Cover image for The poet and the murderer : a true story of literary crime and the art of forgery
The poet and the murderer : a true story of literary crime and the art of forgery
Worrall, Simon.
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Publication Information:
New York : Dutton, [2002]

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xv, 270 pages : facsimiles ; 22 cm
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HV6684.U8 W67 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV6684.U8 W67 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In The Poet and the Murderer, acclaimed journalist Simon Worrall takes readers into the haunting mind of Mark Hofmann, one of the most daring literary forgers and remorseless murderers of the late twentieth century.He was a young Mormon boy who loathed what he believed to be the hypocrisy of his faith, and who devised secret ways to infiltrate and undermine the church. Mark Hofmann began his career by forging and selling rare Mormon coins, and quickly moved on to creating false, highly controversial religious documents that threw the Church of Latter-Day Saints into turmoil. But it was his infamous Emily Dickinson poem that would prove his greatest deception, stunning the art and literary worlds and earning him thousands from the most distinguished Dickinson scholars. It would also prove his ultimate undoing, when his desperation to keep his greatest forgery a secret drove him to commit ever more heinous crimes-including acts of shocking violence.Filled with the page-turning suspense and tantalizing sleuthing techniques of a literary thriller, The Poet and the Murderergives us an unforgettable portrait of a deeply irreligious man and a brilliant con artist whose greatest talent-and greatest tragedy--was his ability to conceal his mad genius behind the unique gifts and enduring celebrity of others.

Author Notes

Simon Worrall lives in East Hampton, New York.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

When a writer can make the formation of letters in handwriting an act of breath-holding suspense, you know you're in good hands. Journalist Worrall infuses the crime of forgery with the thrill of creation, spiced with the knowledge that one false micromove can mean discovery and ruin. In 1997, Sotheby's unveiled what experts believed was a newly discovered poem, "That God Cannot Be Understood," by Emily Dickinson. A few weeks later, the exciting discovery was revealed to be a forgery by a man who had already convincingly forged documents by more than 100 literary and historical figures, including Daniel Boone and Betsy Ross. This book examines the psychology of master forger and murderer (he killed two people who threatened his unmasking) Mark Hofmann. It also stands as a compelling forensic case study of forgery. From interviews with Emily Dickinson scholars, auctioneers, and forensic-document experts, Worrall pieces together the arduous artistry of forgery. A true-crime standout. --Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the spirit of The Island of Lost Maps, journalist Worrall's compelling debut explores the career of a counterfeit artist and the world of literary forgery. When a newly discovered poem by Emily Dickinson surfaced in a Sotheby's auction in 1997, a library in the poet's hometown quickly snatched it up. Four months later, however, the poem was returned as fake; it was the work of Mark Hofmann, a rare books dealer and a master falsifier who was then in prison for murder. Using the Dickinson incident as a guide, Worrall reconstructs the life and crimes of the 20th century's best forger (Hofmann's fake of the 17th-century "Oath of a Freeman" passed a carbon 14 dating test). A Mormon by birth, Hofmann had a contempt for his religion that led him to counterfeit its missing sacred documents: he made his own inks, used chemicals to "age" the paper, fabricated documents to authenticate others and spread misinformation to bolster his authority. The lies and subterfuges of this meticulous though imperfect confidence man resulted in the murder of two innocent people, one of them a man who could have exposed him. Some of Worrall's depictions of minor characters feel a bit hackneyed, but his rendering of Hofmann's deep-seated frustrations is engrossing, and positing the forger's quasi-political subversions against the Mormon faith and what he saw as its illusions makes for a juicy read. A history of literary forgery and forensic accounting of handwriting keeps the pages turning, though a late return to the reclusive Dickinson feels like a forced justification of the title. Photos not seen by PW. (May) Forecast: This should be widely reviewed, and fans of literature and true crime will stream to the bookstores. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Introduction It was a cold, crisp fall day as I walked up the driveway of the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. A row of hemlock trees along the front of the house cast deep shadows on the brickwork. A squirrel scampered across the lawn with an acorn between its teeth. Entering by the back door, I walked along a dark hallway hung with family portraits, then climbed the stairs to the second-floor bedroom. The word Homestead is misleading. With its elegant cupola, French doors, and Italian facade, this Federal-style mansion on Main Street, which the poet's grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, built in 1813, is anything but a log cabin. Set back from the road, with a grove of oaks and maples screening it to the rear, and a large, concealed garden, it was, and is, one of the finest houses in Amherst. The bedroom was a large, square, light-filled room on the southwest corner. One window looked down onto Main Street. From the other window I could see the Evergreens, where Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, and her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert Dickinson, had lived. Halfway along the east wall was the sleigh bed where the poet had slept, always alone, for almost her entire life. She was less than five and a half feet tall, and the bed was as small as a child's. I prodded the mattress. It felt hard and unyielding. In front of the window looking across to the Evergreens was a small writing table. It was here that Dickinson wrote almost all of her poetry, and the nearly one thousand letters that have come down to us. Poems came to this high-spirited, fiercely independent redhead in bursts of language, like machine-gun fire. She scribbled down drafts of poems, mostly in pencil, on anything she had to hand as she went about her daily chores: the backs of envelopes, scraps of kitchen or wrapping paper. Once she used the back of a yellow chocolate-box wrapper from Paris. She wrote a poem on the back of an invitation to a candy pulling she had received a quarter of a century earlier. The pain-staking work of revision and editing was done mostly at night at this table. Working by the light of an oil lamp, she copied, revised, and edited, often over a period of several years, the half-formed thoughts and feelings she had jotted down while baking gingerbread, walking her invalid mother in the garden, or tending the plants in the conservatory her father had built for her, and that was her favorite place in the Homestead. I stood by the table imagining her working there, with her back to me, her thick hair piled on top of her head, the lines of her body visible under her white cotton dress. Then I hurried back down the stairs, crossed the parking lot to where I had left my car, and drove the three quarters of a mile to the Jones Library on Amity Street. There was a slew of messages on my cell phone. One was from a gun dealer in Salt Lake City. Another was from the head of public relations at Sotheby's in New York. A third was from an Emily Dickinson scholar at Yale University named Ralph Franklin. I did not know it at the time, but these calls were strands in a web of intrigue and mystery that I would spend the next three years trying to untangle. It had all begun when I came across an article in The New York Times, in April 1997, announcing that an unpublished Emily Dickinson poem, the first to be discovered in forty years, was to be auctioned at Sotheby's. I did not know much about Dickinson at the time, except that she had lived an extremely reclusive life and that she had published almost nothing during her lifetime. The idea that a new work by a great artist, whether it is Emily Dickinson or Vincent van Gogh, could drop out of the sky like this, appealed to my sense of serendipity. Who knows, I remember thinking, maybe one day they will find the original manuscript of Hamlet. I thought nothing more about the matter until four months later, at the end of August, when I came across a brief four-line announcement at the back of the "Public Lives" section of The New York Times. It reported that the Emily Dickinson poem recently purchased at auction at Sotheby's for $21,000, by the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, had been returned as a forgery. What sort of person, I wondered, had the skill and inven- tiveness to create such a thing? Getting the right sort of paper and ink would be easy enough. But to forge someone else's handwriting so convincingly that it could get past Sotheby's experts? That, I guessed, would be extremely hard. This forger had gone even farther. He had written a poem good enough for it to be mistaken for a genuine work by one of the world's most original and stylistically idiosyncratic artists. Somehow he had managed to clone Emily Dickinson's art. I was also curious about the poem's provenance. Where had it come from? Whose hands had is passed through? What had Sotheby's known when they agreed to auction it? The illustrious British firm of auctioneers was much in the news. There were stories of chandelier bids and gangs of professional art smugglers in Italy and India. Had Sotheby's investigated the poem's provenance? Or had they known all along that the poem might be a forgery, but had proceeded with the auction in the hope that no one would be able to prove it was? To find out the answers to some of these questions I called Daniel Lombardo, the man who had bought the poem for the Jones Library in Amherst. What he told me only heightened my curiosity. A few days later I packed a bag and headed north from my home in Long Island toward Amherst with a copy of Emily Dickinson's poems on the seat beside me. It was the beginning of a journey that would take me from the white clapboard villages of New England to the salt flats of Utah; from the streets of New York to the Las Vegas Strip. At the heart of that journey were a poet and a murderer. Finding out how they were linked, how one of the world's most audacious forgeries had been created and how it had got from Utah to Madison Avenue, became an all-consuming obsession. In my search for the truth I would travel thousands of miles and interview dozens of people. Some, like Mark Hofmann's wife, spoke to me for the first time on record. But I quickly discovered, the "truth," where Mark Hofmann is concerned, is a relative concept. Whether it was his friends and family, or the dealers and auction houses who traded in his forgeries, all claimed to be the innocent victims of a master manipulator. Who was telling the truth? Was anyone? It was like pursuing someone through a labyrinth of mirrors. Paths that promised to lead out of the maze would turn into dead ends. Others that appeared to lead nowhere would suddenly open, leading me forward in directions I had not antici- pated. Nothing was what it seemed. Ahead of me, but always just out of reach, was the forger himself. William Hazlitt's description of Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello-"diseased intellectual activity, with an almost perfect indifference to moral good or evil"-applies in equal measure to the man who once said that deceiving people gave him a feeling of power. Mark Hofmann was not just a brilliant craftsman, a conjuror of paper and ink who fabricated historical documents with such technical skill that some of the most experienced forensic experts in America could find no signs of forgery. He was a master of human psychology who used hypnosis and mind control to manipulate others and even himself. He was a postmodernist hoaxer who deconstructed the language and mythology of the Mormon church to create documents that undermined some of the central tenets of its theology. He was successful because he understood how flimsy is the wall between reality and illusion and how willing we are, in our desire to believe in something, to embrace an illusion. When the web of lies and deceit began to unravel, he turned to murder. We are drawn to those things we are not. Journeying into Mark Hofmann's world was like descending into a dark pit where all that is most devious and frightening in human nature resides. In the course of that journey I would hear many strange things. I would hear of golden plates inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, and lizards that talked; of angels and Uzis. I would see the corruption beneath the glittering surface of the auction houses, hear lies masquerading as truth, and the truth dismissed as lies. I would encounter detectives and dissident Mormons; forensic documents experts and cognitive psychologists; shapeshifters and frauds. After three years spent trying to unravel the riddle posed by one of the world's greatest literary forgeries, I feel that I have come as close to the truth as I can possibly get. It is for you, the reader, to decide what it means. Prologue He thought he had gone under deep enough, but as he followed the curve of the letter m, he felt a momentary tremor like the distant rumbling of an earthquake. It began deep in his cerebral cortex, then traveled along his nerve ends, down his arm, into his hand, until finally it reached his fingers. The tremor lasted only a microsecond, but it was long enough to cause a sudden tightening of the muscles like a rubber band stretching. As he reached the top of the first stroke of the letter m, and the pencil began to plunge back down toward the line, he had felt his hand tremble slightly. Laying down the pencil, he began to slow his pulse. He relaxed his breathing and counted in patterns of seven as he pulled the oxygen in and out of his lungs. He imagined warmth circulating around his body like an ocean current, and he concentrated on funneling it into his fingertips. As the world contracted to a point between his eyes, he took a fresh sheet of paper and began to visualize the shape of each letter until he could see them laid out on the page in sequence, like an image projected on a screen. He had spent days practicing her handwriting: the h that toppled forward like a broken chair; the y that lay almost flat along the line, like a snake; and that distinctive t, which looked like an x turned sideways. As he felt himself go deeper into the trance, he began to write. This time he wrote fluently and without hesitation, the letters spooling out of his unconscious in a continuous, uninterrupted flow. It seemed as though she was inside him guiding his hand across the page. As he signed her name, he felt an immense rush of power. He got up and stretched. It was three in the morning. Upstairs, he heard the baby begin to cry and his wife's footsteps as she went to comfort him. Crossing the darkened basement, he took down a plastic bag from a shelf where he had hidden it the day before, behind a pile of printing plates. After removing a length of galvanized pipe, he drilled holes into the skin of the cast iron end cap, threaded two wires through the holes, and attached an improvised igniter onto the wires. Then he packed gunpowder into the pipe and threaded on the remaining end cap. In the morning he would drive out to Skull Valley to test the bomb. He got out the two battery packs he had bought some days before at Radio Shack and took down an extension cord from a bracket on the wall. Then he packed everything into a cardboard box. He laid the box next to the poem. It was no great work of art, he thought. But it would do. Chapter One Emily Dickinson for Sale D Daniel Lombardo, the curator of Special Collections at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, had no idea, as he set off almost twelve years after the events of that night, to drive the fifteen miles to Amherst from his home near West Hampton, that the shock waves from that bomb were about to shake the foundations on which he had built his life. It was a glorious day in May, and as he made his way over the Coolidge Bridge in his Fiat Spider sports car, with the top down and his favorite Van Morrison album playing on the tape deck, life felt about as good as it could get. Lombardo loved his job at the library. He was writing a book. He was playing the drums again. His marriage was fulfilling. As he dropped down over the hills toward Amherst, he thought about the announcement he was about to make to members of the Emily Dickinson International Society who had traveled to Amherst from all over America for their annual meeting. If things worked out as Lombardo hoped they would, if he could raise enough money, he was going to be able to make a lasting contribution to the community he had come to call home. Lombardo vividly remembered the moment when he had first seen the poem. He was sitting at his desk on the top floor of the Jones Library, a large eighteenth-century-style house built of gray granite in the center of Amherst, leafing through the catalog for Sotheby's May 1997 sale of fine books and manuscripts. Lombardo knew that original, unpublished manuscripts by Dickinson were as rare as black pearls. Indeed, it had been more than forty years since a new Dickinson poem had been found. In 1955 Thomas H. Johnson, a Harvard scholar, had published a three-volume variorum edition, fixing the Dickinson canon at 1,775 poems. But because of the unusual way that Dickinson's poems have come down to us-she published almost nothing during her lifetime and was extremely secretive about what she had written (after her death many poems and letters were destroyed by her family)-there has always been a lingering feeling that new material may come to light. The year before, two unknown Dickinson letters had suddenly been found. Who was to say that new poems were not out there, hidden in a dusty attic in Nantucket or the back of a book in a decaying New England mansion? The poem was listed in the Sotheby's catalog between a rare 1887 edition of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, bound in green Morocco leather, and an original watercolor cartoon of Mickey Mouse and Pluto. The catalog described it as an "autograph poetical manuscript signed ('Emily')." The juxtaposition with Mickey Mouse would have delighted Dickinson, thought Lombardo, as he took out an Amarelline liquorice from the tin he had brought back from a recent trip to Sicily and settled back to read the poem. It was written in pencil, on a piece of blue-lined paper measuring eight by five inches. On the top left corner was an embossed insignia. And the poem was signed "Emily." In red ink, at the top right corner of a blank page attached to the poem, someone had also written, "Aunt Emily," in an unidentified hand: 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 With his elfin features, bushy, russet-brown beard, and shoulder-length hair, Dan Lombardo looks like one of the characters in Tolkien's The Hobbit. He weighs one hundred pounds and stands five feet two inches tall. Getting up from his desk, he walked over to the imposing, cupboardlike safe standing in the corner of his office. It was taller than he was, made of four-inch-thick steel, and had a combination that only he and the library's director knew. Inside it were manuscripts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Spinning the wheels of the combination lock until the door clicked open, Lombardo took out several Dickinson manuscripts and laid them on his desk. One was a letter from 1871. The other was a poem called "A Little Madness in the Spring," which Dickinson had sent to a friend, Elizabeth Holland, in 1875. Written on the same kind of notepaper, in a similar hand, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the poem in the Sotheby's catalog. It was even written in pencil and signed "Emily:" A little Madness in the Spring Is wholesome even for the King But God be with the Clown- Who ponders this tremendous scene- This whole Experiment of Green- As if it were his own! Lombardo compared the handwriting. Emily Dickinson's handwriting changed radically during her lifetime. Yet the handwriting from within each period of her life is generally consistent. Lombardo was not an expert, but the handwriting in both poems looked the same. The tone and content of the poems seemed similar as well. The high-water mark of Dickinson's poetry had been reached the decade before. By the 1870s the flood of creativity that had given the world some of the most heart-powerful and controlled poems ever written in the English language had begun to recede. Dickinson was in her forties. Her eyesight was failing. Her creative powers were declining. Many poems from this period are just such minor "wisdom pieces" as this one seemed to be. The fact that the poem was signed on the back "Aunt Emily" suggested to Lombardo that it had been written for a child, most probably Ned Dickinson, the poet's nephew. In 1871 Ned would have been ten years old. He lived next door to her at the Evergreens, and Dickinson, who never had children of her own, adored him. The feeling seems to have been reciprocated. Ned frequently ran across from the Evergreens to visit his brilliant, eccentric aunt. On one occasion he left his rubber boots behind. Dickinson sent them back on a silver tray, their tops stuffed with flowers. Perhaps this new poem was a similar gesture, thought Lombardo. He knew she had sent Ned other poems that playfully questioned religious beliefs, like one sent him in 1882. It was also written in pencil and signed "Emily:" The Bible is an antique Volume- Written by faded Men At the suggestion of Holy Spectres- Subjects-Bethlehem- Eden-the ancient Homestead- Satan-the Brigadier- Judas-the Great Defaulter- David-the Troubadour- Sin-a distinguished Precipice- Others must resist- Boys that "believe" are very lonesome- Other Boys are "lost"- Had but the Tale a warbling Teller- All the Boys would come- Orpheus' Sermon captivated- It did not condemn. The possibility that it had been sent to a child added to the poem's charm. The image many people had of Dickinson was of a lonely, rather severe New England spinster who spent her life immured in the Homestead, under self-elected house arrest; the quintessential artistic genius, driven by her inner demons. It was how the public liked its artists. The poem showed another side to her that Lombardo felt was more truthful. Instead of the Isolata of legend, she appears as a witty, affectionate aunt sending a few quickly scribbled lines of verse across the hedge to her adored nephew. Lombardo was particularly excited by the new poem because, although the Jones Library has a fine selection of manuscripts by another former resident of Amherst, Robert Frost, including the original of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," it had only a few manuscripts by the town's most famous daughter. Almost all of Emily Dickinson's letters and poems are at two far wealthier institutions: Amherst College, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Since becoming curator of Special Collections in 1983, Lombardo had devoted himself to building up the Jones Library's collection of her manuscripts. The chance to buy a poem that the world had never seen was a unique opportunity. After looking at the handwriting Lombardo did a cursory check of the paper. For this he consulted the classic two-volume work The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, by Ralph Franklin, a Yale University scholar widely regarded as the world's foremost expert on Dickinson's manuscripts. The poem in the Sotheby's catalog was written on Congress paper, which was manufactured in Boston. It was lined in blue and had an image of the Capitol embossed in the upper left-hand corner. According to Franklin's book Dickinson had used Congress paper at two different periods in her life: once in 1871, and again in 1874. The poem in the Sotheby's catalogue was dated 1871. Lombardo told himself that it was absurd to think of buying the poem. The Sotheby's estimate for the poem was $10,000-$15,000. But Lombardo was sure this would climb to as much as $20,000. The Jones Library had only $5,000. But in the days that followed, he became more and more excited at the prospect of acquiring the poem. He felt strongly that Dickinson's works belonged in the town where she had created them. As William and Dorothy Wordsworth are to Grasmere, in England, or Petrarch is to Vaucluse, in France, Emily Dickinson is to Amherst: an object of pride and an industry. Each year thousands of Dickinson's fans, from as far away as Japan and Chile, make the pilgrimage to the Homestead. Cafés offer tins of gingerbread baked to her original recipe. Scholars fill the town's bed-and-breakfasts and patronize its restaurants. The poet's grave is always decked with flowers. Some years earlier Lombardo had had the idea of throwing a birthday party for Dickinson. On December 10 children from the town and surrounding area were invited to the Jones Library to wish the poet many happy returns and play games like "Teapot" and "Thus Says the Mufti," which Dickinson herself played as child. Dressed in period clothes-a top hat, burgundy-colored waistcoat, and leather riding boots-Lombardo would tell the children about the poet's life, and how it connected to the town. Lombardo did not have children himself, so he always enjoyed the occasion. At the end of the party one of the other librarians would appear from behind a curtain, dressed in a long white pinafore dress, black stockings, and black shoes. Of course, the older children knew it was just the librarian, dressed up in funny clothes. But he could tell by the light shining in the eyes of some of the younger children that they really believed it was Emily Dickinson herself. That's what Dan liked to think, anyway. He had acquired several Dickinson poems before, but they were not new poems, like this one. To acquire it would be the crowning event of his career. The fact that the Jones Library was a public library, not a university, where ordinary people could go in and see the poem, made him even more determined. By chance the annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society was scheduled to take place at the Jones Library, and Lombardo decided to use the occasion to launch an appeal. The meeting took place in the Trustees Room, a beautiful wood-floored reception room with a fireplace at one end of it. People had come from all over the United States. After a lunch of sandwiches and potato chips Lombardo gave a brief presentation on the poem and outlined what a marvelous opportunity this was for the library. As soon as he had finished his speech, a Dickinson scholar from Case Western University stood up and pledged $1,000. Others excitedly followed. A retired doctor who had traveled down from Kankakee, Illinois, to attend the meeting pledged $1,000. It was like a spark going around the room. Graduate students who could barely afford to pay their rent offered $100. By the end of the meeting Lombardo had pledges for $8,000. With the Jones Library's $5,000 he now had $13,000. Some of the scholars at the meeting privately doubted the quality of the poem. It seemed too trite, too simplistic, even for a first draft. But no one voiced their reservations. Everyone was swept along on a wave of euphoria. "We were all starting on a great adventure together," Lombardo thought. He had no doubts about the poem's authenticity. After all, it was being auctioned by the illustrious house of Sotheby's, from whom he had bought several other manuscripts for the Jones Library. Over the weekend, however, he did one more thing to authenticate the poem: he called Ralph Franklin at Yale University's Beinecke Library. Franklin is the world's leading expert on Dickinson's "fascicles," the improvised books she made by sewing together bundles of poems. Franklin's Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson is the definitive word on the subject. After her death Emily Dickinson's fascicles were unbound and the poems pasted into scrapbooks, and Franklin spent years laboriously reconstructing the original order of the poems. Franklin told Lombardo that he had been aware of the poem since 1994, and that he was planning to include it in the new edition of his book, due to be published in late 1997. For Lombardo it was a gold seal of approval and he spent the rest of the weekend on the phone, trying to raise more money. News of the poem had gone out on the Internet, and pledges poured in. It helped that the stock market was in the longest bull run in its history. Several donors gave dividends from their investments. By Sunday night Lombardo had raised $17,000. A meeting of the Friends of the Jones Library, a local support group, the day before the auction, brought even more money. One donor, a retired physicist from Alexandria, Virginia, called to say he wanted to double his donation. By Monday evening-the auction was the next day-Lombardo had $24,000. Less the commission that Sotheby's would take, this meant that Lombardo had $21,000 to bid. For the first time, as he went to bed that night, he felt he had a real chance of being able to buy the poem. It was a hot summer night. There was no moon and barely a breeze. Outside in the garden a raccoon scratched at a trash can. Next to him his wife lay on her side, breathing quietly. Lombardo closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But he could not stop thinking about the auction. He was a small-town librarian up against some of the wealthiest academic institutions and collectors in the world. Everyone in Amherst would be watching him. He could one day leave his work behind and feel that he had made a real contribution to his community. At the same time he was gnawed by a feeling of insecurity that he might let everyone down. For most of his life Lombardo had felt like an outsider. As a young man he used to say to his friends that all he really wanted to do was have time to read and hike. He wasn't completely serious. There were plenty of other things he liked doing, but there was some truth in his claim. Books were his passports to the world, a place where his imagination could roam free. Hiking was his way of staying connected to the earth. Walking along a back-country path, surrounded by trees, and water, and light, and animals, he felt both humbled and enlarged. Humbled, because in comparison with the vastness of the universe he felt like the tiniest atom. Enlarged, because he knew he was part of the great continuum of life. His hero in high school had been Henry David Thoreau. Lombardo must have read Walden Pond fifteen times. If he went hiking, he usually took his well-worn copy with him. It was more than a book. It was guide to life, and he dreamed of living the spare, simple existence that Thoreau had lived. As he lay in bed, worrying about what the next day would bring, he remembered an incident from his boyhood in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Lombardo had grown up in an Italian-American family. His father, Jimmy, who had come to America from Sicily as a child, had been the town barber. Everyone knew and liked Jimmy. He was the sort of warm, happy-go-lucky man that everyone would stop and greet as he walked down the street. Lombardo adored his father. On summer evenings he would sit on the back stoop listening to him playing the mandolin, singing the Sicilian love songs with which he had courted his mother on the other side of the world. When, at the age of five, he heard that his father had been elected president of the local barber's union, Dan assumed that he had been elected president of the United States. There was, however, another side to his father that Dan came to know about only later: a dark, fatalistic side that he had carried with him to the New World from his native Sicily; a feeling that, however good life might seem at the moment, the drought would come, you would lose the farm and spend the rest of your life eating beans. He suffered from depression, and could not wait for the summer to come each year so he could return to Sicily and play his mandolin under the stars, in cafés that looked over the Mediterranean. One year, Jimmy came home from Sicily and deliberately drove his car into a railway bridge. The discovery of his father's attempted suicide traumatized Lombardo. If he had been so wrong about his father, how could he be sure that anything was what it appeared to be? This sense of dissonance between his own perceptions of the world and how things really were, the feeling that he was never quite sure what was real and what was not, undermined his ability to direct and manage his life. Like most nonconformists in the sixties, Lombardo grew his hair long and rebelled. He learned to play the drums. At the University of Connecticut he immersed himself in the works of Thoreau and his contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson. Dickinson's withdrawal from the world of getting and spending had chimed with the zeitgeist of the sixties and with Lombardo's own search for meaning in his life. He tried teaching, but the rigidities of the school system alienated him. After a brief time spent in Puerto Rico, and a stint on a commune in Massachusetts, he found the life he had been looking for at the Jones Library. At the time of his arrival, in 1982, the Jones Library's rich collection of literary and historical manuscripts was languishing in obscurity, the victim of budget constraints. The books, photographs, and manuscripts were poorly catalogued, and dispersed over nine rooms on two floors. Lombardo lobbied long and hard for funding. Working with an architect, he then oversaw the restoration of the second floor of the Library where the Special Collections were housed. Lombardo wanted to make the people of Amherst feel that the Special Collections department was not just for scholars and academics but belonged to everyone. He helped design a large exhibition space and a reading room with armchairs and Persian rugs on the floor. Using old photographs and other archive material, as well as their manuscripts, he organized permanent exhibitions on both Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, which became destinations for travelers and school groups, as well as scholars. He wanted people to experience these writers not as the remote historical figures of academic study but as flesh-and-blood people who had lived and worked in the town, just like them. He began to write a weekly column in the Amherst Bulletin about every aspect of the history of the town. It was not the usual quaint version of local history. Lombardo was interested in the nitty-gritty of life, not the poetic illusion. He described the lives of prostitutes and the abuse of opium. He wrote about the entertainers who had passed through the town and the conditions in the surrounding factories. Readers loved these stories and clipped them from the paper. When Garrison Keillor came to Amherst to broadcast Tales of Lake Wobegone, he wove several of Dan's stories into his monologues. Meanwhile, Dan went on improving the Special Collections section. He oversaw the installation of state-of-the-art climate-control systems; equipped a paper conservation studio; and ushered in the digital age by computerizing the cataloging and indexing of the library's manuscripts. He doubled the size of the historic photograph collection, broadening its scope to include rare photos of African Americans at end of the nineteenth century, as well as photos from across the country and from Europe. To get away from the idea that culture was the preserve of dead white people of European origin, he bought the Julius Lester Collection, the archives of a prominent African American writer and activist with close connections to Amherst. And he augmented the Frost and Dickinson collections with manuscripts he acquired at auction and through rare book and manuscript dealers. With each successfully completed project his self-confidence grew. The more he learned, the surer he felt of the decisions he made. The more others trusted and believed in him, the more he trusted and believed in himself. He could not go to the auction personally-he was leaving on a long-planned trip to Italy the next day-so he had arranged to bid by phone. The poem was Lot 74. Sotheby's had advised him that bidding would begin at 2:30 P.M. and had arranged to call him two lots before. At 2:00 P.M. Lombardo installed himself in the director's office in the basement of the Jones Library. All calls come in there, and Lombardo wanted to be sure that he had an open line. On the desk in front of him he had a sheet of figures that told him at each point of the bidding what Sotheby's 12.5 percent commission would add on. Lombardo disliked telephone bidding. Things move so fast, and there are no visual cues as to how many people are bidding or who they are. But he had bid at auctions before, both by phone and in person, and been successful. Working as a drummer on studio sessions had also taught him about pressure. One mistake, a mishit cymbal or a slip of the foot, can ruin a take. As the minutes ticked toward 2:30 P.M., his heart began to beat faster. Finally the phone rang. A woman speaking in a low voice told him that the auction had reached Lot 69. In the background he could hear the voice of the auctioneer on Madison Avenue. He imagined the limousines lined up along the curb outside and the liveried doormen ushering in the rich and powerful collectors who lived on Central Park and spent more on travel than he earned in a year. Bidding at a Sotheby's auction was like playing in a high-stakes poker game. There was the same adrenaline rush and the same feeling of euphoria when your bid was accepted. Every time Lombardo had been involved in an auction and been successful, he had felt an enormous high. His bidding strategy was never to be in on the early stages so as not to heat up the auction. There was a write-in bid for $8,000, and the bidding on the poem started there, jumping in increments of $500 in seconds. The young woman at the end of the line kept asking, "Do you want to bid? Do you want to bid?" But Lombardo held back and grew more and more anxious. If this did not stop soon, he thought, it would spiral beyond his budget of $20,000. But at $15,000 the pace of the bidding slowed. And at $17,000 Lombardo jumped in. In poker you say, "Hit me." At Sotheby's the word is "Bid." Lombardo's first bid was immediately countered by one for $18,000. Lombardo bid again. One more bid and he would have to get out. His invisible opponent bid $20,000. Lombardo bid $21,000. It was his last bid, and he felt sure that whoever he was bidding against would keep going. But at $21,000 the hammer came down. Lot 74 was coming home to Amherst. "I went out and told everyone who was waiting outside the door," he recalled, "'We got it!' And they all started hugging me and crowding around. People were so excited. They all felt a sense of personal involvement. It was a privilege to be part of this. I was being flooded with congratulations and warmth. It was as though the sky had opened up, a lightning bolt had come down, and God said, 'This is your moment.'" Helped by a group of volunteers, he spent the rest of the afternoon calling members of the Emily Dickinson International Society. Twenty-four hours later he boarded a plane to Italy. The trip with his family-to Rome, the Adriatic, and the medieval hill towns of Umbria-was an important family occasion. His aging mother would probably be seeing the relatives she had grown up with for the last time. As the plane sped toward Italy, he felt, literally, on top of the world. On his arrival back in Amherst on August 18, the first thing Lombardo did was to go through all the articles that had been written about the poem. People in Amherst had already started to come into the library to see it, even though red tape at Sotheby's meant that it would take several more weeks to arrive. In the meantime Lombardo began to organize an exhibition for the end of July, with the theme of how to date a poem. He would draw attention to similarities in the handwriting with two other Dickinson manuscripts the library owned. So, he wrote a brief essay about the paper and the boss mark. And, again, he consulted with Ralph Franklin at the Beinecke Library. According to Franklin the handwriting exactly matched the date given by Sotheby's, 1871. Lombardo was particularly curious to know who had written the words "Aunt Emily" on the back of the poem. They were in a different hand. Unlike the poem, which was written in ordinary black lead, the words "Aunt Emily" were in what appeared to be red pencil. Lombardo's first supposition was that they had been written either by Ned or Martha Dickinson, the poet's nephew and niece. He had samples of Martha's handwriting at the library. For Ned's handwriting he contacted Brown University, who sent him photocopies of letters that Ned Dickinson had written to his sister. Neither matched. This did not especially worry him. Dickinson had numerous cousins, on both her father's and mother's side. Perhaps the poem had been written for one of her cousins in Boston, Fanny or Lou Norcross. Perhaps one or the other of them had written "Aunt Emily" on the back of the poem, then filed it away as a memento of her illustrious relation. Lombardo also wanted to present to the public as much information as he could about the poem's provenance. In the historical documents world the chain of transactions known as provenance is the gold standard of authenticity. But provenance is much more than a simple list of commercial transactions. It is the story of a document or a book's journey across time, and the people whose lives it has touched. To find out as much as he could about the poem's provenance, Lombardo called Marsha Malinowski, one of the two Sotheby's employees who had handled the sale. Malinowski was a senior expert in the Department of Books and Manuscripts, and vice president of Sotheby's. She was charming. She told Lombardo how delighted she was that the poem was going back to Amherst and that she would be happy to try and find out who had consigned it for auction. But for the moment all she could say was that it had come from a collector, who had got it from dealer in the Midwest. Who had died. Three days later Lombardo was sitting at his desk in the Jones Library when the phone rang. It was a long-distance call from Provo, Utah. The man at the other end of the line introduced himself as Brent Ashworth. He said that he was an attorney and that, in his spare time, he was a keen collector of historical documents. Ashworth also mentioned that he was the chairman of the Utah branch of the Emily Dickinson Society. Lombardo assumed that he was calling to congratulate him on the purchase of the poem. People had been calling or e-mailing for weeks. What Ashworth had to say was not, however, cheerful. One day, in Salt Lake City, in 1985, Ashworth told Lombardo, he had been offered an Emily Dickinson poem for $10,000 by a forger named Mark Hofmann. Ashworth was not one hundred percent sure that the poem was the same one that Lombardo had just bought at Sotheby's, but he was pretty certain it was. Ashworth told Lombardo something else: that when he'd seen the poem in the Sotheby's catalog, he'd immediately called Selby Kiffer, the other Sotheby's employee who had handled the sale. Ashworth had done business with Kiffer, a young, upwardly mobile manuscripts expert at Sotheby's, for many years, and wanted to warn him of the Hofmann connection. Like Malinowski, Kiffer is a senior expert in the Department of Books and Manuscripts and a vice-president (in the catalog for the June 3 sale, he was also listed as being in charge of business development). Because Kiffer had always been so zealous in reporting stolen books to the FBI, his nickname at Sotheby's was "Special Agent Kiffer." Kiffer insisted to Ashworth that he had had the poem "checked out." When Ashworth asked who had checked it out, Kiffer mentioned Ralph Franklin, at Yale University. Lombardo put down the phone and stared out the window. He had a hollow, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. Mark Hofmann, he remembered, was a Salt Lake City rare documents dealer who had created a string of sensational forgeries of Mormon historical documents in the early 1980s that undermined some of the central tenets of the church's teaching. His most famous forgery came to be known as the Salamander Letter. It purported to have been written more than a century earlier by Martin Harris, the scribe who had helped Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, write the Book of Mormon from a set of golden plates Smith claimed to have found in the ground in upstate New York. According to the founding legend of the Mormon religion Smith had been led to the golden plates by an angel. Hofmann's forgery completely undermined that legend. In it he had portrayed Smith as a money-grubbing prospector who found the plates while digging in the dirt for gold. Instead of divine intervention Hofmann's letter had described black magic and cabalism. The Mormon Church had bought the document for $40,000 in the hope that it would never be made public. It was well known that Hofmann had also produced a string of literary forgeries nearly always of American icons, charismatic historical figures who touched a deep chord in the national consciousness, like Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross, or Daniel Boone. Had Hofmann, Lombardo wondered, also created an Emily Dickinson poem? As well as being a brilliant forger, Hofmann was a master of deceit who delighted in the mayhem caused by his lies. On the outside he was a fresh-faced, bookish man who would go unnoticed in most crowds. He dressed conservatively, usually with a white shirt, tie, and jacket. He was a knowledgeable and respected dealer and collector of rare books and historical documents. He was a happily married family man who had spent thousands of dollars assembling one of America's finest collections of rare children's books, including a signed first edition of Alice in Wonderland, as a patrimony for his four children. Underneath this guise of normalcy, however, was another person whom Hofmann hid from everyone, including his wife and children. When he found himself entangled in his own web of lies, he had mutated into a cold-blooded psychopath. Lombardo still believed, and wanted to believe, that the Dickinson poem was genuine. Maybe the man who had called him from Salt Lake City was a kook and this whole thing a practical joke. Lombardo checked on Ashworth and found that far from being crazy, he was a widely respected member of Salt Lake City society, an attorney, and a serious collector of historical documents. Between 1981 and 1985 he had also bought nearly half a million dollars' worth of rare manuscripts from Mark Hofmann. "I was over at Hofmann's house all the time," Ashworth told Lombardo over the phone. "I usually went up on Wednesdays and he'd pull out something juicy he wanted to offer me. On one of those days he pulled out this Emily Dickinson." The poem's agnostic sentiments had jarred with Ashworth's Mormon faith, and he had passed on it. Then, in the late eighties, several years after Hofmann had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, Ashworth had seen the Dickinson poem again. It was lavishly framed and selling for between $35,000 and $40,000, in an upscale historical-documents store in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. The store was called the Gallery of History, part of a Las Vegas-based chain owned by a man named Todd Axelrod. The historical-manuscripts business was traditionally the curious obsession of a few hundred fanatics. There were big collectors, like Malcolm Forbes and Armand Hammer, who amassed collections worth millions of dollars, but for most people old parchment was about as exciting as, well, old parchment. Dealers generally went into the business because they loved history and culture. Few expected to make a killing. Todd Axelrod, the son of a publisher of books on domestic pets from Neptune City, New Jersey, took this rather tweedy cultural backwater and turned it into a multimillion-dollar, mass-market business. After making a fortune as a securities broker on Wall Street, he moved to Las Vegas and, in February 1982, opened the first of a number of boutique-style stores. Crisscrossing America by plane, Axelrod then set about trying to corner the market in historical documents. In all he spent more than $3 million assembling one of the nation's largest private collections of Americana: a hundred thousand historic documents preserved, as Axelrod liked to boast, to Library of Congress standards. Among this treasure trove was Abraham Lincoln's letter to Grace Bedell, the young girl who had suggested he grow a beard to help him win the presidency. The price tag was $1.25 million. Not everyone could afford an Honest Abe. So Axelrod made sure that there was something for every taste and pocketbook. There were signed photos of Elvis. Movie buffs could buy memorabilia from Gone With the Wind. For sports fans there were clip signatures from Lou Gehrig or Ty Cobb. Some of Axelrod's inventory came from a young historical-documents dealer in Salt Lake City named Mark Hofmann. In the first twenty-two months of operation Axelrod's company turned over $1.4 million and Axelrod began to open other stores in Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Costa Mesa, California. All were situated in the same kind of upscale shopping malls. All featured costly metallic fronting, lavish display cases, track lighting, and state-of-the-art climate control systems. Axelrod's target customer was a new, eighties breed of collector who did not want keep their purchases tucked away in vaults or safety deposit boxes, as old-style collectors had. They wanted to see their money hanging on the wall. It was all about "impact." A John F. Kennedy letter, matted in gray suede and framed in silver, could lend an air of probity to the boardroom of a futures trader on Wall Street. A collection of John Paul Jones memorabilia, encased in a gold frame, could make the new rich entrepreneur who owned everything feel that he even "owned" a piece of history. Competitors referred to Axelrod's company as Autographs R Us. Had Mark Hofmann forged the poem then sold it to Todd Axelrod in Las Vegas, as Ashworth had suggested? Had Axelrod then passed it on to Sotheby's? If that were the case, thought Lombardo, why had Sotheby's made no mention of this when he had called them to ask about the poem's provenance? Why had Marsha Malinowski said that it came from a dealer in the Midwest? The more he worried over the details, the more unsettled Lombardo felt. It was not just that he might have bought a forgery. Hofmann was a convicted double-murderer who had savagely killed two innocent people. The poem would be tainted with blood. If he had, indeed, bought a Mark Hofmann forgery, it would be not just a disaster for the library. Lombardo might as well empty out his office drawer. But perhaps Ashworth was mistaken. He could not exactly recall the words of the poem he had seen in 1985. Perhaps Hofmann had forged an Emily Dickinson poem, but not this one. Surely, he reasoned, no forger could ever acquire this level of knowledge about Emily Dickinson. It was not just the paper and the handwriting. It was those two words, "Aunt Emily." No forger would know this most private and secretive of poets well enough to know that though she kept almost everyone else in her life at arm's length, she had always felt at ease with children. It would have taken Hofmann months, if not years, of research to get to this level of intimacy with her. But Lombardo had to be sure if the poem was genuine. And if anyone could tell him whether it was or not, it was Ralph Franklin, at Yale University's legendary Beinecke Library. --from The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worralll, Copyright ©: April 2002, Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam,, Inc., used by permission. Excerpted from The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery by Simon Worrall All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.