Never heard of this noble fraternal group? From the book I wrote with Alice Von Kannon, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies:
Because of the wild popularity of secret societies – especially the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows – in the 1800’s, it was inevitable that parody groups would arise. One such group was E Clampus Vitus, a Latin name that meant, well, absolutely nothing. It isn’t even real Latin. The group’s motto, the Credo Quia Absurdium, gives a clue as to its ultimate goal: take nothing seriously unless it is absurd.
In 1848, there were just 2,000 people in California. After the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mills in 1849, 53,000 greed-crazed ‘49ers poured into the territory within just one year. Many from the East were looking for, or founded, fraternal lodges like they had back home. Others decided on a different path for their fraternalism.
E Clampus Vitus seems to have been brought to the California Gold Rush village of Hangtown (now more delicately called Placerville) by Joseph H. Zumwalt from Virginia in 1850. Zumwalt founded the first “lodge” in Mokelumne Hill, and the group quickly spread throughout Western mining towns and camps. Members were called Clampers, or Clamperers, depending on whom you ask, and the head of the organization was the Sublime Noble Grand Humbug. Officers included the Grand Iscutis, the Grand Gyascutis, the Clamps Petrix, the Clamps Matrix, and the Royal Platrix. Their “secret” sign of recognition was to extend the palms vertically, facing out on either side of the head, stick the thumbs in each ear, madly waggling their fingers. They would occasionally march in parades with the other fraternal organizations, carrying their banner – a ladies hoop skirt, festooned with the message, “This is the flag we fight under.”
Meetings were held in “Halls of Comparative Libations” (saloons). The initiation ceremony was essentially designed to give far more enjoyment to the members of the club than to the new candidate, and involved the sort of serious horseplay that only a crowd of drunken miners tormenting a poor dope in a blindfold could cook up. Hauled in “The Expungent’s Chair” (a wheelbarrow full of wet sponges) across the rungs of a ladder on the floor, the candidate “crossed the rugged road to Dublin.” He was often tossed onto a saddle that was attached to ropes looped over ceiling rafters for the ride of his life. And sometimes lack of imagination simply knocked him in the head and flattened him into a pile of horse dung. The point was to make it so raucous and unpleasant that the new recruit would keep the tradition alive, if only to seek revenge on the next initiate.
E Clampus Vitus thrived until the 1890’s and the death of the mining towns. It seemed to be completely gone from the West by 1916.
In 1931, the order was revived by Dr. Charles Lewis Camp and members of the California Historical Society, and became devoted to preserving the lore of Western history – a strange turnaround of a completely ridiculous group becoming a serious one. Commemorative plaques installed by the Order can be found on buildings of noteworthy status (frequently having to do with alcohol) all across the West.