At the northern limit of Virginia City, Nevada, where silver once dimpled the rocky slopes like arteries under the skin, is a historic plaque commemorating the burial site of Mary Jane Simpson. Like other miners of the mid-19th century, she lived her days in darkness, traversing the miles of treacherous tunnels beneath the city. But Simpson had a few things he didn’t, starting with four legs and a tail.
“Mary Jane Simpson was a mule in the Virginia City mine,” says Virginia City resident and history buff Ken Moser. “It’s an absolutely true story. She was incredibly smart and she had a driver, but she didn’t really need him to know how to get around. She got it all, she knew all the bell signals and the lights.
So when Simpson was killed in the great burgeoning city fire of 1875, miners placed an inscription on his grave: “Inside was but a mule, but she was no prey to nobody [sic]. Stranger, tread lightly. Over a hundred years later, in 1993, Simpson’s death was made official, with a permanent plaque installed by the not-so-secret fraternal organization E Clampus Vitus (ECV).
Mary Jane Simpson is just one of 1,641 obscure stories from Virginia City and throughout the American West commemorated by E Clampus Vitus, stories which, though never appearing in official histories, nevertheless have shaped not just those early days, but everything that followed.
E Clampus Vitus was one of many brotherhoods that took as many as 40% of American men into their fold during the “golden age of fraternalism” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, societies that included the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Knights of Columbus and the Loyal Order of Moose. The men joined for a number of reasons. Not only did fraternal organizations provide social opportunity, they also provided insurance, financial aid, business connections, and most importantly, political clout. Women, unsurprisingly, were not allowed to participate.
E Clampus Vitus emerged from the mining country of West Virginia in the 1840s or 1850s; by 1853, organization was seeping like tar through Doddridge County, according to early 20th-century journalist Boyd D. Stutler. Founder Emphraim Bee traced the origins of the order to a Chinese descendant of Confucius. But, writes Stutler, “it was slapstick” – farce and parody – “pure and simple”. Everything about E Clampus Vitus, from its legacy to its rituals, was a caricature of the serious fraternal organizations of the time.
Weary miners, many of whom perhaps felt out of place among the Oddfellows and early Freemasons of the time, flocked to E Clampus Vitus in search of a light escape and the added security that a brotherhood could supply in a dangerous industry. Even today, initiates “swear to care for widows and orphans, especially widows.”
When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California in 1849, miners descended like ravenous mosquitoes down the stiff mountain thorn separating California and Nevada. E Clampus Vitus went down with them. Like a backdraft, it swept through dusty, half-baked mining camps in remote outposts like Mokelumne Hill, Sonora, Mariposa, and Murphys.
Flavors of their absurd lore found their way into newspapers across the state in the 1850s and 1960s, some of which were collected in Lois Rather’s 1980 book. Men will be boys: the story of E Clampus Vitus and Seth Slopes’ 1979 E Clampus Vitus: now and before.
Instead of fancy badges, they pinned themselves with tin can lids. Instead of waving a flag, they flew a hoop skirt. They drank a lot of alcohol. The initiates, called “poor blind candidates”, were subjected to a series of humiliating tasks such as climbing on greased poles and being lowered into a tub of water by a rope from the top of a church steeple. A memorable 1861 E Clampus Vitus parade sent 54 members wearing black masks and robes and white sashes through the muddy, soggy streets of Downieville, near the California-Nevada border. The Noble Grand Humbug—a leadership position that rotated among chapter members—wore pink.
“E Clampus Vitus actually had quite a bit of influence,” says Moser, a former Noble Grand Humbug from Virginia City. “For people to do business, they have to become members to be considered. At one point, the California legislature was closed for a few days so that its E Clampus Vitus members could attend the big convention.
Almost every mining town in California had an E Clampus Vitus lodge in the mid-19th century, writes Rather, so when the largest silver deposit ever found in the United States, the Comstock Lode, was discovered in Virginia City in 1859 , an ECV chapter was not to be far behind. No one knows why he never made it in those early days, but E Clampus Vitus didn’t completely skip the boom town.
When he was hired at the Virginia City newspaper in 1862, Samuel Clemens, alias Mark Twain, had already gone through the initiation rites at Angel’s Camp in California. It was there, at an ECV meeting, that he heard the story he would turn into his 1865 short story. Calaveras County’s Famous Jumping Frog– or so the legend goes.
E Clampus Vitus slowly fell out of favor around the turn of the 20th century. By the 1920s, the once robust fraternity was essentially extinct. It was the acquaintance of Adam Lee Moore, the last Noble Grand Humbug of Sierra City Balaam Lodge No. 107,304, who saved the group from obscurity. When it started again in 1930, E Clampus Vitus was just as absurd as before, but there was a new purpose in motion: to recognize the history of the West which, as ECV itself had, was fading. rapidly.
As if to make up for the absence of the brotherhood at the time of the Comstock Lode Chapter, Virginia City, Julia C. Bulette #1864, was the first lodge to be reborn on the Nevada side of the Sierra. They have erected a historical plaque almost every year since, illustrating unique details of Virginia City through time. It is the only historic fraternal order that is growing in membership, according to Moser. He will attend the confirmation of two more chapters, one in Spokane, Washington, the other in Lovelock, Nevada, just this summer.
Miners no longer constitute the majority of E Clampus Vitus members. Today, the brotherhood is mostly made up of white working- and middle-class history buffs — teachers, firefighters, construction workers, small business owners, and more. Some join because their father, uncle or grandfather was a member; others join in on shenanigans or beer, the boys’ club environment, or simply historic preservation activities.
“A lot of people consider their identity as a member of the Clampers to be really important in life,” says Matthew “Metric” Ebert, former Noble Grand Humbug of Virginia City. “People want to feel part of something. We are a history gang with landmarks.
The historical figures and events that the ECV chooses to recognize are selected annually by Noble Grand Humbug and approved by the chapter as a whole. In Virginia City, a number of them are dedicated to the intense but short-lived mining madness that built and rebuilt the city.
“The one we put up last year is on the Yellowjacket Fire in Gold Hill during mining days,” says history teacher and current Noble Grand Humbug Travis Stransky. “It killed a group of miners and that fire burned there for a while.” They placed the monument on the side of the 1862 Gold Hill Hotel; his saloon was once frequented by Clemens, and rusting mining equipment and rotting wooden scaffolding still lie among the brush on the property.
The monuments stand in stark contrast to cities in which “much of the preservation of history has been done by wealthy white men,” says Ebert. In town, where horses occasionally roam down A Street in the lingering afternoon heat, ECV plaques dot the architecture of the western false facade. Many plaques recognize the life or work of people on the margins of society, including Chinese laborers and sex workers. Julia C. Bulette, after whom the Virginia City chapter is named, was one of the latter: a sex worker, accomplished seamstress, and honorary member of the fire company who was brutally murdered in 1867.
This year, the Virginia City Clampers will commemorate the filming of the 1961 Western, The misfits at Odeon Hall in Dayton, Nevada. “I’m a huge fan of old-school Hollywood and to this day, nothing in downtown says anything about the set,” says Stransky, who selected and surveyed the site for chapter approval. . “I found the owner of the building in which Marilyn [Monroe’s] famous paddle ball scene was filmed. In July 2022 they will dedicate the plaque, another obscure piece from the past saved by E Clampus Vitus.