In the summer of 1973, while gays and lesbians across the United States were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City with parades in several major cities, the disorganized LGBTQ community in New Orleans made little effort to hold any official gay pride events. Sunday, June 24, marked the end of the few small-scale celebrations the city witnessed. Among these was an all-you-can-drink beer bust held at a small gay bar, hidden away on the second floor of a nondescript brick building on Chartres Street, called The Upstairs Lounge.
Gathered together that day was the small LGBTQ congregation of the Vieux Carre Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) holding its Sunday service in the Theater Room, having just recently relocated to the home of Reverend William R. Larson, which considered the Upstairs their “spiritual home.” As the voices singing United We Stand wafted from the assembly, bartender Herbert Cooley continued pouring drinks for the dwindling early crowd. Regular customers both young and old lingered at the bar and chatted with friends among the scattered tables around the room. A heated argument broke out that afternoon between a few patrons, and Herbert ordered two men to leave—one of whom was a well-known hustler and troublemaker named David Dubose. In a rage, David stormed out of the bar, shouting from the stairwell, “I’ll burn them all out!”
A can of lighter fluid was purchased by an unidentified man at a nearby drugstore minutes later.
Shortly after 7:00 PM, a man approached the front of the Upstairs. He opened the heavy steel entrance door and tossed a Molotov cocktail. Before fleeing the scene, he padlocked the door. The flames quietly smoldered between the two closed doors. Then, the taxi buzzer rang. Herbert thought it was peculiar, since no one there had called for a taxi. He asked Luther Boggs to let the cabbie know that there was no one needing a ride. As Luther opened the stairwell door, the influx of air fanned the flames. Within seconds, a fireball engulfed the entire bar.
Panic swept through the Upstairs Lounge as men and women scrambled to find an exit. Some hid beneath the white grand piano while others rushed to the windows. Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen, bartender in the downstairs Jimani Lounge, heard the screams and hurried upstairs through a back door to find his partner Adam Fontenot. Buddy rounded up as many people as he could find in the dense smoke. He led about twenty individuals out through the unmarked rear exit and down to the streets below.
From the windows, the trapped crowd cried for help and tried desperately to squeeze their way through the solid iron bars covering the openings, some leaping into a panicked heap on the Iberville Street. From there, a gathering crowd watched in horror as the patrons unable to squeeze through the narrow slots struggled in vain to escape. Reverend Larson was among them. As the flames engulfed him, he cried out, “OH, GOD! NO!” His lifeless body could be seen frozen in his final agonizing moments.
Sixteen minutes after the blaze ignited the lounge, the New Orleans Fire Department extinguished the flames. The intense heat left bar stools twisted like pretzels. Many victims were burned beyond recognition. The inferno left a death toll of 29 souls. Three more died from their injuries later at the hospital.
Within two days, the deadliest fire to hit New Orleans in nearly two centuries disappeared from the headlines. Officials and police seemed uninterested in solving the crime. As an ultimate act of disrespect, workers sifted through the charred remnants of the Upstairs Lounge leaving Reverend Larson’s body on full display in the window for several hours. News reports undermined the importance of the incident since it involved “homosexuals” while citizens joked on the streets about the victims being buried in “fruit jars.”
Thirteen bodies had been identified by the following day. Dental records were used to identify others. Many relatives refused to claim the bodies, too ashamed to admit anyone in their family was gay. The three unidentified victims and unclaimed body of Ferris LeBlanc were buried in Holt Cemetery—a potter’s field. (Finally, in 2018, one of the three unknown bodies was identified as Larry N. Frost after a relative reached out to Upstairs Inferno documentarian Robert Camina.) Churches throughout the city refused to allow services to be performed for the dead. St. Mark’s Community Center finally allowed a quiet service offered to a few hundred mourners on Sunday, July 1. Reverend Troy Perry, head of the MCC, flew to New Orleans from Los Angeles to give the sermon. His closing words called for unity and resilience among the LGBT community:
“As long as one brother or sister in this world is oppressed, it is our problem. Names such as faggot, queer, fruit, and fairy are the language of the bully and the bigot—insensitive, stupid labels that will never put us down. Those human beings—our friends—who died so horribly, have dignity now. It does not matter what unknowledgeable people have stooped to say; our friends will always have respect because they are forever in our hearts. The memory of our love ones is so viable that I can almost feel their presence. If they could speak they would tell us to hold out heads up high.”
Though Dubose later bragged about committing the crime, he passed a lie detector test and was never charged with arson. One year later, he committed suicide. A second suspect, Roger Nunez, suffered a seizure while being questioned and was taken to the hospital by officers. He eluded law enforcement after being discharged.
The case was closed by the fire marshall’s office in 1980 due to “a lack of leads,” and today the case still remains officially unsolved. Twenty-five years after this horrifying event, the city of New Orleans began its first attempts to make peace with those affected by the fire. A memorial bronze plaque adorns the brick sidewalk of Chartres Street near Iberville Street, memorializing the site. The silent peace offering and apologies of some governmental members may have soothed some of the memories of this tragedy, but some local residents believe that there is no peace to be found above Jimani Lounge.
Back in 2009, Aaron Ragan-Fore wrote an essay chronicling his night with a psychic at Jimani Lounge. And in 2012, during Season 8 of Ghost Hunters, TAPS made a trip to New Orleans to investigate the Jimani Lounge and the former site of Upstairs Lounge. The owner contacted the show after witnesses began reporting black apparitions resembling charred bodies, but even before then some staff at the straight sports bar refused to set foot upstairs. The steel door leading to what once was the bar still bears scorch marks from the 1973 flames. Even the bravest of men feel a sense of unease on the stairs. Today, it’s a stopping point for NOLA’s Ghost City Tours.
Visitors can still catch pungent wafts of smoke in the spot where the blaze began. Bloodcurdling screams and terrifying moans are occasionally reported coming from the second floor. Intense heat from phantom flames drifts along the steps. Ghost seekers report feelings of panic and an overwhelming sense that the empty rooms hold the spirits of the men who never made it out alive. For those who’ve paid a visit to this tragic place, it seems the building is still haunted by the ghosts of victims caught in an eternal struggle for their lives.
To learn more about the whole story of that tragic day, you can watch the new documentary Upstairs Inferno by Robert Camina or read Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend or Robert W. Fieseler’s new book, Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. And you can find this story and other LGBTQ hauntings in my book, Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts.
[An earlier version of this article was originally written for Week in Weird.]