Since Jan 26, 2001

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Once proud Native Californian ... now very proud "Zonie" ...

What is E CLAMPUS VITUS anyway?

And who, or what, are these men dressed in red shirts adorned with impressive looking badges, pins and other strange items?
Many things, really, but perhaps some history would be helpful in order to better understand the organization and its members who are known as CLAMPERS.

Back in the Gold Rush Days of the mid-nineteenth century 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.

Not infrequently, 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 of nature, was needed and 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".

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 know 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. 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.

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. As noted in Back Roads of California (Sunset, Lane Publishing), nearly every man was a Clamper and those who weren’t found themselves on the outside of business and social life.

Itinerant salesmen, known as Drummers or 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. "

The exalted ruler of the "Clampers," as the members were called, was a mockstern official known as the Noble Grand Humbug. He was assisted by the Clamps Petrix, The Clamps Matrix, the Royal Platrix, the Grand Gyascutis, and the Grand Iscutis. In fact, every Clamper had a title of some sort, and all were held in equal indignity by their fellows.

The ritual greeting between Clampers, according to E Clampus Vitus historian Carl I. Wheat, was the "raising of both hands to the ears, with thumbs against ears and fingers extended." The reply was a closed right fist, with arm raised from the beltline, striking the chest forcibly. "Everything about E Clampus Vitus was a jest, a philosophy embodied in the Clamper motto, Credo Quia Absurdium--take nothing seriously unless it is absurd. Even the name of the order was a humbug, for E Clampus Vitus has no meaning in true Latin.

The high-spirited miners loved it, for they belonged. Their mascot was a decorated billy goat, and their banner was a hoop skirt, to which they attached the words, This is the flag we fight under. In parades they carried a seven-foot-long Sword of Justice and Mercy, and they toted an equally long "Blunderbusket," with a two-inch bore.

"Pranks and practical jokes abounded, finding victims in members and non-members alike. Soon Joe Zumwalt's Mokelumne Hill lodge of parody caught on in other camps, and within a few years other ECV chapters had sprung up throughout California's gold country, from Yreka in the north to the southern outpost of Mariposa.

In 1855, even Hangtown (by then called Placerville) relented. "Clamper meetings were held in the Hall of Comparative Ovations, commonly in the back room of a saloon. They also met in hotels, dance halls, and if the attendance was too large, in barns. Some chapters even constructed their own Hall of Comparative Ovations building. But most met in, as one newspaper put it, "libation emporiums, where they reached stages of well-being, free from 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 "at any time before or after a full moon." "Much Clamper business involved taking in new members, called Poor Blind Candidates, and they were really 'taken in.'

The only requirement for a membership was a poke of gold dust. The amount depended upon the candidate's means, and in some cases it 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 Petrix, and the Clamps Matrix, all masked, began the solemn ritual of initiation, complete with elaborate phony Latin phrasing. The Poor Blind Candidate--right shoe off, pants leg rolled up, and wearing a blindfold--was then led into the hall and brought before the Noble Grand Humbug. His Eminence would ask the nervous candidate a series of questions, after which the newcomer was led around the hall, stopping at different points where he was lectured on various Clamper policies and rules. Next he was placed in the Expungent's Chair, a wheelbarrow padded with a large, cold, wet sponge, and taken over the Rocky Road to Dublin, a ladder laid on the floor. As the Poor Blind Candidate bounced over the rungs, the brethren sang out repeatedly, "Ain't you glad to get out of the wilderness, get out of the wilderness, get out of the wilderness." "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 onto a saddle and hoisted by block and tackle to the ceiling. Often the "elevation" was accomplished by a blanket toss, where the candidate was bounced on a blanket that the brethren firmly held on all sides. "Finally, sometimes after several hours 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 ready for one! After surviving the ritual ceremony, the new member was immediately appointed Chairman of the Most Important Committee to instill a sense of Clamper self esteem. With his new title he equaled all his brothers in rank. "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 reply was "Satisfactory!". The initiation was over. "

There are no dues in E Clampus Vitus, and often the treasury consisted only of the initiation fee put up by the evening's inductee, which was immediately converted to liquid assets for the refreshment of the assemblage. Because the Hall of Comparative Ovations was usually a saloon, the barkeep often had the drinks dispensed before the Scales of Darkness came off the Poor Blind Candidate. "

In Mokelumne Hill, where it all started, Van Pelt's saloon served as a Hall of Comparative Ovations until George Leger became a Clamper and opened his hotel to the braying of the hewgag. In Ione, Ringer's saloon was where the Clampers met.

In Amador City it was Mooney's, and in Georgetown, Clamper-saloonkeeper Pat Lynch hosted the raucous meetings. The Noble Grand Humbug E.H. Van Decor presided over the Georgetown gatherings in 1856 until a fire swept away that sacred Hall and most of the town. Stevens' Young America Saloon in Jackson was a Hall of Comparative Ovations and Al Dudley was the Noble Grand Humbug in 1861. In the booming gold rush town of Columbia there were two Clamper Halls in the 1850's: Soderer and Marshall's drinking emporium, later called the Stage Driver's Retreat, and Albert Aberdeen's saloon, where the Clampers met downstairs in Darling's Oyster Parlor. "As the popularity of E Clampus Vitus grew, Clamper lodges 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 bray of the hewgag, for Clampers were loyal and tended to vote for their brothers and trade in Clamper-owned establishments. Besides, there was refreshing if ironic honesty in the Clamper philosophy.

By the mid-1850's, E Clampus Vitus numbered among its brethren such worthies as judges, senators, state assemblymen, newspapermen, sheriffs, bankers, and mayors, as well as scores of lawyers and doctors. "When E Clampus Vitus was in full bloom, from the mid-1850's to about 1870, it was not unusual to find towns almost closing down at the call of the hewgag. Shops, banks, saloons, homes--and placer diggings--were temporarily abandoned when the summons of the sacred clarion shattered the stillness of the air.

Indeed many mining towns in the Mother Lode, such as Downieville, Placerville, and Sierra City had more Clampers in residence than all the members of the serious lodges combined. Over the years, the secret Clamper grip passed between thousands of hands, even extending over the Sierras in 1859 to Nevada's Comstock Lode silver mines. "

Some of the enlightened, having the Scales of Darkness removed in the Hall of Comparative Ovations, were names not lost to history.

Philip D. Armour, the Auburn and Placerville butcher who would later found on of the world's largest meat-packing firms, was a Clamper, as was John Mohler Studebaker, who made the wheelbarrows for Mother Lode miners in the 1850's. When he had saved enough money, Studebaker joined his brothers in their Indiana wagon shop and lived to manufacture the first gasoline-powered Studebaker auto in 1904. John Hume, lawyer, well-known state assemblyman, and brother of famed Wells Fargo Chief Detective James Hume, was a member of E Clampus Vitus' Placerville and Coloma lodges. "

A young newspaperman named Sam Clemens, who lived for a time at the Jackass Hill diggings near Angels Camp, was a brother of E Clampus Vitus. There, on a cold January day in 1865, the fun-loving journalist heard someone relate a funny anecdote about a frog-jumping contest. A few months later, Mark Twain wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County and found fame overnight. "

The Clampers also claim Ulysses S. Grant, J. Pierpont Morgan, Horace Greeley and Horatio Alger as members. All of these historic figures visited the California gold rush country, but it is doubtful that they were ever really Clampers.

Some Clamper membership claims are certainly suspect, such as Solomon, the Ceasars, Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and even Adam himself, the alleged first Clampatriarch. "

In its lapses from buffoonery the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus showed a benevolent side. Frequently, and quietly, the brethren performed charitable acts, and though they would whimsically state that the purpose of their society was to "care for widows and orphans, particularly the widows," the ECV was widely lauded for valuable services to the needy. They sponsored benefit shows and other fund-raising events for the sick and the destitute, with no hoaxes involved. And 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 by the 1890's as the miners drifted away. The last Clamper meeting in Sierra City was in 1907, and the hewgag brayed for the last time at Quincy in 1916.

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, there was 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.

Mining accidents and injuries were common. A man killed or injured and unable to work 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.

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. 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 lead by Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane and Leon O. Whitsell 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. Through their efforts and assisted by Mr. Adam Lee Moore, the last known survivor of the old Clamper days, 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. 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 while we in Elko belong to Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881. 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."


Some Californians are Elks, others are Moose, and some even are Lions. But the most colorful of them all are the Clampers, members of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization founded back in the gold rush days. Apparently it all began as a spoof on other lodges and secret societies, but its history is a little difficult to reconstruct. E Clampus Vitus is a parody of the more serious organization and has it's own secret ceremonies signs, phrases and handshakes. The early meetings of E Clampus Vitus were devoted so completely to drinking and carousing that none of the Clampers was ever in any condition to keep minutes, let alone remember what had happened the next day!

The Clampers claimed that all their members were officers and "of equal indignity," but some, such as the Clampatriarch and the Noble Grand Humbug, were more equal than others. The official purpose of the Order was to take care of the widows and orphans... especially the widows.

According to tradition, a person could join E Clampus Vitus by invitation only and then was expected to endure an elaborate and grueling initiation ceremony. Sometimes he was blindfolded and seated on a cold wet sponge in the bottom of a wheelbarrow. One of the brothers would take him for a ride "on the rocky road to Dublin" over the rungs of a ladder laid on the floor. Or the recruit might be asked if he believed in "the Elevation of Man," and if he answered yes, he’d be lifted high into the air by a block and tackle. Once a Clamper had survived his own harrowing initiation, he was powerfully motivated to get even by putting some other new recruit through the same rigmarole.

Membership in E Clampus Vitus declined in the late 1800s, but experienced a revival in the 1930s and is still going strong today. Modern-day Clampers typically dress up in gold-rush garb -- usually a red miner’s shirt, black hat, and Levi’s -- and they still hold outrageous initiation ceremonies. They specialize now in putting up commemorative plaques as places like saloons, bawdy houses, and other sites that may have been overlooked by more serious historical societies. Though the clampers appear to be just an excuse for their members to get together and party, the organization has it's serious and beneficial side. At one time the clampers were the largest charitable organization in the state and continue to this day to be a major contributor to charitable organizations. Lots of folks don’t know what to make of the Clampers today, but Carl Wheat, one of the founders of the revived Order back in the thirties, put it well when he described E Clampus Vitus as "the comic strip on the page of California history"

Notable famous clampers not listed in the article

Ronald Reagan
Anthony Kennedy
Pat and Jerry Brown
Gary Condit
Earl Warren
Goodwin Knight
Clint Eastwood
Lee Marvin

There are also MANY unconfirmed famous clampers

Article plagerized in the best Clamper tradition by ...

Clamper1797 (aka Ringer)
X-Clampatriarch and X-Noble Grand Humbug #6
El Viceroy de Marque Branciforte Chapter 1797
of the Ancient and Honorable Order of
E Clampus Vitus
Santa Cruz Alta California

and so recorded

My "hobbys" ...