• Weird History

Hunter S. Thompson Spent A Year With The Hells Angels And This Is What Happened

What started as a journalistic look at the Hells Angels in 1965 turned into a year of unexpected adventure for Hunter S. Thompson. The gonzo journalist embedded with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club to research what would become his first published book: Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Hunter S. Thompson stories that feature the Hells Angels are notably wild. 

He spent time with legendary Hells Angels members like Ralph "Sonny" Barger who introduced Thompson to the club's erratic biker exploits. The Hells Angels stories he describes in his nonfiction novel offer unique insights into motorcycle outlaw clubs for readers who otherwise might find stories full of stereotyping and misunderstandings. Hunter S. Thompson's facts about the Hells Angels are based entirely on his actual experiences traveling and partying with the notorious bikers. 

  • He Took Pills With The Angels

    Thompson recalled taking pills with the Hells Angels and realizing they had little effect, to which the bikers responded that they had no choice when buying from the black market. Thompson described the cycle of drug use for the average biker:

    Bennies ("cartwheels" or "whites") are basic to the outlaw diet - like weed, beer, and wine. But when they talk about "getting wasted," the action moves onto another level. The next step up the scale is Seconal ("reds" or "red devils"), a barbiturate normally used as a sedative, or tranquilizer.

    They also take Amytal ("blue heaven"), Nembutal ("yellow jackets"), and Tuinal. But they prefer the reds - which they take along with beer and bennies "to keep from getting sleepy."

    The Hells Angels supposedly didn't take part in large-scale drug operations or trafficking because they were too conspicuous and lacked the necessary focus. Thompson clarified that the Angels were not criminal masterminds, but rather "obvious losers, and it bugs them." 

  • He Discovered That Most Bikers Were Unemployed

    While living as an honorary Hells Angel, Thompson learned that the bikers were more like outlaws and slackers than organized criminals. Few members of the motorcycle club had permanent or consistent jobs. Most Hells Angels were unskilled and undereducated. As Thompson wrote, it was "hard enough to get unskilled work while wearing shoulder-length hair and a gold earring... it takes an employer who is either desperate or unusually tolerant."

    Some worked jobs that required no real training, earning a quick buck when it was available. Many bikers survived, thanks to their wives and girlfriends. Hells Angels who did find consistent work often were employed as credit collectors. An Angel called Tiny described his job for Thompson: 

    I'd call 'em up first. I come on real businesslike until I'm sure I have the right guy. Then I tell him, "Listen, motherf*cker, I'm givin' you 24 hours to get down here with that money. This usually scares the sh*t out of 'em, and they pay up quick. If they don't, then I drive out to the house and kick on the door until somebody answers.

    Once in a while I get a wise-ass trying to give me the runaround... then I pick up a couple of guys, lay a few bucks on 'em for the help, and we go out to see the punk. That always does it. I never had to stomp anybody yet.

  • Photo: elchicogris / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    His Time With The Angels Got Him Evicted

    Thompson often hosted Hells Angels at his Oakland apartment, and his neighbors eventually noticed. One of the bikers once answered Thompson's door, promoting the inquirer to call the cops. Thompson recalled that when he ran into that same neighbor later, "she asked whether 'those boys' were my friends. I said yes, and four days later I received an eviction notice."

    He admitted that before being evicted, he didn't consider the ramifications of his loud antics with the bikers. Thompson elaborated on one of "the worst incidents of that era" that inspired no complaints at all:

    This was a sort of good-natured firepower demonstration, which occurred one Sunday morning about 3:30. For reasons that were never made clear, I blew out my back windows with five blasts of a 12-gauge shotgun, followed moments later by six rounds from a .44-Magnum. It was a prolonged outburst of heavy firing, drunken laughter, and crashing glass. Yet the neighbors reacted with total silence.

  • He Initially Joined The Angels To Refute Claims Made By The Lynch Report

    When the Angels were falsely accused of criminal activity in 1964, Thompson speculated that "the difference between the Hells Angels in the paper and the Hells Angels for real is enough to make a man wonder what newsprint is for." A year later, his first article about the Angels went to print in The Nation

    Also inspired by the false charges, Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch published the Lynch report, which documented every alleged crime the Angels were accused of over the course of the year. Thompson countered a few inaccuracies in the Lynch report, including the fact that there were never more than 200 Hells Angels in Northern California during the 1960s, despite the 446 indicated by the report.

    The report claimed the Angels were responsible for "1,116 homicides, 12,448 aggravated assaults, 6,257 sex offenses, and 24,532 burglaries" in one year. Thompson suggested these numbers were not possible based on his experience with the Angels: 

    Some of the Hells Angels' most spectacular crimes are technically misdemeanors, such as "lewd and lascivious behavior" and "disturbing the peace." These are routine offenses, generally... thousands of people are booked every year for obscenity in public places, for fighting in bars, and racing vehicles in populous areas.

    But when 500 delegates from some apparently subhuman species converge on a peaceful community and begin p*ssing in the streets, hurling beer cans at each other, and racing loud motorcycles around the village square... the shock effect on the citizenry... can throw the whole population into armed panic.