Friday, June 24, 2016

Mass Death at a Gay Bar—The Forgotten Atrocity

Stunned community members tended victims of the UsStairs Lounge arson fire.

Forty-three years ago on July 24, 1974, long before an enraged guy with a couple of high-powered semi-automatic weapons loosed mass death on the patrons of an Orlando night club, 32 people, mostly gay men died gruesomely in a terrorist arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar.  There was no national show of horror and solidarity.  The President was silent.  So was the Louisiana governor, the Big Easy’s Mayor and every single public official in the city.  No flags were lowered to half mast.  Newspapers hardly acknowledged who the victims were or why they were gathered.  Ministers refused to conduct funerals or comfort the bereaved.  Some preached that the dead got no less than they deserved and that the flames that consumed them were only an introduction to eternal torture in Hell.
The event has in a generation become a nearly forgotten non-event.  Even in the aftermath of Orlando, scant mention was made of what until then was the worst terrorist assault on gays in American history.
It was an early Sunday evening.  The UpStairs Lounge which occupied the second floor of an antebellum building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter was closed to regular business.  The New Orleans congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, a LGBT friendly Protestant denomination founded in Los Angeles in 1968, held services commemorating the Stonewall Uprising in New York.  Afterwards the congregation and the bar hosted a free beer and dinner social.  As many as 125 people were originally in attendance but only 60 or so remained chatting and listening to piano player David Gary.  Some were discussing the church’s planned fundraiser for a hospital for crippled children.  
Patrons enjoying themselves at the Lounge in this snapshot taken before the tragedy.

Shortly before 8 pm someone buzzed the door. 
Although New Orleans had a reputation as a cosmopolitan any-thing-goes town and there was a fairly well established gay scene in the city, it was not possible for establishments like the UpStairs Lounge to operate too openly.  Harassment and assaults of patrons was common.  Like most of the rest of a dozen or so known gay bars in the city, most of them like this one in run down and off-the-beaten-path parts of the French Quarter or in warehouse districts, operated semi-clandestinely with little signage to attract attention and even unmarked entrances.  Here, people had to buzz for admission at the door at bottom of the stairs.  Then a bouncer would use a speakeasy style with a sliding panel eye level portal in the upper door to I.D. whoever was gaining entrance.
That evening there was no bouncer for the semi-private gathering.  Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked patron Luther Boggs to check the door.  When the down stairs door was buzzed someone opened it, through lighter fluid on the stairs and tossed in a match or burning rag which immediately ignited an inferno in the narrow stairwell.  Boggs slid back the portal panel creating a draft that sucked the flames inside in an almost blow torch affect.
Boggs was engulfed in the flames and his clothes set afire.  The fire immediately ignited the lush ‘70’s era decorations which included velvet drapes, flocked wallpaper, silk screens, table cloths, and carpets.  The fire spread in a flash through all three rooms.
The front staircase was the only easily accessible exit.  Quick thinking bartender Rassmussen, an Air Force veteran, gathered twenty patrons and led them to a back entrance from which they exited to a lower extension of the building’s roof and then jumped to the roof of an adjacent building. This would represent most of the survivors of the fire, and all of those who escaped with no or minor injuries.
Unfortunately in the ensuing panic other patrons either did not know about the back entrance or found it blocked by the spreading flames.  Outlets to two fire escapes on the side of the building were through partially blocked windows.  But those who got onto the escapes discovered that they did not extend to the ground, they had to drop to the pavement a story below compounding injuries from the fire.  Among these was MCC Assistant Pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell who returned to the inferno in an effort to save his boyfriend Louis Broussard.  The bodies of the two men were later recovered clinging to each other.

Rev. Larson's charred body was left for nearly a day wedged in the window where he died in agony.

Some of the other windows were boarded up or barred.  People tried to squeeze out between the bars.  One man got through the bars which were 14 inches apart but fell to his death with his clothes in flames.  Reverend Bill Larson, the former Methodist lay minister who led the MCC congregation was trapped half way out a window.  His screams of agony could be heard by the crowd which quickly gathered on the street and sidewalk below for several minutes.  His charred and contorted body was left uncovered in the window for more than 24 hours.  Finally the lower half of his body broke off and hit an employee of The Jimani, the jazz club and bar that occupied the first floor of the building when he went in to retrieve the contents of the cash register and safe. 
Inside Mrs. Willie Inez Warren, the only female victim, was found alongside her two sons, Eddie Hosea and James Curtis Warren with whom she had attended the services and dinner.  In an era when many families rejected and disowned their gay children her loving acceptance of hers cost her life.  In fact in the wake of the fire, some families refused to identify or accept the remains of dead family members either for fear of being publicly humiliated or because they were already alienated.  Some were never identified and at least four were buried together in a mass pauper grave.
Among the other victims were life partners Joe William Bailey and Clarence, Joseph McCloskey, Jr. who were also found together; Jefferson Parish Dentist Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr. who treated many other victims and whose dental x-ray records led to the identification of some victims; George Steven (Bud) Matyi, a rising young pianist and composer who was appearing at the nearby Marriott Hotel and who planned to perform after house player Gary who also died; linguist Adam Roland Fontenot, the partner of rescuer/hero Rasmussen; Leon Richard Maples, a visitor from Florida; and several active members and lay leaders of the MCC congregation.
Although there was a fire station only two blocks away, firefighters were delayed in responding due to clogged traffic on the narrow French Quarter streets and the crowds that gathered taking up most of the block by the burning building.  One truck crashed into a taxi trying to maneuver around traffic on a sidewalk.  When they finally arrived the whole second floor of the building was fully engaged and flames were reaching the third floor which contained rooms sometimes used for trysts by bar patrons.  None of the rooms were in use that evening.  As firefighters turned their hoses on the building and tried to get ladders up to the barred windows, some in the crowd interfered with their work and chants of let the faggots die were heard.
The aftermath of the fire was almost as ugly as the disaster.
The Times-Picayunne headline the day after the fire.

Of course a fire involving such enormous loss of life in the busy French Quarter, then as now the center of the city’s thriving night life and tourist trade.  It was front page news for two or three days and featured on local television which carried dramatic footage.  The local paper of record, the Times-Picayune carried gruesome photos including one of Rev. Larson trapped in the window.  But coverage largely omitted or minimized mention that the club catered to gay patrons or explained the nature of the MCC.  With the exception of pro-forma statements of fire and police officials, the city was silent on the tragedy.  The customary declaration of mourning which had routinely followed other fire tragedies and major loss of life incidents was never issued.  There was a fear that publicizing the gay connection would harm the city’s vital tourist business.
Of course in a town like New Orleans it soon became common knowledge.  Radio talk show hosts openly mocked the victims.  Callers commented that they got what they deserved or expressed regret that more had not died.  The few who dared express human sympathy were rudely shouted down.
The reaction by most churches was worse.  Many declined to conduct funeral services for the dead.  Some barred prayer services or memorial gathers on their property and forbad their ministers from participating in any.  Pastoral care to the bereaved was in many cases withheld.  The following Sunday many preachers took to their pulpits to denounce the victims and to call for a campaign to scourge Gays from the city.  
Rev. William Richardson was chastised for  offering comfort

Ministers who departed from the expected path paid dearly for it. Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church conducted a quiet prayer service for the dead on June 25 that was attended by about 80 people.  When word reached diocesan Bishop Iveson Batchelor Noland he publicly rebuked Richardson and disciplined him.  Over a hundred members of his Church registered formal complaints against him and he was flooded with hate mail and threatening phone calls. 
Finally, on July 1 two memorial services were held.  One was at the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans which was no stranger to controversy having been firebombed over its support for Civil Rights earlier.  The second and larger service was conducted at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church and was presided by Louisiana Bishop Finis Crutchfield and MCC founder Reverend Troy Perry from Los Angeles.  That service was especially memorable because mourners entered and exited the church by the main front doors instead of a secluded side entrance, a defiant demonstration of a willingness to be identified on camera.  That was a turning point for the New Orleans gay community.
Many felt that New Orleans police were less than diligent in trying to solve the murder of “those fags.”  Although no one claimed to have seen the arsonist, survivors and building owner James “Jim” Massacci were convinced that due to the circumstances, it had to be someone familiar with the layout of the entrance and the club’s buzz-in policy.  That suggested someone who had been a customer or visitor and not a random anti-gay attack.
One suspect came to mind, Rodger Dale Nunez, a street hustler and prostitute with a history hospitalizations and belligerent behavior.  He had been thrown out of the bar early during the social for starting a fight and had tried once or twice to return.  Police tried to interview, but found him hospitalized with a broken jaw, possibly a result of the fight, and was unable to speak.  They interviewed at least one other suspect, a homeless man who may have boasted about setting the fire, but determined that it was a false claim.  Nunez was placed in psychiatric custody but managed to escape.  Despite being seen by several witnesses around the French Quarter, the police could not locate him.  Acquaintances claimed than Nunez had confessed to them saying he did not think that his “prank” would have such devastating consequences.\
Nunez committed suicide that November.  Some believe his death was tantamount to an admission of guilt.  Others believe that he may have been driven to suicide by the widespread assumption in the gay community that he was the culprit.  The Police, who are often eager to close tough cases when a convenient suspect emerges, never officially concluded that Nunez was the murderer.  The case remained open until the Louisiana Fire Marshall officially closed the case in 1980.
Slowly, New Orleans came to terms with what had happened.  It took decades.  In 1988 on the 25th Anniversary a major memorial service was held in a major hotel ball room.  It was organized by a reconstituted MCC congregation, the Big Easy MCC Congregation and included several prominent religious leaders of different faiths and local elected official were in attendance.  At the conclusion of the service a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral procession was held—a public display not possible before.  Members of the MCC church placed a wreath and a memorial plaque outside of the building.  The plaque remains.
Part of Skyler Fein's memorial art instillation featured photos of the victims and their stories.

In 2008 artist Skylar Fein created an art installation, Remember the Upstairs Lounge now on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
On the fortieth anniversary in 2013 Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond issued a formal apology for the lack of sympathy shown by the Church in 1973, “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families ... The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”  The statement was late in coming and mealy-mouthed.  But then some conservative Protestants denominations have not done that much and would behave exactly the same way today.
And that, my friends, is a problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment