Saturday, January 23, 2010

Plaque Build-Up

Q: When is a prank not a prank? A: When it's taken seriously for forty years.

Continuing on with the theme of early North American exploration, allow me to discuss a Wikipedia article on Drake's Plate of Brass. I remember reading in 4th grade that, while sailing around the world, Sir Francis Drake landed somewhere along the Northern California coast, mostly likely in what is now called (get this) Drake's Bay out by Point Reyes National Seashore. My nine-year-old imagination was tickled pink by the vision of some sailor wearing Elizabethan tights (and those neckline ruffles you always see in pictures of Shakespeare) landing anywhere even within spitting distance of my seemingly ahistorical home region. The textbook mentioned that a Plate of Brass had been found on the beach sometime in the 1930s, and historians concluded that it was indeed a fabled artifact from Sir Francis Drake's voyage.

Except it wasn't. Wikipedia has just dashed my childhood dreams by explaining that, apparently sometime after my 4th Grade textbook was published, historians finally concluded that the plate was a hoax perpetrated by "a playful fraternity of California history enthusiasts, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus ('ECV')." Oh, you know those ECV boys, always up to something. According to Wikipedia, "ECV describes itself as 'dedicated to the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes.' " So where can I sign? "G. Ezra Dane, an ECV leader, initiated the hoax as a joke intended for fellow 'Clamper' George Bolton to find." Ah, but the best laid plans of mice and men...
Von der Porten, Aker, and Allen surmise that the conspirators probably planted the plate in Marin in 1933, not far from the supposed location of Drake's landing. William Caldeira, a chauffeur, found the plate while his employer, Leon Bocqueraz, was hunting near the shores of Drake's Bay with a companion, Anson Stiles Blake. Bocqueraz was a banker, while Blake was a prominent and active Berkeley alumnus. Both were members of the California Historical Society. Caldeira showed the dirt-covered plate to Bocqueraz, then stowed the plate in the car to investigate later and then forgot about it. Some weeks later, he found it again while cleaning the car on the San Rafael Ferry and threw it away on the side of the road in San Rafael – several miles from its original location, but still in the Marin area. This was the first of a series of events that ultimately spun the joke out of the conspirators' control.
Hey, what's this big Elizabethan plate of brass doing in the backseat? Maybe I should just toss it on the side of the road?
The plate was found again three years later in 1936 by Beryle Shinn, a shop clerk. Shinn showed it to a friend, a Berkeley student, who suggested he take the plate to Bolton. In February 1937, Shinn brought it to Bolton, which to Bolton was fulfillment of a decades-old professional dream. Bolton compared it to Francis Pretty's contemporaneous description of the plate. He alerted Robert Gordon Sproul, the University of California president, and Allen L. Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society, to the possibility of a major find. Chickering and Bolton negotiated to buy the plate, offering to pay $2,500 and to assume all risk regarding the authenticity of the plate ... Bolton soon announced at a California Historical Society meeting on April 6, 1937, "One of the world's long-lost historical treasures apparently has been found! ... The authenticity of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt."
Future historians, let this be a lesson to you: do not summon the words "beyond all reasonable doubt" lightly.
The conspirators found a number of ways of trying to tip off Bolton without actually coming forward themselves. V. L. VanderHoof, a fellow Clamper and Berkeley professor, actually created a spoof of the plate only a few weeks after the announcement of the find, hoping to show Bolton that modern tools could make a plate that looked remarkably like the "real" plate. Clamper Edwin Grabhorn, a Western history publisher, published a spoof letter from the "Consolidated Brasse and Novelty Company" offering a "special line of brass plates" guaranteed to "make your home-town famous." Finally, ECV produced a small press run of a book, Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse, detailing problems with the metal content, wording and spelling. The book even instructed the reader to look for the "ECV" in fluorescent paint on the back and stated outright "we should now re-claim [the plate] as the rightful property of our ancient Order", meaning ECV.
Hint, hint, nudge, nudge. But alas, it took a group effort from Berkeley, Oxford, and MIT in the 1970s to finally declare the plate a fake. Bolton died in 1953 and never got the joke.

Lousy 4th Grade textbook. What did you know?


Anonymous said...
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Peter Matthew Reed said...

I would like to burn a theme too! Interesting post. It makes you wonder that even the manufacturers couldn't convince Bolton they made the plaque. It could have just gone into the historical record had no-one claimed responsibility. I don't know who to trust anymore!

Herr Zrbo said...

Seems like you're becoming an amateur historian LE. This story reminds me of the time the Golden Hind came to HMB. Weird to see a 16th century ship anchored next to Barbara's Fish Trap.

Little Earl said...

Not as weird as Barbara's Spicy Shrimp Scampi! Just kidding.

Almost as interesting as the plaque hoax is the ongoing debate amongst historians over where exactly Drake may have landed (since the declaration of the plaque as a fake left the question open again). Sadly, according to Wikipedia, "The precise location of the port was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spaniards, and several of Drake's maps may even have been altered to this end. All first-hand records from the voyage, including logs, paintings and charts were lost when Whitehall Palace burned in 1698." Great. Just great.

The prevailing theory remains Drake's Bay by Point Reyes, but other historians have made the case for places as far north as Whale Cove in Oregon and Vancouver Island!

Like "Who Killed JFK?" before it, apparently "Where Did Drake Land" is an amateur author's goldmine. This Wikipedia paragraph will blow your latitudinal mind:

"In 1997 California environmental engineer Brian Kelleher published Drakes Bay: Unravelling California's Greatest Maritime Mystery. Kelleher made a very strong case for the Drake landing at Campbell Cove at the entrance of Bodega Harbor—latitude north 38 degrees 14 minutes. Kelleher's statistical analysis of Drake's determinations of latitude made on land showed that they were within +/- 11 minutes of arc, which made Campbell Cove the only possible anchorage within the determined range of error of The World Encompassed's "38,deg. 30.min." The source of Drake's error in latitude determination was revealed in a 1999 analysis by Bob Graham. Graham retrocalculated solar declinations to find errors in the published tables of Drake's time, and when correcting those declinations for 123 degrees west of London (which Drake could not do), found that at Campbell Cove, in the particular days near the solstice in 1579, Drake would have determined a latitude of 38 30, had he been at Campbell Cove (N38 14)."

You don't say?