Life

New Orleans declared a “climate of hostility” towards gays. It ended in murder 

Suspicious man in dark alley waiting for something
Photo: Shutterstock

The courtroom erupted into cheers as the judge’s bench announced the verdict. All three killers, men who bragged openly about beating Fernando Rios and leaving him bleeding in a French Quarter alley to die, were “not guilty.” But because Rios was gay and Mexican, while the Tulane University undergrads who ended his life were “good boys,” few in the proudly Catholic city wanted justice. 

It was a painful, if not predictable, reminder that even in liberal enclaves across the American Bible Belt, “rules for thee but not for me” is the law—and that no matter the decade, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has deadly consequences.

The tragic extinguishing of Fernando Rios’s life began before the 26-year-old set foot in New Orleans, as 1957 transitioned into 1958. The Committee on the Problem of Sex Deviates, an official assembly of monied white men, had just formed. These “advocates” arbitrarily decided all homosexuals in New Orleans were out-of-towners “recruiting” in the French Quarter. Giving Save the Children vibes with mid-century tailoring, the council announced an overt “climate of hostility” must be used to drive “the pink menace” from the city.

With chairman Jacob Morrison leading the charge, the organization aggressively campaigned to shutter all gay-friendly bars, revoke the liquor licenses of venues believed to “harbor” queers, and published scathing public essays asking locals to join in the effort to “deprive [homosexuals] of vantage points from which they could entice others, particularly youths, into perversion.”

Their call for “moral reform”—which did not include prosecuting any child abuse raging throughout the state’s numerous churches and orphanages—resulted in 20 barrooms losing liquor licenses temporarily and stirred hysteria amongst residents. 

John S. Farrell, a tall, dark, and handsome transfer student from Ohio, was one of those residents. 

Accounts from fellow Tulane students described Farrell as a likable young man fixated on identifying others as gay, including waiters serving him. On the night of September 27, 1958, he lobbied for two friends to join him in “rolling a queer,” slang for finding a homosexual and beating them for fun. Alberto Calvo and David Drennan, buddies also housed in Tulane’s Irby Hall—named, unironically, for wealthy gay businessman William Irby—suggested catching a movie in the French Quarter instead, going for drinks after. 

The posse did this and was mildly tipsy at a steakhouse when Farrell again suggested around 1am they find a queer and “roll him.” This time the others agreed, following Farrell to the historic gay safe space Cafe Laffite’s in Exile. How Farrell, a self-identified heterosexual and transplant to the city, knew the bar was queer-friendly is unclear. 

Farrell volunteered as bait, leaving Calvo and Drennan waiting outside.

In the tavern’s darkened main room, Fernando Rios sat at the bar wearing a crisp suit and unwinding over a sweating beer bottle. Very slim at 5’10” and just 143lbs, the multilingual guide had been contracted back in Mexico City as an escort for esteemed doctors visiting New Orleans. Though their party was booked at the swank Roosevelt Hotel, Rios needed a break from hosting duties after a long day of touring. Farrell sat beside him, and the pair were talking before long. Rios said he needed to return to his hotel around 2am, and Farrell volunteered to give him a ride. 

This is how Rios, Farrell, Calvo, and Drennan ended up walking the darkened streets behind St. Louis’ Cathedral in the wee hours of September 28. Allegedly looking for their parking spot, the group divided briefly, Calvo and Drennan on one street corner while Farrell led Rios down a deserted Pere Antoine Alley nearby. 

According to Farrell, once in the alley, Rios grabbed his genitals and squeezed. Farrell claimed he punched Rios once in defense, knocking the much smaller Fernando backward to the ground. The commotion drew Calvo and Drennan to the scene, where they found Rios moaning on the pavement. Then, according to their statements, all three ran away and raced back to campus. 

But Farrell’s narrative is suspect at best. It left out the boys robbing Rios, stealing his wallet as he lay prone on the ground—Calvo stupidly bragged to roommates about the theft back at the dorm, showing off a combination of Mexican and Canadian bills. It excluded how the trio ran into fellow Tulane students on the way out of the Quarter, swaggering openly about how they’d just rolled a queer. And Rios’ injuries, as reported by historian Clayton Delery, didn’t match the “one punch” claim: 

There were multiple skull fractures, hemorrhages, facial lacerations, a subdural hematoma, and damage to the lungs, heart, and liver resulting from the various injuries Rios had received. The coroner, Nicholas Chetta, classified the death as a homicide.

This suggested either Farrell had done far more than hit Rios once or all three boys punted the victim once he was down. 

The autopsy also revealed something surprising—“eggshell cranium,” Chetta’s way of describing Rios’ abnormally thin skull. 

A newspaper vendor found the unconscious body of Fernando Rios just before 6am on the 28th. The young man died of a brain bleed at Charity Hospital hours later. By the morning of the 29th, newspapers were spotlighting the homicide and seeking information on suspects. 

The assailants, having boasted openly about what they’d done to a half-dozen people on campus by then, presented Tulane University dean John H. Stibbs with a confession late Sept. 30. Shortly after that, Tulane Law School dean William Ray Forrester was summoned. After a long talk—during which a leading legal scholar advised the students—they turned themselves in to the police at the First District. For reasons obvious to anyone in 2023, all three were housed in the prison’s hospital after arrest instead of with the general prison population. 

To say public opinion was on Farrell, Calvo, and Drennan’s side from the beginning would be an understatement. In a breach of ethics, New Orleans Assistant District Attorney J. David McNeill released a public statement before the trial was scheduled, saying the beating occurred because Rios “made an improper advance.” Over the next several months, the press framed the defendants as “Tulane students” and “the boys” while failing to print Rios’ name and calling him only “the Mexican” or “a Mexican tourist guide.”  No local papers tried to interview the esteemed doctors Rios had been escorting. 

The trial began in late January 1959, with defense attorneys leveraging a queer twist on phrenology. They asserted Ramos’ fragile skull bones and gayness were directly connected. It wasn’t that Fernando had been murdered in a premeditated fashion—he’d been born too fragile, his young death an inevitability triggered by that perverted advance on Farrell. They also stressed the extreme trauma Farrell endured at Rios’ hand to the all-white, all-male jury, a tactic Delery explains worked brilliantly:

“A great deal of societal homophobia is related to societal misogyny; when a man is taken out of the role of the sexual aggressor and is made instead the object of pursuit, he is placed in the traditionally feminine role, a state of being apparently so horrifying to some men that they would do anything–-including kill-–to escape it. What could possibly be worse for a heterosexual man than to be treated the way that such men treat women?”

Ultimately, after two hours and fifteen minutes, the homogenous jury submitted their “not guilty” verdict on January 23, 1959. The cheering in the room was so loud as the acquittal landed no one could hear the judge speaking. The very next day, both major local newspapers ran editorials calling for the removal of “sex deviates, degenerates, and persons of a lewd nature from the French Quarter.” 

The whole story of Rios’ murder, and its lasting impact on New Orleans’ queer community, is featured in Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and The Failure of New Orleans Justice, and Perez and Palmquist’ In Exile

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