For a brief moment, the sunlight reflects off the metal spokes and blinds the executioner. He quickly turns and tugs on the old wagon wheel, making sure it is firmly anchored axle-down into the earth below. This will be his first break on the wheel, a horrific punishment akin to crucifixion, on this his first day on the job. Yet he is void of emotion as he walks toward the prisoner known as Coussot. He takes the criminal by the arm and straps him, spread-eagle, to the wooden wheel. The Frenchman dangles on the platform a few feet above ground.
The executioner picks up a rusted iron bar and delivers a smashing blow to Coussot’s hand – then to his foot, his ankle, his forearm. Blow after blow the executioner bludgeons the prisoner. The sound of bone crushing under the force of the metal is swallowed by Coussot’s agonizing screams. His outcries echo throughout the square, but the executioner remains undeterred. When he’s done, the executioner hoists the wheel upright. Coussot’s mangled body droops from the restraints, while blood pools from his ears and nose. The Frenchman is still conscious as his punisher walks away, leaving him to die in the middle of town in 1725. Later that night, the executioner takes pleasure in a strong drink and falls asleep with his wife by his side. Death is now his business.
* * *
On an overcast day in April of 1721, La Neréide arrived in New Biloxi, the short-lived capital of French Louisiana. According to Ned Sublette in his book The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, aboard were Louis Congo, his wife, and 292 other African slaves.
Nearly forty years after its founding, French Louisiana was in a state of flux. Intermingled with the original European settlers and troops were thousands of French outcasts deported to Louisiana at the same time the first wave of African slaves arrived in 1719. These white castaways, mainly indentured servants and convicted criminals, were shunned in the new society. Indian slaves abducted from local tribes were also present. The colony was a mélange of distinct cultures. As the population grew, the settlers struggled with constant food shortages and a lack of provisions. Many died from starvation and sickness.
Meanwhile, France and Spain continued to battle for Mobile and Pensacola in a war that started in 1718, as mass desertions of soldiers plagued the settlement. Desperation caused unrest, which lead to petty crimes, attempted mutinies, and coordinated efforts to escape. Misfortune marred French Louisiana, substantiated by the historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in her book Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century: “In French Louisiana,” she wrote, “there was a long period of chaos and violence. Almost constant warfare and frequent famine subjected acquired beliefs and standards of behavior to enormous stress.”
No time was spared in determining the fate of the new arrivals. Congo and his wife are taken as property of the Company of the Indies, the governing body of French Louisiana, rather than being sold to individual slave owners. Although housing was provided in the brickyard on Biloxi’s Back Bay, married slave couples were forced to separate. Louis Congo was alone in an unknown world.
Between 1721 and 1725, he worked diligently for his employer. There is no documentation to assert his role in the colony; however, he may have worked in a technical trade since he could sign his name. While highly unusual for a black man of that time, some Africans from the Congo region were previously Christianized by the Portuguese and arrived in the New World being able to read and write in Portuguese. Congo is suspected to have been among them.
The colonial melting pot sported a social hierarchy that transcended race and nationality. Not all blacks were enslaved, and being white did not automatically grant a person prestige or power in French Louisiana. The French Code Noir – or “Black Code” – adopted in 1685, included articles protecting the rights of freed slaves, which were more or less the same as those of whites. Yet there was no order or official legal system. “In short, this is a country which, to the shame of France be it said, is without religion, without justice, without discipline, and without police,” a colonist complained in 1723.
With the continued rise of crime and sporadic waves of punishment, the Superior Council felt obliged to engage a regular executioner or “l’exécuteur des hautes-oeuvres.” Despite the Code Noir, which was updated in 1724 to further limit the influence of Africans in the colony, the Council eyed Louis Congo. He was a slave who, in their opinion, exhibited strength, intelligence and fortitude. “We will have to start over again every day if we are not assured of a man who is always ready to carry out the decrees of the Council. Fear of punishment is the only thing which can control the evil ones,” remarked an unnamed member of administration, according to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.
When the Council approached Congo in the fall of 1725, he drove a hard bargain. His freedom alone was not enough. He boldly requested freedom for himself and his wife, a full ration of wine and drinks, compensation for his services, and a parcel of land on the outskirts of New Orleans, the new capital of French Louisiana. Attorney General Francois Fleuriau scoffed at his demands, but ultimately agreed to his terms with the exception of full emancipation of his wife. She was not formally freed, but was allowed to live with her husband and relieved of labor.
What would drive Congo to accept such a heinous offer remains a mystery. Some believe that a life of continuous exploitation had hardened him, and that the love he had for his wife greatly outweighed his compassion for fellow man. Whatever the reason, Congo was granted explicit and exclusive authority to execute punishments, not only to fellow Africans, but also to white settlers, Indian slaves and European deportees. Prior to Congo’s appointment, there was only one instance of interracial corporal punishment on record in the colony, per Steven Pierce and Anupama Rao in their book Discipline and the Other Body: Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism.
Congo’s name quickly spread throughout French Louisiana because of his unique position as a former slave turned executioner; however, his role did not elevate his status. He was “feared,” nothing more than a “pariah,” wrote anthropologist Anton Blok in his book Honour and Violence. Blok refers to the role of executioner as one of the “infamous occupations,” among the many undesirable jobs held by marginalized people.
Still, Congo represented ultimate power, but his job attracted trouble. Just a year after his appointment, three fugitive Indian slaves entered his home and brutally attacked him during the night. Eleven years later, two black slaves ambushed him in broad daylight as he was hunting. He was severely beaten and worried that his luck was running out. He approached Attorney General Fleuriau with his concerns. The second incident was thought to be retribution for a sentence Congo carried out on a slave named Guala whose ears were cut off for “chronic marooning,” or repeated attempts to escape. In this case, the Attorney General appealed to the Superior Council for punishment to the full extent of the law, as “the life of said Congo would not be secure if such murderous thugs were tolerated.” Congo was allowed to impose capital punishment on his own attackers. One may have been an Indian slave named Bontemps, convicted of aggravated desertion and robbery, and suspected in the first attack.
Congo carried out Bontemps’ sentencing on a late spring morning in 1728. He brought the Indian to the scaffold, as a small crowd circled the wooden stage. The slave wore a traditional native breed cloth instead of the European clothing he had been issued. Ceremonial war paint covered his face. Outwardly defiant, yet ready to meet his fate, Congo guided him up a ladder and draped a rope around his neck. But the Indian would not be afforded a quick and painless death. Instead, Congo pushed Bontemps from the ladder and watched as he struggled to breathe. For ten minutes Bontemps skirmished to writhe free. Finally, his body went limp and a dark purple hue washed across his skin. He was left dangling for days to serve as a warning and to intimidate those who might plan a retaliation.
For twelve years Congo served as the sole executioner for the full range of petit gens – common folk – who pose a threat to colonial order, according to professor Shannon Lee Dawdy in her book Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. He hanged European immigrants convicted of murder, placed countless Africans on the wheel for theft and other petty crimes, and brought a number of Indian slaves to justice including nine Bambara slaves convicted of a foiled takeover attempt in 1731.
There are no official surviving records that document the total number of sentences Congo carried out. It is surmised he handed out hundreds if not thousands of punishments, including those carrying the heavy price of death. But all things, whether good or bad, by chance or deliberate action, must come to an end.
For Congo, his days as l’exécuteur des hautes-oeuvres wound down in 1737. It is unclear whether he retired or met an untimely fate. For an emancipated slave, his freedom, in many ways, made him a prisoner too.
It would be another seventy years before The Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed, abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. By that time, millions of Africans called the New World home. They were carpenters and blacksmiths, free and enslaved, men, women, and children. Yet only one – a man of strength, intelligence, and fortitude it was said – would start his days as an African slave and end them as an American executioner.