When Bras-Coupé was a slave owned by General William DeBuys, he was known by the name Squire. Like so many other slaves in New Orleans, Squire refused to remain in bondage.
He escaped to the cypress swamps above the city where he joined the Maroons who had formed independent settlements on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. These settlements were frequently harassed by the city police. During a skirmish with a police patrol, Squire was shot in the arm and captured. Due to this injury, his arm was amputated.
Right after the operation, Squire escaped through the hospital window and returned to the swamps. From this time, he became known as Bras-Coupé, which means “severed arm” in French. Bras-Coupé led a gang of bandits in frequent raids on New Orleans.
The fugitive’s exploits were widely reported in newspapers. He became a legend in the city. Mayor Denis Prieur offered a reward for Bras-Coupé, dead or alive. Bras-Coupé was finally murdered by a member of his own gang, Francisco Garcia, who desired the reward. His corpse was hung for days on the Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square) where it was seen by hundreds of slaves who were ordered by their masters to witness his remains.
After his death, the legend of Bras-Coupé only became more powerful. Many believed that Bras-Coupé possessed superpowers, that his gaze could turn you to stone or that he could disappear into a cloud of mist. Bras-Coupé became the subject of novels, poems, and short stories. Later, Bras-Coupé would be featured in a Hollywood movie and an opera performed in France, Germany, the United States, and Trinidad. In these imaginative adaptations, the legend changed. It was said that Bras-Coupé was a king brought directly from Africa and that he was the most famous dancer at Congo Square. Sidney Bechet, a pioneering musician in New Orleans, went so far as to claim that Bras-Coupé was his grandfather and that he was responsible for inventing jazz. A heroic outlaw and a colorful character in the city’s oral and written traditions, Bras-Coupé is essential to New Orleans history.