The Gonzo Fist

If you’ve ever picked up a book by or about Hunter S. Thompson, or even read about him online, then there’s a good chance you’ve seen something called “the Gonzo fist.” This is a fist with two thumbs that is clutching a peyote button.

gonzo fist in generation of swine
The Gonzo fist in Generation of Swine.

As with so much in the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson, this image is surrounded by mystery and mythology. This essay is going to explore the history of this iconic symbol and what exactly it means.

The History of the Gonzo Fist

Interestingly, the Gonzo fist actually pre-dates the coining of the word “Gonzo” by around a year. It was in May, 1970 that Thompson wrote his first truly Gonzo story, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” After it was published in Scanlan’s Monthly, Bill Cardoso, Thompson’s friend and collaborator, called it “Gonzo.” Thompson immediately adopted this term and it remained the name for his own unique style of literary journalism.

Later that year, while Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, he worked with artist Tom Benton on a series they called “The Aspen Wallposter.” The Gonzo fist was used for Wallposter #5 and it also served as Thompson’s campaign poster.

hunter thompson's campaign poster

People often think of this symbol as Benton’s creation and of course they label it with that word Cardoso had coined, but in fact the bright-red, two-thumbed fist had been created a year earlier by Paul Pascarella.

In 1969, Thompson was involved in another campaign. Rather than running for office himself, he managed the campaign of lawyer and biker Joe Edwards, who was running for mayor of Aspen. This was when they created the concept of Freak Power.

For the Freak Power campaign, Thompson asked Pascarella put together a logo, and this was when he created the Gonzo fist – a two-thumbed fist atop a dagger, clutching a peyote button. It was meant to be put on posters and t-shirts and buttons, but Thompson felt it was “too heavy.” He explained months later:

  • We almost used the clenched red fist, but at the last moment we decided that it would be too heavy for a lot of the people we would have to keep on our side if we wanted to win.

Instead, they ran with a peace symbol, hoping to galvanise the local hippie community without appearing too threatening.

tom benton peace poster

Edwards lost his campaign by a slim margin. Thompson had promised to run for sheriff if Edwards won, but he ran anyway in 1970. This time, nothing was off the table. He ran an outrageous campaign that was very much designed to shock people and the purpose was likely to distract voters and opponents by drawing attention to himself while other, more reasonable candidates found success elsewhere.

Thompson in fact highlighted their use of the Gonzo fist as integral to the new campaign:

  • one of the main differences between the ’69 and ’70 campaigns is that we have dropped the peace/victory sign, in favor of the fist.

Elsewhere, he tied the imagery to other shocking aspects of his campaign:

  • This was the most outlandish aspect of the campaign—the fact that we could actually overcome the multi-onus of a candidate who was not only insanely ugly, stone bald, and advocating “Freak Power” with casual references to “pigfuckers” and “shitheads” and “greedy scum” … but who also admitted to committing felonies as a way of life and whose massively-distributed campaign posters featured a double-thumbed red fist clutching a peyote button.

Thompson may have lost the campaign, but by the end of 1970 he had a name for his style of writing and even a logo that he could use. Gonzo had become his brand. For the rest of his life, he would affix the Gonzo fist to his various writings and even the merchandise he began churning out as he attempted to cash in on his fame.

When Thompson died in 2005, actor Johnny Depp paid millions of dollars to have a gigantic Gonzo fist made with a cannon built in that would fire his ashes over the mountains near his home. Benton used the Gonzo fist in a tribute poster printed after Thompson’s death. Pascarella, meanwhile, continues to make Gonzo art that includes the fist he designed all those decades ago.

To see more of the Gonzo memorial, check out Wayne Ewing’s film.

What does the Gonzo fist mean?

The Gonzo fist was meant to capture the idea of Freak Power, which is to say the grassroots political movement Thompson started in 1969. His concept was that being a “freak” was not a shameful thing. He wrote:

  • I’m not at all embarrassed by the use of the word freak. I think the way things are going in this country right now it’s a very honorable designation and I’m proud of it. To be abnormal, to deviate from the style of government that I deplore in America today, is not only wise but necessary.

Although Thompson was not a hippie, he was part of the collection of countercultural movements of that era that included the hippies. These people were willing to stand out, to be seen as different in an era of conformity. That ethos was something captured by the Gonzo fist.

The Gonzo fist was bright red and deformed by the inclusion of a second thumb. It clutches a hallucinogenic substance and is attached to a dagger, signifying an attitude of both experimentalism and danger. Whilst the hippies were peaceniks, Thompson was more interested in radical change. He wanted to threaten authority.

One could argue that the fist image has been utilised by various anti-authoritarian movements, including the Black Panthers. Thompson’s version modifies it and brings it in line with his own Gonzo-Freak Power concepts.  

Misunderstandings and False Claims

A lot of people understandably assume that the Gonzo fist was Tom Benton’s creation. That of course comes from the fact that Benton designed the famous “Thompson for Sheriff” poster that first brought the fist to the public’s attention. However, as we have seen, it was in fact Pascarella who designed the double-fist image about a year prior to its use on these posters.

You very occasionally hear people talk about Ralph Steadman as the creator of the Gonzo fist but he was certainly not involved in its creation and in fact only met Thompson the following year, in 1970. In Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, we can see Steadman sketching Thompson’s funeral cannon and getting the fist wrong.

  • I’ve told you a thousand times for ten years, you’ve got to put two thumbs on the fist!

After Thompson’s death, Doug Brinkley claimed that Thompson had asked Pascarella “to design an official Gonzo logo” but of course Gonzo was coined in 1970 and Pascarella designed the logo in 1969. (Brinkley also implied that both of these had happened in the mid-1970s.)  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *