Seaports of the World

E. Clampus Vitus

Member of E Clampus Vitus.An unclear history has it that E Clampus Vitus is either a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society. The origins of the name are unclear.

The general storyline is that the society had its origin in Virginia, in a mountainous section that broke off during the Civil War and is now West Virginia.

The perpetrator was Ephraim Bee, who was born in Salem, New Jersey or Harrison County, Virginia, in 1799 or 1802, depending on whether you consult Hardesty's Encyclopedia (1885) or Boyd K. Stuller's scholarly paper "Ephraim Bee and E Clampus Vitus" in the West Virginia Review of August 1931, based in part on an article in the Parkersburg State Journal in 1896.

Bee was known throughout the county as a garrulous story teller and practical joker. Legend has it, that around 1845, shortly after American minister Caleb Cushing returned from negotiating a treaty with China, Bee revealed that the Emperor of China had entrusted him with certain sacred rituals from the mysterious East. Bee then brought forth E Clampus Vitus. As an indication of the profound impression it made on his family, Bee's son Herman remembered the name as the "Order of Clampin Vipers."

E Clampus Vitus was popular because it afforded the young men at the mines with a perfect excuse for horseplay. Furthermore, it ridiculed the stuffy secret fraternal, benevolent, and political societies, such as the Masons, and Odd Fellows. Not only were there E Clampus Vitus chapters in such well-known towns as Yreka, Nevada City, Auburn, Placerville, Sonora, and Mariposa, but in mining camps, some long gone.

E Clampus Vitus reached its peak during the tumultuous days of The California Gold Rush. A member of E Clampus Vitus is commonly called a "Clamper." It began as a spoof on other lodges and secret societies, and its early history is a little difficult to reconstruct. The early meetings of E Clampus Vitus in the California gold fields were devoted so completely to drinking and carousing that none of the Clampers was ever in any condition to keep minutes, let alone remember what had happened the next day! 

By tradition, a person could join E Clampus Vitus by invitation only and then was expected to endure an elaborate, humorous and sometimes grueling initiation ceremony. Membership in E Clampus Vitus declined in the late 1800s, but experienced a revival in the 1930s and is still going strong today. Modern-day Clampers typically dress up in garb reminiscent of the gold-rush and they still hold their unique initiation ceremonies, but now specialize in putting up commemorative plaques of historical and hysterical interest. Clampers have been known to plaque places like saloons, bawdy houses, and other locations that have been overlooked by more serious historical

E Clampus Vitus Plaque in Volcano, California.

The Order of E Clampus Vitus goofball sensibilities are offset by a single, serious pursuit: a tendency to plaque all things historical. With little more than mortar and their ever-present red shirts, the Clampers have placed more than 1,000 bronze, wood and granite plaques throughout California, from the remote stretches of coast to mining towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The group s handiwork appears on roadsides, lake sides and at the sites of former brothels, breweries and ballrooms. Jails and forts have been plaqued, and so have whaling stations. Historical drinks have been commemorated and, no doubt, imbibed along with ghost stories, stories of heroism and plenty of tall tales in between.

October 1, 1852, Sacramento Daily Union
Sacramento, California

The following card appears in the advertising columns of the San Francisco Herald:

E Clampus Vitus -- In the Sacramento Union of this date an article is published, which reflects improperly upon the aim and objects of the above mentioned Order. The presumption of the author is not worthy of being noticed in any other way than by saying, that frequently

Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

San Francisco. Sept. 28, 1852

The "presumption of the author" we are more than ever convinced, however, was perfectly correct, and the card of the worthy members of the nominal "E Clampus Vitus" Club does not undertake to deny it. Our second "presumption" is, that a sufficient number of "fools'" have already "rushed in" where sensible men have no occasion to tread.

May 1, 1855, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

California Legislature, Sixth Session

House met at the usual hour, the Speaker presiding.

Mr. Farwell introduced a resolution to assess $1 on each member for the benefit of the ancient and honorable order of E Clampus Vitus. (Laughter.)

January 31, 1891, Sacramento Daily Union

Senate Bill 456 proposes to amend the registration law so that the entry shall show: "The name at length; the age, omitting fraction of years; the height; the complexion; the color of eyes; the color of hair; the visible marks of scars, if any, and their locality; the country of nativity; the place of residence (giving tho ward or precinct); if naturalized, the time and place of naturalization." Good; now go on in this fine work, and let the Register show if he has a strawberry mark on his left arm; if he is a long lost brother; if he has taken the degree of E Clampus Vitus; if he retains manly vigor; if he shaves; if he is cock-eyed or bowlegged let us leave it to clerks of registration to "put up" people as they see them or wish them; to exercise their judgment as to what is the voters complexion or the tint of his eyes. Presently we shall have the voter at the mercy of the registry clerk utterly, who can make the registry description a misfit at will.

January 23, 1896, San Francisco Call
San Francisco, California

Tastes the Hidden Sweets of E Clampus Vitus.
Put to Sleep in the Mysterious Coffin and Given an Ice Water Bath.
Thankful That He Has Been Permitted to Enter a High-Class American Lodge.

MARYSVILLE, Cal., Jan. 22. Lord Sholto Douglas was initiated last night into the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, and the crowning feature of his life in California has been reached.

The E Clampus Vitus, or as it is more familiarly known the Clampers, is a body composed of the most prominent men of Marysville, and organized for the purpose of putting strangers through a "course of sprouts" that makes them ridiculous and a laughing-stock for the time being, but admits them to the rank of good fellowship thereafter.

Strange as it may seem, Lord Sholto Douglas will leave Marysville under the impression that he has joined the fine order, for, as jimmy Fadden would remark, he has not yet found out "wat t'ell."

Douglas was taken to Turner Hall last night after the close of the performance "Confusion." After being blindfolded in the anteroom he was led into the hall, where over 500 Clampers were congregated and the ritual began.

He was given a ride in a wheelbarrow up a cleated board held at an incline by two brothers, who dropped it when the barrow reached the top of the rocky grade. He was then put through the cave of silence, a big sheet iron cylinder, into which he was forced on all fours.

The cylinder was then rolled over and over and several of the brothers engaged in the pleasing pastime of pounding upon it with boards and hammers.

After this Lord Douglas was given the blanket elevation five or six times, and then stripped to the waist and painted by the Noble Artist.

He was next placed in the coffin, the lid nailed down, the prayers for the dead said over him by Noble Grand Humbug E. A. Forbes, and the coffin was hoisted about three feet over a big tank of ice-cold water. The words "Ashes to ashes, water to water," were pronounced, the spring was touched and the bottom of the coffin fell open, depositing the nobleman in about three feet of water.

This was the last degree. Douglas was called on for a speech, but was unable to do more than express his gratitude for the kindness shown him by initiating him into the mysteries of an American society of high renown.

The lodge proposed that he stay over with his company until to-night and promised a big house. He agreed, and tonight the opera-house was packed.

Lord and Lady Douglas were today driven around town in an open four-in-hand, under the espionage of the Clampers, followed by a carriage in which Grand Bugler Leech sat and blew upon the huegag, a big horn that can be heard all over town. Douglas stood the ordeal last night it is a trying one with a deal of pluck that created considerable surprise.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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