have indicated special treatment of the area. The fact that the ink splotch at the right exhibited identical characteristics was a surprise. The conclusion was that the ink of the splotch was the same as the other ink on the cover. This provided the first real clue as to the true nature of the cover.

             The cover has been opened at the right hand side and at the bottom. These two edges are frayed in a manner which is distinctly atypical. The paper fibers are still very fresh and not smoothed out as one would expect from a cover opened over 100 years ago. The ink splotch at the right edge, where the cover has been opened, goes completely through to the reverse of the cover. The ink has stained both interior surfaces and completely fills the paper fibers at the frayed edge. This finding indicates that the ink stain occurred after the cover was opened.  If it had been stained prior to opening, one would expect to find some paper fibers not stained. This fact is obviously not consistent with the fact that the ink is the same as the other ink on the cover, supposedly applied when the cover was mailed.

             The preponderance of the evidence, at this point, indicates that the cover is a forgery. However, because of the strong supporting historical evidence, coupled with the fact that it was reported to have been found in a archival holding, further examination using a microscope was performed. The manuscript portions of the cover exhibited a peculiar cracking of the ink that is not found when examining genuine writing of the period. This characteristic is identical to that discovered by Bill Flynn and George Throckmorton when they proved several documents sold by Mark Hofmann to be forgeries. This ink cracking was aptly termed “alligatoring” by them. They proved that this phenomenon was caused by the artificial aging of ink by duplicating the process in a lab and observing identical results. This finding conclusively proved that the patient cover is a forgery.

             Now, having established that the cover is a forgery, I wanted to determine if further evidence could be found that might shed light on how the cover was manufactured. Two books regarding the Mark Hofmann affair, Salamander by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts and A Gathering of Saints by Robert Lindsey, were consulted.  From these books and a partial transcript of an April 30, 1987, interview with Mark Hofmann, conducted by R. Stott, a prosecuting attorney, and Brad Rich, a defense attorney, much was learned about the forgery techniques used by Hofmann. Forged documents, written in the hand of Thomas Bullock, are recorded; and a most interesting exchange is to be found on page 465 of the interview transcript.

 Interviewer’s question: Do you remember if you ever had a stamp plate made by a professional engraver or did you make them all yourself?”  

Mark Hofmann answer:  I may have had a Salt Lake City postmark made professionally, as I remember, but all of them dealing with these, that I am charged with, I made myself.”


Figure 4.  A July, 1849 letter from Salt Lake City by express to Kane (Kanesville), Iowa . From the Floyd Risvold collection.

        It might be worthwhile to speculate, now, as to what a genuine folded letter carried on that April 14, 1849 , trip might look like. I think that because the Salt Lake post office did not have contract service, the item would most likely not have a Salt Lake City postmark. It is possible that because there was a postmaster appointment, it would bear a postmark.  In either case, as the letter would have entered the mails at Kanesville, I would expect it to have a manuscript Kane, Iowa, postmark dated between May 26, 1849, and May 30, 1849.  Kane was the post office name for Kanesville.  It would most likely have a 10-cent rate. Since the express was operated and paid for by the Mormons in Salt Lake City , I think any express charges would have been paid for there, and I would not expect any type of express endorsement to appear. A genuine folded letter, from a July, 1849 Mormon express, which exhibits the characteristics described above is shown (Figure 4).  

[1] At this time the cover was represented as belonging to the Latter Day Saints archive in Salt Lake City . It was shown by Mark Hofmann to a prospective customer, Lamar Peterson, while in the archives. Later Hofmann told Lemar Peterson  that he had traded material to the Church for the cover and it was sold to Peterson.  It was subsequently purchased from Peterson, as a Hofmann forgery, after the above work was completed.  The cover is presently in the James Gamett Collection.

Richard Frajola (January, 2002)