Among the most colorful of nineteenth-century American secret societies, E Clampus Vitus was founded by goldminers in the frontier town of Mokelumne Hill, California in 1851, in the midst of the Gold Rush. At that time most of northern California was full of little mining towns and camps whose populations shifted constantly. The Freemasons and Odd Fellows, the largest American secret societies of the time, had established lodges in many of the larger mining towns, and this inspired a group of Mokelumne Hill miners to parody these relatively formal rites with an order better suited to the rough humor and lawlessness of the frontier. E Clampus Vitus was the result. See Freemasonry; Odd Fellowship.

Meetings of E Clampus Vitus chapters – which could be held “at any time before or after a full moon” – were held in saloons, and announced by the braying of the Hewgag, a makeshift trumpet. Inside, the officers – the Noble Grand Humbug, the Royal Gyascutis, the Clamps Petrix, the Clamps Matrix, the Grand Imperturbable Hangman, and many others (as all Clampers are, by definition, officers) – presided over meetings well lubricated with beer and cheap whiskey. Initiation rituals for PBCs (Poor Blind Candidates) consisted mostly of raucous pranks. Once initiated, each candidate was given the official title of “Chairman of the Most Important Committee.” Clampers also marched in parades, with a billy goat for their mascot and a banner consisting of a woman’s hoop skirt and the motto, “This is the flag we fight under.”

These antics coexisted with more serious activities. Life in the California mining towns was harsh and often violent, as men from every corner of the world labored and fought for their share of gold. The robust humor of the Clampers helped bring a spirit of community to the Gold Rush country. Clampers raised money to help widows and orphans, and were quick to respond when fire or flood destroyed towns and left people homeless. This combination of raucous humor and practical charity made E Clampus Vitus the largest secret society in northern California within a decade of its founding. As the gold was mined out and the mining towns dwindled, however, E Clampus Vitus faded as well, and the Hewgag announced a meeting of the original order for the last time in Quincy, California in 1916.

Pride in California’s history rescued E Clampus Vitus from oblivion, however. In 1931, a new chapter of E Clampus Vitus was founded in San Francisco with the help of Adam Lee Moore, one of the few surviving members of the original order. In the years that followed the revived E Clampus Vitus spread throughout northern California and into Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. The new order retained many of the customs and traditions of its forebear, though public drunkenness was (and is) frowned on, and interest in Gold Rush history is one of the requirements for initiation. Clampers nowadays wear red shirts, in memory of the red woolen union suits of yore, and vests bedecked with pins, patches, and medals made of tin can lids. Calling itself “a historical drinking society” (or “a drinking historical society”), it maintains a lively presence in the old mining country of northern California as of this writing.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006