Bras Coupé: "Brigand of the Swamps"

by Jay Robert Nash

A legend of the ante-bellum South, Bras Coupé was a giant slave, about six-foot-six-inches, owned by General William de Buys, who also owned one of the largest plantations outside of New Orleans. First known as Squire, this giant man was a marvel to behold when he performed African tribal dances such as the bamboula and the calinda, the latter requiring incredible gyrating, leaping, and contortionist movements, all stemming from voodoo ceremonial rites. He would become the first cult hero of the black underworld, known as a hero to the slaves of the South, but, to whites, he was the feared 'Brigand of the Swamps"—a ruthless bandit and killer.

Bras Coupé would perform his wild dances with hundreds of other slaves, who were brought to New Orleans' ancient Circus Square. Here, once a week, between 4 and 6 p.m., slaves were allowed to vent their frustration and anger in wild, abandoned dancing. This custom began in 1817 and continued until the Civil War. The square itself was renamed Congo Square for obvious reasons, and Bras Coupé became the star attraction. He would whirl, toss, and throw his female partner about until she fell exhausted, but he would continue leaping and stomping until overseers called the curfew and ended the frenetic celebration.

Bras Coupé, the legendary slave turned outlaw
Bras Coupé, the legendary slave turned outlaw, dancing the bamboula in New Orleans' Congo Square. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

De Buys was tolerant of his prized possession, teaching Bras Coupé to shoot and hunt, and even loaning him his best rifles to hunt wild game in the swamps and bayous about New Orleans. He learned to fire a weapon with both hands because, he said, he had had a dream, where he lost an arm. In 1834, he was shot in a swamp by whites, who thought he was a runaway slave, the bullet shattering his arm, which had to be amputated. The loss of his arm embittered Bras Coupé. He became moody and developed an explosive temperament.

The slave then ran away, going into the swamps where he formed a band of other runaway blacks, who preyed on white travelers and made robbing forays into villages and hamlets. (Bras Coupé would later serve as the role model for Robert PennWarren's character Rau-Ru in his novel of the Old South, Band of Angels, made into a 1951 film with Sidney Poitier playing this character.)

Bras Coupé became known as The Brigand of the Swamp. So notorious did his reputation become that unruly children all over Louisiana were warned that, if they did not mind their manners, they would "be trimmed by Bras Coupé." His outlaw band swelled to several dozen cutthroats, and Bras Coupé led these men into New Orleans itself on raids, where he attacked districts of the city, looting homes, murdering helpless whites, including women and children. More than fifty deaths were attributed to his murderous gang within three years.

Bras Coupé became the most notorious black outlaw in the U.S. It was believed that if he could call enough dissident slaves and disenfranchised whites to his banner, the South would suffer another slave revolt worse than the 1831 uprising led by Nat Turner.

To the oppressed slaves, Bras Coupé became a heroic and legendary creature. He could not be shot, it was said at their campfire meetings, since Bras Coupé's skin was as hard as iron and no bullet could penetrate it. He could not be caught by the vigilantes and troops following him into the swamps since mystical fogs would envelope the pursuers and whisk them off to far countries.

To white residents, the slave-turned-bandit was a Devil on earth. They claimed in 1836 that he had turned cannibal. One eyewitness vigilante reported that, while hiding in thick brush, he watched Bras Coupé kill four pursuing soldiers with his one hand, then tear them limb from limb and make a meal of them, hideously devouring their uncooked flesh.

Such ghastly tales, along with very real accounts of the brigand's murders and robberies, caused New Orleans Mayor Dennis Prieur to place a $2,000 reward on Bras Coupé's head. The New Orleans Picayune urged the capture or killing of the outlaw, describing him in one editorial as a "semi-devil and a fiend in human shape, whose life was one of crime and depravity." The myth of this outlaw evaporated on July 18, 1837.

On that day, Francisco Garcia was shot at by Bras Coupé. Garcia attacked the giant with a club. The outlaw staggered back from the blows, weakened by a bullet wound he had received on April 6, 1837 when two white bounty hunters shot him. Garcia clubbed the outlaw to death, then put the huge body into a sack and rode with it to New Orleans in his cart.

Garcia uncovered the body as he entered the city so that thousands of slaves could see his trophy. The slaves wept to see their hero slain as it was carted to city hall. Here the fisherman jumped from the cart and ran inside to claim the $2,000 reward. After much haggling with Mayor Prieur, he was paid $250. (There was a claim that Garcia deserved no reward at all and that he should have been locked up instead; some said he had actually been a member of Bras Coupé's band and had betrayed his leader, killing the outlaw as he slept in Garcia's swamp hut.)

The brigand's badly beaten corpse was taken to the Place d'Armes and dumped next to the fountain.

For days, the carcass rotted in the hot sun while thousands of slaves were forced to march past it in single file and view the remains, warning them that revolt against the white South meant death.

The bloody exhibit did nothing but anger slaves and many resolved to escape their brutal masters. The corpse could not undo the legend of Bras Coupé, which was passed on from one generation to another, until few of the real facts remained inside of what is now a traditional image of the black Robin Hood of the South.