During the California gold rush, and the years afterward, the towns and camps of the Sierra Foothills rocked with the laughter at the antics of the most curious fraternal society ever devised: The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, the grandest practical joke ever unleashed on the Mother Lode.
Soon after gold was discovered in the millrace at John Sutter’s sawmill on January 24, 1848, tent camps blossomed, then were quickly replaced by the cabins, shanties, and brick and stone buildings that became towns. At the beginning of 1848 there were about 2,000 Americans in California, and by the end of 1849 there were over 53,000. With the great western migration of gold‑seekers also came the staid and civilized fraternal lodges, such as the Masons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, often occupying the first permanent structures in the diggings.
The members of these respected orders were chiefly business and professional people‑‑bankers, lawyers, doctors, men in the mercantile and hotel trades‑‑and some of the more gentlemanly miners. However, many of the men in the diggings were too free‑spirited, boisterous, or crude to be welcomed into the established lodges. They were outside the accepted circle, destined to drink alone, undignified and unentitled. But that soon changed, for in the throngs decending upon the Mother Lode was one Joseph H. Zumwalt, whose trunk contained a document that would have momentous impact on the forty‑niners. It was an eight‑page tract describing the initiation ritual and rules of a peculiar secret society called E Clampus Vitus. It is believed that E Clampus Vitus started as an elaborate practical joke in the hills of western Virginia in the mid‑1840′s. Actually, the original name was E Clampsus Vitus, but along the way the extra “s” was dropped. Joe Zumwalt unpacked the ritual booklet with his other gear when he reached Hangtown (now Placerville) in 1850. E Clampus Vitus had come to California. Zumwalt attempted to organize the first ECV chapter in Hangtown. That lodge was short‑lived, perhaps due to a half‑hearted try by the frustrated Zumwalt, who was having little luck finding gold.
Then he moved forty miles south to the Mokelumne Hill district, where he found richer diggings. He also found that the prank‑loving, recreation‑hungry miners of Mok Hill were ready to embrace his intriguingly absurd lodge. So in September 1851, Mokelumne Hill Lodge No. 1001, Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus was born. Though it would later show a benevolent side, the chief aim of E Clampus Vitus at its beginning was simply to poke good‑natured fun at the serious mystical lodges, particularly the Masons and the Odd Fellows, whose complex internal structures the irreverent prankish group gleefully parodied.
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 billygoat, 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 Holl 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 bretheren 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 mwmber 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 bretheren 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 inportance 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 were 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 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.
An example of the fact that it paid to be a Clamper is the case of Lord Sholto Douglas. Lord Sholto, the head of a small travelling theatrical company, scheduled a two‑night stand in Marysville. Unfortunately, the opening performance produced only seventy dollars in reciepts, and Lord Sholto decided to cancel the next night’s show and leave town. However, after that dismal first evening he met a Clamper, who saw an opportunity to help the dejected, likeable actor, as well as to bring a British peer into the fold.
The Marysville Appeal announced that , “Last night after the performance at the theatre, the sonorous tones of the Hewgag floating over the city warned all good Clampers that a stranger was to be initiated into their order. Presently 500 men had assembled within the walls of the Hall to witness the ceremony of the initiation. The Clamp Petrix announced that he who sought admittance was no less a personage than Lord Sholto Douglas. When he had been blindfolded, the shoe removed from his right foot and the pants leg rolled to the right knee, the work of introducing him to the myssteries of the order was begun.”
Attendance at the second performance was quite different, for now heading the little company of actors was Lord Sholto Douglas of E Clampus Vitus. The theatre was filled, and the songs, dances, and skits met with roars of “Satisfactory!” Lord Sholto was a success in Marysville.
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 wheelborrows 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.
Also 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 claimed 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 doubtfull 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.
Sometimes when the hewgag brayed it was not for the initiation of a Poor Blind Candidate, but the planning of an intricate practical joke. In the Mother Lode town of Sonora, a lawyer named Otis Greenwood was the prankish Noble Grand Humbug. Greenwood and his brothers had taken note of a stranger in town, a foppish little strutting peacock named Garland, who fancied himself an actor and ladies man. He had followed a theatrical group to Sonora from Stockton, where he had been pressing his unwanted affections on one of the actresses. When the Sonora Clampers learned of Garland’s continuing boorish advances toward the lady, they decided somethin had to be done. Greenwood had the Royal Grand Musician sound the hewgag, and they devised a plan.
Soon, a committee of jovial men in frock coats and tall hats met with Garland and told him it was their duty and pleasure to welcome visitors to the town. With tongue loosened by strong drink, the dandy confided in his new friends his intention to join the theatrical company and thereby press his attentions even harder on the actress, who had so far spurned him. The problem was, Garland said, no one in the troupe liked him, and he was finding it impossible to gain their favor.
The committee of “welcomers” sympathized with him and suggested a solution. He should put himself in their hands, they said, for sure success with the troupe and the actress. They told him that if he could do something to garner community approval and recognition, the acting company‑‑including the girl‑‑ would see him in a new, shining light. So on the evening of the first performance, on a raised platform to the side of the audience, sat the proud popinjay, splendidly decorated courtesy of the Sonora Lodge, E Clampus Vitus. He wore a big wooden sword at his side, a magnificent paper hat, and across his chest was fastened the Badge of Honor; a large blue wooden heart with gold letters in true Clamper hog‑Latin, signifying nothing. Behind the “honored guest” sat several of the brethren, wearing smaller swords and badges, keeping their faces solemn and dignified. The chuckles and amused looks of the audience were lost on Garland, as were the stifled giggles of the stage players when the curtain went up. After the performance, the brothers led the resplendent but foolish fop in a parade up the main street, with the entire audience in tow. Greenwood stopped the march at the Placer Hotel steps and introduced the Honorable Mr. Garland to Sonora, while a dozen Clampers in the crowd called for a speech. Before he could speak, however, he was given a bracer of whiskey, laced with a dollop of croton oil, a strong cathartic. Within minutes he bounded off the steps and disappeared. Garland remained in bed for several days, and the theatrical troupe moved on. Before he was ready to board the stage going in the opposite direction, the sympathetic brethren gave him a phoney plaque and told him to guard it forever. They said if he showed it to any Clampers anywhere, it would be their solemn duty to take him in‑‑just as the Sonora Lodge had done.
On another occasion, a Poor Blind Candidate named Adams in Sierra City made the mistake of arguing with one of his initiators. After the ceremony was over, some of the bretheren planned a little prank for him. They appointed Adams Chief Gold Mover and assigned him the task of taking $5,000 in Clamper gold coins to the bank in Marysville, where the boys kept an account. They told him that arrangements had already been made with the bank and all he had to do was get it there safely. The Clampers showed him the strongbox, which appeared to contain coin rolls, and broke one open to reveal twenty‑dollar gold double eagles. Adams vowed he would get the treasure safely to the bank. [It is at this point that I would like to add a side note: I read in another Clamper historical‑type document that on the way to the bank Adams was “held up” several times by Clampers pretending to be highwaymen, but on each occasion Adams declared he was carrying the Clamper gold and refused to pass down the box. He was allowed to continue on the remainder of his journey unmolested, and his loyalty to the Clampers was noted.]
The next day Adams and the strongbox were on the Marysville stage. When the coach reached the busy city, the Chief Gold Mover, swelled with self‑importance, carried the heavy box into the bank and announced loudly that he had just brought down the Clamper money from Sierra City, and that he had done it alone. However, when the banker opened the box Adams was shocked to find that all he had brought in for deposit was a box full of stove bolts.
Perhaps the Mother Lode’s greatest hoax was a humbug known to the world as the “Pliocene Skull,” and though never proved, many historians are convinced it was perpetrated by those who heeded the call of the hewgag. In 1866, from a mine near Angels Camp, a human skull was taken and presented to the scientific world as that of a previously undiscovered type of pre‑historic man. Anthropologists argued for almost fifty years over the authenticity of the find, but finally decided that the famous skull was from an Indian and had been placed in the mine shaft as an ambitious‑‑and successful‑‑practical joke. E Clampus Vitus remained the chief suspect, but no public admissions were ever made.
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.
However, Carl I. Wheat, Dr. Charles Lewis Camp, and others in the California Historical Society revived the order in 1931. Today there are a number of E Clampus Vitus chapters in California, existing to have fun, recount gold rush lore, and place plaques at historic sites. Some of the crumbling, long‑abandoned saloons are still there, too‑‑former Halls of Comparative Ovations, where in the heyday of the Mother Lode the ritual question, “What say the Brethren?” was always