(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Murder Among the Mormons
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: A docuseries about a series of bombings in Salt Lake City, and their connection to the Latter Day Saint movement.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: There are many true crime docuseries these days, and all of them are inexplicably too long. There’s clearly a certain quota to hit somewhere, and streamers are pushing filmmakers to make a requisite number of episodes to keep people binging. Thankfully, Murder Among the Mormons doesn’t make that mistake. It’s three episodes long and never once overstays its welcome. It’s also pretty damn fascinating.
Murder Among the Mormons is a true crime series that involves the Mormon church, which means the show also operates as a kind of crash-course in Mormonism. Comparatively speaking, Mormonism isn’t that old – it was founded in the 1820s by Joseph Smith. And much of the church rides on documents written by Smith (Smith claimed the things he wrote were transcribed from a sacred text on golden plates presented to him by an angel). As such, if new documents purported to be written by Smith, or by Smith’s contemporaries, surfaced with new information, those documents could change the face of the religion.
In the 1980s, Salt Lake City resident (and LDS Church member) Mark Hofmann claimed he found a letter in an old bible. The letter was from reported to be by scholar Charles Anthon, who lived at the same time as Joseph Smith, and appeared to contain a transcript of another letter written from Martin Harris, one of the early members of the LDS movement who claimed he had seen the holy golden plates Joseph Smith transcribed the Book of Mormon from. That in itself would make the letter a big deal, but an even bigger deal was its contents, which altered the accepted history of how Smith found those magical, holy gold plates. If the letter was authentic it could cast the church in an entirely new light.
Hofmann would soon discover more documents, but the sordid tale doesn’t end there. Soon, two people connected to the LDS movement, and Hoffman, were killed by bombings, and Hofmann himself was badly injured in a car bombing. But as the investigation deepens it becomes pretty clear that Hofmann forged his documents and carried out the bombings himself.
While all of this happened in the 1980s, I confess I had never heard of it – even though it made national news. I suppose people who live in Utah are aware of it, but as a whole, I don’t know how wide-known this tale is, which made Murder Among the Mormons all the more fascinating. Even better: it tells its story in three concise episodes and never spins its wheels – something so many other recent true crime docuseries have been doing lately. McMillions, the HBO docuseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly scam, is a particularly egregious example – it went on way too long. Another recent Netflix true crime docuseries – Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel – makes the same mistake, devoting entire episodes to elements that are ultimately pointless. Some stories require longer episodes and deeper dives, but so many others are just pushing it. Filmmakers would be wise to follow Murder Among the Mormons‘ lead, and cut the crap.
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