For the last few months, I’ve been working on a media history project involving the fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. The fire caused the death of 32 men and women–most of whom were gay. The death, the fire and the aftermath are often marked as the “Stonewall of New Orleans” meaning that the fire and the loss of so many from the gay community sparked the modern movement in New Orleans.
I originally read about the UpStairs Lounge arson while I was working on my master’s thesis. There was a 20-page paper, which reminded me of the many class assignments I’ve completed in the last five years, stuffed into a file box with many other New Orleans LGBT historical artifacts. The paper didn’t seem overly academic—there was no reference page or in-text citation, the byline wasn’t accompanied with an institution name, and the writing was a little rough.
But what the paper lacked in structure and “authenticism” it more than made up for in information. I used the paper to go digging for more information. To my surprise, other researchers had also cited the paper, written by Johnny Townsend, in their work. Since returning to the topic, I’ve stumbled across Townsend’s more complete work—a book title Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire.
A harsh title, but it seems to accurately encompass the thoughts and actions of many in New Orleans at the time of the fire and deaths of 32 people, who were mostly gay men.
In a short forward to the book, Townsend wrote:
I simply wanted the story to be recorded and told before too many people were lost to AIDS and age. I thought at the time that I should write the book in a “popular” fashion, and so I did not include footnotes, only a bibliography . . . I understand now that all this probably lessens the value of the material . . . I finally decided that whatever the book’s failings, I wanted it to be more widely available to scholars who might be able to write a more definitive work, and to the public, who need to know what happened that dreadful day in June of 1973.
I honestly felt as though Townsend imagined someone like me doing research with few outlets available for information. I’m not so romantic as to suggest that this was all part of some divine intervention, but as a writer you always hope that your work may mean something to someone. Townsend’s work is invaluable to the LGBT community even if there are no footnotes and it was written in a “popular” fashion. He captured history before it was lost to time.
The past few weeks I’ve been working to gather as many primary newspaper sources from New Orleans regarding the UpStairs Lounge fire—a fire in a New Orleans gay bar that killed 32 on June 24, 1973.
I’ve read a lot of secondary source material about the fire, which included quotes from newspaper and television news stories about the tragedy. But sometimes seeing the coverage with your own eyes is more impactful than originally thought.
There was a passage the day after the fire in the New Orleans States-Item, which was merged with the Times-Picayune in 1980, about the bar and those killed by the arsonist. The passage features quotes and paraphrased quotes from a New Orleans lead detective as to the identities of the victims of the arson. It reads:
…Maj. Morris asked that anyone who believes relatives of theirs may have been in the fire and would have knowledge of their dental records to contact Charity Hospital. . . . “We don’t even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on,” Morris said. “Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar.” . . . Another police source said it is not uncommon fro homosexuals to carry false identification, which could complicate the identification procedure.
Angus Lind, Lanny Thomas, & Walt Philbin. “13 Fire Victims are Identified.” The States-Item Monday, June 25, 1973 A-1 Col. 6
So much for compassion for the victims of a mass murder.
Click the thumbnail below to view the entire first day of coverage from the States-Item.
A few years ago, while working on my master’s thesis, I read about a fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people, mostly gay men. The fire, set by an arson, engulfed the UpStairs Lounge in the matter of minutes while its 60 or so patrons, who were hindered from escape by barred windows, unlit exits and thick clouds of smoke, scrambled to find a way out.
I was shocked by several parts of the story. First, the mainstream media in New Orleans and the rest of the country covered the murders and the fire as though the fire was nothing more than a means to get rid of an even bigger nuisance, the homosexuals.
According to a story published in the July 13, 1973, edition of The Advocate, the New Orleans mainstream newspapers placed the story on the front pages for two days before burying it 14 pages inside. The local press ran quotes from residents that ranged from, “I hoped the fire burned off their dresses,” to “the Lord had something to do with this,” which only fed the wave of homophobia in the city.
The national media also said very little about the murders. This clip from CBS News on YouTube has been circulated before, but I think it shows just how little most folks in the mainstream media covered the crime.
I was also shocked that I had never heard of the UpStairs Lounge fire until 2010. Was I that ill-informed? But I guess the story of more than 30 gay men getting murder in New Orleans isn’t going to make the history books—but the story of 30 straight, white men burned alive at a church service would have probably garnered a memorial and a national holiday (just saying).
Finally, I’m shocked that the arsonists/murderer was never official arrested or tried for what is now referred to as the worst hate crime in American history. Apparently a suspect was detained but never charged and then was never seen again.
This story needs more attention. It should be more well-known and recognized.
This semester I’m working on a media history project about the UpStairs Lounge fire, and I’m asking for your help. I have fairly easy access to New Orleans media coverage (newspaper) and some national coverage, but I would like access to other local accounts and documentation of the fire and the response.
My focus is on the media, but any and all materials will help to piece together the story. If you know of any one who was at the fire or any one who covered the event for the media, please let me know.
I plan on keeping you all up-to-date on the project as it unfolds. Thanks for your help.