Credo Quia Absurdum
August 15, 2008 11:49 AM   Subscribe

E Clampus Vitus is a fraternal organization rooted in the California Gold Rush. Although some of its primary functions are beer drinking and implicitly poking fun at stodgier fraternal orders, it has also developed into a locally important benevolent organization.

Though modern Clamper chapters are mostly in the West, the order of ECV was founded in West Virginia, around 1845, by Ephraim Bee. It was born of a reaction to the growing popularity of nativist societies, who were numerous and powerful enough to come together as the political force known as the Know-Nothing Party.

One of the Clampers' current missions, placing informative plaques at sites of local historical interest, started as a (successful) prank: The Sir Francis Drake hoax. [Pic.]

There have been many famous Clampers throughout history. Legend has it that Mark Twain heard the story of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County at a Clamper meeting. John Studebaker (who got his entrepreneurial start manufacturing wheelbarrows in the mining town of Placerville, CA) was a member. Some even claim that Adam founded the order in the Garden of Eden.

Throughout its 150 years, the order of E Clampus Vitus has remained true to itself, while still managing to keep up with the times. One chapter even has its own version of Burning Man.

Membership is by invitation only: "The prime requisites to becoming a Clamper are a sense of humor, an interest in Western history, an open mind, and a cast iron stomach. If a man has those qualities, and strikes up a friendship with a Clamper or two, he may find himself taken in to (and by) the Ancient and Honorable Order."

[Warning: Most Clampers are not proficient at web design.]
posted by mudpuppie (14 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wow- I thought they were NorCal only.

Their self-proclaimed interests are Bars, Brothels, and Blacksmiths.

They do a ton of research to verify something and then post a plaque, (which is an excuse for a crazy-ass party). Later on the California Historical Society comes by and posts their own plaque in the same spot.

I was hoping to help with the researching part but, alas, it is dudes only- no women allowed.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:01 PM on August 15, 2008

One of them told me that their charge was to care for widows and orphans...but especially widows.
posted by jasper411 at 12:27 PM on August 15, 2008

I walk by their slot machine plaque most days downtown in San Francisco.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:29 PM on August 15, 2008

This is my favorite plaque, originally installed by members as a prank, with no approval for the installation. Since then, it's been replaced by an "official" plaque.

There's a chapter in San Francisco called Yerba Buena, the original name of San Francisco. They were the original chapter when E Clampus Vitus was revived in 1931. Their members thought that a historical plaque about the Charles Fey and the Liberty Bell should be placed in San Francisco. So one of their members contacted me and took me around to meet with all of the various commissions necessary to accomplish this. The first departments contacted referred me to another one. Finally, the Art Department said, "Okay, we'll approve it." Two weeks later they called up and said that they had changed their minds. After the denial one of our members said let's just go ahead and do it. So on a Tuesday night in 1980 we arrived at the site on Market Street, the main artery in downtown San Francisco. The clampers arrived with hard hats, looking like municipal workers, and installed the marker. The police would drive by, look, and pass by. The tourists would ask what we were doing and we would tell them we were putting in a plaque. They wondered why municipal workers were working so late at night. Then one of our members worked for CalTrans and knew some influential people in the state's marking program. He was able to get it designated as an official California state marker. This necessitated getting a new monument made to replace the old marker, which was then moved to the Liberty Belle in Reno.

Quote from here.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:33 PM on August 15, 2008

Heh. The Clampers. When I was a kid, I spent three summers in Bridgeport, CA. Membership appeared to be a requirement for the men of that town.

I have heard it said that the initiation involves a short piece of twine, a cinder block, and the initiate's penis. One end of the twine is tied to the cinder block. The other end of the twine is secured by the initiate to his penis. The initiate is then expected to take part in the day's festivities (drinking, raising hell) with his cinder block in tow.

During the initiation process, becoming separated from twine and cinder block, at any time, for any reason, is cause for dismissal. As much beer is consumed throughout the day, some encumbered initiates struggle to relieve themselves.

Other initiates, those clever enough to notice that no actual Clamper witnesses the attachment of twine to person, devise alternate attachment points (the skivvies, perhaps, or the pocket), have far less difficulty getting through the day.
posted by notyou at 1:18 PM on August 15, 2008

Clampers are a wonderful bunch of drunken, local armchair historians. A friend of mine was invited to their party on the Peninsula. He's never experienced a party where so many grown men were roaring drunk at 11am.

As I understand it, you become a member you are tapped.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2008

I am happy to be able to say that I was once invited to become a Clamper. After notyou's post, I think I'm just as happy to be able to say that I never followed up on it.
posted by trip and a half at 1:58 PM on August 15, 2008

My favorite bit is how the contents of their meetings are secret. Not because they're trying to keep it secret, but because no one can remember what happened.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:02 PM on August 15, 2008

I stumbled into an E Clampus Vitus plaque in Murphys, CA recently and was like "what the hell is this?" Now I know; it's the historical branch of the Hash House Harriers. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by Nelson at 3:53 PM on August 15, 2008

A friend celebrated Emperor Norton's birthday with them once.

She's not going back.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:54 PM on August 15, 2008

I thought for years that the 1930s "revival" was a very successful prank on the part of a few historians. I was a little sad to be proven wrong a couple of months ago.
posted by hades at 5:20 PM on August 15, 2008

I found a cryptic string of text on a dollar bill once, and followed it to a Clampus web site.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:56 PM on August 15, 2008

I took a couple of pictures of the Sam Brannan Chapter of E Clampus Vitus when they were part of the annual Tomales Founders Day Parade. They were responsible for installing one of those very cool plaques in front of the William Tell House, which has the reputation of being the oldest saloon in Marin County, so of course it would be in their interests to honor that!
posted by Lynsey at 10:47 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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