Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the deadliest known attack at a gay club in U.S. history was a 1973 arson attack at a New Orleans gay bar called the UpStairs Lounge. Thirty-two people died in the fire, but many families didn't come forward to claim the bodies of the dead and churches refused to hold funerals for some of the victims.
For 42 years, Marilyn LeBlanc didn't even know her brother Ferris had died in the fire — until a Google search showed his name on a list of victims. Now, LeBlanc and her family are trying to bring Ferris' remains home.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Skip Bailey, Ferris' nephew, about those efforts.
On how Bailey and his family found out Ferris was one of the victims of the arson attack
"My mom came to stay with me around Christmas that night in 2015 to hang out for my birthday, and she had heard from one other brother that there was something on the internet about Ferris, so she asked me to look him up, and I did a Google search on his name, and my computer lit up with all of the horrible facts of the upstairs lounge fire and his death. And that started the whole process.
"We'd always wondered what happened to him. We had no idea. Knowing what happened, it was good to know that we finally found out. But by the same token, it was so horrible to be burned alive. It's just unimaginable. And it was very, very devastating. I found it on the computer, and in tears, I went into the other room and told my mom. I said, 'We know now what's happened.' And we just broke down, and then I said, 'You know what we have to do, we have to find him and we have to bring him home.' That's what our goal is."
On how Bailey and his family began the search for Ferris' remains
"Well, on the internet search, I found out that there were a couple of books written about the fire. I reached out to those authors. There had been a documentary already done in like 2013 I think, so I reached out to that filmmaker, and there was one in process that was just about finished. I reached out to that filmmaker, and there was one that was filming still, so I just contacted everybody and told them who I was and there'd been a big mystery about Ferris' family, and they were all pretty surprised and kind of in a way excited to find out that we did exist and that we wanted to find him."
On how Ferris' body wound up in an unmarked grave even though his body was identified anonymously
"His body was identified anonymously after the fire, and nobody in the family was ever contacted and we never knew. Somebody who knew him from his time there recognized him by a ring that he wore. It was a antique spoon ring. And this person apparently contacted the officials and said, 'Yeah, that is Ferris LeBlanc. I knew who he is and that ring.' Because a lot of the bodies, I guess, were beyond any kind of identification. So, since the body wasn't claimed, even though the local church, the [Metropolitan Community Church] in New Orleans, wanted to bury him properly, law wouldn't allow it. So, he was buried in a potter's field in an unmarked grave with three unidentified victims of the fire at the same time, and it's still unmarked.
"Unfortunately, since Katrina, the coroner's office, as well as the Resthaven Cemetery where he's at, have no more maps to show that area. Their maps only go up to P, and he's in Q32 from what Resthaven has told us, and it's still unmarked. And basically, it looks like a cow pasture. There's nothing there that would indicate that this is a cemetery. It's got a cycle and a fence around it and a locked gate."
On how Bailey remembers Ferris
"My earliest memory is visiting family and he came by with his then-partner, and he was driving this red MG car and it was so neat. And I was about 4 years old, and he gave me a ride in that, and that really impressed me.
"He lived in San Francisco in the Bay Area. He was a hairdresser, licensed, and his partner and he had a salon, and they worked together and worked in that salon, and partway along, about mid-teens for me, I was becoming more and more interested in art, and he and his partner bought me some watercolors one time in a visit to family and kept pursuing my art career, and they kept promoting that, and that was very close-knit for me and him, because he always took care of me that way and was always showing a lot of interest in my art."
On how the aftermath of the arson attack was handled by authorities
"The aftermath of the fire, the way it was handled regarding the victims, their families and friends, was horrible. They were treated like nonhumans. I mean, it was just a horrible way to to treat people. Of course, we didn't know any of that, we didn't know he was even there, we didn't even know he was in New Orleans. We had no idea. And now looking back and reading all the books and seeing what happened to him, that was an awful way to be treated. It's inhumane."
"The aftermath of the fire, the way it was handled regarding the victims, their families and friends, was horrible. They were treated like nonhumans."Skip Bailey
On the search for Ferris' remains
"We think we're closer than we've ever been, but there still seems to be a lot of work to do. What's helpful is there is some news footage from 1973 of the actual burials, showing individual coffins and individual holes in the ground and with a priest administering last rites. It's only about five seconds, but that gives us information about the site, the location, and hopefully that will help give insight to using modern technology if we have to to try to find him with, you know, radar or whatever and magnetometry and things underground.
"The footage that we saw has two gravediggers in there, and a lady who works at the coroner's office recognizes them as two brothers and thinks one of them might be still alive and he might be able to walk to the spot. So the more people that we can get and more identification of location, that will help us when we have to go to a judge and, you know, ask for permission to dig and try to find him."
On how Bailey explains the arson attack to people who may not know about its history
"I just tell them that for me, from my standpoint, my uncle died in a fire. It was an arson fire, but it was not a hate crime, because it was one of the patrons who had been kicked out who came back and torched the place. I don't think that it was really that much of a gay issue until afterwards. The way that the victims were treated by the city and publicity and the media at that point, there was a lot of negativity."
This article was originally published on July 24, 2018.
This segment aired on July 24, 2018.