shot in the dark?

Hunter S. Thompson Lives on in a New Exhibit

The Aspen Historical Society's new exhibit surveys the gonzo journalist's wild campaign for local sheriff.

By Cindy Hirschfeld June 4, 2018 Published in the Summer 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

You may think you know everything about the late Hunter S. Thompson. He revolutionized journalism; he held court at the J-Bar and the Woody Creek Tavern; he relished shooting off guns at his Owl Farm; he loved his drugs and drink. But when the exhibit Freak Power opens at the Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum on June 12 (through Sept 29), you’re bound to learn something new about the gonzo journalist.

Curated by Aspenite DJ Watkins, an avowed Hunter-phile, the collection of newspaper articles, artwork, photos, and memorabilia showcases in depth the hoopla that surrounded Thompson’s losing campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970.

With its insight into a town racked by intolerance, fear of change, and challenges to voters’ rights, Freak Power has renewed relevance in today’s national climate, says Lisa Hancock, AHS’s curator of collections, who annotated the exhibit: “We’re more divided politically than we’ve been in a long time, and that’s a point I’m trying to make in the exhibit, too.” Moreover, you’ll get a telling glimpse into how present-day concerns—overdevelopment, chain stores, city government overreach, traffic—eerily echo those of Aspen almost 50 years ago.

Thompson’s run was filled with more twists and turns than a Tom Clancy novel. Here’s just a sampling:

-Someone stole a box of dynamite from a ski patrol cache on Aspen Mountain. In its place was a note reading, “This will be only used on Hunter Thompson if he is elected Sheriff.”

-Thompson shaved his head before an election debate so that he could refer to incumbent sheriff Carrol Whitmire as “my long-haired opponent.”

-Whitmire hired a man named James Bromley to infiltrate Thompson’s campaign and try to incite workers into violence. When Aspen police ticketed Bromley’s car and found a sawed-off shotgun inside, the jig was up.

-Local party leaders called an emergency meeting to consolidate votes for Whitmire, agreeing to sacrifice the other Republican candidate for sheriff and a Democratic candidate for county commissioner.

-Things got so weird that the campaign drew media coverage from outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NBC, even though Thompson was just gaining prominence as a writer. Who knows in what direction his career may have gone had he won the election? President Gonzo, anyone?

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