By Stephen Franklin, in Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008
Cowboy and Sparky, two pals on bikes. They’ve just been to a motorcycle race in Schererville, Indiana, and their girlfriends will soon get off work from the Dairy Queen. It is November 1965, and CowBoy—Irvin P. Dunsdon, who uses the capital B to this day—is 23 years old. He feels he’s on top of the world.
He and Sparky—Charles Ritter—met in the Army and bonded instantly. When CowBoy got out of the service in 1964, he moved not to Utah, where he came from, but to Gary, Indiana—Sparky’s hometown—so he could be there when Sparky got back from Vietnam a year later.
Now, in ’65, they stick up for each other. They take no grief from anyone. They share the joy of biking on the open road. They belong to the Gary Rogues, a local motorcycle club.
They are posing for Danny Lyon, who liked the soft light and the clean, white background of the wooden shed behind them. Lyon, 23, had earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Chicago and was a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) the organization of students who threw themselves into the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Many of the photographs in The Movement, a 1964 book about that struggle, are Danny Lyon’s.
Lyon has been hanging out with the Chicago Outlaws, riding a 1956 Triumph and lugging a tape recorder. Today, he recalls the bikers as “dynamic, romantic and a powerfully attractive group to present through photography.” He will spend some two years with the Outlaws, taking pictures of them and other motorcyclists, collecting interviews and pioneering a new kind of journalism about life outside the mainstream, an immersive enterprise in which the journalist becomes part of the scenery. His first solo effort, The Bikeriders (1968), will be the first photo book about bikers.
For some of the subjects in it, the book will become a kind of album, a document of their swagger and possibility. “It was a brotherhood. It truly was a club then,” says Roy Renshaw, who was 17 in 1965 and known as Rawhide. Says John Goodpaster, who owned a motorcycle shop in northwest Indiana and competed in races with the bikers, “They were just renegades. Bohemians, I would call them.”
Lyon says he doesn’t remember anything criminal about the Chicago Outlaws. Still, his interviews caught the mood of a gritty blue-collar world with shadows looming. “Like he’s wild,” an Outlaw’s wife told him. “I used to think he’d get over that. But he don’t. And he’s got a vicious temper.”
By the early 1970s, the Outlaws in Chicago, and in other cities and towns, had begun a long slide toward crime and violence. In 2001, the club’s international president, Harry “Taco” Bowman, would be sentenced to life in prison on racketeering and drug charges; his successor, James “Frank” Wheeler, would get the same sentence on similar charges in 2004. But all of that was in the future as CowBoy and Sparky posed for Danny Lyon back in 1965.
Six years later, CowBoy went home to Utah, saying he wanted to be near his family. In the next year or so, he says, Sparky moved, maybe to Minnesota, and the pair lost touch. (Efforts to reach Sparky for this story were unsuccessful.) In 1975, CowBoy and two other men were arrested and charged with killing a 36-year-old man who had been living in protective custody in Price, Utah, after the man’s testimony helped convict a motorcycle club leader on drug charges in Salt Lake City. The man was beaten, stabbed, choked and shot 14 times.
Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, CowBoy and the other two men awaited the firing squad. At one point, CowBoy came within three days of execution, but legal challenges by his attorneys saved him. In 1980, the three men’s sentences were reduced to life imprisonment after a Utah court ruled that the prosecutor failed to provide some evidence to defense attorneys.
In prison, CowBoy says, he decided that the way to do time was to avoid distractions, so he discouraged visitors. His prison record reflects no major problems. He was paroled in 1995.
“I told the state board that [the man I killed] had it coming,” CowBoy says, recalling his admission of guilt to state officials before his release. The man had been dealing drugs and hanging around young girls, he says, and besides, “I knew the guy he informed on.” CowBoy admits he’s done some wild things, but he insists that “the only time I ever hurt anybody was that time.”
After getting out of prison, CowBoy found work as a sandblaster and industrial steel painter, largely in Utah. He also bought another bike. He ditched the job when he retired in 2004. He still has the bike. On a motorcycle, he says, with the wind in your ears, “you just leave society behind you.”