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The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé

The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé

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The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz, and Died for Love

Although the name of Bras-Coupé is little known today, Bryan Wagner shows us that his life and legend should be a touchstone among scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences with an interest in the African diaspora. Bras-Coupé was notorious as an escaped slave who lost an arm in a pitched battle with the New Orleans police in the 1830s. For several years he hid out in a swamp near the city, and the police widely publicized their manhunt for him through the newspapers, wanted posters, and the like. Messages from the mayor’s office cast Bras-Coupé as perhaps the main reason police needed the right to use deadly force in the course of their duties. In July 1837 he was killed by a former friend who betrayed him. His body was put on display in the Place d’Armes, where slaves were ordered to view it. The Bras-Coupé legend exploded after his death. There are many examples of the legend transcribed by folklorists and adapted by novelists including George Washington Cable and Robert Penn Warren. Over time, new incidents were added and the legend was transformed. Wagner’s critical edition collects the most important primary materials related to Bras-Coupé’s life and legend, starting with fugitive slave advertisements, arrest records, and journalism from the 1830s.

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