E Clampus Vitus a sly parody of secret societies

Poor Lord Sholto Douglas. A blindfold was tied over his eyes and a sign hung around his neck with the letters “PBC,” proclaiming him to be a “Poor Blind Candidate.”

The blast of a tin horn, known as the “sounding of the hewgag,” signaled to the group of men that “a sucker had been found and the fun is about to begin.”

He was made to ride in a wheelbarrow, then forced to sit inside a cylinder of sheet iron, called “the cave of silence,” as men pounded on the outside with boards and hammers. He was laid on a blanket and tossed into the air several times. Stripped to the waist, his body was painted and finally he was placed in a coffin that was hoisted into the air. The bottom of the coffin dropped out and Douglas was deposited in three feet of water.

He was exhausted when the fun finally ended, but he was able to make a short speech expressing his gratitude for being admitted into “a high-class American lodge.”

It was January 1896, and Douglas had been initiated into the Marysville order of E Clampus Vitus. He was born into British royalty, and the local folks were impressed at how well he had survived his rites of passage.


E Clampus Vitus a sly parody of secret societies
Many California miners joined E Clampus Vitus chapters.

Douglas had arrived in town as the leader of a troupe of actors attempting to put on a play in the local theater. Ticket sales had been meager, but when Douglas became an official “Clamper,” his lodge brothers bought every last ticket and the actors played to a full house.

Ephraim Bee of Virginia founded E Clampus Vitus in 1845 as a parody of the high-minded ideals and elaborate ceremonies of secret societies like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, which wielded tremendous political power in those days. Bee was known as a storyteller and practical joker who claimed to have been entrusted by the emperor of China with secret rituals. The name of the organization is said to be in dog Latin, and one can safely say its meaning is unknown.

J.H. Zumwalt became intrigued with the group when he saw a copy of its rituals in a Missouri printing office on his way to California in 1849. He had some difficulty establishing the first chapter in the Gold Country but finally met with success in Mokelumne Hill. Numerous chapters in the area soon followed.
Miners made up the majority of membership, but a man of any profession could join if he were invited. Famous Clampers included Mark Twain, J. Pierpont Morgan, Ulysses S. Grant, and, suspiciously, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake and Adam.

The organization’s motto is Credo Quai Absurdum – “I Believe It Because It Is Absurd.” Its banner had a picture of a hoop skirt that proclaimed: “This is the flag we fight under.” Red long john underwear was acceptable attire at meetings, which were held “at any time before or after a full moon.” Medals of special merit were made of tin can lids and proudly displayed on sashes.

Despite the mockery and merriment, the Clampers provided protection and monetary support to families whose loved ones had died in the harsh conditions of the mining towns. But as mining operations dwindled in the 1900s, so did the number of E Clampus Vitus chapters. Twenty years later, the organization was gone.

My next article will cover the organization’s revival and a famous humbug.

Debbie Eistetter is a board member of the Clayton Historical Society. For more information or to become a member, visit claytonhistory.org. The Clayton Museum, at 6101 Main St., is open 2-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Admission is free.