E Clampus Vitus


E Clampus Vitus was formed as a “fun” organization, probably in Mokelumne Hill, California, in 1849. It lapsed, and was revived as a fun-cum-historical society. In 1991 there were approximately 50,000 members in 62 lodges, but there was no settled head office.
E Clampus Vitus (sometimes E Clampsus Vitus) is an example of a fun-loving society that eventually came to take itself too seriously, evolving from pure burlesque and serious drinking, it turned into a worthy organization with a penchant for local history.
In its original form, it was not very attractive — there was a great deal of rowdyism and horseplay — but at least it lived up to its original mission, which was to parody the freemasons and other organizations that took themselves too seriously.

Although Lois Rather (in Men Will Be Boys [Oakland, California, 1980]) traces the history of the “Clampers” to unspecified southern states before 1849, it is widely accepted in California that E. Clampus Vitus is a native California organization founded in Mokelumne Hill in the Gold Country by Joseph H. Zumwalt during the Gold Rush year. The Sons of Malta may, however, be an ancestor of the original Clampers.
E Clampus Vitus originally seems to have existed for one simple reasons: to initiate new members, partly for the malicious pleasure of humiliating them, and more importantly because a new member had to buy drinks all round for existing members. When a new “mark” was spotted by a Clamper—maybe a new businessman in town, maybe even an unfortunate traveling salesman — he would be fed the line that in order to do business in the area he had better join E Clampus Vitus. More often than not, especially if other Clampers joined the conspiracy and told him the same story, he would accede.

The “initiation” took several forms, including pushing the candidate backwards into a pile of cow manure, hoisting him in the air and leaving him there, or dumping him in a vat of water; but the most usual form seems to have been the “ride on the rocky road,” in which the candidate was placed in a wheelbarrow and pushed along a ladder laid flat on the floor. Sometimes, the wheelbarrow would be lined with wet sponges. Before or after all this, the unfortunate candidate would also be subjected to a barrage of personal questions, often accompanied by jeers and catcalls. The only incentive to remain in the organization, once one had been tricked into joining, was that one could join the tormentors of the next candidate.

The rituals, such as they were, seem to have been horseplay tempered with parodies of freemasons, Odd Fellows and other fraternal orders; the head of the order is to this day the Sublime Noble Grand Humbug, and there were other ranks (applied without excessive regard for detail or consistency), such as the Clampatriarch. An early head of the Clampers, Ephraim Bee, was known as the Grand Gyascutis and later as the Grand Lama.

At least one lodge also had higher degrees, but no one took them very seriously. It has long been said within the organization that, traditionally, no one was in a fit state to record what went on at the meetings, and the morning after, no one could remember.
The move toward greater seriousness set in around the time of the Civil War, when the date of the Clampers parade was changed from the first Saturday after the snows to the Fourth of July — a reprehensibly sensible act suggesting that E Clampus Vitus was beginning to lose touch with its burlesque roots.

Like many other organizations, the present-day E Clampus Vitus is a revival of the original. The old E Clampus ran out of steam in the late 19th century, but was revived about 1930 by a lawyer named Carl Irving Wheat. Wheat was deeply interested in California history, and under his guidance the revived organization devoted itself to that subject. Clamper commemorative plaques of bronze or stone are to be found on many “historical” California buildings, some of which antedate the 20th century. Typically, these plaques give a brief history of the building.

Wheat was not entirely given to seriousness, however, and most Clampers remained thirsty men. He (and they) also had a weakness for misleading histories of the order, such as Adam Was a Clamber, An Abridged History of Clamperdom from the Garden of Eden to Hangtown and the Founding of Platrix Chapter No 2 (1979, by Don Louis Perceval, Montrose, California).
When Wheat died in 1967, the soberer elements of the organization took over — or attempted to do so. The Clamper, the official organ of the order since 1961, railed in December 1974 against the “grotesque antics, obscenities, vulgar displays and graceless manners” of some Clampers. Worse still, it attacked the holy institution of drinking Then again, there were problems: Many Clampers regarded a six-gun as a part of the regalia (along with blue jeans and red braces, or “suspenders”), and the combination of guns and alcohol can become excessively interesting. In 1967, one man was accidentally shot dead at a party in Columbia near Sonora.

To this day, though, Clampers retain the image (where they are known, which is principally in the Gold Country of northern California) of being fond of a dram. For example, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) visited Petaluma in 1979 to read the inscription on the water fountain they had installed a century earlier in 1879: “TOTAL ABSTINENCE IS THE WAY TO HANDLE THE ALCOHOL PROBLEM.” They then went on to attempt to evangelize nearby Andresen’s Tavern. There they found a sign that read, “NEVER TRUST A MAN WHO DOESN’T DRINK” and a bunch of Clampers in fancy costumes and military outfits. These worthies encouraged the ladies to move on, in no uncertain manner.

Needless to say, the name means nothing, and has been variously rendered as E Clampus Vitus, E Clampsus Vitus, E Clampsus Vitae, “Clampers” (also used as the name for members), and E.C.V. The Clampers appear to be in good order: There were 20 chapters in 1970, 32 in 1979, and over 50 in 1991.