Old mythologies blow the advent of ‘outlaw’ motorcycle clubs all out of proportion. These clubs weren’t formed as gangs of criminals, but motorcycle enthusiasts living life the way they chose, as working-class Bohemian riders.  The clubs were mostly composed of men who’d recently returned from the Second World War having fought the spectre of Fascism.  But almost as soon as these early clubs had been formed, the mainstream media, followed quickly by Hollywood, introduced the trope of the Hollister ‘riots’ of 1947, and created a new boogeyman: the Biker. The Hollister story was mostly fabricated for sensational news impact, and included outright lies and staged photos. Truly, fake news.

A typically evocative photo in the RICO archive: Papa Ralph’s lady friend on his Shovelhead chop, which is now parked in the RICO warehouse. [RICO]
Here’s the reality. ‘Hell’s Angels’ was the name of a very successful 1930 movie made by Howard Hughes, about fighter pilots in WW1. Fast forward to 1951, when Hells Angels MC founder Dick White thought it would be a good name for a club. He was a member of the Redlands Road Runners when he had the now infamous Hells Angels winged skull logo tattooed on his arm. At the time, it was just a design his friend drew over and over again. “He really liked it,” says Bo Bushnell of the logo. “When Dick enlisted in the Army (during the Korean War) and before he went off to boot camp, he had the Hells Angels San Berdoo rockers and patch made up. If he survived, he thought he’d start his own motorcycle club.”

Papa Ralph and another Hells Angel, and a hearse! San Francisco, late 1960s. [RICO]
Obviously, Dick survived to start the Hells Angels, and a short 49-second film in Bo Bushnell’s collection documents White’s founding of the club. It’s just a fraction of what Bo has collected and documented about motorcycle clubs, including scrapbooks, photographs, arrest records, letters, denim club cutoffs, and club patches. For several years, Bo Bushnell used four Costo gun safes to store an outstanding collection of 1950s – 1970s outlaw motorcycle club ephemera in the bedroom closet of his turn-of-the-century Los Angeles home. If he was going away, even just overnight, he’d pack up his treasure-trove of memories of bikers from a bygone era, and take it with him: he was that protective of the collection.

The PANtom of the opera in front of the RICO vault, with a distinctive organ pipe exhaust, a 1957 Panhead and a famous machine in its day. [RICO]
Now, he travels a bit easier. With backing from a partner, Paul Zuckerman, Bo has his growing collection tucked away in a secret 5,000 square-foot Los Angeles warehouse, cleverly called RICO (Research Institute of Contemporary Outlaws).  The RICO Federal racketeering law has Kryptonite-like powers against motorcycle gangs, as this 1970 statute was successfully used to arrest whole clubs in the 2010s, in an era when 1% clubs were prosecuted as organized crime rings: mere mention of RICO to a known member of a 1% club who threatens, say, a collector of club memorabilia, is enough to send them slinking away.   Now two professional archivists – a husband and wife team — are hard at work at the RICO archive scanning and cataloging the entire collection. And it’s no longer in four Costco gun safes, but stored in a walk-in Class II bank vault, with cameras and alarms everywhere, with backup power in case someone pulls the plug.

What lies within: tens of thousands of ‘forbidden’ photos of outlaw motorcycle club members, all purchased from the members themselves, or their descendants. [RICO]
Preserving the ephemera, plus a few original choppers, of outlaw motorcycle clubs wasn’t something the now 40-year-old Bo thought he’d be doing when he was a 13-year-old skater roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Growing up with little parental supervision, he hung out with punks, graffiti crews and gangsters. His interests later turned to American low-rider cars such as a 1964 Chevy Impala on hydraulics. But his early influences proved beneficial when he began working in 2011 with documentarian Byran Ray Turcotte on ‘The Art of Punk’, a series of shows that dissected the imagery behind seminal hardcore bands Black Flag, Crass and Dead Kennedys.

A period photo of Sonny Barton, an original Galloping Goose, with his Panhead that currently lives in the RICO warehouse. [RICO]
“I spent about two years working with Bryan and his collection,” Bo explains, and adds, “I’d always been a collector of strange things, and Bryan really inspired me.” With Bryan, Bo began haunting West Coast art book and zine fairs [which is where I met Bo – ed.]. At one event, he tried to purchase a collection of 400 Polaroids documenting the Crips. When that deal ultimately fell through, he recalled getting an email from someone who had inherited from their parents a Straight Satans photo album. Bo was offered the opportunity to buy an album that held hundreds of images of the motorcycle club that had been based in Venice Beach; a club with connections to Charles Manson and his Family at their Spahn Ranch headquarters. Bo negotiated a deal, and this Straight Satans collection was his first acquisition of 1%er biker material. “I got the album, and in all these photographs I saw the human stories within them,” Bo says. He wanted to learn more about who these people were, hoping to interview them, talk to them, and by working to understand their past, preserve a unique era of Southern California motorcycle culture. Trouble was, all of the people in the images were identified only by their nicknames. For Bo to have any hope of locating a living person represented in an image, he’d need to find their birth names, and have more help.

Three of the titles recently published by Western Empire: the third editions of ‘Halfway to Berdoo’, ‘Grubby Glen’, and the masterpiece of the bunch, the ‘Coffin Cheaters’, a worthy heir to the mantle of Danny Lyons’ ‘The Bikeriders’, with amazing period photos, and contemporary interviews with surviving members. [Paul d’Orléans]
Serendipitously, there was a series of police booking photos taped into the album. Carefully peeling these images back revealed full names and dates of birth. Working in Excel, Bo created a spreadsheet to link club monikers with real names. And that’s how he became friends with Droopy. One of the early original members of the Straight Satans from 1961 to 1963, and then a member of Satans Slaves, Droopy had Stage IV cancer when Bo met him. Bo would bring food and drink to Droopy, and then stay and visit, talking about the past. It was Droopy who helped him pull together a few more scraps of information about other club members in the photos.  Another connection was made, and this one suggested that if he was interested in locating more MC photos, he’d have to find Mother Ruthe – one of the only women allowed to sit in on many Hells Angels meetings. According to Bo, everyone trusted her, but no one knew her real name — making tracking her or any of her progeny a difficult task.

Still from a film of Sonny Barton during a club run to Bakersfield. [RICO]
Droopy also helped put Bo in touch with a member who was now living on a boat. Bo showed him the Straight Satans album, and while at the docks, a San Bernardino Hells Angles’ member named Harold was pointed out. “He was with the San Bernadino Hells Angels,” Bo says, and continues, “he said most of these guys are my friends. I asked if he had any photos, and he said no, the cops had taken all of his stuff. I told him I’d make him copies of all I had for him.” Meanwhile, a year has gone by and Bo was still trying to track down the real identity of Mother Ruthe. He managed to learn that she’d been married – and he’d already met her ex-husband, Harold, at the boatyards. Through him, Bo finally managed to put a full name to Mother Ruthe – who had died in 1996. “I started looking for her daughter, and it was a very generic name. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack in Los Angeles,” he says. But he found her, and was shown several photo albums that included family and MC activity. “I offered to buy them, but she said she couldn’t sell them without her sisters knowing.”

It’s all in the details: a bit of surviving fancy paintwork on the PANtom of the Opera. [RICO]
The trouble with that was they only corresponded via letters to a post office box. Bo found her sisters, and asked if they’d be OK with him buying the family albums with the funds going to them. They said yes, and wrote a letter to their sister stating if she had the books, they were fine with Bo completing the purchase. After that, he says, “I began finding more and more photos, and was posting a lot of my stuff to Instagram and was also working on my book, Halfway to Berdoo.” That was in late 2015 and into 2016. Many challenges stood in the way of Bo publishing the book that would ultimately total 144 pages and include more than 70 large-format portraits taken between 1961 and 1965 by Mother Ruthe at her Baldwin Park, California home. These were all Southern California bikers who stopped at her place, as it was the midway point for rides between Venice Beach and Berdoo; Berdoo being the shortened form of San Bernardino.

Johnny Orvis’ Panhead inside the RICO warehouse in downtown LA. [RICO]
As Bo himself writes on his website (www.thewesternempire.com), where the third edition of Halfway to Berdoo is now available after being out of print for three years, “It’s difficult to self-publish any book, but try self-publishing one that explores the history of several major outlaw motorcycle clubs. I wore every hat imaginable: I wrote it, edited it, designed it, published it, marketed it, shipped the books, and stood up to the most powerful outlaw MC in the world, on my own.” While he was working on the book, Bo lived off the grid with only a post office box for an address.  He adds, “The storms I weathered in order to release this book, back in 2016, could be a book itself; from extortion, to death threats, a shady publisher, greed, and lawsuits. My determination and persistence allowed me to document the real stories of early Outlaw Motorcycle Club members in SoCal. It is the definitive behind-the-scenes look into the day to day lives of the Hells Angels, Straight Satans, Satans Slaves, Galloping Goose, Road Regents and Coffin Cheaters motorcycle club members of the early 1960s. No fluff, no gimmicks, no crime, no undercover law enforcement, no bias.”

A subtle detail embedded in the paint of Johnny Orvis’ 1950 Panhead chopper: the Zig Zag man. [RICO]
It was two years after releasing the first edition of Halfway to Berdoo that Paul Zuckerman reached out and offered to lend a hand. With Paul’s backing, the pair were able to locate a suitable warehouse, renovate it completely and install the bank vault and establish the Research Institute of Contemporary Outlaws archive. “Publishing the books helps us track down, and preserve, more items,” Bo says, “We’re not trying to exploit any of this; it’s just about getting the stories out there. And nothing in the archive has come from eBay or anywhere else. It’s all been properly obtained directly from those involved and their families. “I do deep ancestry checks, find children or wives, explain that I have photos I’m able to share if they’re interested in seeing them, and get to know them if I can.”

Johnny Orvis in a period photo with his 1950 Panhead. [RICO]
Bo regularly posts to his @outlawarchive Instagram account, where he showcases a small sample of the 35,000-plus pieces in the collection. In the future, once the entire collection has been archived, Bo would like to see it become a non-profit organization, and he’d attempt to secure a government grant to mount an exhibition or traveling show. He concedes, “This isn’t a profession most people would sign up for, and perhaps there’s a little bit of insanity mixed in with what I do. But, regardless of what happens, I’d always want the archive to remain in Southern California. This is where it all started for outlaw motorcycle clubs.”

RICO also houses a collection of ‘Andy’s Pipes’, which are extraordinary examples of 1960s handmade ingenuity. Originally based on Zippo lighters, these multi-purpose tools for getting high include a clever telescoping pipe stem for smoking weed in the cap of the lighter, a slide-out cocaine tube, and a detachable roach clip on a hand-carved chain. All of these pieces are intricately carved, with gorgeous enamel work baked on. This was Johnny Orvis’ pipe, and includes his name, astrological sign (Leo), and his chopper, all surrounded by exquisite enamel work. [RICO]

 

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
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