"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus

The New York Times has a piece today about the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus.

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.


  1. You know, back home in California, somewhere between Monterey and Los Angeles (can't remember exactly where), I saw one of those "Adopt-a-Highway" signs. The adopter was "E Clampus Vitus" and I always wondered just what the heck that was. Now I know!

  2. They have a new chapter in the Pacific Northwest. My ex father and brother in law where both mebers of ECV. They are pretty big in NorCal where I grew up. I am actually thinking about joining.

  3. Northern California has quite a few members. I do not belong, however there are a fair number of Masons that are members in certain areas in the north. I have a group of friends that all joined about 30 years ago. They would go each year to the big initiation in Downeyville until about 10 years ago when the Highway Patrol decided to clamp down on their three day party. Their initiation would make the second half of the Shrine Ceremonial look like childs play. I was told that the group did have some sort of obligation relative to widows and orphans.

    Bro Ronald D. Martin

  4. Are the Clampers a part of the Freemasons?

    1. No, they are not. There is no historic connection, apart from, perhaps, the men who belong(ed) to both organizations.

  5. Originally the clampers were the people denied entry into the more reputable lodges of the day like the odd fellows and the Free Masons. Our original attire and lofty titles were in jest of your own. Since Carl Wheat and the guys revived the order in the 1930’s we have an actual purpose with preserving history which we take very seriously. Over all my family has been involved with this organization since 1958 and it’s a worthy endevour. -Zilla Noble Grand Humbug of Doc Maynard chapter 54-40.


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