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During January 15-20, 1989, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its Annual Meeting here in San Francisco, I presented a poster session paper accusing Arthur Conan Doyle of creating the Drake Plate, the Kensington Runestone and the Piltdown Man, all of which were considered by some people even at that time to be hoaxes. I gave a copy of that paper to the Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, and discussed it briefly with the director of the library at that time, James D. Hart. Since then I have worked intermittently on the problem of Conan Doyle’s hoaxes and have found quite a few, some of which are still considered legitimate historical items. Below is the published pre-abstract of a 15 minute lecture presented to the 71st Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division of the AAAS.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Exposed as a Scientific Hoaxer


An analysis of hoaxing by the great author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is presented which gives several examples of his “work” and a general strategy for identifying his hoaxes, some of which may as yet be undiscovered. Examples of exposed hoaxes to be discussed are: 1. “The Piltdown Man” hoax of 1909, in which several pieces of bone were cleverly sculpted and stained to mimic what was being sought for as the “missing link.” 2. “The Drake Plate” hoax in which a small “plate of brass” was made to simulate the one documented to have been left by Francis Drake in 1579. The plate, found on a hilltop overlooking the San Francisco Bay in 1936, fitted the description of the sought-for object quite well but recent metallurgical evidence proves it to be a modern fake. 3. The “Kensington Stone” found in 1898 in Minnesota with an inscription dating it at 1362. This stone, though chiseled with plausible Runic characters, was rejected by most of the scientific community. However, each of these hoaxes was sufficiently skillful that it attracted some sustained scientific support. This paper discusses the common features which link these hoaxes to Doyle. This discovery adds a new dimension to the complex personality of the famed creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Being a prolific man in his public life, Doyle was probably also prolific in his hidden life and we should be on the lookout for more of his hoaxes.

Many of Conan Doyle’s hoaxes will have the code letters HB, derived from his grandfather John Doyle’s secret nom-de-plume HB, embedded in them. In the case of the Drake plate Doyle managed to place the hoax object on a preplanned geographic HB line and to get it searched for by an authoritative historical person with the initials (HB), Herbert Bolton. Furthermore after the Drake Plate is found and given to Bolton it was publicly displayed prominently for some 60 years in the foyer of the (HB) Herbert Bancroft library which is also precisely on the HB line. That line stretches from (HB) Home Bay, California, through Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes’s evil twin), New Mexico and beyond.

Herbert E. Bolton.  Photograph, n.d.

Herbert Bolton doing his Sherlock Holmes impersonation.

James D. Hart with Berkeley's copy of the Shakespeare First Folio.  Photograph, 3 May 1973.Here is Professor James D. Hart with the Herbert Bancroft library’s 1632 AD copy of Shakespeare’s first folio which I wanted them to open to the page of  the play King John Act IV Scene i (lines with eyes 1595, 1609, 1612, 1632, 1639, 1646, 1650, 1669, 1677,  1680, 1694, 1719, 1884, 1917, 1990, 2111) where the young prince Arthur Conan is about to have his eyes (Doyle’s in french) poked out by (HB) Hubert de Burgh. and Scene iii (1995-206) where Arthur dies. However, when I said my reason to look at this valuable book was to verify if it had been modified by Doyle they didn’t seem to think that was a valid enough reason and so since that moment the possibility that it has been hoaxed remains a closed book to me. I haven’t been back to the Bancroft, for years, until yesterday. I did attended Professor Hart’s memorial service in 1990 where his son in law told a funny story about the Drake Plate and Professor Hart’s relationship to it. I had the privilege of talking to Professor Hart several times, found him to be a warm and wonderful person and it is sad that Doyle chose to tarnish his and Herbert Bolton’s work and the Hubert Bancroft Library with such a cruel hoax.
Friday I attended a group tour given by the current director of the newly refurbished and just opened Bancroft Library.

Charles Faulhaber. Charles Faulhaber and Tim Hoyer discuss digitizing a photograph of Joan Baez for the Free Speech Movement project. Photo by Peg Skorpinski.

The new premises are not fully opened and when we passed the cabinet where the original gold nugget, the one that started the California Gold Rush of 1849, is to be placed he paused and talked about it for a moment. I asked where the Drake Plate was going to be placed. He said it was in the basement and that it would probably stay there. Someone else asked what the Drake Plate was and Faulhaber gave a several minute explanation of how it was a hoax perpetrated by E Clampus Vitus. I shook my head so disapprovingly that someone asked what the matter was and I gave the one minute speech on how it was done by Conan Doyle. At the end of the tour I asked Director Faulhaber if he would be interested in my giving a talk about the Drake Plate to the Friends of the Bancroft. His response was that it was a hoax and he didn’t want anything more to do with it and that it should be forgotten. I asked if it would be okay if I published what I know about the hoax to which he gave a shrug and implied that it was a free country.

The plate itself has many clues linking it back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Have some fun looking for them. I will come back in a while and show some of them. Observe word games!

Drake Plate of Brass cleaned for easier reading

Drake Plate of Brass text clarified for easier reading