Exactly 50 years ago 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 45 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.
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.
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
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.