Crime | Deaths | Gay Bar | Gay Pride | Louisiana | New Orleans

39th Anniversary Of The UpStairs Lounge Fire: VIDEO

UpStairs


Today is the 39th anniversary of the firebombing of the UpStairs Lounge, the New Orleans gay bar, which killed 32 gay men and constituted the single largest mass murder of gays in the history of the United States.

The UpStairs Lounge was located on the second floor of an old building at Chartres Street and Iberville Street, just off Canal Street, near the edge of the French Quarter. In 1973, June 24th fell on a Sunday, and most of the 60 or in attendance were members of New Orleans' Metropolitan Community Church, which held services in the bar. That evening, they sang their unofficial anthem, Brotherhood of Man's "United We Stand," with accompaniment from resident pianist David Gary. They socialized. Just before 8 p.m., a doorbell rang. Someone opened the door, and discovered the Lounge's wooden staircase was ablaze. The UpStairs Lounge was promptly engulfed.

Erik Ose, writing four years ago in the Huffington Post, described the scene:

The emergency exit was not marked, and the windows were boarded up or covered with iron bars. A few survivors managed to make it through, and jumped to the sidewalks, some in flames. Rev. Bill Larson, the local MCC pastor, got stuck halfway and burned to death wedged in a window, his corpse visible throughout the next day to witnesses below.

Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led a group of fifteen to safety through the unmarked back door. One of them was MCC assistant pastor George "Mitch" Mitchell. Then Mitch ran back into the burning building trying to save his partner, Louis Broussard. Their bodies were discovered lying together.

29 lives were lost that night, and another three victims later died of injuries from the fire. 

The mainstream media was largely uninterested in showing compassion for gay arson victims:

Initial news coverage omitted mention that the fire had anything to do with gays, despite the fact that a gay church in a gay bar had been torched. What stories did appear used dehumanizing language to paint the scene, with stories in the States-Item, New Orleans' afternoon paper, describing "bodies stacked up like pancakes," and that "in one corner, workers stood knee deep in bodies...the heat had been so intense, many were cooked together." Other reports spoke of "mass charred flesh" and victims who were "literally cooked."

The press ran quotes from one cab driver who said, "I hope the fire burned their dress off," and a local woman who claimed "the Lord had something to do with this." The fire disappeared from headlines after the second day.

A joke made the rounds and was repeated by talk radio hosts asking, "What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars." Official statements by police were similarly offensive. Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department, dismissed the importance of the investigation in an interview with the States-Item. Asked about identifying the victims, he said, "We don't even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."

In the days that followed, other churches refused to allow survivors to hold a memorial service for the victims on their premises. Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists all said no.

Eventually, a Unitarian congregation agreed to host a memorial service. The UpStairs arsonist was never apprehended.

AFTER THE JUMP, see the only surviving news coverage of the fire. 

 

Feed This post's comment feed

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this to my shame I was unaware of this tragedy.

    Posted by: Mickey | Jun 24, 2012 2:03:18 PM


  2. Wish they'd reopen the case and find out who started the fire. Based on the footage, doesn't sound like the "arson investigation" lasted more then a blnk. Amazed that neither reporter mentioned that it was a church service going on in the space at the time of the fire, saying only that it was a bar and was "frequented by homosexuals."

    Posted by: jim | Jun 24, 2012 2:05:07 PM


  3. I had never heard about this tragic incident before today, and I lived in the New Orleans area for six years. I can't believe that people aren't more aware of what happened.

    Posted by: Erich | Jun 24, 2012 2:08:58 PM


  4. There are a number of theories about the arsonist -- a jilted lover, a banned patron, and a couple of others. Nothing ever came of them.

    The gay community here remembers the event, though. A plaque commemorating the tragedy was installed a few years back, and artist Skylar Fein did an amazing installation about it for the biennial, which subsequently did some traveling (http://blog.nola.com/dougmaccash/2008/11/fein_pages.html). If you ever have the chance to see it, do.

    Posted by: Richard | Jun 24, 2012 2:21:21 PM


  5. There are a number of theories about the arsonist -- a jilted lover, a banned patron, and a couple of others. Nothing ever came of them.

    The gay community here remembers the event, though. A plaque commemorating the tragedy was installed a few years back, and artist Skylar Fein did an amazing installation about it for the biennial, which subsequently did some traveling (http://blog.nola.com/dougmaccash/2008/11/fein_pages.html). If you ever have the chance to see it, do.

    Posted by: Richard | Jun 24, 2012 2:21:23 PM


  6. I lived in New Orleans and though under 10 years old I can remember LIVE coverage of it when it happened. I believe that same year was the Rault Center fire and the Howard Johnson's hotel sniper.

    Posted by: MarkUs | Jun 24, 2012 2:52:29 PM


  7. I don't know if he was ever jailed, but I thought the arsonist was determined to be a hustler who had been ejected from the bar earlier that night. That's what I recall reading anyway. Is that not true?

    Posted by: Caliban | Jun 24, 2012 2:58:21 PM


  8. the news clip mentioned something like "homosexuals often carry fake identification papers so the bodies can not be identified at this point."

    for real?

    didn't know that, although it seems plausible given that we were often arrested, at least in some places like NYC for merely frequenting a gay bar in the olden days.

    Posted by: redball | Jun 24, 2012 4:05:14 PM


  9. I can't believe I never heard of this before!

    Posted by: Mike | Jun 24, 2012 4:17:34 PM


  10. I want to add to the chorus of shock at never having heard of this extremely sad and horrifying event this before, and I was a conscious human being when the incident took place.

    Some outstanding wrongs need to be righted here. The victims deserve remembrance. And the story, including about the media, public, and police response deserve publicity. (Was law motivated not motivated to find somehow who killed 32 people?) It's an object lesson in dehumanization.

    1973 wasn't that long ago. (I remember it well, myself.)

    Is there even a plaque about it in New Orleans?

    There is probably a great deal of research about it that could and should be done. It seems like it could be a very worthy project of a history department of a university in the area.

    Posted by: RP4 | Jun 24, 2012 4:59:01 PM


  11. law ENFORCEMENT not motivated

    Posted by: RP4 | Jun 24, 2012 5:00:06 PM


  12. I had never heard of this before I am glad it hasn't been forgotten completely 32 murdered men should not die in vain

    Posted by: Jeff | Jun 24, 2012 5:31:59 PM


  13. I had never heard about this before. Thanks so much for posting it.

    Posted by: Jeff | Jun 24, 2012 5:41:29 PM


  14. Seems like a project for http://www.glbthistory.org/

    Posted by: Donald | Jun 24, 2012 7:01:06 PM


  15. Maybe as a remembrance, everyone make an online donation to the GLBT Historical Society so events like this won't be lost to our future generations.

    Posted by: Donald | Jun 24, 2012 7:05:08 PM


  16. Thanks so much for posting this story. I was completely unaware of this awful tragedy.

    Posted by: ROBERT K | Jun 24, 2012 8:50:34 PM


  17. Unlike other commenters I have heard of this. I was unaware that this was a church groups meeting at the time of the fire. There are other arsons against MCC churches as well.

    In fact I think of this event every time a black pastors says that gay rights are not like civil rights because they haven't been killed like the people killed in the notorious Birmingham church bombing in the civil rights era. Of course gay people are not likely to be found in churches so it is unlikely that there would be an exactly comparable event. We get nothing but bullying and abuse from most Christian churches. Who needs that?

    Posted by: Charlie | Jun 24, 2012 10:25:41 PM


  18. It wasn't actually a church service. The members of the MCC would gather there after their service. Or so says my partner who later was friends with surviving members of the MCC who weren't at the bar that night.

    Posted by: Drew Z | Jun 24, 2012 11:27:22 PM


  19. I remember this very well. I was in my twenties, saw it on the news and felt so terrible. I told my family about it. What I got back was a bored "hmmm", as if those killed somehow deserved it. It was a major breaking point between my family and me. It took many years to forgive them.

    Posted by: Brad | Jun 25, 2012 2:45:37 AM


  20. What about coverage by local news in New Orleans. Didn't any of that survive?

    Posted by: Andy | Jun 25, 2012 3:12:21 AM


  21. RICHARD posted above regarding artist Skylar Fein's exhibition covering The Upstairs Lounge. I had the opportunity to see it in New York City thanks to Andy Towle's coverage of it here on towleroad. It was heartbreaking.

    Posted by: peterparker | Jun 25, 2012 6:26:02 AM


  22. When I tell you mincing queens to go die in a fire, this is exactly what I'm talking about! Hilarious

    Posted by: UFFDA | Jun 25, 2012 8:23:00 AM


  23. Every year while at Decadence I go by this building and pay my respects. If you are near the Monteleone Hotel, walk a block until you find the eatery Evelyn's Place and the lounge was on the second floor. There is a memorial plaque in the sidewalk. It is a very eerie site.

    Posted by: MB | Jun 25, 2012 9:55:40 AM


  24. This is the same city where the police force were hired off duty to rob banks, do contract murders and as recently as Hurrican Katrina, shoot innocent survivors in the back for fun.

    Posted by: Elaygee | Jun 25, 2012 1:12:50 PM


  25. Andy Towle and Brandon K. Thorp. Please ban Uffda from your site. His/her "comments" are offensive and incite violence and are completely inappropriate.

    And thank you for posting this article. It's important to never forget our history.

    Posted by: GraphicJack | Jun 25, 2012 1:39:30 PM


Post a comment







Trending


« «Former Horace Mann Professor Acknowledges Sex With Students« «