THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE ARSON ATTACK occurred on this date in 1973 at a Gay bar on the second floor of the three-story building located at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Thirty-two people were killed by the fire or by smoke inhalation. The most likely suspect, a man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier that day, was never charged. It was the deadliest arson attack in New Orleans at that time and one of the deadliest attacks on LGBT people in United States history.
On Sunday, June 24, 1973, the final day of Pride Weekend, members of the Metropolitan Community Church held services inside the club, located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. After the service, the club hosted free beer and dinner for 125 patrons.
At the time of the evening fire, some sixty 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 left inside the second-floor club, and some attempted 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.
The official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect arrested 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. Nunez had been diagnosed with “conversion hysteria” in 1970 and had visited numerous psychiatric clinics.
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 drug store 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. 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, and only one member of the clergy, Reverend William P. Richardson of St George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims on June 25.
Approximately 80 people attended the event. The next day, Iveson Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, rebuked Richardson for hosting the service. Noland received over 100 complaints from parishioners concerning the service, and Richardson’s mailbox filled with hate mail.
Two memorial services were held on July 1 at a Unitarian church and St Mark’s United Methodist Church, headed by Louisiana’s Methodist bishop Finis Crutchfield and led by MCC founder Reverend Troy Perry, who came from Los Angeles to participate. Mourners exited through the church’s main door rather than an available side exit, a demonstration of a new willingness to be identified on camera. Several families did not step forward to claim the bodies of the deceased.
A few anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for the three unknown men’s burials, and they were buried with another victim identified as Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave at Holt Cemetery. The book Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend is a good history of this tragedy.