Memorializing The Victims Of Horrific Firebombing At New Orleans’ Upstairs Lounge
At 7:56 PM, an unknown assailant set ablaze the stairwell leading to the Upstairs Lounge, a second-floor gay bar. 60 people were trapped inside. As the flames spread, some were able to escape through an unmarked exit. But others — panicked, confused, and unable to see through the smoke or escape through the barred windows — weren’t so fortunate.
One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap between the bars. He jumped to street, his body engulfed in flames, but died on impact.
Another man, George “Mitch” Mitchell, safely made it out of the burning building, but when he realized his boyfriend, Louis Broussard, was still inside, he went back to save him. Their bodies were later found huddled together in the wreckage.
Reverend Bill Larson burned to death grasping the barred window frame. His charred corpse remained visible to onlookers from the street for hours afterwards.
These are only a handful of stories of the 32 men and women who parished that day in the fire.
The tragedy went largely unreported by the media at the time. No elected officials issued statements of sympathy or mourning. Nor was it throughly investigated by the New Orleans Police Department.
Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the NOPD at the time, dismissed the need for one, claiming it was too difficult to identify the victims. He argued that many of the deceased weren’t carrying IDs or were likely carrying fake ones, a claim that was entirely speculative.
In an interview with the States-Item, Morris said: “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”
As a result, four bodies were never identified, and the city refused to release the remains for burial. Instead they were placed in mass graves at Potter’s Field, New Orleans’ pauper cemetery.
No one was ever charged with the crime, and it remains unsolved to this day.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the fire. New Orleans Pride is hosting an official memorial June 24, which will include a street side ceremony at the location the tragedy occurred, and the premiere of Wayne Self’s new musical Upstairs.