I’m a little surprised that this one seems to have slipped by us without being mentioned at all. It’s the Hoax of Drake’s Plate of Brass.
Back in 1579, England’s Sir Francis Drake landed somewhere on the northern California coast. Francis Pretty, one of Drake’s shipmates wrote an account of the landing (from the paragraph starting “The fifth of June. . .” and continuing down) in which he describes the preparation of a brass plate as a monument.
“At our departure hence our General [Drake]set up a monument of our being there, as also of her Majesty’s right and title to the same; namely a plate, nailed upon a fair great post, whereupon was engraved her Majesty’s name, the day and year of our arrival there, with the free giving up of the province and people into her Majesty’s hands, together with her Highness’ picture and arms, in a piece of six pence of current English money, under the plate, whereunder was also written the name of our General.”
Nothing more is known of the plate for three-hundred and fifty-four years, until one day in 1933 a chauffeur who stopped in Marin County to let his boss do some hunting found a brass plate. He handed it over to his employer. The men looked at the plate a bit, but found it uninteresting and ultimately threw it out of the car several miles away from where they initially found it.
Another three years go by. Then in 1936 another man by the name of Beryle Shinn finds the plate. Shinn decided to take the plate to Dr. Herbert Bolton, a prominent professor of Spanish-American history at the nearby University of California at Berkley. Bolton compared the plate to that described in Francis Pretty’s account and decided that it was Drake’s monument plate. He told Robert Sproul (the university president) and Allen Chickering (head of the California Historical Society) of the discovery, and they agreed to buy the plate. In the end, the plate was declared by Bolton and Chickering to be without a doubt genuine and found its way into the University’s Bancroft Library.
Right after being publicly announced and displayed, people started questioning the plate’s authenticity. According to some scholars the wording on the plate seemed to be anachronistic, and the metal didn’t seem to be quite right.
Among those describing how the plate was obviously a forgery were many members of a history club called the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (more commonly known as the ECV), a group to which Bolton himself belonged. Members of the ECV wrote a number of letters to Bolton pointing out flaws in the plate, and even published a book detailing all of the historical inaccuracies, the physical signs of it being a fake, and even laid claim to the plate as of their own making.
Bolton, Chickering, and Sproul continued to argue that the plate was indeed authentic. To further their case, they enlisted the head of the Division of Electrochemistry at Columbia University, Dr. Colin Fink, to analyse the plate. Dr. Fink and his colleagues published a report in 1938 confirming the plate’s authenticity. Thereupon it was commonly accepted that the plate was genuine.
So things remained for several decades. The year 1979 was to be the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing, though, and for the event it was obvious that the plate ought to be an important part of the ceremonies. Thus it was decided in the early 1970’s by Dr. James Hart, the librarian in charge of the plate, that further tests would be run on it. He had various labs around the world run modern tests on the metal, and the tests came back with troubling results. The metal alloy seemed to be of a modern type, and to have been shaped using modern tools. It became obvious that the nay-sayers had been right all along, and that the plate was a forgery.
Another few decades pass. Finally, in the early years of the 21st Century, more information is found. It turns out that not only was the plate a fake, but it was a fake made by other members of the ECV as a practical joke to play on Bolton. Bolton had long been encouraging people to try to find the plate, and so his fellow ECV members thought that it would be good fun to trick Bolton into thinking he had the real plate. The joke apparently went a bit further than any of the pranksters had meant for it to go, though.