Odd group preserves obscure Calif. history

February 19, 2010 8:41:22 PM PST
California and the Bay Area are rich in history, and thanks to a band of merry men, some of those facts will not be lost.

You can thank the gentlemen of E Clampus Vitus for keeping obscure Western history alive. E Clampus Vitus is a fraternal organization which can trace its roots back to the Gold Rush.

Each year the "clampers" as they are called seek out interesting local lore and commemorate the spirit of the West.

"Small history of certain things that have happened in the past that are not well known," Noble Grand Humbug Steve "Iggy" Myers said.

Without the clampers you might not know about San Mateo County's last stage coach robbery, just off Crystal Springs Road near Hillsborough (the robber got away just over $4); or one of the few buildings saved from the 1906 quake and fire in San Francisco (it was full of precious whiskey); or you may walk right by an old San Francisco saloon that was once a ship.

"There are over 1,000 plaques in E Clampus Vitus territory," Myers said.

The group started in Virginia in the 1840s and moved West with the Gold Rush in 1849. No one really knows why it took off, but it may have been created to poke fun at the proliferation of secret societies of the day. More than likely it gave hardworking miners some comedic relief from panning for gold.

The group died out by the turn of the last century, but was revitalized in the 1930s and it is very much alive today.

"It's a legacy it's a legend and it's a lot of fun," Myers said.

While clampers like to enjoy themselves, they have a more serious side.

"If a miner died and was a member of E Clampus Vitus, what they would do is they would make sure that his widow and orphans were very well taken care of," Myers said.

For that reason, many chapters continue to volunteer to help the elderly, build playgrounds, clean highways and give academic scholarships.

They celebrate their brotherhood with their trademark red shirts.

"The thought is that it came from the undergarments of miners in the 1840s 50s and 60s, because that was the regular uniform," "Dynamite" Zeke Sonnichson said.

Today, there are 40 chapters and more than 100,000 members in the Western states.

Their motto is "Credo Quia Absurdum," roughly translated to mean "I believe it because it is absurd."

Every January, the clampers kick off the year in Colma with an absurd celebration. Hundreds gather at the grave of Joshua Norton, a Gold Rush era business man businessman who lost everything. He declared himself Emperor of California and Protector of Mexico and was embraced by the citizens of San Francisco for decades. He died in 1880.

"Emperor Norton of course was a clamper even after his death; we definitely have honored him for all of this time," Rick "Norton III" Saber said.

Clampers from around the state then come together to celebrate at a nearby tavern. Their membership is made up of all walks of life, from plumbers to Ph.D.s.

"We are all brothers of equal indignity, we all have a bend on history; we love history, but we parlay that with a fair amount of shenanigans," William "Raven" Howland said.

Not just anybody can join E Clampus Vitus, you have to be invited to be a member. A strong interest in California history helps, of course.

What does E Clampus Vitus mean? It turns out it is not Latin and no one really knows.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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