The 24th of June in 1973 was a Sunday. For New Orleans’ gay community, it was the last day of national Pride Weekend, as well as the fourth anniversary of 1969’s Stonewall uprising. You couldn’t really have an open celebration of those events — in ’73, anti-gay slurs, discrimination, and even violence were still as common as sin — but the revelers had few concerns. They had their own gathering spots in the sweltering city, places where people tended to leave them be, including a second-floor bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street called the UpStairs Lounge.
That Sunday, dozens of members of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the nation’s first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1969, got together there for drinks and conversation. It seems to have been an amiable group. The atmosphere was welcoming enough that two gay brothers, Eddie and Jim Warren, even brought their mom, Inez, and proudly introduced her to the other patrons. Beer flowed. Laughter filled the room.
Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.
MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped, but soon returned to try to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their bodies clinging together in death, like a scene from the aftermath of Pompeii.
Metal bars on the UpStairs Lounge windows, meant to keep people from falling out, were just 14 inches apart; while some managed to squeeze through and jump, others got stuck. That’s how the MCC’s pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, died, screaming, “Oh, God, no!” as the flames charred his flesh. When police and firefighters surveyed and began clearing the scene, they left Larson fused to the window frame until the next morning.
Thirty-two people lost their lives that Sunday 40 years ago — Luther Boggs, Inez Warren, and Warren’s sons among them.
Homophobia being what it was, several families declined to claim the bodies and one church after another refused to bury or memorialize the dead. Three victims were never identified or claimed, and were interred at the local potter’s field.
When the Rev. William Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims, about 80 people attended, but many more complained about Richardson to Iveson Noland, the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans. Noland reportedly rebuked Richardson for his kindness, and the latter received volumes of hate mail.
The UpStairs Lounge arson was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the largest massacre of gay people ever in the U.S. Yet it didn’t make much of an impact news-wise. The few respectable news organizations that deigned to cover the tragedy made little of the fact that the majority of the victims had been gay, while talk-radio hosts tended to take a jocular or sneering tone: What do we bury them in? Fruit jars, sniggered one, on the air, only a day after the massacre.
Other, smaller disasters resulted in City Hall press conferences or statements of condolence from the governor, but no civil authorities publicly spoke out about the fire, other than to mumble about needed improvements to the city’s fire code.
Continuing this pattern of neglect, the New Orleans police department appeared lackluster about the investigation (the officers involved denied it). The detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.” No one was ever charged with the crime, although an itinerant troublemaker with known mental problems, Rogder Dale Nunez, is said to have claimed responsibility multiple times. Nunez, a sometime visitor to the UpStairs Lounge, committed suicide in 1974.
The following Wikipedia article goes into more detail, and provides a huge list of references for anyone who wants to read more on this tragedy.
The UpStairs Lounge arson attack took place on June 24, 1973, at a gay bar located on the second floor of the three-story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States. Thirty-two people died as a result of fire or smoke inhalation. The official cause is still listed as “undetermined origin”. The most likely suspect, a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the day, was never charged. Until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, it was the deadliest known attack on a gay club in U.S. history.
On Sunday, June 24, 1973, the final day of Pride Weekend, members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT Protestant denomination, held services inside the club, located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. The MCC was the United States’ first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1968. After the service, the club hosted free beer and dinner for 125 patrons. At the time of the evening fire, some 60 people were listening to pianist David Gary perform and discussing an upcoming MCC fundraiser for the local Crippled Children’s Hospital.At 7:56 p.m., a buzzer from downstairs sounded, and bartender Buddy Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, asked Luther Boggs to answer the door, anticipating a taxi cab driver. Boggs opened the door to find the front staircase engulfed in flames, along with the smell of lighter fluid. Rasmussen immediately led some twenty patrons out of the back exit to the roof, where the group could access a neighboring building’s roof and climb down to the ground floor. The others were accidentally locked inside the second-floor club, some attempting to escape by squeezing through barred windows. One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap, only to fall to his death while burning. Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC clung to the bars of one window until he died, and his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards. MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell managed to escape, but then returned to attempt to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their remains showing them clinging to each other.
Firefighters stationed two blocks away found themselves blocked by cars and pedestrian traffic. One fire truck tried to maneuver on the sidewalk but crashed into a taxi. They arrived to find bar patrons struggling against the security bars and quickly brought the fire under control. Twenty-eight people died at the scene of the sixteen-minute fire, and one died en route to the hospital. Another 18 suffered injuries, of whom three, including Boggs, died.
The official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect for the attack was Rodger Dale Nunez, a local hustler and troublemaker who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the evening after fighting with another customer. Police attempted to question Nunez shortly after, but he was hospitalized with a broken jaw and could not respond. When questioned later on, police records show that he did not appear nervous at all. Nunez had a witness who claimed that he had been in and out of the bar during the 10–20 minutes before the fire, and that he had seen nobody enter or leave the building. Because police observed that the witness was stressed, and had lots of nervous tension, they dismissed the witness as a liar.
Nunez had previously been diagnosed with “conversion hysteria” in 1970 and had visited numerous psychiatric clinics. He had been released from a treatment facility in the year before the fire. After his arrest, Nunez escaped from psychiatric custody and was never picked up again by police, despite frequent appearances in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed on at least four occasions to starting the fire. He told the friend that he squirted the bottom steps with Ronsonol lighter fluid bought at a local Walgreens and tossed a match. He did not realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in flames. Nunez took his own life in November 1974.
In 1980, the state fire marshal’s office, lacking leads, closed the case.
Coverage of the fire by news outlets minimized the fact that LGBT patrons had constituted the majority of the victims, while editorials and talk radio hosts made light of the event. No government officials made mention of the fire: as Robert L. Camina, writer/director of a documentary about the fire (Upstairs Inferno), said in 2013, “I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored.”
Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims on June 25. Approximately 80 people attended the event. The next day, Iveson B. Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, rebuked Richardson for hosting the service. Noland received over 100 complaints from parishioners concerning the service, and Richardson’s mailbox filled with hate mail.
Soon after two additional memorial services were held on July 1 at a Unitarian church and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, headed by Louisiana’s Methodist bishop Finis Crutchfield and led by MCC founder Reverend Troy Perry, who came from Los Angeles to participate. Mourners exited through the church’s main door rather than an available side exit, a demonstration of a new willingness to be identified on camera. Several families did not step forward to claim the bodies of the deceased. A few anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for the three unknown men’s burials, and they were buried with another victim identified as Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave at Holt Cemetery. LeBlanc’s family would not learn of his death in the arson attack until January of 2015.
In June 1998, the 25th anniversary of the fire, as part of Gay Pride celebrations, a memorial service was organized by Rev. Dexter Brecht of Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church (also known as Vieux Carre MCC) and Toni J. P. Pizanie. It was held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Grand Ball Room and attended by New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter, Rev. Carole Cotton Winn, Senior Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai, Rev. Kay Thomas from Grace Fellowship in Christ Jesus, Rev. Perry, and 32 members of the New Orleans community representing the victims. Carter then led a jazz funeral procession to the building on the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, the site of the club, and members of the local MCC laid a memorial plaque and wreaths. Among the attendees was the niece of victim Clarence McCloskey.
- In 1998 the reconstituted MCC congregation in New Orleans (Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church, since renamed again to MCC of New Orleans) held a 25th anniversary service to commemorate the arson and its 32 deaths. This event is significant because, unlike the one it memorialized, the 300 members of the congregation refused to hide their faces and instead insisted on entering and leaving the event through the church’s front doors.
- In 2008 The North American Convocation of Pro-LGBT Christians planned to hold its “Many Stories, One Voice” event in New Orleans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the conference (and the 35th anniversary of the tragedy), but eventually canceled the conference for the year due to Hurricane Gustav.
- In 2008 local artist Skylar Fein constructed an art installation titled Remember the Upstairs Lounge. The New Orleans Museum of Art has since acquired Fein’s art exhibit, which includes a reproduction of the bar.
- A TAPS group in episode 15, Season 8 of Ghost Hunters visited the lounge to encounter alleged ghosts of the fire’s casualties. The episode identified the event as the “Jimani Lounge Massacre.”
- In 2013, noting the 40th anniversary of the fire, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond, issued a statement of regret that his predecessor, Archbishop Philip Hannan, and the local church leadership ignored the arson attack. Aymond wrote to Time magazine that “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families … The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”
- In 2013, Royd Anderson wrote, directed, and produced a documentary about the tragedy titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire.
- Also in 2013, Wayne Self (a playwright and composer from Natchitoches, Louisiana), first presented a musical called Upstairs about the tragedy.
- In 2014, McFarland & Company released the Clayton Delery-Edwards-penned account of the arson The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973. The book was selected as one of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2015 Books of the Year.
- In 2014, Melange Dance Company of New Orleans performed a tribute show as part of the New Orleans Fringe Festival. ‘The UpStairs Lounge’ show aimed to uplift with a combination of dance and film that celebrate the Lounge, its patrons, and the strides taken towards Human Rights since the incident.
- In 2015, Melange Dance Company of New Orleans presented an extended performance of ‘The UpStairs Lounge’ show originally performed as part of the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival.
- The space on the second floor formerly known as the UpStairs Lounge now contains business offices and a kitchen for the Jimani Lounge (established 1971), which is located on the first floor. The current owner, Jimmy Massacci, and his father, the former owner, personally witnessed the arson and its aftermath. The third floor, then owned by the UpStairs Lounge, remains unused and partially damaged. The building itself dates back to at least 1848, when the earliest-known sale of the building is documented.
- The fire was the third arson attack to affect the MCC, following a January 27, 1973, arson at the church’s headquarters in Los Angeles (resulting in the destruction and collapse of the building with no injuries) and another 1973 arson at an MCC church in Nashville, Tennessee (also with complete destruction of the church and its furnishings but no injuries).
- “Upstairs Lounge Fire Memorial, 40 Years Later – NOLA DEFENDER”. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
- “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar. By Clayton Delery-Edwards. P.118
- a b c d Townsend, Johnny (2011). Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. BookLocker.com, Inc. ISBN 9781614344537.
- “The Tragedy of THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE”. The Jimani Lounge.
- a b c Alyne A. Pustanio (2010). “The Haunting Tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge”. AlynePustiano.com.
- a b Erik Ose (July 3, 2008). “Gay Weddings and 32 Funerals: Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire”. Huffington Post.
- a b c d Diane Anderson-Minshall (November 15, 2013). Remembering the Worst Mass Killing of LGBT People in U.S. History. The Advocate.
- Eric Newhouse, Associated Press (1973-06-25). “Arson Eyed in New Orleans Fire”. Abilene Reporter-News, Texas.a b c d Freund, Helen (June 22, 2013). “UpStairs Lounge fire provokes powerful memories 40 years later”. New Orleans Times-Picayune. Retrieved June 26, 2013.
- The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar. By Clayton Delery-Edwards. P.122
- The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar. By Clayton Delery-Edwards. P.127
- William P. Richardson – Profile – LGBN-RAN
- The New Orleans Advocate. Family solves mystery after learning uncle died in infamous UpStairs Lounge Fire 40-plus years ago in New Orleans. June 6, 2015. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
- “The Upstairs Fire – June 24, 1973 – 25th Anniversary Memorial Service”. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
- “Pro-LGBT Christians to mark 35th anniversary of deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history”.
- Doug MacCash (November 2, 2008). “Skylar Fein: Installation reignites memory of a deadly fire”. The Times-Picayune.
- “Ghost Hunters – Season 8, Episode 15: French Quarter Massacre”. Syfy. September 19, 2012.
- “The Upstairs Lounge Fire: The Little Known Story of the Largest Killing of Gays in US History”. Time. June 21, 2013. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- “Mass killing at New Orleans gay lounge remembered 40 years later”. Nicole, Erin. WGNO-ABC. June 24, 2013.
- “The UpStairs Lounge Fire (2013 trailer)”. Royd Anderson Productions. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
- “Acadiana Pride Festival, “a celebration of culture””. Berry, Brheanna. KLFY-CBS. March 29, 2015.
- Wayne Self. “Upstairs”.
- The Advocate: Book of the Year: Biography Documenting Worst Mass Killing of Gays in U.S. History
- “Melange Dance Company Events”. November 20, 2014.
- “Melange Dance Company Events”. March 27, 2015.
- “The Building”. The Jimani Lounge.
- Vicki Lynn Eaklor (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. p. 136.
- Dudley Clendinen; Adam Nagourney (June 5, 2001). Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Simon and Schuster. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-684-86743-4. Retrieved December 13, 2012.
- The Rev. Elder Troy D. Perry; The Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson (November 1, 1997). Report to the President for the White House Conference On Hate Crimes (PDF). UFMCC.