The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus
Here follows the true, authentic and clampotent history, carefully compiled, ostentatiously elaborated and prayerfully purged of both egregious error and hateful heterodoxy. Information presented here has been plundered, appropriated, embezzled, nicked , pinched, pirated, bootlegged and poached from numerous sources, and is subject to spoilage by an eyewitness.
It began back in the Gold Rush Days of the mid-nineteenth century when literally thousands of mining camps and towns sprang up throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains and in neighboring territories that now comprise the western states. A new town would appear almost overnight at the mere rumor of a fresh strike. But as the gold or silver petered out the mines closed. Claims were abandoned and most of the people moved on. What had been a thriving town was soon reduced to empty buildings and a few hardy souls struggling for existence. Today many tiny hamlets no bigger than a small dot on a seldom traveled back road map once boasted an area population of fifteen or twenty thousand at its peak. Stripping away the fictional glamour, one finds a picture that stands in stark contrast to the romantic Hollywood image. The miner’s life, whether working his own claim or in a larger operation was rugged, dangerous, often short and for many a nomadic existence that took them from one area to another in search of riches. For all but a few their arduous labor produced scant reward. Entertainment was whatever they could make of whatever was at hand and a good prank or practical joke brought much needed relief from the serious business of just getting through the day. Frequently their revelry consisted of exchanging gold dust for a raucous night at one of the many saloons or gambling halls and whenever possible, at some unsuspecting person’s expense.
By 1850 two fraternal organizations, the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows (IOOF), were well established in California and virtually all men of influence were members of either or both of these orders. Both groups were viewed as very strict in nature with impressive badges of office and formal attire. In short, they provided little humor and certainly no relief from the arduous task of just staying alive. In 1851 a group of men at Mokelumne Hill, California, felt another fraternal organization, one much less serious in nature was needed and so The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, with an avowed dedication to the protection of “Widows and Orphans”, came to life in the west.
Originally, the order was a spoof or mockery of the well known fraternal orders. But it also recognized a certain absurdity that was so much a part of their lives and, indeed, had become something that was cherished whether viewed as an escape or just another thing that had to be endured. One can only imagine the difficulty in maintaining a serious expression as these Clampers carried on their satire by addressed each other with lofty sounding titles of “Noble Grand Humbug”, “Clamps Vitrix”, “Roisterous Iscutis”, “Royal Gyascutis”, “Grand Imperturbable Hangman” and “Damn Fool Doorkeeper”. To further their mockery the members bedecked themselves with badges and self created awards fashioned from tin can lids. The latter became known as “wearing the tin”. Rather than having a strict officialdom, all members were declared officers with none ranking higher than his fellow Clampers. Initiates, known as Poor Blind Candidates or PBCs, were subjected to a withering blast of humiliation and relieved of as much gold dust as possible which was promptly used to sustain the gathering at the saloon. The PBC was instantly transformed into a full fledged Clamper. Although there are no formal uniforms, Clampers today maintain a tradition of wearing red shirts at their functions as a remembrance of the red union suits of old. And most will be seen wearing a vest of some sort that is adorned with a multitude badges, pins and patches. There were no dues then and none are collected today. E Clampus Vitus is now and has been since its inception a ‘men only’ organization
Just how E Clampus Vitus came to be is a matter of some conjecture and sometimes subject to a variety of versions and interpretations well suited to the occasion at hand. Legend tells of its creation in 4004B.C. but most of the supporting historical records and tablet archives were destroyed in a cataclysmic event many centuries ago when a huge comet passed near the Earth and wrecked havoc on our planet before being trapped in our solar system. That catastrophic celestial passing was described by the late Immanuel Velikovsky in his book “Worlds in Collision” with the comet identified as what we now know to be the planet Venus. The surviving records are thought to have been lost in the fire that destroyed the Great Libraries of Alexandria, Egypt in the third century B.C. What is known is that in 1845 a tavern, hotel and stable owner in Lewisport, West Virginia, named Ephriam Bee received a commission authorizing him to extend the work and influence of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus from the Emperor of China Tao-Kwang, Great Hotchot of the Chinese Grand Lodge. The commission was handed to Mr. Bee by a Mr. Caleb Cushing who had returned from China in 1844 while serving the government in establishing diplomatic and trade relations in the far east. E Clampus Vitus, or ECV as it is also known, succeeded and flourished where other orders failed for it was Bee’s belief that any man of upstanding character who was of age could join, unencumbered by the restrictions of other fraternal organizations. ECV was brought to California by Mr. Joe Zumwalt in 1849, although the exact route is subject to debate. One account has Zumwalt leaving Illinois in March of 1849 and arriving in Sacramento in late October of the same year. Others believe he left Missouri with a Clamper companion named W.C.Wright and first settled in Hangtown (later renamed Placerville) before moving on to what is now properly known as Mokelumne Hill in 1850. Typical migration routes to the gold fields could have made either or both versions correct. Regardless of which path Zumwalt took Mokelumne Lodge Number 1001 first opened its doors in September, 1851. In later years an argument arose claiming Clamper activity in both Sierra City and Downieville before the generally accepted beginnings in Mokelumne. No doubt that debate will never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
It is also said that among others, a number of itinerant salesmen, known as Drummers or Hawkers, were taken into the order with or without authority from Bee. These travelers took the gullible villagers and townsmen along their routes into the Brotherhood until by 1849 the East and Middle West were dotted with Clamper Lodges. From these Lodges many lusty Clampers went West in the Gold Rush and founded the historic lodges in the mining camps that constituted themselves as guardians of the morals of these communities. Their duty as they saw it was to prevent the preachers and pious wives who followed the 49′ers from imposing any excess of morality that might hamper the full enjoyment of life. How well the Clampers performed this function is commonly known despite the lack of written records due to the fact that during the meetings no one was sober enough to take minutes and that afterwards they were too hungover to remember what had taken place.
Regardless, Clamper membership grew like wildfire and chapters sprang up nearly everywhere there was mining activity. Before long it was the largest organization in the Gold Rush country and had spread to the nearby territories. Nearly every man was a Clamper and those who weren’t found themselves on the outside of business and social life. Drummers and Hawkers soon learned that Clampers only did business with other Clampers. It was after all a fun loving group that provided diversion and camaraderie in what was more often than not a hazardous life. Everything about E Clampus Vitus was a jest, a philosophy embodied in the Clamper motto. ‘Credo Quia Absurdum’ meaning ‘I believe it because it is absurd’, (also known as Tertullian’s dictum or paradox).
Some of the enlightened, having the Scales of Darkness removed, were names not lost to history. Philip D Armour, the Auburn and Placerville butcher who would later found one of the worlds largest meat packing firms was a Clamper, as was John Mohler Studebaker, who made the wheelbarrows for the Mother Lode miners in the 1850’s. When he had saved up enough money Studebaker joined his brothers in their Indiana wagon shop and lived to manufacture the first gasoline powered Studebaker automobile in 1904. Also a young newspaperman named Sam Clemens, who in the 1860’s was a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and who lived for a time at the Jackass Hill diggings near Angels Camp, was a brother of E Clampus Vitus. It was there on a cold January day in 1865 that the fun loving journalist heard someone relate a funny anecdote about a frog jumping contest. A few months later Twain wrote ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County’ and found overnight fame.
Members of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E CLAMPUS VITUS have always been adventurers and many have been leaders in conquest of their respective countries. John Charles Fremont was a peritatetic Clamper and he raised his ensign as Captain of the United States Topographical Engineers above every camp that he made in California during his expeditions between 1844 and 1846. That flag is now in the custody of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
On June 14, 1846, a Sonoma group of justly indignant Clampers rebelled against the aggression of Mexican officials. They captured the garrison at Sonoma, issued a clampotent proclamation declaring California to be an independent republic and raised a crudely designed but historic Bear Flag.
However, one should never overlook the fact that the Clampers were in fact a highly respected and honored organization. In spite of their well deserved reputation as hard drinking pranksters, during lapses in buffoonery Clampers showed a benevolent serious side to their activity. Caring for the “Widows and Orphans” of miners was more than a mere slogan. Indeed, E Clampus Vitus was by far the largest charitable organization of the time and certainly the only one assisting the families of killed or injured miners. They sponsored benefit shows and fund raisers for the sick and destitute with no hoaxes involved. Mining accidents and injuries were common and when a man was killed or injured and unable to work he left an almost instantly destitute family. In many cases gifts of money or food mysteriously appeared but the donor was always anonymous. In other instances the widow, or “widder” as they were known, discovered some unnamed person had made the mortgage or rent payments and saved her and the children from homelessness in a hostile land. Clamper charity was unique in that, with few exceptions, it was always done anonymously, quietly and without fanfare although there was rarely any question as to the benefactor’s true identity.
The heyday of western mining and the wild life that accompanied it lasted actually less than thirty years before starting to decline. Thriving communities saw their population dwindle from the thousands to the hundreds or less and many were abandon altogether. The decrepit ruins of these ghost town stand today as a stark reminder of an age gone by, living only in the memory of a few ancient dwellers in the mountains and in the annals of the county histories. With the decline of mining activity the popularity of E Clampus Vitus also faded until in 1910 there was only one chapter, in Marysville, California, still functioning. The hewgag brayed for the last time in 1916. By 1930 the order was all but extinct and had become just another useless relic of the past confined to history.
Not long after the order was declared dead and buried, a group of California historians led by Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane, (who most often wrote his signature as “G. Ezra Dane,” and often claimed the “G” stood for ‘GeeHosaphat’), and Leon O. Whitsell, (according to Wheat, the “O” in Whitsell’s name was for ‘Obstreperous’), became interested in the many references to Clamper activity found in old newspaper articles and letters. They also shared a belief that a significant part of California and U.S. history was being lost in the frantic pace of the twentieth century. Resuscitating the Order of E Clampus Vitus seemed a proper vehicle to commemorate and preserve that history. They were assisted by Mr. Adam Lee Moore, the last known survivor of the old Clamper days. Moore had been a redshirted miner and stagecoach driver among other things. In Wheats’ words, “He was the link in the apostolic succession from the Clampatriarchs of old.” Brother Moore was able to pass on to Wheat and company all he remembered of the rites, rituals, traditions, and legends of E Clampus Vitus, providing an invaluable link to the past. Through their efforts the order was revived with the incorporation of a chapter in San Francisco known as Yerba Buena Number 1. The chapter was christened “Capitulus Redivivus E Clampus Vitus”, or Revived Capital of E Clampus Vitus, in 1931 and the modern era of Clamperdom had begun. Brother Moore or ‘Adam the first’ as he was saluted by many of the Clampers, reached the ripe old age of 99 years, 6months and 9 days before passing on to his great reward in San Francisco on November 13th, 1946.
Adam Lee and Jennie Moore Leon Whitsell and Carl Wheat circa 1957 George Ezra Dane
Yerba Buena was followed in 1934 by Platrix Chapter 2 in Los Angeles. Then came Lord Sholto Douglas Chapter 3 and Quivira Chapter 4. Sometime after 1936 it was determined that numbering chapters in consecutive order constituted a flagrant violation of the spirit of absurdity that was such an important aspect of the original Clamper activity. From that time on new chapters took whatever name and number seemed fitting. The mining camp originally named Pair-O-Dice had been incorporated and changed its official name to Paradise and is the home of aptly named Pair-O-Dice Chapter 7-11. Arroyo Grande, located midway between San Francisco (Chapter 1) and Los Angeles (Chapter 2) is home to De La Guerra y Pacheco Chapter 1.5, and the Julia C Bulette chapter, (named for a prostitute, madam, and the proprietor of a most elegant and prosperous brothel) in Virginia City, Nevada is chapter 1864, the year the state was brought into the union! In all there are now over forty chapters in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. And one must not forget the offshore Floating Wang Chapter or the Cyber-Wang Chapter 68040/48.1 located in cyberspace.
Modern day E Clampus Vitus combines a dedication to preserving western and mining history with a never ending quest for fun. And, lest we be untrue to our heritage, a liberal dash of the absurd is added for good measure. In both California and Nevada the Clampers are the largest historical organization. We have erected many hundred historical markers and plaques to commemorate sites, people and events that played a role in our western heritage but might otherwise be lost or forgotten. Many of these plaques are recorded in state and national registries. Before a plaque is erected the subject is clearly identified, documented and researched. The research work alone, often taking a year or more to complete, involves many people spending long hours digging through libraries, official records, newspaper files and interviewing people. The work is, of course, voluntary. A single large cast bronze plaque, typical of that used, frequently cost a thousand dollars or more to erect.
Following such a dedication, or Plaquing as it is called, there is a traditional party still called a ‘doin’s’. As one writer noted these party gatherings of red shirted pranksters wearing vests covered with pins, medals, ribbons and badges lead to the organization’s reputation as either a “Historical Drinking Society” or a “Drinking Historical Society”. While there is no denial that distilled and fermented beverages freely flow, the group is officially and vehemently opposed to public intoxication and require that those who partake have a ‘brother of sobriety holding the reins’.
Becoming a Clamper is not an easy task. Certainly a man may express a desire but he must be invited. Clearly, the prospect must have a genuine interest in western history. Other requirements have been listed as a good sense of humor, a relatively thick skin, a cast iron stomach, an open mind, a flare for the ridiculous and an appreciation of absurdity. If the invitation is accepted the candidate is presented by his sponsor at a doin’s and must survive a time honored ritual at the hands of the Grand Imperturbable Hangman. It is also important to know that an invitation is only given once. If refused it is never tendered again. But who we ask would refuse such an honor? After all, among our members are college professors, truckers, U.S. Presidents, clerics, sheriffs, mechanics, miners, judges, laborers, pilots, bartenders, senators, carpenters, lawyers, plumbers, entrepreneurs, authors and just about anything else you could think of. Each treated the same or as we say, “with equal indignity”. In the words of a noted Brother, “Clampers are not made, they are born. Like gold, they just have to be discovered.”
‘Per caritate viduaribus orphanibusque sed prime viduaribus’