History of The Clampers – Part 1

A non-Clamper’s Guide to Clamperdom

Material for this guide has been gathered from various sources including liberally plagiarizing, stealing, absconding, purloining, pilfering, looting and misappropriating the work of others. Be that as it may, I believe it is reasonably accurate. It is unsolicited, unofficial, unsanctioned, unblessed and unapproved. And, like other perfectly good stories, it is subject to spoilage by an eye witness.

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Credo Quia Absurdum – Part 1

What is E Clampus Vitus anyway? And who, or what, are these men dressed in red shirts adorned with impressive looking badges, pins and other strange items? Many things, really, but perhaps some history would be helpful in order to better understand the organization and its members who are known as “Clampers“.

Back in the Gold Rush Days of the mid-nineteenth century literally thousands of mining camps and towns sprang up throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains and in neighboring territories that now comprise the Western states. A new town would appear almost overnight at the mere rumor of a fresh strike.

But as the gold or silver petered out the mines closed, claims were abandoned and most of the people moved on. What had been a thriving town was soon reduced to empty buildings and a few hardy souls struggling for existence. Today many tiny hamlets no bigger than a small dot on a seldom traveled back road map once boasted an area population of fifteen or twenty thousand at its peak.

Stripping away the fictional glamor, one finds a picture that stands in stark contrast to the romantic Hollywood image. The miner’s life, whether working his own claim or in a larger operation, was rugged, dangerous, often short and, for many, a nomadic existence that took them from one area to another in search of riches. For all but a few their arduous labor produced scant reward.

Entertainment was whatever they could make of whatever was at hand and a good prank or practical joke brought much needed relief from the serious business of just getting through the day. Not infrequently, their revelry consisted of exchanging gold dust for a raucous night at one of the many saloons or gambling halls and, whenever possible, at some unsuspecting person’s expense.

By 1850 two fraternal organizations, the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows (IOOF), were well established in California and virtually all men of influence were members of either or both of these orders. Both groups were viewed as very strict in nature with impressive badges of office and formal attire. In short, they provided little humor and certainly no relief from the arduous task of just staying alive.

In 1851 a group of men at Mokelumne Hill, California, felt another fraternal organization, one much less serious of nature, was needed and The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, with an avowed dedication to the protection of “Widows and Orphans”, came to life in the west.

Originally, the order was a spoof or mockery of the well known fraternal orders. But it also recognized a certain absurdity that was so much a part of their lives and, indeed, had become something that was cherished whether viewed as an escape or just another thing that had to be endured. One can only imagine the difficulty in maintaining a serious expression as these Clampers carried on their satire by addressed each other with lofty sounding titles of “Noble Grand Humbug”, “Clamps Vitrix”, “Roisterous Iscutis”, “Royal Gyascutis”, “Grand Imperturbable Hangman”.

To further their mockery the members bedecked themselves with badges and self created awards fashioned from tin can lids. The latter became known as “wearing the tin”. Rather than having a strict officialdom, all members were declared officers with none ranking higher than his fellow Clampers. Initiates, known as Poor Blind Candidates or PBCs, were subjected to a withering blast of humiliation and relieved of as much gold dust as possible which was promptly used to sustain the gathering at the saloon. The PBC was instantly transformed into a full fledged Clamper.

Although there are no formal uniforms, Clampers today maintain a tradition of wearing red shirts at their functions as a remembrance of the red union suits of old. And most will be seen wearing a vest of some sort that is adorned with a multitude badges, pins and patches. There were no dues then and none are collected today. E Clampus Vitus is now and has been since its inception a “men only” organization.

To be continued……

Thanks to: Judge Frazier, The Vice Noble Grand Humbug

Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881

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