Mardi Gras 1973: wrong time, wrong place
March 6 is a potential date for Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras always depends on the date of Easter, which is a moveable feast on the Roman Catholic Church calendar, unlike Christmas.
Mardi Gras hasn’t occurred on March 6 since 1984. I remember going to the parades in St. Bernard Parish with my parents and younger brother at the corner of Judge Perez Drive and Rowley Boulevard, a little over a mile from our house. Stacie Dauterive (Seube) and her family were only four blocks from that location, so they could walk. Stacie, Jeff and their children live at 905 Badger Drive now.
Prior to 1984, the previous time Mardi Gras fell on March 6 was 1973. If there ever was a year where Mardi Gras felt inappropriate, other than in the wake of Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina, or during hte middle of World Wars, it had to be 1973.
Mardi Gras 1973 marked the first time parades were not allowed to travel the streets of the French Quarter. The streets of the Quarter are very narrow, and the floats were a hazard should there be a fire or other emergency.
Instead of the big parades going into the Quarter, they were diverted south on Poydras Street to the Rivergate Convention Center, or south on Canal Street to North Rampart, where the parades would disband at the Municipal Auditorium. The Superdome was under construction at tha time, and the Morial Convention Center was still years away.
Following Super Bowl VI on January 16, 1972, it seemed one grim episode after the other followed.
New Orleans icon Mahalia Jackson, widely regarded as the queen of Gospel music, died only a few days after Super Bowl VI. Although she lived the final years of her life in Chicago, she always considered New Orleans home, and in fact, made an impromptu visit to the very first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 at Congo Square.
Speaking of JazzFest, it moved to the Fairgrounds horse racing track in 1972, and it has remained there ever since.
The Saints regressed in 1972, going from 4-8-2 to 2-11-1. Archie Manning took every snap during his second season after alternating with Edd Hargett as a rookie. Coach J.D. Roberts completed his second full season after taking over midway through the 1970 campaign. He would be fired after four exhibition games in 1973. New Orleans earned the No. 2 overall draft pick for its pitifulness, but traded it to Baltimore for mediocre defensive lineman Billy Newsome. The Colts accepted the gift and turned into Bert Jones, the All-America quaterback from LSU who took Baltimore to three AFC East division titles in 1975, 1976 and 1977.
The real catastrophies began Nov. 29, 1972. All of them can be traced to a Kansas native who turned from quiet boy to hate monger during a stint in the Navy.
The first was a fire at the Rault Center, a high rise building on Loyola Aveneue in the city’s Central Business District. Numerous people were trapped in a private club and a hair salon on the 15th floor. Several climbed to the roof and were rescued by helicopter, but tragically, five women were faced with a horrific choice: get burned to death or jump to death. All of the women chose the latter. Four died instantly. A fifth somehow survived. A man also died of burns.
There were no sprinklers in the high rise buidling, since the city of New Orleans did not require them. Also, the New Orleans Fire Department lacked rescue equipemnt for buildings that tall.
Arson was suspected in the Rault Center fire. Nobody was charged, but less than two months later, the primary culprit emerged, a culprit who would cause the city much more suffering.
Less than one hour before the arrival of 1973, 23-year old Mark James Robert Essex, who was born and raised in Emporia, opened fire on the Orleans Parish Prison. He was seeking to kill as many cops (“pigs) as possible, and felt a shift change at the prison would be the perfect opportunity.
Essex’s first victim was 19-year old police cadet Alfred Harrell, who took a bullet in the heart. He was dead before an ambulance could arrive.
The irony was Harrell was black. Essex was looking to kill whites (“honkies”), feeling they had conspired to keep him down.
Essex wounded Lt. Horace Perez at the prison before moving to warehouse on the opposite side of Interstate 10 from the prison. There, he ambushed two officers, shooting Edwin Hosli, who would die of his wounds March 5.
Essex went into hiding for the next week before emerging the morning of January 7, 1973. He began the day by shooting grocery store owner Joe Perniciaro, feeling Perniciaro had gone to the police and ratted Essex out. Next Essex carjacked Marvin Albert, a black Vietnam War veteran, as he sat in his car. Essex told Albert “I”m only killing honkies today, but I will kill you, too.”
Essex drove Albert’s stolen car to the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge at 330 Loyola Aveneue, across the street from the Rault Center. There, he went on a killing spree, murdering a couple from Virginia on a belated honeymoon; the hotel’s assitant general manager and general manager; and three police offers, including Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo.
Following the Sirgo murder, Essex hid in a cubicle on the roof and fired down at the street. Hundreds of blacks had massed across Loyola near City Hall, and they cheered “Right On!” every time Essex fired his .44 Ruger Deerslayer carbine.
It took a Marine helicopter flown by Lt. Col. Chuck PItman to root out Essex. From the helicopter, three officers shot and killed Essex.
Later that week, the owner of the Rault Center, Joseph Rault, told the media he believed Essex was in the building Nov. 29, the day of the fire. It made sense that Essex would burn out the Rault Center, in order to prevent the police from using it as a nest to pick him off at the Howard Johnson’s.
Following Mardi Gras, there was still more bad times to come in the Big Easy.
The Misssissippi River was in complete flood by early May. The Old River Control Structure north of Vidalia was in imminent danger of failure, which would have changed the course of the Misssissippi right then and there. Instead of meandering past Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, Old Man River would have flowed down the path of the Atchafayla River, exiting into the Gulf at Morgan City. New Orleans would have been left high and dry with a massive salt water intrusion into its drinking supply.
It took repairs to the ORCS and the opening of the Morganza Spillway near New Roads to prevent catastrophe. Morgan City was inundated and angry, but Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana’s two largest cities, had to be spared, or the state’s economy might have collapsed immediately.
The came June 24.
That Sunday night, an arsonist started an inferno at The Upstairs lounge, a noted hangout for homosexuals. Thirty-two people perished in the city’s worst hate crime. Nobody was ever charged.
It would get better in New Orleans. But the events of 1972 and 1973 were a dark stain, one which I didn’t witness, but I’ve heard more than enough about.