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(Smithsonian Institution)

The Hells Angels (without the apostrophe), formed in 1948 in San Bernardino, California (where the local chapter remains active), epitomized the outlaw biker counterculture of the 1960s. The HAMC profess still to be a motorcycle club. Their detractors, including many in law enforcement, view them as an outlaw biker gang that is associated with violence and organized crime, in particular related to illegal drugs. The Angels, however, on the one hand claim their membership consists mostly of relatively law-abiding citizens who have often been victims of media sensationalism, and on the other hand can't resist presenting themselves as a a '1% Club', a phrase that got its start because 99% of motorcycle riders were said to be decent, law-abiding folk.

Hells Angels Oakland Chapter has been particularly famous, partly by its connection with Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, whose autobiography, Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was a national bestseller. Sonny Barger did some time, followed with some biker-related fiction and settled down finally as the eponym of his own brand of beer.

The club's mottos include "All for one, and one for all," in other words, all Angels are expected to join a fight in which even one Angel is a participant; and "When we do good, no one remembers, and when we do bad, no one forgets."

One cannot join the Hells Angels by application. "We don't recruit members, we recognize 'em." Members wear a colorful vest bearing the club's trademarked death's head logo, and woe betide anyone who would wear the colors without really being a member.

Perhaps the most notorious event in Hells Angels history involved a 1969 Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont, California Speedway. The Angels had been hired to do crowd security for a fee which was said to include $500500 worth of beer. A shoving match erupted near the stage during a rendition of the song Under My Thumb (not, as is commonly thought, Sympathy for the Devil), resulting in a fan being stabbed to death, allegedly by an Angel.

The dust hasn't settled after half a century. In April of 2002, dozens of Hells Angels and Mongols were involved in a gunfight at Harrah's Casino in Laughlin, Nevada during the annual River Run. Three people were killed and 13 were injured; the casualties included numerous casino patrons.


Author Hunter S. Thompson traveled with the club in the 1960s and his adventures are chronicled in the book that made Hunter Thompson's reputation as a counterculture journalist, Hell's Angels.

The Hells Angels enjoyed a special relationship with the Grateful Dead, the history of which was told by Tom Wolfe in his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s many biker exploitation films featured Hells Angels lookalikes. Usually considered better than run of the mill was Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) with Jack Nicholson and members of the Oakland Hells Angels.

A documentary, Hell's Angels Forever, produced by the club has a sound track featuring Jerry Garcia and Willie Nelson. A soundly-based recent documentary about the club was produced in 1999 for The History Channel (A&E): In Search of History: Hell's Angels includes an interview with Sonny Barger.

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There was also a group of World War II flying aces called Hell's Angels (with the apostrophe).