History of ECV

The history of the organization is steeped in mythology. History shows that the organization was brought to the United States in 1845 in Lewisport, Virginia, now West Union, West Virginia, when tavern and stable owner Ephraim Bee was given a commission from the Emperor of China to “extend the work and influence of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus.”

Bee claimed to have received his commission from Caleb Cushing, the American minister to China. West Union has a monument to Ephraim Bee on the site of the old “Beehive” Tavern, where the RailTrail comes through. The original tavern, the “Bee Hive”, was destroyed in the late 1800s during a flood.

At the age of 60, he was a Captain of the Doddridge County Militia, which protected the area from roving Confederate forces, horse thieves & outlaws. The Militia also had a part in the Underground Railroad in Doddridge County. They were hidden in hidden cellars of homes and also in Jaco Cave. Ephraim Bee played his greatest joke on his local West Virginian neighbors. Occasionally, the entire town was invited to a great party. After the Civil War, it was discovered that Jaco Cave was a holding area for the runaway slaves. When the cave was full, E. Bee gave a party to keep all busy while that group of people were moved further north to the next stop.

CEO of ECV Chapter .75 and founder of the Elephant Temperance Society exhibits a prime example of ECV regalia.

Bee felt that an organization was needed which was less exclusive than the other organizations of the day, such as the Masons, Elks and Odd Fellows. In addition, nativism was rising in the United States, as evidenced by such political organizations as the Know-Nothing Party. Bee opened membership in ECV to any “upstanding” man who had come of age. It is known that there were E Clampus Vitus chapters in Bedford, Pennsylvania; Metropolis, Illinois; Bowling Green, Missouri; and Dahlonega, Georgia. (It has been rumored that ECV brethren within the U.S. Army even attempted to bring the order as far south as Mexico City following the Mexican-American War as a gesture of brotherhood and reconciliation, but all record has vanished of the well-intentioned Chapultepec chapter.)

Chairman Moe of the Salt of the Scum of the Earth models an upright yet casual ECV look of red and black.

The organization is said to have been taken to California by an ECV member named Joe Zumwalt, who first heard of it in Missouri. Zumwalt opened an ECV lodge in Mokelumne Hill in 1851, when Mokelumne Hill Lodge No. 1001 was established. There are arguments that previous lodges had been founded in Hangtown, Downieville and Sierra City, but none of those became permanent.

ECV flourished, in part, as the result of the miners’ reaction to the “established” organizations such as the Masons and Odd Fellows. Those groups had come to the mining country prior to ECV, and when ECV appeared, the older, more established groups looked down upon the more rowdy nature of E Clampus Vitus. ECV, on the other hand, made fun of the stuffed shirts of the Masons: they made great fun of the sashes and ceremonial attire of the “upscale” fraternities, and began dressing in red shirts and pinning on badges made of cut-out tin can lids. This practice, called “wearing the tin,” continues to this day, although the badges are frequently professionally made. Members commonly dress in a red shirt, black hat and Levi’s jeans. ECV titles reflected the tongue-in-cheek nature of the organization. Officials were called “Noble Grand Humbug,” “Roisterous Iscutis,” “Grand Imperturbable Hangman,” “Clamps Vitrix,” and “Royal Gyascutis.” All members are officers and all officers, the organization professes, are of equal indignity.

Clamper meetings were held in the Hall of Comparative Ovations, generally the back room of a saloon. Some chapters even built their own Halls of Comparative Ovations. One still stands in Murphys. The Clamper flag was a hoop skirt, with the words “This is the flag we fight under.” Meetings were held “at any time before or after a full moon.” New members were called “Poor Blind Candidates.” They were required to present a poke of gold dust, although the value of the poke was left to the discretion of the brotherhood, and was frequently waived entirely if the prospective member could not afford it.

Despite the humor and rowdiness of E Clampus Vitus, the members do take their brotherhood seriously. When a member became sick or injured, the group would collect food or money to help him. They frequently trekked through the vastness of the Sierra Nevada to reach lonely miners who otherwise would have had no Christmas celebration. The society was also careful to assist the widows and orphans of fallen members.

Wayward Clampers showing their colors, tin and chapter affiliation. It is not uncommon for clampers to share the good news of ECV while traveling which has led to growth throughout its history.

At the ECV’s peak, around 1870, so many miners were members that many mining camps shut down during ECV celebrations (some mining towns had two chapters). At one point, Lord Sholto Douglas, a British peer leading a troupe of actors in Marysville, was so downheartened by the lack of ticket sales that he had determined to leave town. When a local Clamper found out that the troupe was having trouble, Lord Douglas was immediately initiated into ECV, and the brothers bought enough tickets to fill the local theater. A 20th century chapter of the ECV was named for Lord Douglas LSD in honor of this event. Mark Twain was a member, and it was while attending an ECV meeting that he heard the story which he wrote as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Members of note included Adam, the first “Clampatriarch”; Philip D. Armour, the meat packer; John Mohler Studebaker, the automobile manufacturer; Gene Autry “The Singing Cowboy” and owner of the California Angels baseball team; and John Hume, a California state assemblyman. ECV also claims Ulysses S. Grant, J. Pierpont Morgan, Horace Greeley, and Horatio Alger as members, but claims have also been made to Solomon, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, Henry VIII of England, Sir Francis Drake, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and of course, His Imperial Majesty Joshua A. Norton, “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico”. These fanciful claims show ECV’s propensity for not taking much of anything particularly seriously, least of all itself.

There is evidence to support the ECV claim to Ulysses S. Grant. One of the early capitals of California was Benicia. At the close of the War with Mexico, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman was Adjutant to Col. Richard Barnes Mason at the time of the gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Upon Sherman’s retirement in 1853, his replacement at the Benicia Arsenal was Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, who spent 30 days in the Arsenal Guardhouse for being drunk on duty and firing his cannons at the Martinez shoreline. Considering Benicia’s position as the major inland Army post and transport hub to the valley, both Grant’s and the Brotherhood’s affinity for strong drink and the early spread of the Brotherhood through Northern California, it is entirely possible that Grant was inducted into the Organization.