The following is a brief, and possibly accurate overview of the origins of ECV, the intent of which is to acquaint you with our history.
Lodges of E Clampus Vitus were active in many towns in the mining country of California from the early 1850's. ECV as an organization in California was established by Joseph Zumwalt. Joseph was born on the 15th of July, 1800, in Boone County, Kentucky. At about the age of 49, he, his wife Mary and 8 of their 11 surviving children decided to leave their farm in Illinois and head for California.
The wagon train went by way of Bowling Green, Missouri, where Zumwalt and a partner, C.W. Wright, stopped at the local newspaper office to inquire about the road to California. In that office, they picked up copies of the ritual of an amusing organization called "Ecclampus Vitus" (written by Ephraim Bee). Zumwalt and Wright each bought a copy and put it in their trunks. Zumwalt and his family reached the "diggins" on September 5, 1849 (C.W. Wright has been lost in history).
After a period of time in Sacramento and then in the diggins, it appears that Zumwalt remembered the ritual and observed that the men in the mines were in need of a humorous outlet. During his wanderings in the diggins around Hangtown (Placerville) in 1850 and early 1851, he apparently tried, with no great success, to start chapters of what became known as E Clampus Vitus (aka the Clampers) in various camps.
However, in 1851, he moved to Mokelumne Hill where he started Chapter No.1001. The chartering was held in the community jail, which was unoccupied at the moment. From then on in the diggins the idea of E Clampus Vitus spread like wildfire. Other lodges in Matuca Chapter Territory would come to include Columbia Gobblers Lodge #107,368, Mariposa Lodge, Sonora Lodge (later the Royal Order of George’s Sons under the leadership of Otis Greenwood), and the Murphys Lodge which owned the ECV Saloon located on Lot 4, Block 11, Murphys.
E Clampus Vitus had several facets. It was a benevolent organization that gave aid to fellow miners, their widows and children, as the many newspaper articles of the period record. But, ECV was also the greatest practical joke ever conceived and put over by all the thousands of miners (and jokers) who made light of their hardships and miseries in the diggins. The organization was, by nature, a spoof on the more dignified, straight-laced and deeply ritualistic fraternal orders of the day. In this vein, its purpose seems to have been solely to entertain its members by initiation of new members.
Every traveling salesman was forced to join the Clampers before he could obtain an order. In Marysville, the renowned Lord Sholto Douglas opened a theatrical engagement, but the first performance failed to pay the rent. When he determined that he had to be a Clamper to draw a crowd, he immediately applied for membership, and on the night of his initiation he played to a $1500 house.
The roisterous spirit of the new lodge, expressed by the slogan "Credo Quia Absurdum" (I believe because it is absurd) and by the Constitution of the Order which said that "all members are officers and all offices are of equal indignity", had a tremendous appeal to the miners, who thought that hoaxing a tenderfoot was the greatest of sports. Therefore, when the Hewgag would bray, signifying that a Poor Blind Candidate had appeared in camp and was ready to have the veil of ignorance lifted from his eyes by having revealed to him the great truths and secrets of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, the brethren hurriedly gathered from far and near for the merriment.
With the decline of mining and the depopulation of the camps in the diggins, ECV also declined, so that by 1915, there seems to have been only one lodge left.
E Clampus Vitus redivivus, Clamperhood as it exists today, started about 1930 as the observance of an historical curiosity. Lovers of California history Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane, Leon Whitsell and several of their friends gathered in San Francisco to talk about this colorful group that they had read about. They continued to meet periodically after that to enjoy its amusing aspects and they formally revived ECV in 1931, at the Clift’s Place in San Francisco as Yerba Buena Redivivus No.1.
They discovered a man, then in his 80's, who had been a member of Balaam Lodge No. 107402 ECV in Sierra City during the decline of the mining days. This man, Adam Lee Moore, was able to recall the ritual of initiation and the signs of ECV almost in its entirety. (It is said that during the early Clamper meetings, none of the brothers was in any condition to keep the minutes and afterwards nobody could remember what had taken place.)