During the California Gold Rush, and for many years afterward, the towns and camps of the Sierra Nevada foothills were graced with laughter at the antics of the most secret fraternal society ever devised; the Ancient and Honorable Order Of E Clampus Vitus.
Soon after gold was discovered in the miracle at John Sutters sawmill on January 24, 1848, tent's blossomed, then were quickly replaced by the cabins, shanties, and brick and stone buildings that became towns. At the beginning of 1848 there were 2,000 Americans in California and by the end of 1849 there were over 53,000. With the great western migration of gold seekers also came the staid and civilized lodges, such as the Masons and the Independent Order of odd Fellows, often occupying the first permanent structures in the diggins.
The members of these respected orders were chiefly business and professional people-bankers, doctors, men in the mercantile and hotel trades and some other more gentlemanly miners. However, many of the men in the diggins were to free spirited, boisterous, or crude to be welcomed into the established lodges. They were outside the accepted circle, destined to drink alone, undignified and unintitled. But that soon changed, among the throngs descending upon the Mother Lode was one Joseph H. Zumwalt, whose trunk contained a document that would have momentous impact on the 49'ers. It was an 8 page tract describing the initiation ritual and rules of a peculiar secret society called E Clampus Vitus.
It is believed the E Clampus Vitus started as an elaborate practical joke in the hills of western Virginia in the mid 1840's by a man named Ephraim Bee. Bee is best remembered as founder of ECV. he was known throuhout the county as a garrulous story teller and practical joker. Legend has it, that around 1845 shortly after American minister Caleb Cushing returned from negotiating a treaty with China, Bee revealed that the Emperor of China had entrusted him with certain sacred rituals from the mysterious East. Bee then brought forth a E Clampus Vitus. As am indication of the profound impression it made on his family, Bee's son Herman remembered the "Order of Clampin Vipers." This is a good example of how family legends become distorted.
Actually, the original name was E Clampsus Vitus, Eclampsis Vitus the ECV's (depending on what you read) but along the way E Clampus Vitus survived. Joe Zumwalt unpacked the ritual booklet with his other gear when he reached Hangtown, (now known as Placerville) in 1850. Then he moved 49 miles south to the Mokelomne Hill district, where he found richer diggins. He also discovered that the prank loving miners were eager to join.
Clamper meetings were held in the Hall of Comparative Ovations, commonly the back room of a saloon. They also met at hotels, dance halls, and if the attendance were to large in barns. Some chapters even constructed there own Hall of Comparative Ovations building. But mostly they met in, as one newspaper put it, "libation emporiums, were they reach states of well being, free of pain and distress."
The brethren were called together by the tinny braying of the "hewgag," a big horn sounded in the street by the Royal Grand Musician. Strict Clamper rules required meetings to be held, "any time time before and after the full moon."
Much Clamper business involved taking in new members, called poor blind candidates, and they really "taken in." The only requirement for membership was a poke of gold dust. The amount depended on the candidates means, and in some cases was waived entirely.
Whenever a new member was to be inducted, the hewgag brayed and the brothers headed for the Hall Of Comparative Ovations. After all were assembled, the Noble Grand Humbug, the Clamps Petris, and the Clamps Matrix, all masked, began the solemn secret ritual of initiation complete with elaborate phony Latin phrasing. The Poor Blind Candidates right shoe off, pants rolled up and wearing a Blindfold, was then led into the hall and before the Noble Grand Humbug. His Eminence would ask the nervous candidate a series of questions, after which he was led around the hall, stopping at different points, where he was lectured on various Clamper rules and policies. Next he was placed in a wheelbarrow padded with a large cold, wet sponge, and taken over the rocky road to Dublin, a ladder laid across the floor. As the Poor Blind Candidate bounced over the rungs, the brethren sang out repeatedly, "Aint you glad to get out of the wilderness, the wilderness, the wildness."
Upon completion of his, "soul cleansing ride", the initiate was asked if he believed in the Elevation of Man. When he said he did, he was immediately lifted into a saddle and hoisted to the ceiling by block and tackle. Often "elevation" was accomplished by blanket toss, where the candidate was bounced on a blanket that the brethren firmly held on all sides. Finally, sometimes after several hours of of good natured torture, the Scales of Darkness-the blindfold-was removed from the fledgling member, and he was given the sacred Staff of Relief. Meanwhile his new comrades sang to him the revered Clamper ode, "We'll take a drink with you Dear Brother." And was he ever ready for one! After surviving the ritual ceremony, the new member was appointed Chairman of the Most Important Committee, to install a Clamper sense of self esteem. With his new title he was equal to all his brothers in rank.(ALL CLAMPERS ARE OFFICERS, AND ALL OFFICERS ARE OF EQUAL INDIGNANCE!!!)
The Noble Grand Humbug then completed the rite by explaining the importance of the Order's Clampatron, St. Vitus and the significance of the Clamper sacred emblem, the Staff Of Relief. He closed by asking the ritual question, "What say the Brethren?" To which the enthusiastic reply was "Satisfactory!" The initiation was over.
As the popularity of E Clampus Vitus grew, Clamper Chapters formed in nearly every town in the California mining districts. Many community leaders and business owners found it to their advantage to join the order and follow the braying of the hewgag, for Clampers were loyal and tended to vote for there brothers and trade in Clamper owned establishments. Besides there was a refreshing if ironic honesty in the Clamper philosophy.
Everything about ECV was in jest, a philosophy embodied in the Clamper motto, "Credo Quia Absudum", because it is absurd we believe it!/or faith rests on absurdity. Even the name E Clampus Vitus has no true Latin meaning. The high spirited miners loved it, for they belonged! Their mascot was a Billy goat, and their banner was a hoop skirt with the words "this is the flag we fight under."
In its lapses from buffoonery, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus showed a truly benevolent side. Frequently, and quietly, the brethren performed charitable acts, and though they would whimsically state that the purpose of there society was the care and protection of Widders and orphans, but more particularly the Widders, ECV was widely lauded for valuable services to the needy. They sponsored benefit shows and other fund raising events for the sick and destitute, with no hoax's involved. When the Mother Lode was struck with disaster, such as fires and floods that devastated whole towns, the Clampers were among the first to lend a hand with rescues and rebuilding. They were jokesters, but good citizens as well.
The strength and spirit of E Clampus Vitus began fading in the 1890's as the miners drifted away.The last Clamper meeting was in Sierra City was in 1907, and the hewgag brayed for the last time in Quincy, California in 1916.
History from The Gold Camp of Foolery, by Gary Meier. and some from Al Slopes Then and Now, the History of E Clampus Vitus.The Clampers were resurrected in the early 1930's and have blossomed once again, with chapters and outposts from Colorado to California! Today E Clampus Vitus has charged it self with the preservation of Western History, California style! Clampers tend to erect monuments for historic sites and people that have been previously over looked by other organizations. Some sites and people markers have been dedicated to include Julia C. Bulette, (a famous madam in Nevada), The first train robbery in California's San Joaquin Valley, First Airplane flight in Tulare County, and various other sites in the western United States. Chapters also donate time and money in their communities in a large variety of ways, always having FUN, and spreading it where ever they show up!
True version, some say exaggerated version. Clampers say CREDO QUIA ABSURDUM, because it is absurd, we believe it!
E Clampus Vitus is an organization that dates back to 4005 BC, and Adam was the 1st member of The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. We cant reveal the secret role he played in the forming of the organization as it is a tightly guarded secret.
Some well known Clampers include Peg Leg Smith, Lord Sholto Douglas, Sir Francis Drake, George Washington, Marco Polo, and Andrew Jackson to name a few. We of course can't show the proof of these membership's to anyone not yet lifted from the "Depths of Despair and Degradation", and elevated to, "A State of True Clamper Exaltation."