Remembering the 32 Gay Men Killed in 1973’s Largely Unknown Arson Attack on Gay Bar in New Orleans

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BRIAN MILLS

Editor / Founder
Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.

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In moments like this , In the aftermath of a another horrific hate attack on Gay men, its important to remember that  those before us faced Horrific attacks even more frequently,  and until the attack in Orlando the Upstairs Lounge arson was the largest mass killing of Gay men in the United States history. The story was largely ignored  by the press and remains largely unknown in the common memory of our history.

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. Thirty-two people died as a result of fire or smoke inhalation. The official cause is still listed as “undetermined origin.” It is the deadliest arson attack in New Orleans history, and one of the deadliest attacks on LGBT people in United States history, second only to the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. The reaction by the city and media following the attack was indifferent. Those seeking burial services for the dead were turned away by many churches, and several families refused to come forward to claim victims’ bodies out of shame. While most news outlets ignored the story, mentions of the incident in editorials and talk radio made light of the tragedy, mocking the victims because of their sexual orientation.

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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 thirty 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. Some thirty 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 firetruck 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.

What happend next:

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 committed suicide in November 1974.

In 1980, the state fire marshal’s office, lacking leads, closed the case.

Media coverage

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.”

 

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The following two tabs change content below.
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BRIAN MILLS

Editor / Founder
Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.
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Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.

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