Peter J. Shields, the instrumental force in UC Davis’ founding, buried mysterious items somewhere on campus? One Shields Avenue is a fictitious address? Shields and Robert Arneson, famed art professor and creator of the eggheads, belonged to a secret society called BESSY? The enigmatic eggheads are in fact clues to Shields’ long-lost secret?
Not quite, but that’s exactly what a group of Davis Honors Challenge students have convinced a couple hundred others to believe.
The students’ tall tale can be read in full on the “Where in the World is One Shields Avenue?” facebook.com group, which now boasts over 200 members.
The story is the product of a class assignment to create – and spread – a conspiracy theory about UC Davis.
“We were looking for things on campus that people really know about,” said Ankita Mylatore, a first-year psychology major.
With a mix of the eggheads, a world-famous artist, secret societies, and the upcoming campus centennial – “Conspiracy theories that are old are really believable,” Mylatore said – the story was ready to roll.
Peter J. Shields: The man, the address
Shields, a Sacramento judge, advocated an applied farming school for the University of California. As a result of his efforts, he is given substantial credit for the passage of the Mar. 18, 1905 law that authorized the creation of the University Farm.
The university rewarded Shields’ efforts by naming its library in his honor in 1973, as the DHC story recounts.
At the time, the university had no central address. But the claim that One Shields Avenue is “fictitious” is inaccurate, as the university created the address a decade ago to meet postal standards.
In 1997, Janet C. Hamilton, then the vice chancellor of administration, issued a directive creating the One Shields Avenue address. Without a street address, UC Davis’ mail was delayed by as much as a day, and postal rates were higher, the directive said.
Though the address is not particular to a street or building, it was created to recognize Shields’ contribution to the campus’ founding.
Shields died in 1962 at the age of 100, which happens to be the year in which Arneson joined the UC Davis faculty.
The enigmatic eggheads
On a map of the campus, the eggheads form an arrow pointing to the supposed location of Shields’ loot – or so the DHC tale goes. Of course, the class’ story doesn’t mention that the eggheads have been moved since Arneson completed them just before his death in 1992.
Renny Pritikin, director of the Nelson Gallery and official caretaker of the eggheads, said Arneson was a beloved professor whose artistic prowess with ceramics made him world famous.
Most UC Davis students, faculty, and staff are intimately familiar with Arneson’s work via the ubiquitous eggheads.
“You could say that they’re satirical. Arneson was known as kind of an iconoclast with strong opinions and a great sense of humor,” Pritikin said.
The eggheads served as Arneson’s farewell to a university where he had spent his life, Pritikin said.
“They’re 50 percent sentimental, but they’re also 50 percent teasing the university,” he said. The name ‘egghead’ is itself “generally considered a negative term for an academic,” Pritikin said.
So, about those eggheads holding clues to the Shields’ conspiracy?
“Not true,” Pritikin responded after a brief pause.
A semi-secret society
While the eggheads may not guard any treasure after all, the first letters of their names – Bookhead, Eye on Mark (Fatal Laff), See No Evil Hear No Evil, Stargazer, and Yin and Yang – do spell “BESSY.”
The claim that Shields and Arneson were members of a secret society called BESSY may be the most compelling element of the conspiracy theory, as Mylatore said she has overheard discussion of the topic.
In fact, there is no secret society called BESSY at UC Davis, but there is one called the Order of Sword and Sandals.
The Order of Sword and Sandals, primarily a student organization, was founded on December 6, 1921, by students Elmer Hughes and Clark Burnham, according to an official orientation guide procured by The California Aggie.
Sword and Sandals includes student members, alumni, administrators and other members of the “power elite,” said Jay Mechling, an American studies professor and folklore expert.
However, Sword and Sandals may well be considered only a semi-secret society, as information about it is readily available online.
According to the orientation guide – last updated February 1999 – the purpose of the organization is to “provide a forum for discussing the University of California, and its concerns, utilizing the best possible representation from the major constituencies of the campus: students, faculty, administration, staff, and alumni, [and for] the betterment of…UC Davis.”
The guide makes no reference to either Arneson or Shields.
Just a good story
Consider the whole Arneson-Shields conspiracy theory debunked, but doesn’t it sound just a little bit familiar? Say, out of a certain series of Nicholas Cage or Harrison Ford movies?
“It’s not a coincidence,” said Mylatore, smiling. “National Treasure is really cool to watch.”
Indeed, people have noted conspiracy theories “for hundreds of years,” said UC Davis history professor and resident conspiracy theory expert Kathy Olmsted.
Conspiracy theories date back to the middle ages, when Christians believed Jews would drink the blood of their children, Olmsted said. The tradition of conspiracies has continued in the United States since the nation’s founding, she said.
Their popularity remains, as some 200 individuals in the “Where in the World is One Shields Avenue?” facebook.com group could attest. But why?
“Conspiracy theories serve the function of entertainment,” Olmsted said. “People like to read about them because they’re entertained by them; they find the premise amusing.”
As millions of people flock to see the latest Indiana Jones movie this month, perhaps the popularity of conspiracy theories isn’t so surprising after all.
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.