Shawn Vestal: Hoax chiseled into Whitworth history
Wed., March 20, 2019
In late winter 1942, as Whitworth College was in the midst of excavating the site of the future Graves Gym, a worker identified in campus newspaper reports as “Mr. Chapman, contractor” came across an interesting artifact: a stone inscribed with curious markings.
“10 day sence vige John has feaver 1703”
The stone was taken to college officials and, according to one student account, placed in a safe. Faculty members began reaching out to various organizations and experts to see if they could explain it.
After all, if an artifact showing European presence in the Northwest in 1703 were authenticated, it would revise the region’s history significantly.
A Whitworthian article would say that history professor Al Culverwell had “seized it as an opportunity to get some publicity for the college.”
The local papers were alerted, and reporters and photographers, along with students and faculty members, gathered in front of Ballard Hall, right by the site of the future gym, to discuss this startling and perhaps historic discovery.
“Al Culverwell was in charge of it and he was pointing out the merits of this rock to the newspaper reporters … and then flashbulbs were going off, and so on,” said former student Jack Starrett in a 2003 interview with a Whitworth archivist.
All the hullabaloo left Starrett thinking: “Boy, this is more than we even bargained for.”
Months earlier, during fall 1941, Starrett kept hearing a “puzzling and annoying tapping sound” coming from behind the dorm-room door of the room across the hall from his, according to an account at HistoryLink.org.
He would ask the student who lived there, Sydney Eaton, what was going on and Eaton would stonewall him: “This is a private project.”
Eventually, though, he relented and let Starrett in – with the caveat that he had to help, according to Starrett’s account. Inside was a rock about the size of a football, with some lettering carved into it.
“My hand is getting numb from chopping on this rock,” Eaton told Starrett.
Local historians were sought, by the college and the press, for possible explanations for what the rock was. The language seemed authentic to the 1700s – in particular, the abbreviation “vige” for voyage correlated with Old English usage, according to an article by Whitworth archivist Janet Hauck in Nostalgia magazine in 2003.
The HistoryLink.org piece, written in 2007 by Laura Arksey, said some locals had speculated that “possibly an Indian had carried it from back East and that it was eventually placed on his grave; another (possibility) was that early traders had brought it.”
Culverwell, the history professor, contacted the Smithsonian Institution about the possibility of sending it there for analysis.
The speculation lasted for weeks. A photographer from the Spokane Daily Chronicle had used a penknife to scrape out the inscription and make it easier to read in the photos he was taking. This upset some people, Starrett said, because they feared it might affect the scientific techniques that might be used to date the stone.
Months earlier, when Starrett had joined Eaton’s dorm-room chiseling, he had been given the job of inscribing “1703” into the rock.
In his account, he noted that Eaton had applied a dedicated effort to making the rock appear authentic. He consulted books on Old English, and took pains to make the inscription look both authentic and very old.
In a letter to the Whitworth alumni office that Eaton wrote in 1980, he said the original idea was to place the rock at the tennis courts, which were being resurfaced. But it ended up under his bed in the dorm until later in the winter, when they hit upon the idea to place it at the excavation site for the new Graves Gym.
“The writing had been carved around lichen encrustations as you can see in the picture,” Eaton wrote in his letter. “This of course was not consistent with a buried stone, but it looked old. Toadstool had been pressed into the lettering to dry and look lichen-like before it went on the dirt pile.”
By mid-March 1942, the rock find had become much larger than Starrett or Eaton had expected. In his letter, Eaton wrote that his original plan had been to let the rock be found and then come clean in a couple of days.
But, while it’s not clear from the historical accounts exactly how many days the hoax went on, it had grown far beyond their plan and lasted a couple of months. Eventually, knowing that the college had already enlisted help from regional universities and was about to seek the assistance of the Smithsonian Institution, Eaton, Starrett and another student involved, Bob Brault, came forward and confessed to then-President Frank Warren.
“Dr. Warren doubled up in Ho! Ho!s because he had not believed in it in the first place but had just sat back and let the spectacle unveil,” Eaton wrote in his letter. “I don’t know where the historic stone is at this time. Perhaps below the falls in the Spokane River – to be found again – and again – and again.”
Starrett recalls Warren as being more shocked than amused. “He called the newspaper and they came out with another article that … exposed the whole thing,” he said.
The hoax was revealed in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on St. Patrick’s Day – 77 years ago this month. In an edition that was packed with war news, as well as the amusingly headlined article “Reliable News is Worth Higher Price, Readers of the Chronicle Say.” The Whitworthian soon followed: “Momentous Discovery Proves Fake.”
The young men were admonished, but not otherwise punished. Starrett went on to marry Warren’s daughter, Joyce, and have a career as an Air Force doctor. He died in 2012.
Eaton, who died in 1996, became a well-known regional artist and longtime professor at Skagit Valley College. But the 1942 stunt remained among the most-discussed aspects of his life.
On the Sydney Eaton website, the “Whitworth Rock Hoax” was mentioned in the second sentence of his biography: “The prank perfectly foreshadowed the hints of amateur archeology, and humor, that would be later staples of his work.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.