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Whitworth rock hoax is exposed on March 17, 1942.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8111 : Printer-Friendly Format

On March 17, 1942, the Spokane Daily Chronicle announces a hoax perpetrated by Whitworth College students. For several weeks the college and the Spokane community have been excited by the discovery of a curiously inscribed rock in the excavations for the foundation of the new Jay P. Graves Gymnasium. It bears the date 1703 and inscriptions that some feel could rewrite the history of European presence in the Inland Northwest. The press takes up the matter, regional historians are notified, and plans are made to send the rock to the Smithsonian Institution. As the excitement builds, instigator Sydney K. Eaton (1919-1996) and two other students come forward to confess the hoax.   

An Artistic Artifact

Syd Eaton was a slightly older student attending Whitworth to round out some gaps in his previous undergraduate education. College alumni records list him as a graduate of 1942. He then served in World War II, received a Master of Arts degree from Washington State University. He founded the art department at Skagit Valley College in 1959 and taught there until 1976. He became a renowned Pacific Northwest artist identified with the Northwest Mystic group of artists. A brochure accompanying a 1965 exhibit of Eaton’s work at Seattle’s Frye Museum declares “Eaton’s educational background, war experience, his painterly technique, gentle humor and social commentary combine to suggest that we may be witnessing the development of one of America’s most significant painters” (Frye).

In 2003, Whitworth College Archivist Janet Hauck interviewed Jack Starrett (b. 1921), a co-conspirator in the rock hoax and a sophomore at the time. He recalled that during the fall of 1941, he kept hearing a puzzling and annoying tapping sound from behind the door of Syd Eaton’s dormitory room, which was across from his. Jack’s repeated attempts to find out what was going on in there met with rebuffs. Syd would say, “This is a private project,” and slam the door in his face. Finally, Syd let him in, saying, “If you come in, you’re going to have to participate in this ... My hand is getting numb from chipping on this rock.” Jack discovered a big rock “about the size of a football” on which Syd already had chipped “10 day sence vige. John has feaver,” using a hammer and nail punch.

Jack’s job was to add the date 1703 to the inscription that was so convincingly done, even to the archaic spellings. Syd explained to him that “vige” was the abbreviation for “voyage” used at the time. He even had an old English dictionary to authenticate his efforts. Next, according to Jack, they took it to a nearby creek, allowing it to sit for about two weeks acquiring moss until it had “a very, very ancient-looking appearance” (Hauck, 31, 32).

History of A Historic Hoax

According to a 1980 letter from Syd Eaton to the Whitworth Alumni Office, postmarked Mount Vernon, Washington, his roommate Bob Brault was also involved in the scheme. Sydney Eaton’s and Jack Starrett’s recollections do not entirely agree, illustrating once again that no two witnesses to the same events give exactly the same account. However, their stories complement more than they contradict each other. Eaton writes:  

“What really happened ... was that the stone was carved (by me) in the fall of ‘41 with the idea that my roommate and I would put it in the tennis courts which they were resurfacing at the time -- and kill it in an hour or two after finding. What with one thing and several more, the tennis courts didn’t seem to be the place to put the stone. It stayed under my bed until winter and because it was collecting dust and taking up room ..., we (Bob Brault) and I took it over to the new gym excavation and set it on a pile of dirt and snow and forgot about it“ (Eaton).

Jack Starrett recalled being involved in the placement of the rock in the gym excavation but that it “got buried again, and then we had to unbury it ... to excavate it out and plant it in another place” (Hauck, 32).  Eaton’s letter continued:

“In the spring I was doing my practice teaching at John Rogers and wasn’t on campus during the day. When I returned one afternoon Bob met me ... and told me, ‘someone found a stone this afternoon.’ For both of us it had almost been forgotten. It was brought into the college office, and I heard, put in the safe. Dr. Culverwell [Albert Culverwell, history professor] meantime was calling and getting in touch with various historical societies, divisions and departments.

"The writing had been carved around lichen encrustations as you can see in the picture. 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.

"When the photographer from the [Spokane Daily] Chronicle set it on his fender to photograph he carefully scraped out the lettering with his knife for better contrast. This of course would account for any microscopic metal left as residue when the letters were carved with a nail punch and hammer. I should also mention that a lot of research went into the letter types (early) and spelling. The scraping out of the letters by the photographer made some people mad as they were thinking about dating techniques. At supper I had to listen to everyone talk about the rock. I nodded a lot but didn’t give any input -- which probably was strange as most knew I was interested in Indian and ancient things, and I showed little interest” (Eaton).

 Jack Starrett also described the day of the discovery.

“... Right at the bottom of the steps at Ballard Hall, there was a group of students and a group of faculty, and there were newspaper reporters standing around taking pictures of the rock ... And here they had all this going on, and we looked and we thought, ‘Boy, this is more than we even bargained for.’ ... 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 ...” (Hauck, 33).

Local historians offered various theories about the presence of the rock. Among them was that possibly an Indian had carried it from back East and that it was eventually placed on his grave; another was that early traders had brought it.

Rock Recalled

Eaton’s letter concludes:

“I don’t remember which day later we, Jack Starrett, Bob Brault and I, decided to tell Dr. Warren [Frank Warren, President of Whitworth] ... We also knew that Prof. Culverwell was getting in touch with the Smithsonian about the rock and who knew where that would end ... so we told. ... 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. ... 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” (Eaton).

Jack Starrett recalls Dr. Warren’s reaction as being a bit more subdued.  “... He was kind of shocked about the whole thing. ... He called the newspaper and they came out with another article that ... exposed the whole thing. ... [Dr. Warren] admonished us and said that could have been a very serious thing, if it had gone back to the Smithsonian ...” (Hauck, 33) Within a few years, Jack was Dr. Warren’s son-in-law, having married Joyce Warren, also a Whitworth student. He went on to a military career as an Air Force physician.

 The Spokane Daily Chronicle announced the hoax on March 17, 1942:

“... For a while it looked as if the history of the Pacific Northwest might have to be rewritten a little ... Historians pointed out they have no record of white men being in the Pacific Northwest that early. Just as the rock was beginning to become the object of conversation at the college, six [three, according to Eaton] students sheepishly walked into President Frank Warren’s office today and confessed to burying the rock about two weeks ago [two months ago, according to Eaton].”

The March 20 issue of the Whitworthian, the bimonthly student newspaper, carried a headline: “Momentous Discovery Proves Fake.”  Although some details of its story remain fuzzy, the rock hoax has become an enduring part of Whitworth College lore. 

Sources:
Syndey K. Eaton, letter to Whitworth College Alumni Office, October 21, 1980, Alumni Records, Whitworth College Archives; Frye Museum, “One-man Show of Oil Paintings by Sydney K. Eaton of Mount Vernon, Washington, January 30 through February 18, 1965,” Alumni Records, Whitworth College Archives; Janet Hauck, “The Whitworth Rock,” Nostalgia Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3 (March 2003), pp. 31-33; Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 17, 1942; “Momentous Discovery Proves Fake,”  Whitworthian, Vol. 33, No. 10, March 20, 1942; Peter Kelly, "Widow Won't Let Artist's Memory or Work Fade," Skagit Valley Herald, November 25, 2000 (http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com/articles/2000/11/26/news21925.prt).


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Sydney Eaton (1919-1996) with rock used in Whitworth Rock Hoax, 1942
Courtesy Whitworth College


Rock of the Whitworth Rock Hoax, Spokane, 1942
Courtesy Whitworth College


Jack Starrett (b. 1921), co-conspirator in Whitworth Rock Hoax, 1942
Courtesy Whitworth College


 
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