An Explanation and History of E Clampus Vitus
In Three Parts
The history of E CLAMPUS VITUS
involves an old organization of the same name, started in the Ol' West's gold rush era and
revitalized about 1931 at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco and now encompassing Arizona,
California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington DC.
A non-profit organization, E
CLAMPUS VITUS is currently involved in humanitarian and public help programs while
maintaining a steadfast program of historical preservation.
Funds for very expensive projects such as solid
bronze plaques and their stone monuments to be placed at long forgotten historical sites
are obtained by having chapter sponsored outings, family barbecues and dances, sales of
historical memorabilia and other such functions.
E CLAMPUS VITUS parade
agenda's, include members and/or floats, portraying the rowdiness and roughness of the
true goldrush era goldminers, and is not a representation of a modern "CLAMPER"
( although I have met a few who weren't sure of that fact ).......JR........
For further information, please contact your local chapter
The HISTORY of E CLAMPUS VITUS
Lodges of E
Clampus Vitus were active in many towns in the mining country of California from
the early 1850's. ECV as an organization in California was established by Joseph Zumwalt.
Joseph was born on
the 15th of July, 1800, in Boone County,Kentucky. At about the age of 49, he, his wife
Mary, and 8 of their 11 surviving children decided to leave their farm in Illinois and
head for California.
train went by way of Bowling Green, Missouri, where Zumwalt and a partner, C.W. Wright,
stopped at the local newspaper office to inquire about the road to California. In that
office, they picked up copies of the ritual of an amusing organization called
"Ecclampus Vitus" (Written by Ephraim Bee)
Wright each bought a copy and put it in their trunks. Zumwalt and his family reached the
"diggins" on September 5, 1849. ( C.W. Wright has been lost in history )
After a period
of time in Sacramento and then in the diggins, it appears that Zumwalt remembered the
ritual and observed that the men in the mines were in need of a humorous outlet. During
his wanderings in the diggins around Hangtown ( Placerville ) in 1850 and early 1851, he
apparently tried, with no great success, to start chapters of what became known as
E CLAMPUS VITUS in various camps.
1851, he moves to Mokelumne Hill where he started Chapter #1001. the chartering was held
in the community jail which was unoccupied at the moment. From then on in the diggins, the
idea of E CLAMPUS VITUS spread like wildfire.
VITUS had several facets. It was a benevolent organization that gave aid to fellow miners,
their widows and children, as the many newspaper articles of the period record.
But, ECV was
also the greatest practical joke ever conceived and put over by all the thousands of
miners (and jokers) who made light of their hardships and miseries in the diggins. The
organization was, by nature, a spoof on the more dignified, straight-laced and deeply
ritualistic fraternal orders of the day. In this vein, it's purpose seems to have been
solely to entertain its members by initiation of new members.
traveling salesman was forced to join E CLAMPUS VITUS before he could obtain an order. In
Marysville, the renowned Lord Sholto Douglas opened a theatrical engagement, but the first
performance failed to pay the rent. When he determined that he had to become a clamper to
draw a crowd, he immediately applied for membership, and on the night of his initiation he
played to a $1500 house.
spirit of the new lodge, expressed by the slogan "Credo Quia Absurdum" ( I
believe because it is absurd) and by the Constitution of the Order which said that
"all members are officers and all offices are of equal indignity", had a
tremendous appeal to the miners, who thought that hoaxing a tenderfoot was the greatest of
sports. Therefore, when the hewgag would bray, signifying that a Poor Blind Candidate had
appeared in camp and was ready to have the veil of ignorance lifted from his eyes by
having revealed to him the great truths and secrets of the Ancient and Honorable Order of
E CLAMPUS VITUS, the brethren hurriedly gathered from far and near for the merriment.
decline of mining and the depopulation of the camps in the diggins, ECV also declined, so
that by 1915, there was only one lodge left.
VITUS redivivus, Clamperhood as it exists today, started about 1930 as the observance of
an historical curiosity. Lovers of California history Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane, Leon
Whitsell and several of their friends gathered in San Francisco to talk about this
colorful group that they had read about. They continued to meet periodically after that to
enjoy its amusing aspects, and they formally revived E CLAMPUS VITUS in 1931, at the Clift
Hotel in San Francisco as Yerba Buena Redivivus #1
discovered a man, then in his 80's, who had been a member of Balaam Lodge #107402 ECV in
Sierra City during the decline of the mining days. This man, Adam Lee Moore, was able to
recall the ritual of initiation and the signs of ECV almost in its entirety. (It is said
that during the early clamper meetings, none of the brothers was in any condition to keep
the minutes and afterwards nobody could remember what had taken place.)
There are 40+
chapters as of this writing, with many more "Outposts" ( wannabe chapters) to
join the organization in the future.
The HISTORY of E CLAMPUS
A NON CLAMPER’S GUIDE TO CLAMPERDOM
Vice Noble Grand Humbug, Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881
Material for this guide has been gathered from various sources including liberally
plagiarizing, stealing, absconding, purloining, pilfering, looting and misappropriating
the work of others. Be that as it may, I believe it is reasonably accurate. It is
unsolicited, unofficial, unsanctioned, unblessed and unapproved. And, like other perfectly
good stories, it is subject to spoilage by an eye witness.
Credo Quia Absurdum
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.
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
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
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
If you are interested in learning more about E CLAMPUS VITUS and our chapter in Elko,
Nevada, I encourage you to contact us at:
LUCINDA JANE SAUNDERS 1881
E CLAMPUS VITUS
P.O. BOX 544
ELKO, NV 89803