Sunday, March 29, 2009

Character Satisfactory!

In which we talk up the Ancient and Honorable Order...

So it turns out that one of my mentors in the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, Rick Saber, is an important member of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, also known as The Clampers. Rick plays the role of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (that's him above) at Clamper ceremonies, called "Doins'." I have technically been a Clamper since my initiation at San Quentin in 1995 (no, I was not an inmate but a guest of the warden at that time, who was also a Clamper.) Variously described as a historical drinking society or as a drinking historical society, The Clampers' raison d'etre is to commemorate the forgotten bits of Western history. They do this most prominently by placing plaques at various historical sites around the West. These aren't usually the sort of history one would read in a textbook, but rather peoples' history. The Clampers will commemorate the house of a well-known Belle of the Evening, or a fight with Indians, a bawdy house, a prison breakout, a gunfight, or a famed saloon (The Old Ship and the San Francisco Brewing Company are two San Francisco landmarks "plaqued" by the Ancient and Honorable Order.)

I was inactive for some years, however, and so my name fell off the Great Rolls of the Order. I've been interested in re-upping my membership in recent years, and meeting Rick was a double boon. Not only is he a highly competent brother officer in the Auxiliary, but he also helped me get re-instated as a brother Clamper.

So yesterday was my first Clamper doin's in many years. And what a homecoming it was. The event was the unveiling of a monument -- called, in Clamper parlance, a "plaquin'" -- that commemorates the very last stage coach hold-up in San Francisco Bay Area history.

The monument
The hold-up occurred in 1905, on a lonely stretch of highway now known as Crystal Springs Road in San Mateo County. The stone plaque takes some text from a San Francisco Call article that appeared shortly after the event. It reads:
Near this spot on August 17, 1905, a masked desperado described as "nine feettall and armed with a small canon stopped the Half Moon Bay stagecoach and angrily demanded driver Ed Campbell throw down the Wells Fargo Co.'s treasurebox, Levy Bros. strongbox and the U.S. Mail bag. No valuables here but the five passengers hid their gold and only gave $4.30."

A "poet," Michael Williams, later commemorated the event:

Huzza! romance returns again,
Once more as in the days of old,
Disdaining banks or Chu-chu train,
A robber stops a stage for gold,
And meets adventures manifold!
Hurrah! Such news is great, immense -
But softly, what is this I’m told?
This robber robbed for thirty cents!

I’ve reveled in the tales - like you -
Of Daring Dan and Nervy Nat,
And others of the gallant crew
Who on the highway passed the hat,
And spent robbed fortunes on a bat -
They were the boys of no pretense -
You never heard it hinted that
Such robbers robbed for thirty cents!

Oh, pshaw, tut, tut, alas, alack!
From out the dreary East I came
To get upon Adventure’s track
And view the “Woolly West” aflame,
With deeds that should go down to fame -

Now must I sadly hie me hence
From out a land where bandits shame
Their art by taking thirty cents?


“O princes of the gallant game
Of standing folks up for their pence!
What words are harsh enough to blame
Robbers that look like thirty cents?”

Two of Hillsborough's finest pose with a motley crew of brother Clampers. The big one on the right demanded an application to join on the spot. That's good; we need more big Clampers.

His Majesty Norton I poses with Her Excellency, Mayoress Christine M. Krolik of Hillsborough, who is hot

Oddly enough, the prime mover for this event was not a Clamper at all, but none other than the celebrated futurist, Paul Saffo, who lives on the hill behind the site and who had been researching the stage coach robbery for some years. I had spoken to Paul on a number of occasions years back while working for Upside and Business 2.0 magazines. He was so out of context that I at first did not recognize him. When he started his speech, however, I quickly realized that this Paul and that Paul were in fact the same Paul. Paul was initiated into the Clampers later that afternoon and we had a nice chat and promised to catch up.

Big Smokey: A Brother Clamper lights a stoagie.

Here is the text of Paul's speech:
"The last stagecoach hold-up in San Mateo County took place on August 17, 1905 on Crystal Springs Road in what is now Hillsborough, near the bridge west of the Woodbridge intersection close to the old Casey rock Quarry now occupied by SF Water’s tunnel facility. The Levy Brothers Stagecoach had left the Occidental Hotel in Half Moon Bay at 6:30am and was heading east down the canyon towards San Mateo when a highwayman leapt from the brush and demanded they throw down the strong-box.

Though the robber appeared formidable -- one passenger declared that he was “nine feet tall and armed with a small cannon.” -- the robbery was interrupted by the arrival of a passing wagon driven by a local gardener, and the event quickly devolved into a comedy of errors. Though shots were fired, no one was injured and the hapless robber made off with a mere $4.30* collected from a reluctant hat-passing among the passengers.

When the stage arrived in San Mateo just after 9:00am, word of the robbery attempt spread and a motley volunteer posse took off up the canyon in hot pursuit of the fleeing robber. As the San Mateo Weekly Times described the event two days later:

“Bartlett with his graceful wobble, Boland with mighty strides, and Sheehan with the kangaroo hop of Bob Fitzsimmons, turned their faces westward. They were accompanied by a motley crew of volunteers. Postmaster Byrnes carried his perennial smile along and Weller began mopping his brow before Taylor Park was passed. Jack Pease was there with his head well to the front, Ben Race grim and silent, Frank Corbett swinging his arms like a professional sprinter, Underhill using his club like a baton (all these) with a large assortment of other detectives and thief-takers took to the timber and the robber would have died of fright had he seen the formidable gathering.”

The robber was never caught, and for all we know, may still be at large in Hillsborough today...

As this suggests, even before the posse returned to town, the robbery quickly passed into county history as a charming farce, memorialized in a poem published in a San Francisco paper a few days later."
Strike up the band: Music at Clamper doin's is always good.

World's cleanest mountain man

While some Clampers wear historic costume (as above), others wear outlandish outfits. This ensemble elicited this comment from one wag: "Hey, Mister, there's a man standing under your bird!"
You can see many Clamper plaques across the American West. Many look just like the state historic plaques one finds in out-of-the-way places. Look for the legend at the bottom, "Dedicated... by the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus."

Credo Quia Absurdum!


Blogger Missjenny619 said...

I found your blog post when I Googled my uncle (Rick Saber), a.k.a. Emperor Norton I. Yup, that is my crazy old 'Unc', the man who calls himself the Emperor. I am proud of that guy! I am his niece, Jennifer and I live in San Diego. I was telling a co-worker about my uncle this morning and decided to Google him to see what came up.

I really enjoyed your posting! My uncle is great guy and I am glad he has fellow brethren like you to join in on the fun continue the absurdum!

Thank you for the kind words about crazy old, eccentric uncle! I am so very proud of him =)

Jennifer Saber

9:54 AM  

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