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. 

Photo: T.Young / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • He Said Aggression Was 'As Common As Spilled Beer'

    Thompson noted that members of the Hells Angels had become desensitized to barbarity - physically and mentally - over time. For instance, he wrote that the "man who has had his nose smashed three times in brawls will risk it again with hardly a thought."

    According to Thompson, the Angels were no strangers to bloodshed:

    The Angels inhabit a world in which violence is as common as spilled beer, and they live with it as easily as ski bums live with the risk of broken legs. This casual acceptance of bloodletting is a key to the terror they inspire in the squares. 

    Thompson eventually stopped asking about casts, bandages, and bruises, accepting injury as part of the life. He noticed that even riding required a "style and abandon that comes only with painful experience" - like everything else a Hells Angel did.

  • He Claimed Members Got 'Baptized' In Excrement

    Thompson claimed the Hells Angels took pride in their strong scent, asking him if he had tracked them by following their smell. Thompson said the Angels endured an initiation ceremony where new members could show up in "a new pair of Levi's and a matching jacket with the sleeves cut off and a spotless emblem on the back."

    Then a bucket of feces and urine got dumped on their head "in a solemn baptismal [experience]." In some cases, the initiate took off their clothes and stood "naked while the bucket of slop is poured over them and the others stomp it in."

    Once properly initiated, the new member's clothes became their "originals," worn every day until they rotted. The Levi's were dipped in oil, then hung out to dry in the sun - or left under a motorcycle all night.

    Sonny Barger called Thompson a liar, suggesting this ritual was fictional.

  • He Was Beaten Up When He Intervened In A Fight

    After a year of befriending Hells Angels and watching them attack others, Thompson found himself on the receiving end of biker rage. On Labor Day 1966, Thompson reportedly saw one of the Hells Angels beating his wife and dog, and he stepped in to intervene.

    Soon, "heavy boots were punching into my ribs and jolting my head back and forth" until Tiny, another biker, pulled him out of the stomp circle. Thompson drove himself to the hospital and never returned to the Angels.

    As Thompson arrived at the hospital, "ugly bruises had formed where boots had smashed into my chest and arms. I was worried a rib had been broken and that my eye was destroyed." 

  • He Took Part In The Infamous Bass Lake Beer Run Of 1965
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Took Part In The Infamous Bass Lake Beer Run Of 1965

    In July 1965, Thompson accompanied the Hells Angels to Bass Lake, CA, where they planned to celebrate the Fourth of July. The media and police were already reporting on the event, watching and warning public outsiders. On the morning they set off from Oakland, Thompson reported that he:

    Ate a peanut-butter sandwich while loading the car... sleeping bag and beer cooler in back, tape recorder in front, and under the driver's seat, an unloaded Luger. I kept the clip in my pocket, thinking it might be useful if things got out of hand.

    Sonny Barger struck up a deal with local sheriff Tiny Baxter. Baxter let the Hells Angels set up camp as long as they promised to clean up when they left and weren't menacing to other vacationers. Barger agreed and about 200 motorcyclists settled in for the weekend.

    The Angels supposedly ran out of beer quickly, so Barger started collecting money for a run. Barger enlisted Thompson and a couple of Angels to pick up the beer, but when they arrived, an angry mob greeted them:

    When I got there and found the locals all armed, probably a hundred of them just forming a human wall in front of this shopping center, I wasn't sure who to be afraid of, whether the Angels were going to hit me with chain whips from behind or the locals from in front, or where to turn my back, or anything.

    The locals were armed. They'd hired private gunmen and people with hunting knives and long sticks. The Angels bring out this kind of violence in other people by confronting it. They confront them.

    Thompson and the bikers were told the store was low on beer and to go to a market on the other side of the lake. Baxter intervened just in time and Barger was reportedly furious, telling the group the sheriff didn't "know how close he was to havin' a war on his hands."

    At the alternative market, the crew was met with an enthusiastic proprietor who sold them "88 six-packs of beer at $1.50 each and guaranteed himself a booming trade for the rest of the weekend."

  • 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.