Long before Church of the Subgenius, there existed a whimsical secret society called E Clampus Vitus (aka the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, ECV, or simply "the Clampers"). The first ECV chapter was established in America in 1845. A bar owner named Ephriam Bee established the ECV in Lewisport, West Virginia, claiming to have received an ECV charter from the Emperor of China.

Bee felt popular secret or fraternal societies of the day were far too restrictive. If you were of legal drinking age, male, and had enough in your pocket to buy a few rounds, well, you were surely worthy of the secret rites of ECV.

Originally the ECV was intended to parody the disturbing rise of secret societies that arose in opposition to large waves of immigrants from Ireland and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. Many "America for Americans" fraternal orders sprung up like Order of the Sons of the Sires of 1776 and Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. To a barkeep like Bee, these anti-immigration societies were disturbing. First, the Irish and Germans drank and drank well. Second, their money was as good as the next guy's.

An ECV member named Joe Zumwalt joined the gold rush and brought the ECV to California in 1849.There it thrived and mutated. The California chapter found many new members among the rowdy miners, who were generally not welcome by those snootier secret societies like the Freemasons and their fancy pants plans for world domination/preparing the Earth for the arrival of the reptoid's galacticruise star buffet galleons.

Anyone invited to join the Clampers had to "earn his tin". Tin was a reference to the secret badges Clampers wore. Eschewing the fancy hats, gowns, and sashes of the Masons, the Clampers fashioned weird-looking badges from tin can lids.

You earned your tin by a) drinking b) managing to remember to call your brother Clamper by various honorific titles when you were soused. Clampers referred to each other as "Noble Grand Humbug," "Roisterous Iscutis," "Grand Imperturbable Hangman," "Clamps Vitrix," "Royal Gyascutis", and "Humbug of Sublime, Noble, and Grand Proportions".

Generally the Clamper society provided comic relief to the hard scrabble life of a Goldrush-era miner. However, many Clampers aided others in time of death or disaster, collecting food and money for the families of deceased miners. A Clamper tenet became "Take care of the widows and orphans -- especially the widows."

As the west-coast gold began to disappear, so did the ECV. It all but died out by the turn of the century but was revived in 1931 by San Francisco historian Carl Wheat. He was quite taken by the group, calling it "the comic strip on the page of California history".

Wheat had few actual documents on the Clampers. Since most of their meetings (called "Doin's") involved drinking and carousing, no one was really able to keep accurate written minutes. Wheat managed to locate the last surviving member of the original Clampers and record all the rites, traditions, and legends of the original ECV. Initiation rites, though a closely guarded secret among Clampers, seems to involve sitting on a wet sponge placed at the bottom of a wheelbarrow. Weird, yes, but beats a ritual piercing of your testicles, that's for sure.

Wheat's reborn San Francisco chapter was dubbed Yerba Buena Chapter 1: Capitulus Redivivus. Another chapter was reestablished in Los Angeles. This was dubbed Chapter 2. A third chapter was opened in a town roughly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Arroyo Grande chapter was dubbed Chapter 1.5.

Joining the Clampers is by invitation only. Much like miner's gold, a prospective member has to be found. And how do you know you're in the presence of a latter-day Clamper? Well, first, he's drinking. A lot. Second, he's probably honoring his Clamper forebears in the traditional Clamper raiment: a vest, a red miner's shirt, a black hat, and Levi's (of course).

Clampers today enjoy -- over a pint or six -- debating many of the long, lost historical questions about their society. First and foremost, what does E Clampus Vitus mean? It's Latin. Sort of. But no one has a firm clue. No one is even sure if "Clampus" is the correct and original spelling. Wheat, when doing his research, found references to Clampus, Clampsus, and Clampsis. Since it's more than likely any printer working on Clamper business had been doing considerable drinking, it's of great surprise most printers got the first half of the name right. Wheat decided Clampus was probably the intended spelling. It's speculated that E Clampus Vitus comes from a low Latin and means "run away quickly".

Second, what is the purpose of the society, aside from taking care of the widows and orphans (especially the widows)? Is it a historical drinking society? Or a drinking historical society?

We may never know.

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