The Rock Hoax

Posted by - - 1940s, Revelers

One of the best stories to go down in Whitworth lore occurred while the site for Graves Gym was being excavated, in 1942. One day workers found a football-sized rock with a strange and ancient-looking message cut into its surface: “10 day sence Vige John has feaver 1703.”

Excitement mounted as people offered explanations of the rock’s origin. A common theory was that it was a grave marker. Local historians got involved, but when word got out that experts from the Smithsonian would be consulted, post-graduate student Sydney Eaton, ’42, and fellow undergraduate students Jack Starrett, ’45, and Bob Brault, ’42, realized their fun and games had gotten a little out of hand. “When the photographer from the [Spokane Daily] Chronicle set [the rock] on his fender to photograph, he carefully scraped out the lettering with his knife for better contrast,” Eaton wrote in a letter to the alumni office nearly 40 years later. “The scraping out of the letters by the photographer made some people mad as they were thinking about dating techniques.

“I should also mention that a lot of research went into the letter types (early) and spelling.” Eaton did the majority of the hoax handiwork, carving with a hammer and nail punch around lichen encrustations on the stone; he knew this was not consistent with a buried stone, but nevertheless made it look old. Starrett added the date, “1703.” Eaton then pressed toadstool into the lettering to make it look lichen-like, before the three friends buried the “relic” in the massive pile of dirt at the gym site.

The three friends confessed to President Frank Warren that the rock was a hoax. “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. Starrett, who would later marry Warren’s daughter Joyce, remembered a more serious reaction by their president, as Warren was the one who had to contact the newspapers to reveal the truth. The Spokane Daily Chronicle broke the news of the hoax, and three days later The Whitworthian’s front-page headline read “Momentous Discovery Proves Fake.”