Death and the Historian’s Empathy

By July 27, 2016

My grandmother’s best friend was murdered on October 15, 1985 by Mark Hoffman. Kathy Sheets was not the intended target of the bomb that ended her life but that didn’t really seem to matter to the bombmaker, forger, and murderer. Hoffman also murdered Steve Christensen, one of my grandfather’s business partners, in an attempt to divert attention from his money problems related to forging early American documents. Many of Hoffman’s most famous forgeries were documents supposedly created by 19th century Mormons, including letters, receipts, currency, and legal affidavits.

I have known of Mark Hoffman’s crimes since I was very small. My grandparents kept a photograph of Kathy Sheets in their home and she looks startlingly like my grandmother. In fact, for many years I did not know the photograph was of Kathy, I just thought it was my grandmother.

I did not connect Kathy’s death to the Hoffman bombings until I took a course at BYU on Mormonism and the American Experience. My professor called the Hoffman crimes “tabloid Mormon history” that nonetheless deserves proper attention, consideration, and mourning. The professor decided to give a brief overview and to focus on the lives lost and the LDS Church’s involvement in Hoffman’s professional life, including purchasing documents and assisting him acquire capital to purchase promised documents. From what I remember, the professor turned the historical episode into a didactic moment about the fallibility of both church leaders and academics (Hoffman’s forgeries were accepted by well-respected historians, institutions, and authenticators alike). But because of my family’s personal connection to the Hoffman murders I did not seek out further information. I was not ready to deal with that pain, even if it was really my grandparents’ sorrow.

That changed a few weeks ago, when I was reading to my 15 month-old daughter. My daughter had selected a book from a stack my parents had given to us to help instill a love of reading in the mind of our beautiful little girl. As a historian that wants to publish books, I nerdishly insist on reading the names of the author and illustrators of each book before I begin with the prose. In one book, on the author’s page, I found a note from Kathy Sheets to my mother on the occasion of her fifth birthday. She wrote of her love for her and that she hoped she would love reading as much as my grandmother. I recognized that this goal matched my mother’s own wish that her grandchild would learn to love to read like her because she loves her so much.

This simple inscription elicited an intense emotional reaction within me. I decided it was time to read Rick Turley’s historical account of the LDS Church and the Hoffman forgeries/bombings, called Victims. In the book, shortly after describing Kathy’s death, Turley inserted a photo of her, beaming at an unidentified photographer’s lens. Though not the same photograph my grandparents kept in their home, this headshot still startlingly looked like my grandmother. I didn’t sleep very well that night.

Kathy Sheets

Kathy Sheets

The next day I thought a lot about what it is to study the lives of the dead. And to recover what they loved or hated, did or didn’t do, or write about any aspect of their lives and times. But more importantly, I thought about the lives of those they left behind. I love Drew Faust’s work on how death shaped the lives of civilians, militiamen, and armed service medical personnel in the Civil War Era. I think Sam Brown’s work works in a similar way in the first decades of Mormonism. But their work did not cause me to consider the life of an individual that would have probably been lost to history without her death coinciding with such a high-profile criminal case. Kathy Sheets and Steve Christensen, the wife of one of my grandfather’s business partners and a former business partner, will stick with me. I never knew them. I have inherited my church’s pain related to Hoffman’s crimes. But I have also inherited a pain from my mother and grandparents, which feels much deeper. The first pain is part of religious life–owning the strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures of one’s religious tradition. The second pain is part of family loss–a biting, nagging reminder that death has torn apart loving relationships.

I want to maintain this empathy with historical actors. Empathy is a gift for the historian. However, emotional attachment can skew perspective and impede the construction of argument. One must understand without losing perspective. One must interpret as fairly as possible.

I don’t how to solve the tension between understanding and interpreting. But I know that I can’t escape it, either. A historian must learn to live with the joy, heartbreak, anger, and humor of historical subjects but press forward and construct arguments independent of how one feels about the people he or she writes about.

Last week, after writing this post, I set out to write in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. The first book I pulled down from a shelf was donated in the memory of Steve Christensen. The loss bit me. Then I went to work.

Steve Christensen

Steve Christensen

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Beautiful, J. I couldn’t do history as an intellectual game, or without a constant and genuine awareness that these were and are real people, whose lives matter. Being fair to the dead, in every sense, is more important than brilliantly “proving” some argument by manipulating words and juggling bits of evidence. That sometimes leads me toward being less charitable to living historians than perhaps I should be … but the living can still act for themselves in this world, and the dead need us to speak for them. It’s a responsibility.

    Comment by Ardis — July 27, 2016 @ 7:17 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis. Your writing and research embodies what Grant Wacker once said should be the golden rule of writing: praise wherever possible and do not criticize beyond what’s necessary to tell the truth.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 27, 2016 @ 7:49 am

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Joey. Empathy is an important part of the historical process and yet it is too often washed out of historical scholarship.

    Comment by Jordan Bratt — July 27, 2016 @ 7:57 am

  4. Thanks, JS. Beautiful.

    Last month as we studied the Mountain Meadows Massacre in one of my classes, I learned I had a descendant of Isaac Haight in my class. (I’ve had lots of Lee descendants, but Haight descendants haven’t had to deal with it as clearly.) She read her umpteenth-great grandfather’s journal very differently than had I, but it reminded me of the necessity of that empathy even for those to whom we would like to give black hats and label completely other from ourselves. We don’t want to be like them, but if there is opposition in all things, then there is likewise opposition in all of us. Being honest and balanced and empathetic is a strength.

    Comment by JJohnson — July 27, 2016 @ 8:17 am

  5. Thanks for this, Joey.

    Comment by Christophwr — July 27, 2016 @ 9:17 am

  6. Thanks, J Stuart.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2016 @ 9:23 am

  7. Yes, thanks, Joey. Your comments struck me as something of a Proust’s madeleine, transporting me back to those very dark October 1985 days when the world seemed to have literally turned upside down. And I couldn’t agree more with your call for empathy.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 27, 2016 @ 9:46 am

  8. So good, Joey. I try to emphasize this kind of empath in my teaching. Thanks for a powerful post.

    Comment by Jason K. — July 27, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

  9. ” praise wherever possible and do not criticize beyond what?s necessary to tell the truth.”

    This is very useful to me, shadowboxing with Joseph Fielding Smith in my work.

    Comment by Ben — July 27, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

  10. Thanks, everyone. It was a difficult post to write but one I felt I needed to write.

    Ben: I’ve had my own journey in that regard. I look forward to what you write!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 28, 2016 @ 10:20 am

  11. a. wonderful.
    b. check out Kate’s talk at the Bushman funeral rehearsal at BYU last month. it’s about some of these same, important questions, in a very Mormon key.

    Comment by smb — July 28, 2016 @ 9:48 pm

  12. Thanks, smb. I’ll check out Kate’s talk ASAP.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 29, 2016 @ 3:35 pm


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