Crime | New Orleans | News

The Largest Mass Murder of LGBT People in U.S. History Was 40 Years Ago Today: VIDEOS


In June 1973, a fire broke out in a gay bar in New Orleans' French Quarter. The fire at the Upstairs Lounge took 32 lives — bodies burned beyond recognition. Approximately 20 people escaped the blaze, which was set by an arsonist. The likely suspect was a customer who had been thrown out of the bar the night of the fire.

Upstairs1Press coverage of the fire, which was the worst in New Orleans history, was brief, sensational. No city official would make a statement about it.

I've written many times on Towleroad about the UpStairs Lounge fire. For an excellent primer, check out the photo essay I did on artist Skylar Fein's 2010 installation on the tragic event.

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.

Patheos has an excellent report on what happened that night. The Times-Picayune explores the event in a video, discussing it with eyewitnesses and experts.

Some families refused to claim the bodies of the victims out of embarrassment that their sons had been killed in a fire at a gay bar. Many victims were buried in unmarked graves.

Watch news reports from the night of the fire, the Times-Picayune's video, and a trailer for a new crowd-funded documentary on the incident, AFTER THE JUMP...

The news reports:

The Times-Picayune's exploration:

The new documentary in the works:

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  1. Sad, disgusting, and that pic of the pastor's body in the window is gruesome. At the very least the men buried in unmarked graves deserve a decent burial.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jun 24, 2013 1:03:46 PM

  2. Sad, disgusting, and that pic of the pastor's body in the window is gruesome. At the very least the men buried in unmarked graves deserve a decent burial.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jun 24, 2013 1:03:46 PM

  3. I am pretty sure the Holocaust beats this but whatever. An art piece would be great for those unmarked graves, sad to think that nobody wanted to find out who they were.

    Posted by: Fenrox | Jun 24, 2013 1:14:07 PM

  4. Fenrox, its the largest mass murder of LBGT People in US history, not largest ever.

    Posted by: matt | Jun 24, 2013 1:20:50 PM

  5. Perhaps Fenrox is referring to the LGBT exterminations during the holocaust, which certainly was more than this.

    Posted by: Jerry | Jun 24, 2013 1:25:51 PM

  6. Although either way, this is about US history not world history

    Posted by: Jerry | Jun 24, 2013 1:26:53 PM

  7. Fascinating and sad story. A few months ago the show "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Chanel did an investigation at the Upstairs Lounge. Yes, it's a cheezy show and the host is a DB (although kinda hot) but the investigation was surprisingly sensitive and moving. They brought in a gay ghost hunter to try and relate to the spirits still trapped there. Another piece to the puzzle.

    Posted by: txstevo | Jun 24, 2013 1:27:48 PM

  8. We must never forget this.

    Posted by: Betty Treacle | Jun 24, 2013 1:32:40 PM

  9. An episode of Ghost Hunters was filmed there a couple of years ago at what is now the Jimani Lounge. It does not surprise me that it could be haunted especially after what happened there. I hope they get the funding they need for the documentary; it's a story that needs to be known.

    Posted by: Joel V | Jun 24, 2013 1:41:42 PM

  10. @ Fenrox

    What does bringing up the holocaust have to do with this tragic event? From what I can tell, nobody in this article or the videos even tried comparing this event to the holocaust. You are the only one invoking this comparison.

    The consequence of comparing tragedies and assigning them a place in a heirarchy is the eventual trivilization and ultimately, dismissal, of some of the tragedies. What is needed is more understanding and acknowledgment of these untold stories, not dismissal.

    Posted by: Anony6 | Jun 24, 2013 1:42:35 PM

  11. Never forget the indifference...being treated as "lesser than"... or "they deserved it."

    Posted by: visitor | Jun 24, 2013 1:49:58 PM

  12. Anony6: Fenrox was referencing the the post title, he clearly just missed the "U.S." bit. No need to freak out on him or missing two letters.

    Posted by: JMC | Jun 24, 2013 1:50:16 PM

  13. This is horrifying. Even worse is that some of the bodies were not claimed. How did the families possibly explain their disappearance?

    Posted by: Jack M | Jun 24, 2013 1:59:53 PM

  14. @Jack M, "Even worse is that some of the bodies were not claimed. How did the families possibly explain their disappearance?"

    Indeed Jack, that's even more disturbing.

    Posted by: Joel V | Jun 24, 2013 2:03:16 PM

  15. The long, sordid history of crowded space fires was the subject of a documentary a friend of mine did many years ago. Fire safety codes have saved many lives. In the nineteenth century whole city sections used to burn down--it's a major reason NYC has a huge number of brick buildings--the wooden ones all burnt down. I should check to see if the documentary is on Hulu.

    Posted by: anon | Jun 24, 2013 2:19:24 PM

  16. They talked about this yesterday at church. I go to MCC so not surprising I guess. These men will never be forgotten. I hope those alive still covering it up are aware they are not off the hook for murder and injustice.

    Posted by: Jeff | Jun 24, 2013 2:20:38 PM

  17. I lived in New Orleans and was ten years old and remember live coverage and interviews with patrons of the bar who escaped. Bill Elder was the reporter and WWL the station. I'll always remember it. That and the Rault Center fire and the Howard Johnson's sniper.

    Posted by: MIke | Jun 24, 2013 2:27:03 PM

  18. Weird factoid: The mayor of the time of the fire is reported to have made no statement of sympathy for the victims. His name: Moon Landrieu, father of current mayor Mitch Landrieu.

    Posted by: MB | Jun 24, 2013 2:50:58 PM

  19. Similar shameful behavior by victims' families after the NYC Everard Baths fire, and I belive there was also a bathhouse fire in SF where bodies went unclaimed.

    Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) | Jun 24, 2013 2:55:46 PM

  20. The liberal mainstream media has never apologized for the disgusting way in which it treated this horrific incident.

    Posted by: Jason | Jun 24, 2013 3:32:50 PM


    Posted by: Marc C | Jun 24, 2013 3:44:24 PM

  22. Oh I totally did miss the U.S. bit! I thought it was just another flagrant misfire on the headline like usual! Whoops!

    Posted by: Fenrox | Jun 24, 2013 3:49:20 PM

  23. "....and we KNEW it was wrong...." just brought me to tears. May these precious souls rest in peace, we will NEVER forget.

    Posted by: Argeejay | Jun 24, 2013 3:52:03 PM

  24. There was a memorial service at an Episcopal Church in NOLA to honor the victims and the one priest who did stand up for them, William Richardson:

    Posted by: KevinVT | Jun 24, 2013 3:58:14 PM

  25. From the summary, I assumed this was an attack on the gay community, not a criminal act from within. I realize that the story here is the indifference of the city officials to what happened, but even today we tend to look at nightclub fires with less empathy than a school bus explosion.

    Posted by: David Hearne | Jun 24, 2013 10:19:11 PM

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