64 Parishes

Bras Coupé

A self-emancipated maroon who lived in the swamps surrounding New Orleans during the 1830s, Bras Coupé has developed a powerful folkloric following.

Bras Coupé

Photo by Michael Gaylard, Wikimedia Commons

Louisiana’s swamps provided refuge for runaways and maroons during slavery.

“Bras Coupé” was the nickname given to a fugitive from slavery, commonly known in his own lifetime as Squire, who lived in the swamps surrounding New Orleans during the 1830s. After Squire’s death in 1837, his mythologized alter ego developed a powerful folkloric following among New Orleanians. In the years since, Bras Coupé’s story has been retold and reimagined by several notable artists, including George Washington Cable, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Neil Gaiman.

Rediscovering Squire’s Story

Little is known regarding Squire’s early life. Surviving city records identify his enslaver as William DeBuys, a wealthy sugar planter and one-time gubernatorial candidate. Sometime in the early 1830s, Squire fled into the remote swamps north of the city (today’s Gentilly neighborhood). There, Squire lived as a “maroon:” meaning a person who had escaped their enslaver and created a life of relative freedom by hiding in the wilderness.

In January 1836 the New Orleans police reported that a patrol encountered Squire in a cabin near Bayou St. John and that one Barthélémy Fleitas shot him in the arm. Squire was taken to a hospital, where his arm was amputated. Perhaps assuming he would die, police left Squire unguarded, and he snuck out of the hospital, returning to the swamps. Hunters and fishermen began reporting startling encounters with the one-armed man. They nicknamed him Bras Coupé—French for “severed arm.”

Over the ensuing months, accounts of a dangerous, one-armed marron steadily filtered into the city. In May 1836 the Louisiana Advertiser reported that a group of maroons raided a cabin on the city’s outskirts. That June the New Orleans Bee suggested that Squire’s presence was inspiring rebelliousness among enslaved people living near the swamps. Later that month the floating corpses of three white men—each stabbed to death—were recovered from a bayou. While it cannot be said with certainty whether Squire was responsible for these events, authorities believed he was the perpetrator. In July the city posted a bounty for the capture of the “diabolical” Squire and any other maroons hidden within the swamps.

Nine months later, in April 1837, two hunters reported that they had discovered and fatally shot Squire but were unable to recover his corpse. Newspapers doubted their story. Then, in July, a Spanish fisherman named Francisco Garcia reported he had just stumbled upon Squire alive but injured and had beaten him to death. Subsequent rumors claimed the two were old friends but that Garcia had betrayed and ambushed Squire to collect the bounty. Authorities recovered Squire’s body, and Garcia collected his payment.

On July 18 authorities mounted Squire’s maimed body in Jackson Square so that the entire city, enslaved and free, could witness the maroon’s defeat. Thousands attended the spectacle: “No Mardi Gras procession, no special pageant that I know of, ever attracted such surging crowds,” recalled one witness decades later. According to the Daily Picayune, some two to three thousand enslaved people were forced to view Squire’s corpse as a means of racial terrorism and in the belief that “it would have a salutary example to let them gaze upon the outlaw as he lay bleeding and weltering in his gore.”

From Man to Myth

These dramatic events inspired powerful oral traditions. Local storytellers began circulating accounts of Squire’s exploits that wove mythic attributes—magical powers, superhuman strength, imperviousness to bullets—together with the documented events of Squire’s life. To many white New Orleanians, these stories served to legitimate enslavers’ brutal suppression of Black resistance and autonomy: Bras Coupé became a homicidal Black bogeyman, wielding demonic powers, who kidnapped white children. Yet enslaved people also circulated stories of Bras Coupé. In their narratives Bras Coupé became something of a “Robin Hood” figure: a heroic symbol of Black power, autonomy, and opposition to white repression.

From Myth to Literary Motif

In 1880 Bras Coupé attained national notoriety with George Washington Cable’s incorporation of the character into his celebrated novel, The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life. Born in New Orleans several years after Squire’s death, Cable was unaware that the local folkloric figure derived from an actual person. Borrowing from local lore Cable reimagined Bras Coupé as an African-born prince, savagely powerful and murderous, who escapes into the swamps but is captured and brutally tortured to death by a white mob. Released between slavery’s destruction and the rise of Jim Crow, Cable’s depiction resonated powerfully with a nation debating Black freedom and multiracial democracy.

Cable’s reinterpretation inspired several subsequent renditions of New Orleans’s magical, one-armed maroon. The English composer Frederick Delius renamed the character “Koanga” in his 1897 blackface opera of the same name. The one-armed fugitive is known only as “The Negro” in Robert Faulkner’s 1930 short story “Red Leaves.” Robert Penn Warren renamed the character “Rau-Ru” in his 1955 novel Band of Angels; Sidney Poitier portrayed Rau-Ru in the 1957 film adaptation directed by Raoul Walsh. Each of these renditions uses the character as a vehicle through which to examine Black rebellion; simultaneously each rendition deals in ugly racist tropes. Typically these artists cast the maroon as a force of chaos, dark magic, and sexual predation: a threat to white characters, maniacal and murderous, that must be destroyed.

Yet a handful of New Orleans-based artists have recast Bras Coupé as a heroic figure and celebratory symbol of Black revolutionary protest. Jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet included the character within his 1960 autobiography, claiming—lyrically but impossibly—that Bras Coupé had been a brilliant musician and was his grandfather. A 2004 short story by Kalamu ya Salaam has Bras Coupé haunting the Tremé, terrorizing white transplants who fetishize Black culture. In 2016 Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters depicted the one-armed rebel in his Mardi Gras Indian suit.

Nearly two centuries after the death of the real man on which the character is based, Bras Coupé continues to convey powerful symbolism.