POSTED Tue. Jun 25, 2013
The Upstairs Lounge Arson
Adam Karlin
Written by ADAM KARLIN
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I am ashamed to have not posted on this yesterday, but June 24, 2013 marked the 40th Anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Arson Attack, both the worst massacre of LGBT individuals in American history and the worst arson in New Orleans history. The anniversary falls two days before the Supreme Court delivers its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act.

Read the above linked article for the whole sordid story. Quoting some of the more salient parts here:

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 [at 141 Chartres St] for drinks and conversation…

Just before 8:00pm, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. 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.

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.

29 people died in the fire, and three more would die of their burns. That the attack happened in New Orleans – that the MCC would even decide to congregate here – speaks to the city’s reputation as a magnet for the LGBT community. The city’s first gay pride parade occurred two years before the fire, and the first celebration of Southern Decadence was only a year prior. But it also speaks to a deep vein of intolerance that resented this tradition of acceptance. That intolerance was on display in the following police investigation and media coverage:

When the Rev. William Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims, about 80 people attended, but many more complained about Richardson to Iveson Noland, the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans. Noland reportedly rebuked Richardson for his kindness, and the latter received volumes of hate mail.

The UpStairs Lounge arson was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the largest massacre of gay people ever in the U.S. Yet it didn’t make much of an impact news-wise. The few respectable news organizations that deigned to cover the tragedy made little of the fact that the majority of the victims had been gay, while talk-radio hosts tended to take a jocular or sneering tone: What do we bury them in? Fruit jars, sniggered one, on the air, only a day after the massacre.

…the New Orleans police department appeared lackluster about the investigation (the officers involved denied it). The detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.” No one was ever charged with the crime, although an itinerant troublemaker with known mental problems, Rogder Dale Nunez, is said to have claimed responsibility multiple times. Nunez, a sometime visitor to the UpStairs Lounge, committed suicide in 1974.

Growing up, I learned about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombings in elementary school, but I never heard about the Upstairs Lounge Arson until I moved to New Orleans. The former French Quarter location of the lounge is now occupied by The Jimani, which maintains its own memorial page on the attack. Check out a documentary on the tragedy here.

Image courtesy of The Jimani.

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