#NeverForget – June 24th, 1973: The Pride Weekend UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack In New Orleans

Upstairs Lounge

 

On June 24th, 1973 the final day of Pride Weekend, thirty-two lives were lost when an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The UpStairs Lounge fire is the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and now the second largest mass murder of LGBT people ever in the United States

The gay club was, located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets in the French Quarter and L was one of a rare few left in the French Quarter that had a wooden exterior.

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 and to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Stonewall . The club hosted free beer and dinner for 125 patrons. The atmosphere was evem welcoming enough that two gay brothers, Eddie and Jim Warren, even brought their mom, Inez, and proudly introduced her to the other patrons.

At 7:56pm, a buzzer from downstairs sounded; bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor.  Boggs opened the door to find the front staircase engulfed in flames, along with the smell of lighter fluid. 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.

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.  Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC clung to the bars of one window until he died.  When police and firefighters surveyed and began clearing the scene, they left Larson fused to the window frame until the next morning.

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.

Thirty-two people lost their lives that Sunday 40 years ago — Luther Boggs, Inez Warren, and Warren’s sons among them.

A police officer at the time dismissed the French Quarter lounge as a place where “thieves” and “queers” hung out and their was little interest in solving the case.  There were no City Hall press conferences or statements of condolence from the governor, and no civil authorities publicly spoke out about the fire, other than to mumble about needed improvements to the city’s fire code.  The detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.”

News coverage, both print and television, made every effort to omit the fact that the fire had anything to do with homosexuals in the community, even though a gay bar and members of a gay church congregation had been involved.  The stories that appeared included quotes from local citizens that can only be described as ignorant, such as a cab driver who said “I hoped the fire burned their dresses off,” and one woman who opined that “the Lord … cooked them.”  Local talk radio hosts were making jokes such as, “What do they bury the ashes of queers in?”  The answer:  “Fruit jars.”

To this day no one was ever officially charged with the crime, The only suspect in the attack was Rogder Dale Nunez, a local hustler and troublemaker who had been tossed out of the bar earlier in the evening.  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 the match.

#NeverForget

 

 The List of Victims

Partners, Joe William Bailey & Clarence Joseph McCloskey, Jr. perished together. McCloskey’s sisters and two nieces attended the Memorial Service. His niece, Susan, represented McCloskey in the Jazz Funeral.

Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell, assistance pastor at MCC, died trying to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard.

Mrs. Willie Inez Warren died with her sons, Eddie Hosea Warren and James Curtis Warren.

Pastor of the MCC, Rev. William R. Larson, formerly a Methodist lay minister.

Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., a Jefferson Parish dentist. Several victims were his patients and were identified by his x-rays.

Douglas Maxwell Williams

Leon Richard Maples, a visitor from Florida.

George Steven (Bud) Matyi, A rising young songwriter, perfumer and singer who had recently appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His Body was Identified and buried through the help of his personal manger and his wife. The Cornman Family of New Orleans.

Larry Stratton

Reginald Adams, Jr., MCC member, formerly a Jesuit Scholastic. Partner of entertainer Regina Adams.

James Walls Hambrick Horace “Skip” Getchell, MCC member.

Joseph Henry Adams

Herbert Dean Cooley, Upstairs Lounge bartender and MCC member.

Professional pianist, David Stuart Gary.

Guy D. Anderson

Luther Boggs

Donald Walter Dunbar

John Thomas Golding, Sr., member of MCC Pastor’s Advisory Group.

Professional linguist, Adam Roland Fontenot, survived by Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen, who led a group to safety.

Gerald Hoyt Gordon

Kenneth Paul Harrington, Federal Government employee.

Glenn Richard “Dick” Green, Navy veteran.

Robert “Bob” Lumpkin

Four men were buried in Potter’s Field, Ferris LeBlanc, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, the City refused to release these bodies to the MCC for burial because they could not be identified

Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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13 Responses

  1. Glenn R. Green “Dick” was my favorite uncle. He died in that fire. He lived in Old Algiers and loved everyone he met regardless of what and who we all are. I knew instantly when he was gone even 1000 miles away at the time from each other. I know he saved his room mate he got him out the window my uncle collapsed at. I will forever miss his wonderful heart and spirit. I met so many wonderful loving people on my short stay to bring him home. I wish I could connect with those who knew my uncle it would mean so much to my heart. I love you all. Mary

  2. Mary says:

    I forgot to leave my email for contact info. so here it is

  3. I want to take the time and thank you for your story. My Dad Buddy(George Stephen Matyi) was in that fire. He was the panioist that played that night. He was asked to play there by a friend. It really breaks my heart to know all these people were murdered. My Dad was ripped from My Brother’s and my life. I think it’s wrong. I’m also sad that my family kept this from me all my life. I was told he died in a fire and where he was at had bars on the window and they couldn’t get out but than I find out my Dad did make it out and went back in for his friends and never made it out. My selfish thought was you were out Dad why did you feel you had to be a hero and go back it. I was told that is how my Dad was. Heart of gold. I have an Angel up there but I would have loved my Dad as I was growing up. Thanks. TinaMarie Matyi

  4. Jody Bennett says:

    Incomprehensible. Such unimaginable tragedy. It strengthens my fortitude to continue to fight for LGBTQ rights and also reminds me in the most profound way possible how lucky I am to live in a world that has changed (at least my part of the world). Certainly a long way to go, but progress has been made. I am sending prayers up to whomever may be up there for all those that perished, for all those that suffered through this horrible trauma, and for all the friends and family who lost so much. I hope that the souls of those lost are up their soaring and joyful. I know that they are living on in the hearts of their loved ones. And now indeed in mine.

  5. Thank you to all who gave and fought for what WE THE PEOPLE have today! We are family!

  6. My heart goes out to those that were lost, but not forgotten. I never knew this story until right now, and it saddens me that at 59 I never heard this story before! My heart hurts for all those lost. And for the friends and family remaining after all these years. I love you all. In gay pride and love. Greg “XO”

  7. Tony Kay Way says:

    Happy Pride to All!!! We can only say that because of people before who died for us to be able to say it!!! It is getting better thanks to so many!!! Heart out to Mary Mihalyfi and TinaMarie Matyi!!!

  8. taeylor brooks says:

    Condolences to those who lost their loved ones. As my friend often says in any great movement people usually have to die for things to change. Thank u to all who paved the way for me to say I am gay and not be killed. God bless these angels who spirits now soar…..GODSPEED.

  1. November 15, 2013

    […] just recently found out the whole truth about what happened to my own dad,” Matyi wrote on Back2Stonewall. “He was asked to play by one of his friends. It really upset me on how someone can kill someone. […]

  2. June 27, 2014

    […] And if you’re still wondering why the issue of equality is important to me, I’d like to draw your attention to another, darker anniversary this week. On June 24th 1973, 32 members of the gay community lost their lives in the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. While the best suspect was a patron who’d been thrown out earlier in the night, no one was ever charged and authorities made it perfectly clear that no one was really interested in solving the case. After all, no one important died. Yes, that was the attitude. It’s horrific and I’d like to think that it would be so different today but there is places where it wouldn’t be. Check out this article here for more information: http://www.back2stonewall.com/2014/06/june-24th-1973-orleans-upstairs-lounge-arson-attack-kills-32-p… […]

  3. June 27, 2014

    […] And if you’re still wondering why the issue of equality is important to me, I’d like to draw your attention to another, darker anniversary this week. On June 24th 1973, 32 members of the gay community lost their lives in the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. While the best suspect was a patron who’d been thrown out earlier in the night, no one was ever charged and authorities made it perfectly clear that no one was really interested in solving the case. After all, no one important died. Yes, that was the attitude. It’s horrific and I’d like to think that it would be so different today but there is places where it wouldn’t be. Check out this article here for more information: http://www.back2stonewall.com/2014/06/june-24th-1973-orleans-upstairs-lounge-arson-attack-kills-32-p… […]

  4. June 13, 2016

    […] sprayed and then lit on the wooden stairway to the crowded second-floor lounge trapping all within. The arsonist was never caught and to this day the exact reason the fire was lit has never been found […]

  5. June 25, 2016

    […] Back 2 Stonewall: http://www.back2stonewall.com/2016/06/june-24th-1973-orleans-upstairs-lounge-arson-attack.html […]

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