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Anybody’s Gold
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: March 21, 2010, 07:52:31 AM Views: 3610

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in October, 1992




Our prayers of last time (that someone would come up with something for this edition of the Short History) were answered when Chap. 73 XNGH Dan Weimers sent along an excerpt from a book by Joseph Henry Jackson called Anybody’s Gold. It contains a good section about E Clampus Vitus, and is retold here, in case you haven’t had a chance to get a copy for yourself.

“No mention of lodges, secret orders, and such matters in the mines can be complete without some account of what was in many ways the most powerful society of them all, in spite of the fact (or because of it) that the members steadfastly refused to take themselves, or anyone else, seriously.

This was the Ancient Order of E Clampsus Vitus, whose members were popularly known as “Clampers.” Invented, no one quite knows where or by whom. (Ed. Note.... See, you know more than the author did!) The order was plainly a burlesque of all such societies. Its head was the “Noble Grand Humbug,” Its members were called together by the braying of the “Hewgag,“ and gathered in the “Hall of Comparative Ovations.” Members were taken in at every opportunity; indeed, one of the order’s chief purposes was to take in others. Once thoroughly taken in, the new Clamper had to put a good face on it on the principle that his pleasure would now derive from seeing his successors sold as he had been, and he was glad to keep his mouth shut and did. As for the name of the society, no one has yet been able to decide upon any plausible translation of the hog-latin of which it consists. From beginning to end, the whole affair was one enormous hoax, an expression of the crotchety-humorous gigantism that characterized the age, the kind of typical American Davy-Crockettry that still survives in modified form.

The curious thing was that E Clampsus Vitus in the end amounted to far more than it had ever set out to be. Its members were part of a huge joke; well and good. But having had their joke, they were good citizens, too. Assembled in solemn conclave for the taking-in of a “Poor Blind Candidate,” they enjoyed their belly-laughs. Then they sat down and discussed whether the family of the preacher in the next town didn’t perhaps need a benefit, or whether maybe some youngster who showed a talent for fiddling oughtn’t to be sent down to San Francisco to get better instruction. Having made up their minds, the Clampers proceeded quietly to see that these things were done. The newspapers of the Fifties are full of notices of just such charities being carried out by the society. It made no difference whether the beneficiaries were Clampers or not; those in distress, the deserving in any way, were sure of aid from E Clampsus Vitus. Here, for example, is a letter from the “Correspondence” column of the Placerville Mountain Democrat for Jan. 19, 1856:

Quote
To the Editor: It has always been a favorite opinion with me that the benevolent deeds of individuals or societies should be publicly noticed.

A few days ago I visited a sick and destitute family, living in the suburbs of our city, and accidentally witnessed the noiseless and liberal manner in which some societies perform their mission of charity.

The head of the family in question had been ill for some time and unable to work, and they were greatly distressed and desponding. Ere my visit ended, a wagon loaded with provisions drove up to the door. In a few minutes, without a word, the provisions were transferred from the wagon to the house of the suffering family. With tears of gratitude the generous donors were blessed. Nor did their charity cease here. A few days subsequent I again visited the family, and noticed with pleased surprise that clothing had been furnished in the same mysterious manner.

With the curiosity of my sex, I resolved to penetrate the mystery, and at length learned that the society or order of E Clampsus Vitus had furnished the clothing and provisions. May the blessings of heaven rest upon them. They have the prayers of the poor, for their advancement and prosperity.


It was natural that the order should thrive; the whole atmosphere of the mines was suited to its nicely balanced program of horseplay, nonsense and good works. The Clampers sponsored fancy-dress balls, picnics, and benefit shows of all kinds. In the middle and latter Fifties chapters of the society sprang up in almost every town in the mines. Not all of them followed precisely the same ritual; there was always some inventive member who could think up new ways to torture and bedevil the next neophyte. But the general principle of the initiation and the ceremonies of meetings remained the same. From Weaverville in the north to Hornitos in the south, the Hewgag brayed for the regular gatherings; the Noble Grand Humbug explained to the brothers, new and old, the reason for the Clamper motto, “Credo Quia Absurdum,” the importance of the society’s emblem, the Staff of Relief, and asked them the ritual question, “What Say the Brethren?” to receive the thunderous reply, “Satisfactory!” And the outsiders, although their good judgment told them this was all nonsense, were impressed just the same. They had to be. All the big men in town - any town - belonged to E Clampsus Vitus. What if common sense whispered that, after all, it was hardly likely that Solomon, George Washington, Henry Ward Beecher and Captain John A. Sutter had all been Clampers as the members of the order claimed? When the judge, the doctor, the most able lawyer in town, and both bankers belonged to E Clampsus Vitus, you got in too, if you could. That this sort of reasoning was based on straightforward realism is provided by the story of the initiation into the order of one, Lord Sholto Douglas, head of a company of touring actors. True, the noble Lord Sholto was taken in some years after the society had lived through its great days, but this does not alter the value of the anecdote as a demonstration that it paid to be a Clamper.

The Marysville Appeal-Democrat carried the story. The company, with the Peer at its head, was scheduled to play Marysville for two nights. It was evident that Marysville citizens had heard about Lord Sholto, and that what they heard was hardly favorable; gate receipts for the opening performance totaled seventy-one dollars. Since this would come nowhere near meeting expenses, the company was ready to forget the second evening, write off its losses, and go back to San Francisco. But somewhere, very likely in the hotel bar, Lord Sholto met a Clamper, who saw instantly a chance to help out a discouraged man, enhance the prestige of his order by initiating a British Peer, and furnish his brethren with an evening of first-rate sport. Writes the reporter for the Appeal-Democrat:

Quote
“Last night after the performance at the theater, the sonorous tones of the Hewgag floating over the city warned all good Clampers that a stranger was to be initiated into their order. Presently 500 men had assembled within the walls of the Hall to witness the ceremony of the initiation. The Clamps Petrix announced that he who sought admittance was no less a personage than Lord Sholto Douglas. When he had been blindfolded, the shoe removed from the right foot and the pant-leg rolled to the right knee, the work of introducing him to the mysteries of the order was begun.

His ride in the wheelbarrow over a ladder, and the elevating influence of a blanket in the hands of 40 stalwart brothers were appreciated by the candidate. With three cheers for England and America, the meeting adjourned.

The proof of the pudding was the next night’s audience. Lord Sholto Douglas was one thing, but a brother Clamper was another. The theater was filled; Lord Sholto made a very effective curtain speech, introducing his wife who sang and danced, to the great edification of the brethren in the audience who rewarded her with roars of “Satisfactory!” When the curtain was finally rung down, Lord Sholto made straight for the box-office. The take was slightly over $300. Before he left town the next morning the noble Englishman told the press that he did not understand Marysville, but that he would never forget the city or its people. It is fair to assume that he meant both.”


Brother Reimers supplies another quote (source unknown, but probably written in the late 1930s):

Quote
“Sitting close to the water beneath the towering Sierra Buttes, the little town (Sierra City) is quiet now. Once, however, it rocked with laughter at the antics of the most curious fraternal society invented by man, the Order of E Clampsus Vitus. Sierra City was the founding place of E Clampsus Vitus, as far as California was concerned, though the society may have stemmed from the East. (We know that Sierra City did not originate ECV in California.) The Order existed, ostensibly, to take in members which it did with a thoroughness seldom equaled and never exceeded by any society before its time or since. When the “Hewgag” brayed, the miners met, knowing that something was in the wind - another Poor Blind Candidate, perhaps, or some highly complicated joke. (One day, maybe, someone will conduct a research into the likelihood that Calaveras County’s famous hoax involving the Pliocene Skull was the product of one of the great minds of E Clampsus Vitus.) In spite of their reputation as a hoaxing and hazing society, however, the Clampers had another purpose for existing. They made it their business - and the record fully bears this out - to see that the destitute were aided, that the starving were fed and the sick taken cared for. They made a joke of that too; one motto of the Order, which developed several in its time, was “For the Care of Widows and Orphans, but Chiefly Widows.”


Just the same, the student of old newspaper files will turn up, again and again, letters and cards of thanks through which recipients of the Clampers’ good will and generosity did their best to express their gratitude to the society that had helped them when they were needed it. As for the society’s name, it will not take the Latin scholar long to determine that this not to be interpreted through any study of the ancient language. Nor may its meaning be revealed here. Revived a few years ago by students of California’s lore and their friends, E Clampus Vitus carries on today, using the same ritual with which the miners of Sierra City and many another camp initiated their victims and spread the good work, continuing the dissemination of the Light by means of another true Clamper’s motto, this one at any rate in better Latin. “Credo Quia Absurdum!”

Well, this puts to bed another section of this newsletter’s Short History of E Clampus Vitus. If anyone has any old articles about the Clampers, or some interesting story about some particular Clamper, please feel free to send it in to the Editor of the Hewgag-Monitor. Our thanks to XNGH Dan Weimers for this story, and we hope that you may have found it to contain some information you haven’t heard before. The only way to get others to hear about history is to get it printed somewhere. Why not here in Chapter 10’s newsletter?

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