Who Founded The Hells Angels?

On July 4, 1947, more than 4,000 motorcyclists roared into the sleepy town of Hollister, California (pop. 4,500) for a bike rally sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Club. Thanks to the end of World War II, there was a huge surplus of motorcycles that you could get cheap, and there was an enthusiastic rise in ridership made up of mostly law-abiding young people.

But among the riders that day in Hollister were two outlaw biker gangs, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington (P.O.B.O.B) and the Booze Fighters, who began raising hell by fighting, roaring down the main street, throwing beer bottles through windows, and scaring the populace to the point where the local police called in state troopers to help in arresting the troublemakers. From this tumultuous event, a new outlaw motorcycle club would soon emerge — one that would grab hold of the American imagination and never let go. The Hells Angels were coming. 

Murky beginnings 

On March 17, 1948, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) was born from the merging of several smaller clubs, with Otto Friedli at its helm. He'd left the P.O.B.O.B. with some of its members because of internal tensions and a feud with a rival gang to help forge a new club in Fontana, near San Bernardino. Friedli was born on June 28, 1931 in Madison, Wisconsin. He grew up in California and at some point joined the U.S. Army, but the military brass let him go after they discovered he had a criminal record.

Like everything else with this outlaw biker club, from the mysteries related to inducting new members to just how many members they have, there seems to be some question on whether Friedli was the actual founder. According to "Hell on Wheels: An Illustrated History of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs," he has claimed that another member invited him to join the Hells Angels after its founding and that the club was "just a bunch of guys who liked to have fun."

The name came from Hollywood

Whether Otto Friedli was telling the truth or obfuscating to deepen the Hells Angels' mystique remains unknown. One thing that seems certain is that a friend and associate of the motorcycle club provided them with their iconic name. Arvid Olsen — a World War II fighter pilot and the leader of the Flying Tigers 3rd Pursuit Squadron "Hell's Angels" American Volunteer Group, who fought with China against the Japanese — provided the club with its name.

The Hell's Angels moniker — also used by a B17F Flying Fortress led by Irl Baldwin of the 8th Air Force's 303rd — came from billionaire aviator and film producer Howard Hughes' 1930 film "Hell's Angels" about World War I flying aces. And while there are lots of legends surrounding the motorcycle club's military roots, Olsen was the "only known person with specific military lineage to an actual unit which bore the name Hell's Angels that was affiliated with the foundation of the HAMC," according to Hells Angels Nomads.

And then Hollywood made them famous

By the 1950s, the Hells Angels had cemented their iconic imagery — Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the death's head insignia in red and white wearing a flying helmet and wings, and black leather jackets — but were flying below the radar. That is, until a Hollywood film thrust the HAMC and other outlaw biker clubs into the spotlight with the 1953 film "The Wild One" starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin.

The media soon focused on these renegades of the staid 1950s Eisenhower years, as did the police, who began cracking down on the bikers for mostly petty offenses like disturbing the peace. But as the Hells Angels grew into a powerful organization under new leadership and their alleged crimes became bigger, the Federal Bureau of Investigation — headed by the tyrannical J. Edgar Hoover — turned its attention to the motorcycle club as the Hells Angels headed into the 1960s and global expansion. 

In steps a new leader 

On April 1, 1957, Ralph Hubert "Sonny" Barger's motorcycle club became the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, and it wouldn't be long before he would wrangle the top spot in the ever-expanding club. In his 1967 book "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga," writer Hunter S. Thompson described Barger as the club's "Maximum Leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick thinking dealer when any action starts."

Born in Modesta, California on October 8, 1938, Barger had a rough upbringing and served in the U.S. Army for a time before being given an honorable discharge when his commanders discovered he wasn't old enough to be in the military. By the early 1960s, after Otto Friedli went to jail, Barger became the de facto head of the club and moved its headquarters to Oakland. Under his command, the Hells Angels became the best-known motorcycle club in the world. "We're the one percenters, man — the one percent that don't fit and don't care. ... We're royalty among motorcycle outlaws, baby," one member of the Hells Angels told Thompson (per "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga").

What happened to Otto Friedli? 

The Hells Angels under Sonny Barger also allegedly expanded into crimes such as drugs, extortion, and homicide. The FBI began keeping tabs on them in the mid-1960s. In the late 1960s, Otto Friedli went to prison on gun charges for three years, where he became a born-again Christian, quit the Hells Angels, and joined the Black Sheep Motorcycle Ministry to spread Christianity after he got out. He died in 2008.

Sonny Barger, who is most responsible for the Hells Angels' structure, growth, and public image — there are now chapters all over the world — served several prison sentences over the years, with his last stint from 1988 to 1992 in federal prison for allegedly plotting to blow up a rival gang's clubhouse. "There never was a crime thought up by the Hell's Angels," he told the Pheonix New Times in 1992. "It was thought up by the FBI. It was paid for by the FBI. And I went to jail for it. That's the way it goes." He died on June 29, 2022.