In March 1973, the firebombing of Fortitude Valley’s Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub resulted in the deaths of fifteen people.
Excluding the appalling colonial decimation of Aboriginal populations, the Whisky Au Go Go fire was the worst mass murder in Australian history before the Port Arthur shootings of 1996.
Among the people killed that night was Pieter Morcius also known as Peter Marcus or, to the Brisbane gay community, Dutch Peter.
Peter was a popular 23-year-old who worked at the club as a barman and drinks waiter. He was popular with the other staff, the patrons and the local gay community to which he belonged.
At the time of the arson attack, Peter was planning to leave his job at the club and open his own restaurant.
A couple of weeks before the fire, notorious Sydney underworld figure Charles ‘Chicka’ Reeves had pulled a gun and placed it to his head at the bar. Peter begged for his life and witnesses described him as very unsettled by the incident.
The Brisbane nightclub scene was going through a volatile period. Newspapers reported on threats of violence and arson.
Rumours swept the town that Sydney crime figures were intent on taking over the local clubs or at least profiting from them by stand-over tactics.
In December 1972, arsonists torched Alice’s Café (owned by a recent manager and bookkeeper for the Whisky Au Go Go) in Brunswick St. After that, the same happened to Torino’s Nightclub in Ann St the following February. Chequers Nightclub in the city also suffered two arson attacks.
Then at 2.10 am on Thursday, March 8, someone set the Whiskey Au Go Go alight. The almost one hundred people inside battled to escape the conflagration.
The club ignored basic fire regulations. Patrons struggled to find windows hidden behind heavy drapes. Even when located, the windows proved impossible to open. Likewise, the fire escape was difficult to find. Rubbish strewn in the stairwell and grease smeared on the stairs of the rear fire exit impeded escape.
People smashed windows to escape the flames while some did manage to exit via the fire escape. Donna Phillips, a waitress at the club, told the Brisbane Times she saw a fireball erupt through the top floor entrance to the club.
“Peter, a young drink waiter, who was behind the bar, began running. As he was running his hair and the clothes on his back caught fire,” she said.
“As I watched him run to the end of the bar – to the furthest end from the fire… he bent under the bar and tried to get the money from the till.”
The young barman collapsed and died on the spot.
A court later convicted two career criminals, John Stuart and James Finch, of the crime.
Plenty of evidence indicates that pair indeed lit the fire. However, it seems unlikely they acted alone. Evidence suggests someone employed them to commit the crime.
Stuart died in jail and Finch was eventually deported to his native England.
Whiskey Au Go Go Inquest
Last year, the Queensland Government announced a new inquest into the fire. In recent years various names have been put forward as responsible for the blaze.
One online article suggested a man connected to the club – now elderly and unwell – has signed an affidavit to be released after his death, admitting responsibility. That seems unlikely.
But we can still hope that for the sake of Dutch Peter and fourteen other innocent people who lost their lives that night, that the new inquest identifies the masterminds behind the fire.