On November 21, 1725, African slave Louis Congo was freed and made a salaried public executioner in Louisiana by the Company of the Indies. The corporation chose him because French colonists considered executions carried out by a “negro” the most effective and debasing punishment white criminals could receive in the “wild” and “unruly” colony. For twelve years Congo served as New Orleans’ public executioner in which he whipped, tortured, amputated, and executed anyone sentenced to physical punishment or death by the justice system. Although there are few details about Congo’s life found in archival records, historians do know that he was physically attacked and beaten at least twice because of the position he held. Nevertheless, Louis Congo may have risen up from slavery, but as public executioner he was ensnared in a profession that made him a pawn of a violent carceral system and offered him a lifetime of ridicule, intimidation, and death threats from the public he disciplined.
Eighteenth-century Louisianan society was an eclectic mixture of different races, cultures, and traditions but also a male-dominated, race and class-based hierarchy. Following the uprooting and displacement of indigenous peoples, the territory was held by the French from 1699-1731, possessed by Creole Louisianans from 1732-1768, and occupied by the Spanish from 1769-1803. During Louis Congo’s lifetime, the demographics of the colony consisted of Native Americans of Chickasaw and Illinois extraction living in proximity to colonists from France, Switzerland and Germany, and free and enslaved Black people who were from the French West Indies, Senegambia and Congo, or native-born Louisianans. Most French men were indentured servants, while others were soldiers, tradesmen, traders, overseers of plantations, and planters. Soldiers protected French colonists from Indian attacks in the colony. Traders bartered and sold goods like beaver skins and deer pelts. A small number of French women immigrated to Louisiana during the eighteenth century when King Louis XIV not only sent ordinary women to marry soldiers in Louisiana to increase the colony’s population, but also women from the Paris prison, La Salpetrière who were despised in France for allegedly being felons and sex workers. Regarding the colony’s slavocracy, major planters owned plantations in the country that were farmed by slaves and run by overseers. Although the majority of enslaved people were of African descent, few indigenous people were enslaved and also working on the plantations of white people.
Africans like Louis Congo arrived in Louisiana when Europeans trafficked them by ship from West Africa or the West Indies and sold them to French colonists who desired slaves to labor in agricultural fields. In 1712, there were twenty Black people in Louisiana. By 1717, French Minister of Finance John Law received a charter to import slaves under the Mississippi Company. The Mississippi Company later became the Company of the Indies, and from 1719 to 1743, the company legally trafficked 6,000 African slaves from French-occupied colonies in West Africa. According to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Louis Congo may have been trafficked on the slave ship, la Nereide, that travelled from Cabinda, Angola to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1721 with 181 men, 121 women, 37 boys and 37 girls from the Congo. However, historian Ned Sublette has speculated more broadly that Congo was trafficked from Senegambia during the French slave trade between 1719 and 1731. Although scholars are unsure of Louis Congo’s exact birth year and origin, many assume his surname Congo refers to his homeland in West Africa, while his given name is the namesake of Louisiana. Once in the colony, some enslaved people worked on plantations harvesting and producing cash crops like rice, sugar, corn, indigo, and tobacco, while others worked as lead miners, blacksmiths, locksmiths, and bakers.
While most people of African descent were enslaved, there were few freed Black people in Louisiana who lived in segregated communities within the colony. However, whether enslaved or free, Black people were subject to the laws of the 1685 Code Noir (the Black Code) that was enforced in the colony in 1724. The French implemented Code Noir to supposedly ensure good conduct among Black people by placing several restrictions on their lives, such as they could not own weapons, purchase their freedom, intermarry with white people, or practice African religions. However, the enslaved who fled plantations for the marshes of Louisiana found freedom from slavery and Code Noir as maroons. For slaves who refused to escape, they could achieve liberation through rebellion, attempting to purchase their own freedom, or gaining manumission from an enslaver. When Congo was manumitted from slavery in November 1725, the Company of the Indies not only freed him, but also mandated him to “serve” the government as executioner in “Orleans” and Chapitoulas. According to the Louisiana Freed Slave Records, Congo’s payment for the appointed position was “land, complete ration of wines and drinks, and full time use of his wife who remains the slave of the Company of the Indies.”1, Louisiana Historical Center, New Orleans, Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com, 2009, accessed Oct 10 2013.] Nevertheless, Congo’s appointment entailed a peculiar form of apprenticeship where his blackness disqualified him from achieving true freedom from white oppression: liberation from hard slave labor but coerced paid labor for the government.
Public execution was an undesirable profession because the executioner indiscriminately inflicted pain and death on alleged criminals, regularly witnessed the suffering of executed victims, and occasionally experienced public scrutiny and violent physical retaliation from those sentenced to punishment. As executioner, Congo carried out four types of punishment in New Orleans: flogging, hanging, breaking on the wheel, and burning alive at the stake. For each torture or execution Congo received a warrant that simultaneously ordered him to punish an alleged criminal and protected him from being charged with the crime of murder. Flogging, executed with birching or a cat o’ nine tails, was often used on Black slaves who broke slave codes. Birching consisted of several leafless branches of flexible wood bound together used to whip a slave on their bare buttocks, back, and shoulders. Flogging with a cat o’ nine tails involved a whip made of nine knotted leather thongs or cotton cords (2 ½ feet long) used to lacerate a person’s skin.
Hangings were usually invoked against murderers, thieves, and slave deserters of any race or gender. Breaking on the wheel was typically meted out against the leaders of slave revolts, particularly in emulation of colonists who executed 21 enslaved Africans who participated in the New York Slave Revolt of 1712. When Congo executed slaves in this manner, he spread the person’s limbs out and tied them to a large wooden cartwheel and repeatedly bludgeoned their limbs with a large hammer or iron bar until their bones were broken and their limbs fell through the gaps of the wheel. If French officials instructed Congo to end the victim’s suffering, he gave the individual either coups de grâce (fatal blows of mercy) to the abdomen and chest or retentum (special grace) via strangulation. Once the victim was dead, Congo displayed the disfigured body to a crowd of onlookers. The punishment of burning alive was reserved for people who committed treason, heresy, or witchcraft. Victims subjected to burning alive were tied to a wooden stake, set afire, and later died from suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning, heatstroke, shock, loss of blood, and or the “thermal decomposition of vital body parts.” This method of execution and breaking on the wheel garnered Congo his highest wages as an executioner, forty pounds per execution.
From 1725 to 1737, Congo’s career as an executioner was documented in the civil and criminal records of Louisiana’s Superior Council. In 1728, Congo hanged Indian slave, Bontemps, for the crimes of aggravated desertion and robbery. In 1729, Congo hanged European immigrant, Joseph Graff for fatally stabbing his business partner. In 1731, Congo executed eight Bambara slaves on a wheel and an enslaved woman on a scaffold for allegedly conspiring to kill the French and take control over the French colony. In 1737, Congo tortured baptized slave, Guala, (at the request of a plantation manager) by cutting off the man’s ears and branding his right shoulder with a fleur-de-lys. Furthermore, enslaved Africans and Native Americans under punishment most likely felt betrayed by Congo who was once a slave, while white citizens harbored resentment because they were disciplined by a person society told them was racially and culturally inferior. For example, in August 1726, Congo reported being attacked by three runaway Indian slaves in “Orleans.”2, Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com, 2009, accessed Oct 10 2013.] Then in January 1737, Congo reported being attacked by Augustin Langlois and another maroon (who is unknown) while he was hunting near King Plantation.3, Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com, 2009, accessed Oct 10 2013.] Furthermore, these reports highlight how Congo’s role as law enforcement and an informant made him the enemy of many. Beyond 1737, accounts of Congo’s life disappear, therefore it is unknown whether Congo retired or was killed for being the “black executioner” of Louisiana. Moreover, what is known is that Congo was surely respected, feared, and hated by Louisianans for the methods he used to deliver punishment and the death penalty.
Louis Congo’s transition from slave to public executioner in Louisiana is a bittersweet story. Congo may have escaped hard labor as executioner, but as historian Shannon Lee Dawdy has argued, he was also manipulated into being a tool of division for French officials who wanted to “promote resentment within the slave community and antagonism among Afro-Louisianans, Native Americans, and Euro-Louisianans.” Congo’s liberation from slavery gave him the opportunity to acquire French citizenship, own 1.7 acres of land, and sign his own name on legal documents. However, Code Noir kept him quasi-enslaved because not only was his blackness criminalized by law, but also the terms of manumission prohibited him from being an ally to his wife or any other enslaved Black or indigenous person who desired to achieve freedom by any means necessary. Moreover, Congo’s life demonstrates how slave heritage and racial stigmatization worked hand in hand to oppress people of color in a racial hierarchy built on slavery and capitalism.