Secret Societies: On the Road to Revival?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By Richerd Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Clampers, one of the secret societies active in the late 1800s ceased to exist toward the 1920s. Years later, in 1931, a San Francisco lawyer and historian named Carl Wheat decided to revive the order. But, this time he decided to add a new purpose to the society. What was that purpose?

Picture by F. JIMENEZ MECA, showing different symbolic things of  freemasonry. Different societies had a set of things which were symbolic with their organization.
In most cases, various secret societies were revived to get more respect. (Image: F. JIMENEZ MECA/Shutterstock)

Rebirth of E Clampus Vitus

Clampers weren’t just drunken hell-raisers, but also came to the aid of sick and injured miners, as well as widows and orphans. As the mining towns played out in the late 1800s, so did the Clampers. By the 1920s, the society had basically ceased to exist but in 1931, a San Francisco lawyer and amateur historian named Carl Wheat decided to revive the order. He kept the drinking while adding a new purpose: historical preservation. Thus, E Clampus Vitus was reborn, and still exists. While the revived Clampers were somewhat more respectable than their predecessors, they preserved a taste for pranks.

The Play of Pranks

In 1936, some of the brothers concocted a brass plate, buried, and then pretended to ‘discover’. The plate purported to prove the arrival of English privateer, Sir Francis Drake in California in 1579, and that Drake claimed the place for Queen Elizabeth I. For 40 years, the plate was taken as authentic.

The tendency of Clampers to play jokes and make-up tall tales meant that the origin of the society was impossible to determine. He believed to have started in West Virginia by a man named Ephraim Bee who acted on the instructions of the emperor of China. Others linked the Clampers to a New Orleans lampoon society called the ‘Sons of Malta’. But the Sons of Malta didn’t come into being until after the Clampers appeared. Mysterious and uncertain origins were commonplace among secret societies.

Learn more about the history of the smaller secret societies.

Emerging of Social Clubs

Southern California, in the present day, and the icon of American popular culture, Disneyland, around 2015, something new appeared at the park. Among the visitors, some noticed roaming groups in matching jackets with matching emblems. The denim sleeveless ‘cuts’ were dead-ringers for those worn by Hells Angels and other biker gangs and the jackets bore patches proclaiming the group’s name, and the wearer’s status. But those weren’t bikers but social clubs formed by devoted Disney fans and given names like the Big Bad Wolves and the White Rabbits.

It started as harmless fun and the social clubs grew, some attracting 50 or more members. They visited the park together, but the general public began to feel uneasy, even intimidated. Stories of social clubbers behaving aggressively towards other guests began to spread. Unease increased when some clubs started packing lines to ‘take over’ rides for their exclusive use. Club rivalries emerged and what started out as good-natured competition grew tense as some started taking things seriously. Members of one club were accused of trying to shake down a charity promoter. There were incidents of verbal, even physical confrontations between rival clubs.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Artificial Family

Secret societies, ranging from the semi-mythical to the deadly serious to almost comical had plenty in common. Whatever their purpose, each was selective, internally secretive, and offered their members some sort of special status. Like most secret societies, they were also a kind of artificial family as the practice of members calling one another brother or sister was common. Secret societies were not an aberration in human behavior but were a normal, universal part of it.

Picture by Victor Moussa depicting freemason secret symbol. Such symbols were used by secret societies for their individual identities.
The members of secret societies would address one another as brothers and sisters because they considered each other as families. (Image: Victor Moussa/Shutterstock)

Being in a fraternity or sorority in college, meant a person was in a secret society. They had almost infinite variety. Among the Ona people, membership was based on gender and the purpose was to gain power and control for which Ona men were willing to kill their own mothers. The Dolcinians believed that they had a direct pipeline to the divine. The followers of Fra Dolcino were an example of something else, as well, a secret society seen only through the eyes of its enemies.

Learn more about the Freemasons who inspired and influenced many societies.

Real Purpose of Secret Societies

The Clampers showed how a society could form in opposition to and in imitation of another group. They also demonstrated the common confusion about where, and when, a society originated. In addition, the Clampers showed the tendency of societies to disappear and reappear. The Disney clubs showed the continued appeal of selectivity, special status, and a unifying devotion to something. They also showed how societies could spontaneously evolve, and arouse suspicion and hostility among outsiders.

Learn more about all-female gang in the London underworld.

History of Interpretation

Secret societies in all their variety had a real history because there’s a common belief that history is a known quantity recorded in a book, which is not completely true. The vast majority of human experience, everything that people have said and done, has been lost. History is an effort to reconstruct the past, from the few ‘facts’ that survive, giving room for interpretation and speculation. Real history is incomplete, contradictory, and argumentative and when secrecy is mixed, things get messy.

Common Questions about Secret Societies

Q: How was E Clampus Vitus revived?

Clampers which ceased to exist in the 1920s, was revived by a San Francisco lawyer and historian, Carl Wheat in 1931 adding a new purpose, historical preservation, and E Clampus Vitus was reborn.

Q: Who were the Clampers?

Clampers was not just drunken hell-raisers, but also came to the aid of sick and injured miners, as well as widows and orphans. Clampers had a tendency to play jokes and make-up tall tales.

Q: How did social clubs start?

Social clubs started with harmless fun, attracting 50 or more members. Gradually, club rivalries emerged and what started out as good-natured competition grew as a strong rivalry.

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