Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

originally published September 22, 2014

“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans.

Bolton was a professor at U of C, extolling upon class after class the wonders of Sir Francis Drake’s journey, and describing the historical brass plate that was believed to have been planted when Drake’s party arrived at the west coast, somewhere north of Alta, California in 1579. Francis Petty, a member of Drake’s party, described the plate in a later retelling of the story, though it had never been uncovered. Bolton’s fellow “Clampers” (as they like to be called) knew that Bolton told all of his students to be on the lookout for the brass plate, and to contact him if they found it. To a group of pranksters, this is an easy invitation.

This is George Ezra Dane. Along with fellow Clamper Charles Wheat, Dane concocted the ultimate prank for Bolton. They enlisted George Barron, the curator of American History at the De Young Museum in San Francisco to design the plate and buy the brass. George Clark, a local appraiser and art critic, hammered the letters onto the plate. Using the historical account that Francis Petty had provided a few centuries earlier, the plate was made to look as authentic as possible. It had to look real in order to fool Bolton.

One last little gag was slipped onto the plate: the letters ECV (for E Clampus Vitus, of course) were painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. They dropped the plate in Marin in 1933, fairly close to the spot where it’s believed Drake had landed. It was soon located by chauffeur William Caldeira. Caldeira showed it to his employer (who was a member of the California Historical Society), and stashed it in the car to investigate later. A few weeks later Caldeira found it again, but not wanting to bother with the hassle he simply tossed it by the side of the road in San Rafael. There it remained lost.

For a while.

A shop clerk named Beryle Shinn found it three years later, and through a friend it found its way into Bolton’s possession. By now the conspirators had probably chalked up the prank to a failed endeavor, but for Bolton the fun was just beginning. It was the plate he’d been seeking for decades, the fulfillment of a lifetime of historical academia. He alerted Robert Gordon Sproul, the University’s president, as well as Allen Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society. They immediately made arrangements to purchase the plate for $2500.

Shinn was happy to sell, but he took the plate to “show his uncle” and disappeared for a few days. Chickering panicked, believing they were about to lose a huge find, so he upped the offer to $3500. The plate was purchased.

On April 6, 1937, Herbert Eugene Bolton announced to the California Historical Society that the plate had been found and authenticated by him. With Sproul’s and Chickering’s support, the University and the California Historical Society had just placed their reputations behind the authenticity of this totally bogus plate.

Sure, there were skeptics. Reginald B. Haselden, a specialist in Elizabethan literature, published a heap of criticism about the plate, including its wording and grammar. There was a way to counter each nitpick though, leaving a haze of confusion alongside the sole pillar of emphatic support: the “authentication” provided by Bolton and Chickering.

At this point, the practical jokers couldn’t step forward and confess – far beyond splattering some egg on Bolton’s face, the unveiling of the truth behind the plate would now seriously damage his career. They tried dropping a few hints. One fellow Clamper created a spoof of the plate. Another one published a small press book that actually picked apart every flaw in the plate, and even instructed the reader to check the back for some fluorescent paint.

Bolton didn’t budge. Instead he enlisted Professor Cohn Fink, head of the Division of Electrochemistry at Columbia University, to authenticate the plate. This would do it, thought the conspirators. This will end the prank.

Nope. Fink confirmed the plate’s authenticity. The plate became real, it found its way into textbooks, and copies of it were later given to Queen Elizabeth II in ceremonies when she visited America. The paint on the back was never found. For the records of history, the plate was fact.

Professor James D. Hart was the one who would finally unmask the truth. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until the early 1970’s, some twenty years after Bolton had passed away, and about 40 years after the prank had been set into motion. He sent the plate for x-ray diffraction, stereo microscopy and metallurgical analysis at Oxford University, then for neutron activation analysis at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Tests showed the plate was too smooth, contained too much zinc and too few impurities to be Elizabethan English brass. At MIT they examined the edges and determined it had been cut by modern equipment. The jig was up.

After a decade of analyzing the timelines of the people involved, a group of historians announced in 2002 that they had conclusively traced the origins of the brass plate, and identified the pranksters involved (all of whom were long dead).

If nothing else, this story demonstrates how carefully we must pick over every detail of history – how we know it, why we know it, and who figured it out. Also, if ever the opportunity should arise for an amateur historian (such as myself) to be invited to join the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, one would be a fool to turn the offer down. They sound like a fun bunch of cats.

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