Back in the 1850's, a Marysville minister delivered an angry sermon. A new organization had appeared in town, another mysterious fraternity modeled after the Masons, Odd Fellows, and other lodges that flourished at the time. The minister complained that church attendance had dropped because the new fraternity initiated most new members on Sunday night. "Where, oh where are our young men tonight?" the preacher shouted. And at that very moment the whole congregation was rocked by the deafening bray of a tinny horn. Many people couldn't help but laugh.
What the preacher and his flock had heard was the sound of the Hewgag, a four-foot long tin horn, announcing another meeting of the very fraternity that so enraged the minister. E Clampus Vitus. All of the young men, of course, were hurring to the assembly. They knew what that familiar sound meant. Someone had found another sucker, an ignorant soul who hadn't yet been led out of the darkness and introduced to the secrets of the Ancient and Honorable Order.
The men of the order called themselves Clampers, and they were supposedly dedicated to the noble cause of aiding widows and children especially the widows, as the legend goes. However, they dedicated themselves even more to another cause, their own rollicking merriment. Their sole rite was an elaborate initiation ceremony. Their chief purpose was to take in new members. Their antics were always performed in the name of fun.
In gold rush days, a man who was any sort of man at all belonged to a fraternity. But California miners, being the scruffy, unrefined lot they often were, couldn't always qualify for membership in elite societies like the Masons and the Odd Fellows. Rather than shake their heads in shame, the forty-niners simply flocked to a fraternity of their own, E Clampus Vitus, where they could poke gentle fun at the people and institutions that sometimes took themselves far too seriously.
Historians insist that E Clampus Vitus originated in the fertile imagination of a West Virginia practical joker named Ephraim Bee. The organization then spread rapidly throughout the Mother Lode after a man named Joe Zumwalt founded a successful lodge in Mokelumne Hill in 1851. But a Clamper, when asked about his group's past, might have grinned and offered another story.
The "true" Clamper account wasn't revealed in California until Steamboat Jake, a Yreka merchant, was initiated in 1852. According to that lodge's presiding officer, the Noble Grand Humbug, E Clampus Vitus was born along with mankind itself, making it the most ancient of all fraternal organizations. It seems that Adam was the group's founder, the Clampatriarch of all Clamperdom. When Adam made his exit from Eden, he furtively snapped a branch off the tree of Knowledge and smuggled it out of the garden. That branch eventually became the Clamper Staff of Relief.
Ephraim Bee, as the story goes, was merely the prophet chosen to spread the Clamper spirit throughout the U.S. The organization's rituals and secrets were offered to him by Caleb Cushing, who had recieved them from the Emperor of China in 1844. The Emperor was also the Grand Hotethote of E Clampus Vitus. He had been entrusted with Adam's secrets until he found the right time, and the right person, for giving the brotherhood to the world.
Of course, historians claim that the Clampers created this myth simply to parody the histories of other fraternities. The Clampers, after all, never missed an opportunity to satirize the secret societies that had rejected them. Like the Odd Fellows and the Elks, the Clampers called themselves a relief society. Never mind the fact that the men themselves were the recipients of that relief, releasing themselves through humor from the loneliness and frustration of life in the mining camps.
The Clampers also gave themselves a profound-sounding name, although nobody was sure what the words E Clampus Vitus really meant. Historians argue that the name probably has no meaning at all. But the brethren might have referred to Latin terms, while explaining that E Clampus Vitus meant "Out of the darkness after seeking life." Certainly, initiates were led from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge when they recieved the Clamper secrets.
Like other Ancient and Honorable Orders, E Clampus Vitus claimed it had led many illustrious brothers into the light of their organization. They say that Moses was a Clamper. Solomon and Noah were members, too, as were King Arthur, Robin Hood, Father Junipero Serra, Sir Francis Drake, George Washington, Sitting-Bull, and John C. Fremont. Even Santa Claus was said to be a Clamper. While historians have failed to discover documents to prove these assertions, no Clamper would dare spoil the fun by suggesting these leaders wern't truly brothers. Proof didn't exist because written records didn't exist. As Clamper George Napoleon once explained, during the meetings, nobody was sober enough to keep minutes, and afterward, nobody could remember what had taken place.
Besides, arguing over particulars might have been appropriate in a fraternity with a sober reputation to protect, but it was inappropriate in a society that had to protect its reputation for merrymaking. And the greatest source of pleasure for the Clampers was the initiation of a new member. True to Clamper tradition, this ceremony also mocked the solemn rites of the Masons, But unlike the Masons, Clampers invited any male with a sense of humor and a bit of money on his pocket to join their organization. Quite often the initiate would be a traveling salesman or a newcomer to the camps. If a man didn't respond to the Clamper greeting sign with a proper answering sign lifting his hands to his head and wiggling his fingers like the ears of a wild jackass, the Clamper emblem someone would offer to show the poor devil the light.
The Noble grand Humbug would sound the Hewgag, and Clampers would hurry to their Hall of Comparative Ovations. The initiate or Poor Blind Candidate, as he was aptly known, would pay his initiation fee. Then the Clampers immediately spent the money on beer to enliven the festivities. They would have a boisterous, high-spirited evening at the PBC's expense.
When William Ellis was initiated in Downieville, he knew by the end of the night that he'd definitely been "taken in." The Clampers blindfolded him, told him to remove his clothes, and then sang him a song: "You will get all that is coming to you, And a damn sight more before you are through." Plenty more they gave him, too. Before the ceremony ended, he had sat on the Expungent's Chair, passed through a Cave of Silence, ridden the Rocky Road, experienced the Elevation of Man, taken the Fearful Oaths, endured Obliterating Obfuscation, and was subjected to much humorous humiliation before receiving the welcome Staff of Relief that sealed his membership. The ritual, which lasted a few hours, utilized enough bizarre paraphrenalia, like the Blunderbusket and the the enormous Sword of Justice tempered with Mercy, to fill a wagon.
Not surprisingly, new members often disappeared after the ceremony. Eventually, however, they returned to town, and this time they usually brought a PBC of their own with whom they could get even, But before long, ignorant souls were hard to find. E Clampus Vitus had spread like a plague of mirth throughout the mining camps, and every man who was any sort of man at all had joined. Even the respectable citizens like doctors, lawyers, and bankers became Clampers. The outsiders were suddenly the insiders. Entire towns were virtually locked up whenever the Hewgag was sounded.
E Clampus Vitus, after all, regarded every brother as an important member. Their constitution stipulated that "all members are officers, and all officers are of equal indignity." Every man was declared head of the Most Important Committee, and every man could choose his own title. Lawyers and miners alike gave themselves the ridiculous names of Clamps Petrix, Great Montageon, High and Mighty Hangman, and Grand Gyascutis.
But in spite of the prankish nature of E Clampus Vitus, the Clampers actually did perform some good deeds that even the more sober fraternities could have been proud of. In Downieville, local Clampers raised several hundred dollars for the widow and children of a miner who had been accidently killed. A letter to the editor in the January 19, 1856, Placerville Mountain Gazette thanked the Clampers for helping to feed and clothe a destitute family. And in Marysville, the brethren even came to the aid of a pathetically untalented vaudevillian named Lord Sholto Douglas by turning out in great numbers for his show - after first requiring him to become a Clamper.
However, all their charity didn't spoil the Clampers' image as unrestrained pranksters. The September 28, 1852, edition of the Sacramento Union reported that the money donated by the Clampers to the San Francisco fire company was "intended merely to create mystery and hoax the good citizens of the Bay city." San Franciscans were warned to "keep their eyes about them."
Today, after being revitalized in the 1930s by California historians who thought that academia had become too stuffy and humorless, Clampers continue to do good deeds. Their current projects include the restoration and preservation of historic sites, as well as the commemoration of events in California history. Of course, Clampers will be Clampers, and today's members still carry on in the old spirit with the "unofficial activities" of merrymaking. But above all, they strive to remain true to the Clamper slogan, Credo Quia Absurdum I believe because it is absurd. As they say in their "Curious Book of the Clampers": "The most absurd spectacle in all the foolish farce of humanity is that of a man who takes himself seriously."