On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to a gay bar in New Orleans called the UpStairs Lounge. Thirty-two people were killed during that inferno. Many consider it the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history. Some victims were burned so badly they could only be identified by dental records. Others were identified by personal belongings, including one victim that was identified by a ring he was wearing.
His name was Ferris LeBlanc. He celebrated his 50th birthday two days before the fire. Born in Michigan, Ferris grew up in a loving family of 13 brothers and sisters in California. He was an Army veteran, serving valiantly in World War II. He was part of the D-Day invasion and even fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Even though he was positively identified, Ferris’s body was never claimed for burial. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one who wasn't claimed. The mother of one of the victims was so mortified that her son died in a gay bar, she refused to claim the body; she felt her family would be embarrassed.
Since Ferris’s body was not claimed, he and three unidentified men were buried in a cemetery designated for indigents.
Over the past 42 years, it is not hard to understand why many people conclude that the reason Ferris’s body was never claimed was that his family was embarrassed or ashamed that he was gay. It’s not like that mentality was uncommon.
For over four decades, that’s the version of of history we’ve been led to believe about the fate of Ferris LeBlanc. However, there are two sides to every story.
The other side of that story remarkably and unexpectedly emerged in January of this year.
I received an email from Skip Bailey, Ferris LeBlanc’s nephew, son of Marilyn LeBlanc Downey. He revealed that the family had just learned of Ferris’s fate. They found out I was producing a documentary about the fire, UpStairs Inferno. They asked for help with their research about Ferris.
One of Ferris’s younger sisters, 85-year-old Marilyn LeBlanc Downey, Skyped me to reminisce about him. Only a few weeks had passed since she learned the news about her brother. She was still visibly shaken. However, when asked if she and her family had an issue with her brother being gay, she flashed a warm smile and said, "Of course not, we're French!" According to Marilyn, his brothers and sisters deeply loved and embraced Ferris unconditionally. His sexuality was never an issue, even in the 1960s and '70s. Ferris never hid his boyfriends from his family, and they welcomed the couples lovingly.
During our chat, the first question that came to my mind was "It's been 42 years. How are you just now learning about Ferris's death?" It almost seems incomprehensible that after four decades they didn't know what happened to him.
The LeBlanc family is very large. Skip and his mom assumed that if anybody discovered information about Ferris's whereabouts or fate, they would've let them know. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Over the years, some family members learned of his fate, but never told Marilyn.
While Ferris was once very close to his brothers and sisters, a bad business deal left him estranged from his family. He left California and the family lost contact with him. Whether driven by embarrassment or fear, Ferris never let his family know where he moved.
Marilyn missed her favorite brother immensely. She said for years after Ferris left, she tried to locate him.
In January, Skip decided to Google "Ferris LeBlanc." He instantly learned the grisly details of his uncle's death and the public’s reaction to the LeBlanc family not claiming Ferris’s body. One can only imagine how his heart raced with every word he read.
Once the shock wore off, Skip was determined to learn more about his uncle's death. Over the past six months, I've gotten to know the family really well. I am absolutely certain that had the LeBlanc family been contacted about Ferris's death in 1973, they would have claimed his body and given him a proper burial. I firmly believe they are not the cold, uncaring family that many people have depicted them as.
Sadly, the heartbreak and turmoil for the family didn’t stop with the news of Ferris's death. No one knew for certain where Ferris and the three unidentified men were buried. It was reported that they were buried in the “New Orleans Pauper Cemetery.” But where was that? For years, Holt Cemetery has been referenced as the pauper cemetery in question. However, when Skip questioned officials at the cemetery on whether Ferris and the others were buried there, he was told those records were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. However, that wasn't the only rumor circulating about the location of the pauper cemetery. There was another rumor that the cemetery was actually in New Orleans East, at Resthaven Cemetery. Skip pursued this lead.
Remarkably, he found that Resthaven had a record for a Ferris LeBlanc from 1973. The family finally had comfort of knowing where Ferris was buried. However, the roller coaster of emotions continued. Skip and his mother soon learned that the plot of land that once was the pauper cemetery is no longer managed by Resthaven Cemetery. The land is now managed by the city of New Orleans. The area is fenced off and locked. Nothing inside this chain-link fence resembles a cemetery — it has overgrown grass, cypress trees with Spanish moss, no signs, no grave markers. There is no indication that this is the final resting ground for countless souls, including Ferris.
Resthaven officials provided them with a plot number, but that did little good since a map does not exist. They do not know where Ferris is buried on this huge plot of land.
This is incredibly sad. Who knows how many people are buried in those acres of land? The city of New Orleans's lack of respect and acknowledgement of this hallowed ground seems to imply that the lives of the people buried there don't matter. Ferris is a veteran of the U.S. Army. Is this how we should treat a veteran who honorably fought for our country? The deceased buried here deserve much more than being anonymously imprisoned within a weed filled chain-link cage.
ROBERT L. CAMINA is the writer-director of the documentary, UpStairs Inferno, a full-length film about the largest gay mass murder in U.S. nistory. The film is narrated by famed New Orleanian and New York Times best-selling author, Christopher Rice. After two sold-out world premiere screenings of the film in New Orleans on the 42nd anniversary of the fire and the start of its film festival tour in August, UpStairs Inferno will have its mainstream film festival premiere at the Austin Film Festival November 1 and November 3. UpStairs Inferno is also scheduled to screen in Atlanta; Seattle; Rochester, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; Columbus; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Dallas in October and November. Click here for more information.