Forgotten, 40-Year Old Unsolved Louisiana Mass Murder

Posted on June 25, 2013

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New Orleans fire fighters at the Upstairs Lounge fire in the French Quarter - June 24 1973

New Orleans fire fighters at the Upstairs Lounge fire in the French Quarter – June 24 1973

Did you know 32 Louisiana citizens were murdered 40 years ago this week? And did you know this mass murder remains unsolved? I did not. In fact, I’d never heard of it.

On June 24 1973, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, an unknown person, or persons, firebombed the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets.

It was a Sunday night and according to official estimates 65 souls were inside the bar when an incendiary device was set off around 8pm.

Twenty nine people burned alive, three more died soon afterward.

The next morning, as smoke from the fire drifted over the Big Easy, as the bodies were being pulled from the rubble, local radio hosts joked about ‘ French Quarter weenie roasts’ and about burying the 32 victims in fruit jars.

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I guess it’s no surprise I’d never heard of this mass murder, I grew up in northeast Louisiana after all, about as far from New Orleans as one can get without leaving the Bayou State, plus – the murder of 32 people wouldn’t have caught my eye back then, I was only 3 years old.

But I’d never heard of the Upstairs Lounge fire, the worst fire in New Orleans’ storied history, the largest known massacre of gay people to ever happen in the United States, a mass murder that happened in my home state, just forty short years ago, never had a clue till I read about it in the latest edition of Time magazine.

I was truly shocked, how had I never heard of this?

But a quick survey revealed I wasn’t alone.

But was my ignorance just a coincidence, or had this been swept under the metaphorical Louisiana rug? I asked a friend who grew up in New Orleans, a friend who was 15 years old in 1973, in high school when this mass murder happened. This friend had never heard of it. Can you imagine forgetting a fire in your hometown where 32 people died? Let alone an arson, a MASS MURDER?

Governor Edwin Edwards and Mayor Moon Landrieu (father of the city’s current Mayor Mitch and Louisiana’s senior US senator Mary) issued calls for… improving the city’s fire code. That was how the governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans responded when 32 of their fellow citizens, people they were elected to protect, were murdered, burned alive, 40 years ago this week.

The public whitewash of this mass murder began almost immediately and continues to this day.

There are almost as many churches as bars in New Orleans, but not a single one could be found to host a memorial for 31 murdered men and one woman, a mother who’d gone to the bar with her two gay sons who also perished. Some churches even refused to bury their own dead after learning their congregant was murdered at a gay bar.

Families refused to claim their dead sons, three of the men murdered that night in 1973 were never claimed, they were buried in a New Orleans’ Potter’s Field and remain unidentified to this day.

According to Time Magazine, the New Orleans chief of detectives told local reporters that identifying the victims would be difficult because, “some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”

According to the book, Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend, a man named Roger Nunez is widely believed to have started the fire.

After fighting with another patron that night, Nunez was kicked out of the bar and, according to several witnesses, promised to come back and ‘burn the place down.’ Nunez was questioned by cops at the time but never charged.

According to several friends, Nunez drunkenly confessed to starting the fire on several occasions, but whether he was the arsonist, a mass murderer responsible for the worst fire in New Orleans history – will never be known. Roger Nunez committed suicide in 1974.

Well, it took forty years but finally, thankfully, the dead and their families aren’t being ignored anymore. Lectures, memorials and other events are being held this week to remember the 32 Louisianians who lost their lives on June 24 1973.

The New Orleans Times Picayune published an editorial this weekend titled, ‘Honoring the Upstairs Fire Lounge Victims’ – http://goo.gl/vyr5B

Natchitoches native and composer Wayne Self produced a musical drama ‘Upstairs’, based on the Upstairs Lounge fire, the drama debuted June 20 at Cafe Istanbul at the New Orleans Healing Center and a final performance was held at 8pm, Monday June 24 2013, exactly forty years to the hour after the Upstairs Lounge was firebombed.

Also on Monday, a jazz funeral procession made it’s way through the French Quarter to the site of the fire, a building which still bears the scars of the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.

And at long last, a Mayor Landrieu recognized the 32 dead Louisianians.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the son of Moon Landrieu, issued an an official certificate commemorating the anniversary of the fire.

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