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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.