Steers’ new book Hoax sheds light on history’s frauds
Steers is nationally known as a Lincoln expert, a cloak he put on after retiring from a career as a biochemist and moving to Berkeley Springs in the 1990s.
This time out, he uses his knowledge of both history and science to explore such topics as whether President Franklin Roosevelt knew the Pearl Harbor attack was coming and the background of the fraudulent Hitler diaries of 30 years ago.
Hoax begins with a detailed account of Mark Hoffman, one of the most accomplished forgers the world has ever seen.
In the early 1980s, Hoffman made a name for himself as a researcher who could track down amazing documents, like the never-before-seen “The Oath of a Freeman,” the first thing printed in the New World in 1638. He went on to uncover countless letters and papers related to Mormon history, a hot collectors’ market.
Thing is, Hoffman fabricated each and every piece, and “experts” authenticated his products as the real thing. He made a bundle, but he also lived high and the cost of continually coming up with new forgeries took its toll.
In 1985, Hoffman murdered one of his unfortunate customers, who had prepaid for a trove of Mormon documents that the forger couldn’t produce. He is now serving a life term in a Utah prison. Some of his creations still circulate on the collectible paper goods market.
Many of Steers’ topics, like what FDR knew about Pearl Harbor or the Shroud of Turin, seem inspired by the endless stream of TV documentaries that are often attention-getting but filled with misinformation.
For instance, he explains that there’s really little doubt that the Shroud of Turin was created by a European artist about 700 years ago and does not date to biblical times.
As for being prewarned about Pearl Harbor, Steers says that’s also a myth. He traces the claim to the transcript of a phone call in which British Prime Minister Churchill allegedly tipped off Roosevelt. But the transcript was fabricated by FDR’s critics and doesn’t report a real call at all.
After telling the tale of the Piltdown Man, an early 20th century fake “missing link,” Steers ends with what is familiar ground for him – the missing section of John Wilkes Booth’s dairy.
Story goes that dozens of pages are missing from the diary that Booth kept in the days after Lincoln’s assassination.
Some believe these pages were removed by the authorities because they put Booth in a good light or involved Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in the plot.
Once again, the facts don’t add up to a conspiracy. From the start, investigators tried to figure out why the pages were missing. They knew that Booth tore out some to use as notepaper, and suspected most of the others were used in similar ways.
The mid-1970s saw a claim that a descendant of Stanton had the missing papers, but no diary pages or other evidence have ever surfaced.
Hoax, with its recounting of detective work in search of the truth, is published by the University Press of Kentucky.
Reviewer I.M. Booker reads and lives in West Virginia.