The Horror Upstairs

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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.

Persecution Days

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.

An Apology

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

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