E Clampus Vitus dedicated to the absurd
Special to The Union
The Ancient and Honorable Order is Dedicated to the Absurd but Is Sworn to protect the Widow and Orphan!
The Gold Country is liberally sprinkled with treasures of its glorious past. Many are architectural gems, some are picturesque sites, a number are engineering marvels while others are of questionable importance. Dozens of these relics are marked with bronze plaques attesting to their historic significance. In western Nevada County, a considerable number have been dedicated by the William Bull Meek-William Morris Stewart Chapter #10, E Clampus Vitus, Nevada City. The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, whose red-shirted members are called “Clampers,” is without doubt one of the most farcical fraternal spoofs ever conceived in the mind of man. How and why did it or they get here? Let’s go back …
His name was Joseph Zumwalt and he came on horseback from Missouri across the plains and mountains to the California gold country.
Zumwalt was a short man of medium build with a ruddy complexion. He wore a tall, black silk hat that added to his height. The hat was dirty and crumpled at the crown but it was nevertheless silk. He wore it with a dignity befitting royalty because he was “royalty.” The rest of his clothing identified him as a gold miner; a faded red flannel shirt hung open at the neck while around his waist a crude leather belt, fashioned from harness leather, held his coarse homespun trousers a few inches above a pair of well-worn boots. The silk hat was no accident; it was a badge of office, as was the pine staff topped by a golden phallic symbol which he gripped tightly in his right hand.
The year was 1850 and Joe Zumwalt was the Noble Grand Humbug (president) of Mokelumne Hill Lodge #1001, Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. (No period is placed after ‘E’ as it is claimed that ‘E’ is a word) His “lodge hall,” known as the Hall of Comparative Ovations, was a rocky piece of ground in the canyon of the Mokelumne River in the gold-laden Sierra Nevada foothills of Calaveras County in California’s Mother Lode.
Standing in a semi-circle facing their Humbug were some 20 or so active members of the boisterous brotherhood who had been summoned from their mining claims on the river and in the canyons by the bray of the Hewgag, an alleged musical instrument resembling a gigantic ram’s horn. The important business at hand was the inquisition and eventual initiation of the half dozen Poor Blind Candidates (initiates), seated shivering and blindfolded on the ground. The ceremony that followed was an awesome spectacle of ritualistic ribaldry liberally interspersed with sheer nonsense.
The candidates suffered countless indignities during the lengthy liturgy that would have confounded the pledge master of any present day college social fraternity. Charged with administering the sacred rites, in addition to the Noble Grand Humbug, were Initiatory Functionaries whose titles were mixtures of pure hog-Latin and well-fractured Anglo-Saxon. Dignitaries bearing such designations as Roisterous Iscutis, Clamps Matrix, Clamp Petrix, Royal Platrix, Grand Imperturbable Hangman and Clampatriarch, outlandishly robed and hatted, emphasized the solemnity of the occasion with raucous chants and mystical gyrations.
After the Ineffable Staff of Relief, a piece of ritualistic paraphernalia, had been presented to each initiate in turn, and after the flame had been extinguished in the Corruscated Candelabrum, the new brothers were escorted amid wild congratulatory cheers by the Humbug, who was firmly ensconced on a jackass that had been fed liberal portions of whiskey-soaked wild oats to Slippery Gulch, a makeshift barroom, where all including the jackass got roaring drunk.
The scene on the Mokelumne that afternoon in 1850 was soon to be repeated in a like or greater degree in scores of mining camps up and down the Mother Lode and, as grotesque and incongruous as E Clampus Vitus was, it filled a definite niche. The miners were isolated from both civilization and home; their desire for companionship and a need to belong was acute. Back in the states many of them had been members of some established lodge or club, had presided at their own family circle or, at least, been active in a neighborhood “saloon group.” All that was more than 2,000 miles east and new outlets were eagerly sought and wholeheartedly accepted by the homesick prospector.
Part Two: The Origin, June 10.
To contact Bob Wyckoff, write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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