Clampers In The News.
Emperor Norton Day
January 12th, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday January 13th, 2002. Page A-27
Clampers toast Emperor Norton
History buffs honor lunatic of old-time San Francisco.
Matthew B. Stannard, ECV, Chronicle Staff Writer.
Color Photos by Kurt Rogers.
"Once upon a time, there was a legend called California, a place where
drunken miners studied obscure history and a madman could be king.
That legend was real. And it survives today.
The miners were the Order of E Clampus Vitus, a society born in the Gold
Rush and revived in the 1930s, described variously by its members as either a
historical drinking society or a drinking historical society.
Yesterday, hundreds of modern "Clampers," bathed in a mist of hops and
cigar smoke, paid their annual honor to the Colma grave of the aforementioned
madman: Joshua A. Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico -- died 1880.
The annual event mingles two of the more absurd streams of California
history: a madcap group that excludes women and celebrates drinking yet
survives in a politically correct world, and a lunatic remembered fondly more
than a century after he died penniless in a San Francisco gutter.
"California, then and now, has been a haven for people who don't
necessarily walk the beaten path. It's a place where individuality is not
squelched," said Pat "Aloycious" Sweeney, Noble Grand Humbug of the Mountain
Charlie chapter of E Clampus Vitus in Santa Clara County.
The Clampers have had their controversies. One member was accidentally
killed at a 1967 celebration so boisterous that the local sheriff despaired of
finding sober witnesses. And a 1995 initiation at San Quentin prison led some
guards to complain of racial slurs and public urination.
Yet Sweeney -- who insists the latter incident was overblown and
misunderstood -- proudly claims that the Clampers have gained members in
recent years, even as other fraternal organizations have withered.
Sweeney's chapter is just one of 42 in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah
and Colorado, and there are Clamper outposts as far away as Alaska and Guam,
Each chapter is as individual as its members, but most are dedicated to the
Clamper ideals of preserving history -- mainly by posting plaques at little-
known yet bona fide points of historical interest -- doing charitable deeds,
and drinking a lot. Not necessarily in that order.
Improbable as they sound, the Clampers existed at least as far back as the
Gold Rush, said state librarian Kevin Starr and San Francisco publisher
Malcolm E. Barker, when miners obtained drinking money by demanding Clamper
initiation fees from salesmen passing through town.
And for much of their existence -- at least since the society's rebirth in
the 1930s -- the Clamper year has unofficially begun with a pilgrimage to the
grave of the Emperor Norton I, held around the date of his death, Jan. 8.
Norton was once a successful businessman, who lost his considerable fortune
in a failed rice market scheme in 1854.
Five years later, he strolled into the offices of the San Francisco
Bulletin and presented the editor with a proclamation declaring himself the
nation's first emperor.
Seeking a cheerful respite from recent news of a popular senator's death,
the editor published the proclamation on the Bulletin's cover -- and Joshua
Norton became Norton I, a title he held until his death 20 years later.
Preposterous? Perhaps. But it is true.
As is the legend that local shops accepted Norton's handmade money. Or the
story of how San Francisco police officers would salute Norton on the street,
after being scolded by their chief for arresting him as a lunatic.
All true, say Starr, Barker and other historians. As is the yarn about
10,000 people turning out to see Norton's funeral, and his grave in San Francisco
-- later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, where he remains today.
It is a perfect Clamper story, Sweeney said -- a little offbeat yet
completely true. Norton, he said, was the living personification of the
Clamper motto, "Credo Quia Absurdum" -- I believe it, because it is absurd.
"He marched to his own drummer," Sweeney said, "and everybody else
pretended they could hear the music, just because they wanted to be part of