Hoaxes are an integral part of fannish culture—our own Chris Garcia has been known to be associated with one or two over the years. Dressing up funny, drinking, and generally behaving in an extremely silly fashion are not unknown within the fannish community either. It’s one of the things that makes San Francisco such a fannish city in my mind. (Our politics is the other, but that’s for another column).
Which why I was delighted on a recent lunch break to come across a plaque on a small unassuming building down near the waterfront. I am one of those people who cannot pass a historical marker or other plaque without stopping to read it. This one was unusual.
It was on a blacksmith shop, it mentioned the Emperor Norton Bridge, and it had been dedicated in 2001 or 6006, depending on which calendar you followed. Then the telltale motto at the end cleared it all up: “Credo Quia Absurdum” … “I believe it because it is absurd.” This was no simple historical society; this was the spoor of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, less formally known as the Clampers. Founded in West Virginia and arriving in California during the Gold Rush, its history is gloriously full of apocryphal tales and outright nonsense, its rituals loose and tongue-in-cheek and rowdy, and its central pillars apparently a combined love of wine, women and California history.
The plaque had been dedicated by the local Clampers chapter, Yerba Buena ECV #1, which is the organization behind the greatest of all Clamper hoaxes: Drake’s Plate of Brass.
The Plate of Brass was created in 1933 as a joke on a friend and fellow Clamper who was a historian with a special interest in Sir Francis Drake and the real plaque that historians know Drake was supposed to have left during his San Francisco landing in 1579. The Clampers made up a new plaque fitting the descriptions of the original and wrote ECV in ultraviolet paint on the back. Then they planted it in a spot where the intended victim was likely to find it, and waited.
Unfortunately (or not, for those of us who appreciate that sort of thing) the plaque was found by someone else, who took it and discarded it a few miles away. Three years later it was rediscovered and it quickly aroused interest. Money exchanged hands and at that point its fate was probably sealed. With an investment of $3,500, no one wanted the plaque to be false. It was declared authentic with little effort to prove otherwise and donated to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley. While some historians were skeptical, and suspect aspects of the plate’s spelling and manufacture were pointed out, the plate remained “authentic” in the eyes of the California Historical Society.
The Clampers had gotten wind of this and tried to rectify the situation without actually publicly announcing their involvement. After hinting and prodding had no effect, the society published a small press book, Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse detailing all the historical inaccuracies that proved the plaque false and instructing the reader to look on the back for the painted initials. Despite this, the plaque was authenticated at Columbia University and that was that. In fact a copy was apparently presented to Queen Elizabeth II.
Presumably at this point the Clampers decided on the better part of valor and went back to taking care of widders. So it wasn’t until 1970, nearly forty years after the hoax was perpetrated, that the plaque was re-tested with modern equipment in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing. The plate was finally and conclusively declared modern, although the paint on the back was apparently long gone. The plate is still on display at Bancroft Library as a piece of San Francisco history in its own right.
The Clampers remain active and have spread, with a number of chapters in and out of California. The Yerba Buena ECV #1 remains active and is in fact holding a splendiferous extravaganza, the Widders Ball (Clampers seem especially fond of widders) on February 24th according to their gazette:
SF/SF Issue 39,