Hell’s Angels was a 1930s Howard Hughes movie that depicted World War I fighter pilots. This name was also adopted during World War II by an American volunteer fighter squadron in the Chinese Air Force. After the war, according to the club, young American men were seeking the camaraderie and brotherhood they had found in their brothers-in-arms during the war. It is generally accepted that the group formed on March 17, 1948, in Fontana, California. It was a former member of this squadron that suggested the name.
In the early years, the Hells Angels began to pop up around California, with some of the earliest being in San Fransisco, Oakland, and Gardena. In the beginning, these charters weren’t as conscious of each other, but as the years went by and the 1950s progressed, these groups united together to build the groundwork for the organization we know today. They implemented an internal system of rules shared by all, as well as a set of admissions requirements.
Spread Of The ’60s
In the 1960s, the Hells Angels spread more rapidly, with its first international charter being formed in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961. Although they always considered themselves as the 1% of motorcyclists that make a bad name for the other 99%, during this decade the group became increasingly identified with counterculture in the public eye. They were particularly identified with the Haight-Ashbury part of San Fransisco, with members associating themselves with the likes of Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, and the Rolling Stones.
The Strange And Terrible Saga
The legendary Hunter S. Thompson actually spent a year with the motorcycle club, riding around with them and living their lifestyle. He published this all in a book titled Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Unfortunately, he ended up having a falling out with them after he tried to stop a member from beating up his wife. Thompson was the one who ended up getting beaten up by several Hells Angels.
Anger At Hunter S. Thompson
Indeed, although he spent a year riding with them, the Hells Angels would come to perceive Thompson as having exploited them for his personal gain. The book made him a successful and an in-demand writer, therefore the club demanded a share of the profits. Naturally, he didn’t give it to them, figuring he didn’t owe them diddly squat after having been attacked. In truth, they seemed to be more upset that Hunter never gave them two kegs that he promised them.
How To Recognize Them
How do you know if the person standing in front of you is a member of the Hell’s Angels? In general, you can see them wearing either a leather or denim motorcycle vest, also called a “cut.” Different patches will be attached to it, identifying them as Hell’s Angels along with their charter name at the bottom. This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as there is much significance in the symbols they wear.
One way to identify full members is by picking up on the iconic winged death head logo in red and white. The MC patch is also widespread, which stands for “motorcycle club.” The number 81 is also featured, which refers to the Hell’s Angels’ initials, H and A. H is the eighth letter, while A is the first: hence 81. As the Hell’s Angel spends more and more time as part of the club, he will get the chance to get even more patches on merit.
It’s not easy at all to become a member, though. This is a process that can take years to make it through, and you have to meet certain requirements to even qualify. For starters, you have to have a motorcycle license, a Harley Davidson over 750 CC, and get along well with the members of the charter you are trying to join. In addition, you cannot have been accused of lewd acts with a minor or applied to become a policeman or prison guard.
If you meet all of those requirements and the charter members like you, you will become what is known as a “hang-around.” This is the first step on the way to becoming a full-blown member. Invitations are extended to hang-arounds when club meetings take place so that the prospective member can get to know the members of the charter. This gives them a chance to get a taste of what it means to be a Hell’s Angel and meet new friends.
The next stage in the surprisingly long and arduous process is for the hang-around to become an associate, which happens after he sticks around for a while. The associate participates in more events and gatherings, trying to prove that he would be a worthy addition to the motorcycle club. The members of the charter should be familiar with him at this point. If all goes well, he will become a prospect after an undefined period of time.
Now that he is officially a prospect, the potential Hell’s Angel can come and hear what goes on in the meetings. That being said, he is still not permitted to vote when decisions need to be made by the club. During this time, members of the charter will put the prospects to the test. That doesn’t mean that prospects don’t get anything by becoming a prospect. They actually get a cut where they are allowed to put a patch with the charter’s territory or state.
As you can guess, the next step is becoming a full member. Every member must be voted in unanimously by the charter members. Ahead of the voting, the prospect generally goes around to the other charters in the area and introduces himself. If he’s voted in, he can wear the “Hell’s Angels” logo and the winged death head patches. Becoming a full-blown member of the Hell’s Angels is also known as “being patched,” in club parlance.
Tony Thompson, who wrote a book called Gangs, describes several other patches worn by Hell’s Angels members. These are earned on merit, like the SS lightning bolt symbols with “Filthy Few” written, which is rumored to mean that the bearer has or is willing to murder in the name of the club. Another patch is called the “Dequiallo” patch, which means that the wearer has violently resisted law enforcement while being arrested. Other patches also exist, but their true meaning remains obscure
In many ways, the Hells Angels meshed perfectly with the beatniks of the 1950s and hippies who came after them in the 1960s. As opposed to the hippies, however, they don’t shy away from a fight, as will later be seen. Since these early years, the Angels’ free lifestyle has prompted them to spread out worldwide, with over 275 charters in Europe alone after the first opened in 1969 in London. They exist in Australia and South America as well, with more regions being prospected at the moment, reportedly.
Ken Kesey’s Test
Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, reportedly introduced the gang to a certain illicit substance through his group of intellectual friends, the Merry Pranksters. Kesey, who claimed to be too old to be a beatnik and too young to be a hippie, was an important figure for both of the movements. They once hosted a party that had a banner draped over the doorway, reading, “The Merry Pranksters Welcome The Hells Angels.” But not everything was peace and love between the bikers and the hippies…
Vietnam War Protestors
That same year, anti-war protesters demonstrating against American involvement in Vietnam staged a protest that approached Oakland on the border with Berkeley. The protestors were surprised by the reception the Hells Angels gave them, as 35 members of the group charged at them when they approached a police cordon. A brawl ensued in which a police officer broke his leg. Only two members of the motorcycle club were arrested. During the altercation, Angels were quoted saying “America first” and “America for Americans” as they broke through police lines.
Possibly because of the incident, the Hell’s Angels reportedly attempted to assassinate Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones while he was at his holiday home in the Hamptons, according to the BBC. “They planned the attack from the sea so they could enter his property from the garden and avoid security at the front,” said the BBC reporter. “A group of them took a boat and were all tooled up, but their boat was hit by a storm and all of the men were thrown overboard.
FBI Uncovers Plot
Incredibly, Jagger was spared through this freak accident. The plot was only uncovered years later after the FBI had infiltrated deep into the ranks of the organization. J. Edgar Hoover, the founder and director of the FBI until his death, believed that the Hells Angels were a criminal organization responsible for illicit substance trafficking. He sent agents undercover, at great risk to themselves. The BBC report said, “The FBI only found out about the assassination attempt some time after the fact.” Not even Jagger himself knew about it, reportedly.
As for gender equality, as you may expect, the Hells Angels MC is not an egalitarian society. According to a former, so-called “old lady,” women were allowed to ride on a member’s bike, just as long as he was driving. If she was caught riding his Harley-Davidson, he would be in big trouble. The former old lady said that most Hells Angels treated their bikes better than their ladies, but that might not be saying much, considering how seriously they take care of their bikes.
Violent Yes, But Racist?
Ralph “Sonny” Barger, a founding member of Oakland’s Hells Angels and a long-time leader, stated that “the club, as a whole, is not racist, but there are probably enough racist members that no black guy is going to get it.” That being said, Tobie Levinson, the leader of the Dragons (an all-black Harley-Davidson club), has stated in the past that he has a good friendship with Sonny. In addition, he has said that the two clubs get along, despite the racial divide.
It’s not all brotherhood and camaraderie between charters of the Hells Angels. In one of the worst incidents in the club’s history, five members were murdered in 1985. Their charter was based in North Laval, Quebec, but that didn’t stop the Montreal and Nova Scotia charters from inviting them to the Lennoxville clubhouse. The offending Hells Angels beat them and shot them, then dumping their bodies into the St. Lawrence River. This has become known as the Lennoxville Massacre.
Maurice “Mom” Boucher
One of the most unpleasant Hells Angels out there is Maurice “Mom” Boucher, an ex-president of the Montreal charter. He was previously part of a white supremacist biker gang called SS before he switched to the Hells Angels. He was impressed by the ruthlessness of the Lennoxville Massacre, apparently, and decided to become an Angel. He led the Montreal charter during the bloody Quebec Biker War. Currently, he is serving three life sentences for murder and trafficking illicit substances.
Sonny Barger: Man, Myth, Legend
On the other hand, one of the more approachable members is Ralph “Sonny” Barger. Pretty much since the club’s inception, Barger has been one of the club’s most important leaders. He hasn’t been without controversy, however, and was connected to the Altamont Speedway Free Festival as well as the violent clashes at the Vietnam War protest in 1965. Following this incident, he sent a telegram to the President offering to send the Hells Angels to fight in Vietnam as “gorilla [sic] fighters.”
Terry The Tramp
The movie Hell’s Angels 69 and Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the motorcycle club make mention of John Terence Tracy (Terry the Tramp), who was part of the Oakland, California charter. He became a well-known member of the club back when Sonny Barger was the main leader. Sadly, he was only 30 years old when he died from overusing illicit substances in 1970. He is remembered for being an outstanding example of what a Hell’s Angel should stand for.
Before Sonny, however, Otto Friedli was one of the founding members from back in 1948. He joined after leaving another club centered around in Bloomington, but not before participating with them in the Hollister riot. This 1947 incident was what prompted the American Motorcyclist Association to allegedly say, “the trouble was caused by the one percent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists.” From this comes the “one percenter” moniker. The AMA has no record of saying this and claims the quote isn’t authentic.
Quebec Biker War
Despite the Hells Angels presence in the U.S., their reputation up north in Canada is much worse. Between 1994 and 2002, the Angels were involved in an extremely violent turf war against rival motorcycle club, the Rock Machine. This left a staggering 162 people dead. The Hells Angels leadership in the U.S. reportedly wanted Maurice “Mom” Boucher dead. He was eventually tried and incarcerated by the Canadian government. “They say this is the guy who caused all the trouble,” said a Montreal detective.
Just A Club?
Despite all of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club’s attempts to paint themselves as just another motorcycle club, the evidence seems to point otherwise when taking the violence in Canada into consideration. No amount of charity can make Canadians forget the terrible outcome of their violent war. Furthermore, the Hells Angels are allegedly responsible for some 90% of the illicit substance trafficking and escort-related industry in Canada. Maybe it’s for that reason that one infamous politician ended up being accused of associating himself with members of the group.
The late ex-mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, had his fair share of scandals before he sadly died of cancer. As controversial as he was because of a conflict of interest trial, a video eventually surfaced of him using illegal substances with alleged members of a local gang. In addition, the public later became aware of a photo showing him posing with members of the Hells Angels. His alleged association with the Hells Angels was all the more damaging to his reputation.
Criminals Like In All Walks Of Life
A former president of the Angels, George Christie Jr., however, refutes claims that they are a gang. “My position…is that the Hells Angels is not a criminal organization, but there are criminals within the organization like there are in any walks of life.” You might buy what he says or you might not — it’s up to you. However, what is certain is that they are among the most notorious motorcycle clubs in the world.
Criminals Or Do-Gooders?
Despite their reputation for criminality, the Hells Angels deny outright that they are a street gang. Indeed, they often participate in various charities, but critics say this is a front. What is certain is that many members have been incarcerated for crimes ranging from murder to trafficking illicit substances. On the other hand, they have displayed a penchant for working within the law to settle disputes, as evidenced by the number of trademark lawsuits against parties such as Young Jeezy, Amazon, Disney, Marvel Comics, and even Toys “R” Us.
Who Are They?
The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is one of the largest and most infamous biker clubs, yet there are so many misconceptions and contradictory reports on who they really are and what they represent. To do the truth justice, we decided to bring together some anecdotes and history to understand this group, like why they call themselves the 1%, why they put a hit out on a famous rock star, and other stories that have circulated over the years.
Sons Of Anarchy
You might have guessed that the TV show Sons of Anarchy is loosely based off of the Hell’s Angels. Indeed, various actual incidents that happened to the club have made it into the show as plot points. In fact, the show even features real Hell’s Angels, like David Labvrava, Chuck Zito, Rusty Coones, and Sonny Barger himself. The show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, consulted them at every turn to make sure it was as realistic and accurate as possible.
“Rock And Roll’s Worst Day”
In another notorious incident, the Hells Angels were hired to provide security by the Rolling Stones for $500 worth of their favorite beverage at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969, which would turn out to be a terrible idea. The violence that broke out was so bad the Grateful Dead didn’t even end up playing. It ended in four fatalities: one man by stabbing, one by an illicit substance-induced drowning, and two by a hit-and-run car accident. Rolling Stone called it “rock and roll’s all-time worst day.”