Time Magazine used in its headline commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans, a phrase: "The Little Known Story..." Might not a part of that problem rest with the weekly itself, which seems to have failed to mention the largest loss of life by fire in New Orlean's history at the time it occurred in 1973.
In any event, Time is forgiven and should be extended gratitude for posting on their web site twelve high-resolution historical images pertaining to the fire, including two versions of the most infamous sight to be published as news since a Vietnamese monk self-immolated to protest the war against Buddhists by the United States-supported, Catholic-Diem regime in 1963. These depict a dead Rev. Bill Larson dressed a la Pompeii, posed somewhere between the realms of public and private reality. They carry a meaning it's taken 40 years, at least one social revolution and a couple of building collapses to begin to process. Time didn't hid these behind its pay-magazine firewall---moreover, it provided the usual authorial credit---facts which historians seem purposely to ignore.
The more arresting, if not famous, of the two shots of Rev. Larson--taken head-on, with his corpse clearly discernable in the center of the composition---was taken by Ronnie LeBouef of the States-Item / Times-Picayune newspaper. The second shot, directed at the corner of the building and showing both street fronts, is credited only to The Times-Picayune / AP. But a shot very similar to this was published on page one of The Times-Picayune the morning after the fire, also credited to staffer Ronnie LeBouef, although the image lacks the fireman standing on the ladder, peering into the second-story window.
Only one other image in the group was taken during, or in the hours immediately after the fire. In fact, since the caption of the image---which depicts a half-dozen firemen amid a clutter of hoses on the street, with another fireman aloft on an aerial ladder directing a stream of water into the building---states firemen had extinguished the blaze within 16 minutes of arrival, it would have had to be taken within a similar time frame. It is credited to Gerald E. Arnold / The Times-Picayune / Landov.
This picture appears highly suspicious to my untrained but alert eye, not only by its banal, formulaic narrative structure (think September the 11th,) but also the way light filtered through the camera's lens. Downcast architectural floodlights atop a neighboring building seem captured by a process akin to Technicolor, while the firemen and the foreground seem unnaturally vivid too. This contrasts with LeBouef's emotionally powerful shots uniformly lit by the simply flash of a strobe.
Gerald E. Arnold / The Times-Picayune / Landov
Panic erupted and everyone raced to the windows. They were covered with metal bars. Rasmussen called people to follow him—he knew a back exit. Only about 20 of the 65 patrons heard. Someone on the street called the fire station, but the Upstairs Lounge burned in 16 minutes.
The following is a differently cropped version of the image Time posted, without the fat hoses in the street, but with more commercial signage showing on the facade. This makes it clear that the fireman on top of a short ladder is addressing some issue at a window on the second floor of the Upstairs Lounge, while the hose delivers water through the first window by the side street on the third floor.
Ronnie LeBOEUF / States-Item / Times-Picayune / Landov
The MCC Rev. Bill Larson tried to push an air-conditioning unit out one of the windows to make an escape route between the bars. He was halfway out when the windowpane above fell and trapped him. His mannequin-like corpse remained in the window for hours after the fire. Thirty-two people were killed.
The Times-Picayune / AP
On Sunday, June 24, 1973—Pride Sunday in New Orleans—everyone was singing Broadway tunes around the grand piano. Just after 7:52pm, the door buzzer kept ringing, announcing someone was at the street below. A patron went to open the door. A fireball burst through.
The following image is the one published on page 1 of The Times-Picayune, credited to Ronnie LeBouef of the States-Item / Times-Picayune. Of the three exterior shots, it was taken the furthest distance away, and the choice to publish it and not the others seems designed to minimize a recognition of the corpse at the center of the composition. It is doubtful that was a matter of taste given the context; but rather a judgement of the picture's power to exert an uncontrollable influence on a populous who saw what it represented.
This was what President John F. Kennedy said ruefully in private of the depictions of Thích Quảng Đức alighting himself while sitting in Dhyana at a busy Saigon intersection---images of which swept through the world's media. Kennedy claimed this depiction of just one individual taking action did more to change the course of institutional events and their long-planned history than anything else in his memory. But then the date of the self-immolation, June 11, 1963, was soon to be followed by November 22, 1963 and history changed again.
Sequencing the exterior shots, the one credited to Gerald E. Arnold should come first, since firemen are seen doing their expected work, albeit it is at an adjacent structure, which housed La Normandie on the ground floor.
Water steams from a hose into a third-floor window here from the top of an extension ladder (although that particular window appears undamaged in other images,) while another fireman is shown on a short ladder addressing a second-story window.
In other images, the windows of this building are shown dark, while the second and third floor interiors of the corner building are shown brightly lit by work lights.
It seems clear to me that this overall corner was originally developed as three seperate townhouses unified in a single design by the builder, which accounts for the three separate ground-floor businesses, numbered 141, 139, and 135-137.
Although The Upstairs Lounge could have broken through the party wall on the second floor into the adjacent structure and leased space from the same, or a different landlord, it seems unlikely to me for the simple reason that would have provided some other escape route. 20 of the dead were found grouped in front of the corner building, were the piano bar was located. They were people unable to squeeze through narrow openings in barred windows.
A group of some 15 other people did escape with the help of an employee through an exit at the rear of the corner building. This was close to the source of the fire, which roared up one flight of stairs, then escaped into the large open room when a steel door at the top of the staircase was momentarily opened, allowing a fire which was fed on unknown combustibles (other than a discarded Ronsonol Lighter Fluid can,) to race to the scene of carnage by the front windows.
That more people didn't escape at the rear of the building by way of an adequate fire exit located there is explained by the fact they would have had to travel into ir through the flames, which were unnaturally fed and fast spreading.
Our attention seems to be being deliberately misdirected towards this unimportant section of the building for some important reason.
Ronnie LeBOEUF / States-Item / Times-Picayune / Landov
The few survivors who managed to squeeze through the windows, bodies on fire, were rushed to Charity Hospital.
Ronnie LeBOEUF / AP
A survivor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “The small people seemed to get through the window, but the bigger people just couldn't get out.” It was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.
June 21, 2013, Time Magazine, The Upstairs Lounge Fire: The Little Known Story of the Largest Killing of Gays in US History, by Elizabeth Dias,
On June 24, 1973, a flash fire tore through a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In less than 20 minutes, 32 people were killed, dozens more critically injured and the ones who managed to escape watched helplessly as friends and lovers burned to death before their eyes. It is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. Yet politicians and religious leaders were relatively silent. The powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans at the time, Phillip Hannan, did not offer his support or sympathy to victims. And while all signs pointed to arson, the police investigation ran cold. No one has ever been prosecuted.
In this week’s magazine, TIME tells the story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, which remains little known and even less understood despite the epic scale of the tragedy. Events like Stonewall have entered the canon of GLBT history, while other, equally significant moments have lingered in the background. But the movement is still relatively young in the arc of American history and as Harvey Milk once said, “A reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of a building is widely covered. The events that started the American Revolution were the meetings in homes, pubs, on street corners.”
As the stories of a survivor who remembers that tragic night, the founder of the church whose local congregation held services in the bar and the lead police investigator on the case show, the Upstairs fire was one such event.
Forty years later, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence in a statement to TIME: “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via email on June 17. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize." In a month that anticipates a potentially landmark Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the apology is another sign that times are changing.
Click here to read Elizabeth Dias’ full story about the fire at the Upstairs Lounge.
Courtesy of Johnny Townsend
The Upstairs Lounge in the New Orleans French Quarter was a safe haven for gays in 1973. Every Sunday night from 5pm to 7pm, the second-floor bar held its weekly "beer bust"-—all you can drink drafts for $1. It was a refuge where patrons could laugh, love, and even worship without fear. The Metropolitan Community Church, the only denomination at the time that welcomed gays and lesbians, often held services in the bar's back-room theater.
Courtesy of Johnny Townsend
The bartender, Douglas "Buddy" Rasmussen (right), and his boyfriend Adam Fontenot (left), were regular fixtures at the Upstairs. Patrons described Buddy as a “mother hen” who would always look out for everyone.
Jack Thornell / AP
First responders found bodies in piles inside—17 in one, 4 in another, and piles of two all around. One man, Duane George Mitchell, had escaped through the back door with Rasmussen. He realized his partner Louis Horace Broussard was still inside. He raced back into the burning bar. Their bodies were found fused together.
Daymon Gardner for TIME
Francis Dufrene was 21 the night of the fire. That night he was on a first date with Eddie Hosea Warren, whose brother and mother also came to the Upstairs that night. Dufrene escaped through the bars, his head and right arm on fire. Eddie, his mother and brother, all perished. Dufrene took pictures of his wounds to document his recovery process.
Daymon Gardner for TIME
Last week, Dufrene visited the site of the Upstairs Fire for the first time since that day 40 years ago. A memorial plaque lies barely noticeable in the brick sidewalk at the foot of the stairwell where the fire began.
Daymon Gardner for TIME
No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the fire. Dufrene, and others, were skeptical of the two-month-long police investigation. Dufrene says, “I guess they figured, They were gay, so what?”
Daymon Gardner for TIME
Churches in the area, including the powerful Catholic Archdiocese, refused to offer support and host the funeral service for victims. Dufrene, a Catholic at the time, now attends Harahan Baptist Church and says he is no longer part of the gay community. He lives in the same house where he was born and where he recovered from the fire.
July 1, 2013, Time Magazine, The Horror Upstairs; The largest known massacre of gay people in U.S. history remains unsolved and little understood, by Elizabeth Dias with Jim Downs,
Jack Thornell / AP
This is a view inside the UpStairs bar following a flash fire that left 29 dead and 15 injured, June 25, 1973. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background. The bar is located in the New Orleans French Quarter.
Francis Dufrene lived for Sunday nights. tall and lean with a pile of blond hair, the 21-year-old would take two buses from his home in the New Orleans suburbs to make it to the Upstairs Lounge by 5 p.m., when the French Quarter bar held its weekly beer bust--two hours of all-you-can-drink drafts for $1.
From the outside, the Upstairs didn't look much different from the other gay bars on a particularly seedy stretch of Iberville Street. But up 13 steps on the second floor was a refuge: three adjoining rooms, decorated with red wallpaper and frilly curtains, where people could laugh, love, even worship without fear. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a national Christian denomination founded to serve gays and lesbians, often held services in the bar's back-room theater. At other times the space was used for the elaborately costumed drag cabaret performances that regulars called "nelly dramas." "It was my safe haven," says Dufrene.
The beer bust on June 24, 1973, was typically festive. A pianist from the nearby Marriott played Broadway and ragtime tunes as patrons sang along. Dufrene was there, as usual, this time on a first date with Eddie Hosea Warren, a "husky country boy" he met at a hamburger joint near the Upstairs. Warren's brother James and mother Inez came with him. Duane George Mitchell, an associate pastor at the MCC known for his Queen Victoria impersonation, and his partner Louis Horace Broussard stopped by after dropping Mitchell's sons off at a movie. The bust prices ended at 7, but at least 65 people were still hanging around nearly an hour later when the door buzzer went off. It kept ringing, even though no one had ordered a taxi. The bartender sent a regular to check it out. When he opened the door, a fireball burst through as if shot from a flamethrower.
An updraft sucked the fire in, and within seconds the walls were aflame. Panic erupted inside. The bartender, Douglas "Buddy" Rasmussen, called for people to follow him and led at least 20 of them to safety through a back exit and onto adjoining rooftops--before closing the door behind them when he didn't see anyone else coming to prevent the fire from spreading. Many raced to jump out of the three large windows that were covered by metal bars. Dufrene was one of the few who squeezed through, body on fire.
"The small people seemed to get through the window, but the bigger people just couldn't get out," a survivor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
One of those trapped was the MCC's pastor, Bill Larson, who struggled to push an air-conditioning unit through the window to escape. His head, torso and one arm made it halfway out before the glass pane above collapsed, trapping his body. In the street below, his friends heard him scream, "Oh, God, no!" as flames consumed him. His body was left in the window for hours, with his watch, stopped at a few minutes after 8, a haunting relic.
And then it was over. Firefighters extinguished the blaze 16 minutes after receiving the alarm. Twenty-nine people burned alive that night; three more died soon after. Many could be identified only by dental records. A Times-Picayune headline called the scene "Hitler's Incinerators." But it made little more than a ripple in the national consciousness. Neither the mayor nor the governor spoke out, local religious leaders were mostly silent, and only one congregation in the French Quarter ultimately agreed to hold a memorial service. A two-month police investigation turned up a can of lighter fluid at the scene and a thrown-out patron overheard threatening to "burn this place down," but no one was ever prosecuted. Dufrene puts it bluntly: "I guess they figured, They were gay--so what?"
The scale of the tragedy was immense: it remains the deadliest fire ever in New Orleans and is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. And yet it is little discussed, barely acknowledged by the city or seen as a milestone in the gay-rights movement. Today the site is marked only by a square brass plaque on the sidewalk where the bar's entrance used to be. It's easy to miss unless you're looking for it--a fitting commemoration for an event not everyone wants to remember.
The Jokes began almost immediately. The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, flew in the morning after the fire and remembers a radio host asking on air, "What do we bury them in?" The punch line: "Fruit jars." The police department's chief of detectives reinforced the homophobic climate when he told reporters that identifying the bodies would be tough because many patrons carried fake identification and "some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."
Despite the city's reputation for tolerance, there were consequences to being gay there in 1973. One victim, a teacher, was fired while in critical care at Charity Hospital after his school learned that he had been at the bar. He died days later from burns. Many of those killed and injured were effectively outed when the papers published lists of the victims. Two survivors appeared on television on the condition that their names and faces would not be revealed. Others had to go to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.
Duane Mitchell, then 11, and his 8-year-old brother Steve knew something was wrong when their father never came to pick them up. They watched a movie, Disney's The World's Greatest Athlete, seven times before realizing he wouldn't show, Duane says. Mitchell had escaped the blaze by following Rasmussen out the back door, but he ran back in to retrieve Broussard. Police found their bodies fused together, dead in each other's arms. "We didn't even know that he was gay," Duane, now 51, says of his father. In 1973, he adds, such things were barely discussed. "A lot of people didn't even claim their relatives," he said. "I guess they were so ashamed of it."
When Perry tried to find a site to hold the memorial, churches closed their doors. New Orleans was then 47% Catholic, but the archdiocese refused to help. Baptist churches hung up on him. An Episcopal church led by a friend of Larson's held a prayer service but declined to host the memorial after the presiding bishop received dozens of angry phone calls and letters of protest. "It was like that over and over again," Perry, now 72, says. "My biggest disappointment as a Christian minister to this day was the churches, the way they responded to me."
Just months earlier, two less deadly fires in New Orleans received far more attention. In November, six died in a blaze at the Rault Center, and eight died in a January arson at a downtown Howard Johnson's. In both cases, Mayor Moon Landrieu and Governor Edwin Edwards issued statements of condolence. Philip Hannan, the city's powerful Catholic archbishop who eulogized President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy and later presided over Jacqueline Onassis' funeral, offered his support. After the Upstairs fire, Hannan was silent, while public officials limited their statements to calls for improving the city's fire code.
For the gay community, Larson's mannequin-like body, which remained visible in the window past midnight, became a symbol of the city's indifference toward them. Given that reception, it's understandable why so many were skeptical of the police investigation.
A Trail Runs Cold
Homicide detectives interviewed survivors at Charity Hospital shortly after the fire was put out. They spent nearly 12 hours on the scene and soon had more than 50 officers assigned to the case. Witness accounts were conflicting, which was not surprising given that many people were badly injured, traumatized and still drunk, but those who saw the fire erupt all used language consistent with arson to describe it--one compared it to a fireball, another to a Molotov cocktail. Police found an accelerant: a 7-oz. can of Ronsonal lighter fluid, left empty in the stairwell. A clerk at a nearby Walgreens said someone purchased an identical can of lighter fluid not long before the fire started, but she could not identify the person.
The investigation lasted two months. At the end of a 64-page report issued in August, the department concluded, "Although there is speculation of arson, as of the writing of this report, there is no physical evidence to indicate anything other than this being a fire of undetermined origin." The coroner classified all 32 deaths as "accidental fire fatalities." Three bodies were never identified. Sam Gebbia, then 26, was a lead investigator on the case. He says today that the chief of detectives' inflammatory statement about the Upstairs patrons was taken out of context (the department apologized soon after) and that the police put its full weight behind the case. "In my whole experience in the homicide division, that never played into anything," he says. "That was one of the biggest multideaths that I had ever been on the scene of. We pulled out every stop."
A teenager, David Dubose, confessed to the fire but quickly recanted. He was cleared after his alibi was confirmed, and he passed a polygraph test.
The police focused on a second suspect, Roger Nunez, who was kicked out of the bar before the fire after fighting with another patron, according to the statement that patron, Michael Scarborough, gave to the police. On his way out, Nunez said "something to the effect of 'I'm going to burn this place down,' or 'I'm going to burn you out,'" Scarborough told police.
But before the police could interview Nunez, he had a seizure and was taken to Charity Hospital. He was admitted to the hospital and released without the police being notified. It took months for police to find him, and once they did, he denied setting the fire and said he wasn't sure if he had even been at the Upstairs that night. Nunez killed himself nearly a year later. People who knew him claimed he had confessed to a nun and also, while drunk, to a friend that he started the fire.
Gebbia says many arson investigations are easy to solve but hard to prove. "There are a lot of times you'll know, you as an investigator will know what happened, and you know who did it. But legally, if you don't have any teeth to sink in to arrest someone, you just have to wait," he says. "I'm sure in my heart of hearts this is the guy that set our fire."
A Place to Pray
A week passed before Perry finally found a church willing to hold the memorial--St. Mark's United Methodist Church. It was a brave move; the year before the Methodist denomination had decreed that homosexuality was "incompatible with Christian teaching." The day of the service, Perry promised mourners that their identities would be safe--he would not allow cameras inside the church. Midway through the final hymn, someone alerted him that television crews had set up outside. He offered mourners the chance to leave through a rear door to escape notice, but no one accepted. Then, as the Times-Picayune reported, "the mourners sang the last verse of the hymn over again and, with the existence of press cameras outside the church still in doubt, they all filed out. None was seen leaving through the rear."
That moment helped launch a new gay religious movement. The MCC was only five years old, but the Upstairs fire was the third fire in an MCC meeting place that year--arson had leveled the headquarters in Los Angeles, and a firebomb had torched a church in Nashville. Yet Perry continued to start other churches. Gay Christians needed a place to worship, he argued. "They could hurt us, they could murder us, we could die," Perry recalls telling his fledgling congregations. "But as Christians, we have to remember this Scripture, 'To be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord, so we can never fear death.' No matter what happens, this is serious, and we are not going to stop our struggle in this fight."
Those were what Perry calls the church's "persecution days." Perry helped organize a fund for the Upstairs victims. Small checks came in from tiny gay organizations all over the country, from big cities like San Francisco to small towns in South Dakota. Morty Manford, whose mother had founded PFLAG--Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays--just two months earlier, flew to meet Perry in New Orleans to help. So did Morris Kight, president of the Gay Liberation Front, and two other clergy.
Forty years later, much has changed. Today the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Unitarian Universalist Church all ordain gay clergy. "I praise God more and more every day," Perry says. "We still have a battle there, there's still a fight going on, based on women and GLBT people, but we are going to win, and I know we are, and that's that." Yet even today, the fire is too difficult for many survivors to discuss. Many of those touched by the Upstairs fire were not militants for the gay-rights cause but just innocent victims. Rasmussen left New Orleans in 1991 for rural Arkansas, where he lives quietly with his partner Billy Duncan. They will soon celebrate their 40th anniversary, and they spend their time growing vegetables, volunteering at food banks and enjoying a simple life on their back porch. Warm but guarded, Rasmussen declines to talk about the fire. When history is written, he says, "they should leave that chapter out."
To its credit, the Catholic archdiocese apologized for its silence on the fire in a statement to Time. "In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families," New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via e-mail on June 17. "The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize."
As for Dufrene, he still lives in the same small house where he was born and where he recovered from the fire. He now attends Harahan Baptist Church and says that while he identifies as gay, he has left the gay community. The fire, he admits, didn't start the gay revolution. "That was coming anyway," he says. But he says it helped to give gays in New Orleans a voice they didn't have before.
It is easy to forget that the GLBT movement is still young in the long arc of U.S. history. Events like the Stonewall riots have entered the canon while other, equally significant moments are little known. As Harvey Milk said not long before his assassination in San Francisco in 1978, "A reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of a building is widely covered. The events that started the American Revolution were the meetings in homes, pubs, on street corners." In a month that marks a potentially landmark Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, the little-known and long-forgotten fire at the Upstairs is one such event.
Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College