The following is a brief history of E Clampus Vitus obtained from Carl I. Wheat’s article in the Pacific Historical Review, Vol. XVIII (1949) pages 67-69. In the interstices of his law practice, Carl I. Wheat found time to contribute extensively on such topics as the map of Jedediah Smith, the maps of the Gold Rush, the Death Valley 49ers, and Theodore Judah and the Pacific Railway, and monumentally on the maps of the trans-Mississippi west.
Here he discusses an, I situation in which his interest is strong and proprietary:
It was the early “Fifties” that “The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus” first appeared on the California scene. The time was one of vast upheaval, human as well as physical. And after a hard day in the dirt and muck of some of the Sierra Diggin’s, where else but in the Clampers “Hall of Comparative Ovations” could a man rediscover those values that seemed otherwise so lacking in the hard life of the California Canyons?
E Clampus Vitus Spread like wildfire through the mountains. Few indeed were the camps where the Order’s great horn “the HEWGAG” did on occasion hoarsely bray. Surely, the succinct Constitution of the Order displayed its roisterous spirit as could nothing else.
“Article one”, read the unorthodox document:
“ALL MEMBERS ARE OFFICERS”
“Article two”, it eloquently continued:
“ALL OFFICERS ARE OF EQUAL INDIGNITY”
That was all, but it was enough. When the Hewgag blew, the Bretheren gathered from far and near. It was a signal that a sucker had appeared in Camp – some “Poor Blind Candidate” ripe for a new experience, For the only ritual of this significant organization of the Gold Rush days was that of the initiation, and the only stated meeting was before or after the full moon when such a one should come upon this scene, ready for their immolation on the alter of merriment.
On those gala occasions when, in the vociferous spirit of the mid-nineteenth century Yankee, a parade was staged along that mining camp’s lone street. It was usually the Clamper that stole the show carrying a pole that bore a hoop skirt with the strange device “THIS IS THE BANNER THAT WE FGHT UNDER”. Nor was it only in connection with such celebrations that the CLAMPERS shone. For were they not Bretheren? Ready at the merest hint of their mysterious Sign of distress to come to the one another’s assistance and did not their well known sign of recognition – The Sign of the Well Jackass - betoken a, vitality that even the drab life of the diggings could not destroy? ”All for one and One for All” could, indeed, have been the motto of this lusty Order hortatory watchword was “For the benefit of Widdows and Orphans – but more especially the Widdows!” and when a Brother, worn by toil and broken in the search for gold, could no longer carry on, The Bretheren, one and all would come to his assistance. It is said that Fifteen dollars a month would keep a Miner in Bacon and flour, Beans and Saleratus, and that in those better days, E Clampus Vitus and but two rules to guide it’s members in their Eleemosynary Roles:
(1) a Man shall come in person to the hall of Comparative Ovations for this helpful dole, and
(2) Payments shall commence two years after death.
When in the late Twenties of the softer Century, a band of latter-day Enthusiasts sought once more to capture the Spirit of the Order’s elder days, it was found that little in the way of written data could be found to describe and explain those small and intimate details of the past that sometimes bear so great a significance. It was the late lamented EZRA DANE who suggested the answer. “During those Early Days,” said he, “no Clamper in attendance at a stated meeting was ever in any condition to take minutes of the ceremonies.” And, he would add, “After the meeting had concluded no one could be found who could remember what had happened”. The Grand Lodge of the Order convened at Mokelumne Hill, but from the far north of Downieville and Sierra City to the Southernmost Chapters of E Clampus Vitus flourished. Let no beknighted individual place a period after that fateful “E” (as was done – ignominiously – in a recently celebrated catalogue of California), and let no man of whatever race, color or previous condition succumb to the heretical placing of an “S” after the “P” of CLAMPUS.
In THE ENIGNMATICAL BOOK OF VITUS the Story of the resuscitation of the Order has been told and the spirit of QUIA CREEDO ABSURDUM has been outlined in THE CURIOUS BOOK OF CLAMPUS. Later, THE ESOTERIC BOOK OF E and YE PREPOSTEROUS BOOK OF BRASSE carried the tale farther, the literature of the Revival grows apace.
Once each year the Bretheren gather at Yerba Buena on a night nigh unto the 24th of January, when their lamented one-time Clampatriarch, JAMES W. MARSHALL turns over in his grave three times in their favor. Once, also in each year, before or after the full moon, they devote themselves to a pilgrimage to some spot hallowed by the pics and pans of 49er days, there to imbibe by some obscure but revivifying osmosis the Spirit of the Elder Days.
E Clampus Vitus was a force of no little significance in those earlier decades. It represented release from toil – respite from sweat _ a chance to laugh with and at one’s fellows. And so, when the Sonorous Echoes of the Hewgag resound through the Sierra silences, few there that did not drop their picks and hasten themselves to the Great Hall, where amid Comparative Ovations and mighty mirth “Poor Blind Candidates” were brought out and instructed in the Mysteries of the Order. To the query “What Say The Bretheren?” the assembled Bretheren would shout as one ”Satisfactory” and the Grand Noble Recorder would reply, with august dignity, “And So Recorded”.
What is the significance of the mystic words which designate the Order? What can “E” or “Clampus or even “VITUS”, mean in this connection? That is a secret that the answer to which responses only in the astral memories of Clampers long since gone to their reward. It is, in fact, the ONLY TRUE SECRET still recorded and remembered by their Order, for no member now in good standing knows the answer. An odd Situation? Yes, but wholly in keeping with those other factors which render this agreeable fraternity of the gold days memorable and worth of perpetration.
The Billy Holcomb Chapter of E Clampus Vitus was born in 1968 at the Los Angeles Press Club, where L. Burr Belden and a group were gathered to honor artist-writer Holling C. Holling, a fellow member of the Platrix Chapter. Having partaken in the juice of the grape, they chose officers and the machinery was in gear. The first officers were: L.BURR BELDEN, Noble Grand Humbug; LOUIS J. HOMER, Grand Noble Recorder; BILL DANIELS, Clampatriarch; STANFORD SHAW, Clamp Vitrix; JACK PEPPER, Roisterous Iscutrix; Judge HENRY BUSH, Guardian of the Orphans; HORACE PARKER, Protector of the Widdows; and RON MILLER, Collector of the Widdows.
Billy Holcomb Chapter was Chartered in October 1969 at Las Flores Ranch during a joint Clampout with the Platrix Chapter. Holcomb Chapter has grown from the initial 50 regulars to more than 700 members. There are about 350 active members. Of the original hearty regulars, there are only 2 still active. They are: Sid Blumner – X-Noble Grand Humbug, XSNGH; L.T. Gotchy – Clamber par-excellence
The Billy Holcomb Chapter has grown from only having two events a year to having seven regular events. They are:
The Society of 4X4 Vituscan Missionaries, Trip in January;
H.E.M.O.R.R.I.O.D. Trip in March;
Spring Clampout, in May;
The Crestline Freedom Days Parade – around July 4th;
The Society of 4X4 Vituscan Missionaries, Trip in August;
Fall Clampout, in October;
Family Clampout, in Death Valley – Veterans Day.
Billy Holcomb Chapter is active in State, Local, and county Historical Societies and works with the Bureau of land Management (BLM), and the CA Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to place plaques at greater and lesser historical sites within its territory of both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Since October 1969, Holcomb Chapter has erected and dedicated 109 plaques, including those along parts of the Mojave Road, The Patton Desert Training Center (C.A.M.A.), Route 66, Speed of Light Experiments, various Historical Buildings and Other Edifices, Local Native Sites and Ruins, and other varied and sundry Persons, Places and events of Historical significance. The Billy Holcomb Plaque Book and Chapter Plaque page on this web site gives directions to and pictures of many of the Plaques that the Chapter has erected.