Credo Quia Absurdum

There has been considerable debate about the purpose of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. Is it a men’s historical and drinking society, or is it a drinking and historical society? What does the name stand for? I can’t answer these questions and the name doesn’t translate into anything meaningful in English. The society’s roots—as a benevolent fraternal society—go deep into the gold rush history of California, when there was a real need for such things.

The important fraternal organizations at that time were the Masons, the Knights of Columbus and the Odd Fellows. If a miner was injured or died, and had no family locally, his family needed to be notified and, in the case of death, the remains buried. These organizations took care of these matters for their members.

If a miner couldn’t get into one of the main organizations, there was always E Clampus Vitus. Its motto, Credo Quia Absurdum, is generally understood as meaning “I believe it because it is absurd.” The organization’s aim was “to take care of the widows and orphans but particularly the widows.” As the need disappeared, so did the “Clampers.” But in 1933, Carl Wheat and a group of noted historians revived the organization that now has thousands of members—for once you are a member, you are always a member!

The modern-day Clampers have erected hundreds of historical plaques recognizing the history of the West. They also enjoy a good story. One of the stories that I like best concerns William Henry Eddy, an early Santa Clara County settler. Eddy was one of the heroes of the ill-fated Reed-Donner Party—he led the Forlorn Hope Party away from death and starvation in that horrible winter of 1846-7. When Eddy later died, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in San Jose.

In 1949, members of E Clampus Vitus, Yerba Buena Chapter #1, erected a circular bronze plaque on a sierra granite boulder at the cemetery to commemorate Eddy’s deeds. Early one morning, a Greyhound busload of Clampers left San Francisco bound for the San Jose Cemetery to view the monument. While aboard the bus, the members passed the bottle and San Francisco attorney Ed Hammer enjoyed more than his share.

At that time, the red-shirted men carried sidearms loaded with blanks. As the big bus approached San Jose, Hammer stood in the aisle demonstrating how fast he could quick-draw his pistol from its holster. The bus hit a pothole while Hammer was weaving in the aisle attempting to pull his gun, and it fired before it cleared the holster. The wadding of the blank grazed his thigh and calf causing Hammer to bleed profusely. Just as the bus arrived at the cemetery, Hammer passed out, either from the whiskey or loss of blood, and his companions decided that it was necessary to get him to the hospital. The bus driver refused as he said he had no authorization to change the route.

At the cemetery, the Clampers looked around and found a retired civil engineer, George Washington, who then lived in Capitola. Washington, a direct descendent of our first president, was recruited, against his will, to take Hammer to the San Jose hospital in his car. While George drove Hammer to the hospital, one of the Clampers telephoned and let them know that a gunshot-wounded man would soon be arriving. As required, the hospital notified the police of the gunshot victim and they arrived at about the same time as George and Hammer. As Hammer was wheeled into Emergency, the police interviewed George, wanting to know the details. They first asked George what happened, and he answered, truthfully, that he didn’t know. Then the officer asked George his name, to which he said “George Washington.” Incredulously, the officer said, “Yea and I’m Abraham Lincoln. Now let’s start over.” George was taken to the police station where he eventually proved his identity and the fact that he knew nothing of the whole affair. Hammer’s wound was superficial and, now sober, he was released.

The plaque to William Eddy, leader of the Forlorn Hope Party, was officially dedicated in May 1949 and may be seen today at Oak Hill Park in the Pioneer section.

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