The Truth Behind an Infamous Motorcycle Photo

hollister In 1947, the nation was told of biker “riots” that had occurred in Hollister, California.  The media had a field day reporting on a group of 4000 bikers that converged on the small town on the 4th of July of that year.  A segment of the gathering became unruly, and about 50 individuals were arrested, and another 60 sustained injury.

The visual symbol of the “mayhem” was a photograph published in Life Magazine that included the caption, “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and his friends terrorize a town.”  The photo of the drunken biker enraged the nation and fueled a growing anti-motorcycle sentiment.  The Hollister riots later inspired the 1953 film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, which borrowed liberally from the Life Magazine article and photos.

In reality, the legendary photo was staged.  A San Francisco Chronicle photographer named Barney Peterson arrived at Hollister after the riots had calmed.  Not wanting to be shut out of a photo opportunity, Peterson contrived the scene.

The most revealing look at the lie came from the man standing in the background of the photo.  That man, Gus De Serpa, was a Hollister resident and went into town to see what all the commotion was about.  In an article by Mark Gardiner in the now defunct publication Classic Bike, De Serpa was quoted in the following revealing statement:

“I saw two guys scraping all these bottles together that had been lying in the street. Then they positioned a motorcycle in the middle of the pile. After a while this drunk guy comes staggering out of the bar, and they got him to sit on the motorcycle, and started to take his picture. I thought ‘That isn’t right’, and I got around against the wall, where I’d be in the picture, thinking that they wouldn’t take it if someone else was in there. But they did anyway. A few days later the papers came out and I was right there in the background.”

So, as it turns out, one of the most damaging photos in the history of motorcycling was a fake.  The old adage states that a picture is worth a thousand words.  In the case of the negative stereotypes that were developed in the aftermath of the Hollister riots, that may be an understatement.  It has taken decades to change public opinion since the negative and often deceitful press of the 40s and 50s.

Written by Tim Kessel, Courtesy of

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