The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé: The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz, and Died for Love

Bryan Wagner | English | Louisiana State University Press, 2019

This edition collects and introduces the most important versions of the Bras-Coupé story from the major phase of its development between the 1830s and the 1960s. One of the most notorious outlaws in the history of New Orleans, Bras-Coupé was a leader of the maroons who subsisted in the cypress swamps behind the city. Bras-Coupé’s historical career is presented with evidence from newspapers, census and city directories, police records, treasurer’s books, proclamations by the mayor, city council minutes, and family histories. After his death in 1837, Bras-Coupé became a legend, and over time, this legend took on fantastic dimensions. Bras-Coupé was given superpowers. His skin, it was alleged, could not be punctured by bullets. His gaze could turn you to stone. Moreover, it was said that he was an African prince before he was kidnapped and brought to Louisiana. He was the most famous performer at Congo Square, playing an indispensable role in the preservation of African music and dance. Sidney Bechet, one of the city’s most celebrated reed players, even held in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, that Bras-Coupé invented jazz. This edition provides the definitive account of the development of the Bras-Coupé legend as it was recorded in folklore collections, magazines, memoirs, city histories, tourist guides, novels, poems, short stories, opera, and cinema. It includes original historical maps of the city and swamp, facsimile manuscripts, and a comprehensive bibliography.