Two centuries ago, the blood of a one-armed Black man stained the swamp grass along the banks of Bayou St. John in New Orleans.
The city guardsmen who shot the fugitive slave lowered their guns. They got close enough to count two wounds, maybe three, and decided that Bras-Coupé was finally dead.
They were wrong.
Born when Black bodies were the property of white men and American law enforcement had barely evolved past the night watches of Europe, the slave formerly known as Squire lost an arm more than a year before the guardsmen shot him in the bayou.
In January 1836, another city patrolman’s bullet tore through his upper right arm after Squire resisted officers' attempt to take him back to his master. A doctor amputated the limb, and Bras-Coupé – Squire renamed after the French phrase for severed arm – became one of America’s first publicized cases of a police officer shooting a Black man in the line of duty.
Police waged a public relations war against Bras-Coupé that turned him into an alleged super predator. By the time the officers shot him in the bayou in April 1837, Bras-Coupé had become the most wanted bandit in their campaign to rid the city’s outer swamps of fugitive slaves. Newspapers described him as a killer and a demon so scary that white parents warned their insolent children that he would come and get them in the night.
The history of law enforcement in the USA is as scattered and varied as the development of each colony, state and territory. One thread, however, is consistent. Even before police were police, the nation’s earliest law enforcement agencies monitored, controlled and punished Black people in every place they encountered them.
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Since the first organized slave patrols in 1704, police and politicians capitalized on fear, turning Black men such as Bras-Coupé into villains and acting as civilized society’s only protection against him.
“What we see today is not what I would call a parallel to what happened during slavery but an evolution of the structure of racism that is at the foundation of policing,” said DeLacy Davis, New Jersey-based founder of the activist group Black Cops Against Police Brutality. “This is a system that was never designed to protect or serve Black people.”
Slave patrols and the culture of fear
The idea that enslaved Black people would overthrow a system that kept them in bondage was a constant fear for white colonial America – especially in places where enslaved people outnumbered their masters. The angst festered after each of the more than 300 instances in which slaves either organized or executed a revolt from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 to the start of the Civil War.
Revolts near New Orleans in 1729 and 1811 fueled fears, as did the successful Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century that sent droves of French planters to the city.
New Orleans' government leaders had two responses to the revolution: First, they temporarily prohibited any Black person, enslaved or free, to immigrate to the city. Then, in 1805, they gave every city police officer a pistol.
They hoped an armed city guard would make citizens feel safer. They were wrong.
Residents complained to city leaders and journalists about police so much that a newspaper article in 1829 suggested a grand jury should convene to consider whether to declare the city police a public nuisance. They were lazy and often nowhere to be found when New Orleanians were victims of crimes, other articles said. When they were around, they were rude – and some officers inherited from Louisiana’s time under French rule didn’t speak English.
"Of what use, under heaven, are they?" asked the writer of a New Orleans Argus article, which referred to the 50-member police force as "drones" and proposed cutting their $21,000-a-year salary budget. "The truth is, the city guard is no guard, it is an outlandish and facial establishment, neither ornamental nor useful to the city."
In 1830, city leaders voted to disband the police department after an officer shot and killed a white sailor in the line of duty. New Orleans Mayor Denis Prieur, who was in charge of appointing officers, vetoed the measure but couldn’t stop the calls to rein in the police.
The only thing New Orleanians agreed police were good for was controlling the city’s enslaved Black population. They regularly rounded up disorderly slaves, took them to jail and whipped them.
The creation of the Black boogeyman
Bras-Coupé, then known as Squire, was a favorite of his master, William DeBuys, who took him along on hunting trips and taught him to shoot a pistol.
DeBuys occasionally hired Squire out to other plantations. Squire stopped coming back right away, taking days at a time to visit friends in the cypress swamps outside the city.
On one of these occasions, in August 1835, city records show the police found Squire away from DeBuys’ plantation and arrested him for "joue dans la rue," or "playing in the street.”
It was shortly after police returned him to DeBuys that year that he left his master for the last time, according to University of California-Berkeley professor Bryan Wagner, a New Orleans native who released a book about the legend of Bras-Coupé in 2019.
Squire moved into the swamps to live with a band of fugitive slaves, mixed-race people and Native Americans, only to be discovered by police a year later. In the struggle to catch him, officers fired at Squire and shattered his right arm. A doctor amputated it at the hospital, from which he escaped before police could return him to his master.
Days after Bras-Coupé’s escape, the city council coincidentally voted to strip police of their guns.
Prieur was livid. As he tried to convince city leaders to change their minds, Wagner said, the mayor fell back on the one thing people agreed the police knew how to do: Control Black bodies.
“Prieur could’ve used any number of reasons to argue that the guard should be armed. New Orleans was a wild riverfront town back then,” Wagner said, and New Orleans citizens themselves were authorized to carry guns. “But the argument that Prieur used was slavery.”
His argument was a popular one. In 1704, leaders in the rural areas outside Charleston, South Carolina, had established the nation’s first organized police agency created for the unique and specific purpose of monitoring slaves.
They called themselves what they were: slave patrols.
Their primary purpose, much like their predecessors from the Caribbean, was to make sure that the growing enslaved population stayed in its place. They enforced slave codes, an intricate set of laws also adapted from the Caribbean colonies. Codes varied by colony, but in most cases, enslaved people could not earn money, own goods, learn to read, wear nice clothes or leave their masters’ plantations without a pass.
In Bras-Coupé, Prieur found a perfect foil for his slavery argument.
Less than two months after Bras-Coupé’s hospital escape in 1836, city guardsmen found the dead body of a white man in New Orleans’ Bayou Cochon. Prieur named Bras-Coupé as the prime suspect.
Over the next year, police implicated him in the murders of at least five white people, including a white woman who police said was held for days before her killer strung her up by one arm to a tree and shot her. Historians have found no evidence that Bras-Coupé killed anyone.
Police blamed Bras-Coupé for dozens of robberies and other crimes and painted him as one of the worst outlaws the city had ever known. According to Wagner, evidence shows the swamp crew did rob a few stagecoaches and burglarize stores and taverns.
“But even that only happens after he’s branded as an outlaw and there’s already a manhunt for him underway,” Wagner said.
It added to Bras-Coupé’s infamy that he didn’t actually die when the two city guardsmen left him for dead in Bayou St. John, on the land that today is New Orleans City Park.
The posse they sent to collect his body the next morning found only a trail of blood leading into the water. Rumors began to spread in the city that Bras-Coupé was somehow impervious to bullets.
In contemporaneous writings and recorded oral histories, people referred to Bras-Coupé as a “great villain” with the superhuman ability to flatten bullets with his chest and ricochet them off his body back toward the men who hunted him. These descriptions aligned with the treatment of Black people’s bodies during the slave trade, where they were deemed subhuman and at the same time having superhuman strength.
Authors wrote that police officers on Bras-Coupé’s trail “would suddenly disappear into a ‘cloud of mist,’” according to Wagner’s book “The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé.” Wagner said Louis-Armand Garreau, a journalist who ran a New Orleans school for boys in the 1840s, described Bras-Coupé in a short story as fireproof.
“Everyone understood, moreover, never to look Bras-Coupé directly in the eyes, as his gaze could hypnotize you or turn you into stone,” Wagner quoted from Garreau’s story.
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Police and perception of Black lives
The origins of policing date back to ancient Egypt and spread across the civilized world in many forms. Police mediated disputes, supervised tax collectors and performed other peacekeeping duties. In most cases, they spent very little time controlling people’s movements or even preventing crime.
Police forces in America were uniquely shaped by slavery, which gave officers a level of power previously reserved for the military.
Experts such as City University of New York professor Christopher Chapman said American policing’s roots in controlling the movements of Black people such as Bras-Coupé evolved into a fundamental aspect of modern American law enforcement that disproportionately brands Black people as threatening.
According to Chapman, this makes police officers more likely to view Black people as combatants who need to be neutralized for even minor acts of perceived disobedience such as questioning the reason for a stop, refusing a search of their car or objecting to arrest.
In George Floyd's case, it cost the 46-year-old father of five his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day.
In the minutes it took Floyd to suffocate on the ground as at least three other officers stood by, he pleaded with Derek Chauvin not to kill him and said repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe.
Beyond Floyd, Chapman said, right-leaning politicians' and pundits' rebranding of the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group illustrates how government and law enforcement marginalize Black people who push for equal treatment.
“And in doing this, they can paint everyone that believes in the movement with only the most radical views of the people in the organization,” Chapman said. “It’s the process of trying to undermine the movement by connecting it to violent images. What that does is it sends a message to a reasonable person that says, ‘If I don’t agree with the looting or acts of violence, then I better distance myself from this.’”
In Bras-Coupé’s case, any chance he had of being a sympathetic figure vanished by the time Prieur declared him an outlaw.
Although city councilmen wouldn’t agree to rearm the city guard until the late 1840s, Garreau wrote that newspapers that had criticized the police years earlier now urged Prieur to do whatever he could to get “the negroes of the swamp” under control.
Newspapers aligned with the city guard and adopted wholesale their accounts of encounters with Bras-Coupé. Police were still not allowed to carry guns in April 1837 when the two city guardsmen shot Bras-Coupé on the banks of Bayou St. John, but the New Orleans Bee reported that the two officers had been “hunting rabbit” on the land of a prominent citizen when Bras-Coupé approached them and shot at them first.
The incident reinforced Prieur’s claim his guardsmen needed guns, gave them a self-defense argument and made Bras-Coupé an attempted murderer. Suddenly, the same city guard characterized as lackadaisical and inept years ago became heroic.
“Not entirely a novice in these things, the guardsmen quickly returned the compliment, and with success,” the newspaper reported, which in 1830s English conveyed with glowing terms the idea that officers were skilled marksman who hit their target, Bras-Coupé, in self-defense.
Bras-Coupé survived for three more months after police thought they’d killed him in Bayou St. John. All the while, historical records show, he had a bounty as high as $2,000 – or nearly $55,000 in today’s dollars – over his head.
Dead for all to see
Bras-Coupé’s demise came not at the hands of police but of an acquaintance. A Spaniard named Francisco Garcia bludgeoned him to death in hopes of receiving the award money but was disappointed when city leaders paid him only $250.
Police threw Bras-Coupé’s disfigured body near a fountain at what today is Jackson Square, and white New Orleanians celebrated his death.
Historic accounts of Bras-Coupé’s demise came with reports that New Orleans slave owners forced 2,000 to 3,000 slaves to look at Bras-Coupé’s body.
“The life of this Negro has been one of crime and total depravity,” one newspaper article said, calling him “a fiend in human shape.”
“His destruction is hailed, by old and young, as a benefit to society,” the report continued, later adding, “So enormous have been the crimes of this negro that the large multitude of slaves assembled to see the last of him, shuddered at the bare recital of his bloody and murderous deeds.”
In the years since his death, the story of Bras-Coupé has been retold and romanticized, and some versions depict him as 6-foot-6 and having both his arms intact.
Sidney Poitier played a role in the 1957 movie “Band of Angels” that many say was inspired by Bras-Coupé’s legend. The story has been recited as fiction so many times, Wagner said, that when he started research for his book several years ago, native New Orleanians were surprised to hear that Bras-Coupé actually existed.
In that way, said Davis, a police officer in New Jersey in the 1980s, police nearly 200 years ago turned a victim of their violence into a man no longer worthy of an honest existence.
“By the time they shot him the second time and he lived, they didn’t need him anymore,” Davis said. “He was worth more dead to them than alive.”
Illustrations by Javier Zarracina/USA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From slavery to George Floyd: Black people targets of police violence