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Photo Credit: Photograph by Kimball, N.Y.C. Copyright by George H. Hanks. c1863. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96524703/
Slaves who misbehaved in French Louisiana could expect harsh punishment. Crimes that earn someone a few months in prison today were punishable by whipping, branding, or even death during colonial times. Slave policies in French Louisiana were officially recorded in its Code Noir, or ‘Black Code,’ first issued by the French crown in 1685 and revised in 1724. Much of the code concerns proper punishment for slaves: how it should be carried out and punishments appropriate for certain crimes.
The Code Noir and Criminal Procedure in French Louisiana
The authors of the Code Noir considered the statutes “a series of practical bureaucratic measures, intended to fit into an overall reorganization of French administration and to protect valuable property.”  The creation of the code was not driven by humanitarian concerns, but practical ones. The punishments prescribed by the Code Noir were often severe, especially by modern standards. For instance, a slave convicted of ‘petty theft,’ would be flogged and branded, while a ‘major theft’ conviction would earn the death penalty.  Despite such codified harsh punishments, the code also contained provisions to prevent owners from mistreating and/or mutilating their slaves. Still, these restrictions were for the most part written to preserve the “expensive investment” of slaves, which were “valuable property” and were an integral part of the French colonial labor system. 
Despite the practical nature of its creation, the Code Noir established that slaves convicted of crimes were to be tried under roughly the same procedure as whites. Typically, the master would file a complaint with the attorney general, who would ask the Superior Council for permission to interrogate the defendant. If permission was given, the defendant was taken to the New Orleans prison where the interrogation occurred under the watch of “the king’s prosecutor, a councilor, a notary and at least two witnesses.”  As in a white man’s trial, witnesses were gathered, oral arguments made, and “attorneys were banned from the courtroom.”  Upon the trial’s conclusion, the attorney general sent his recommendations for sentencing along with a transcript of the trial to the Superior Council for their final stamp of approval. While their masters were the complainants in these cases, and said masters were able to exercise a large degree of power over their ‘property’ in the first place, the fact that these regulations existed—at least in theory—indicates Louisiana’s increased protection of slaves compared to other areas of the Deep South.
Some historians consider the sentencing decisions reached by the Superior Council “neither unusually harsh, nor inequitable.” One case used to support this vein of lacking cruel and unusual punishment is that of Biron, a runaway slave accused of attempted murder. Witnesses revealed Biron had only seized his master’s gun to keep himself from being shot, so instead of the death penalty—the customary punishment for a slave’s assault on a white person—Biron was sentenced only for his escape (with a public flogging).  Others provide a less optimistic perspective: the way the Code Noir was enforced made its protection of slaves relatively weak; “repressive measures” could be applied with little fear of reprisal, and “slaves could expect to suffer exemplary punishment in and out of court.” 
Numerous crimes could earn a slave a whipping, several could get one branded, and a number warranted the death penalty. Article 12 of the 1724 Louisiana Code Noir prescribed whipping for slaves caught carrying “offensive weapons or heavy sticks.” Article 13 says that slaves from different masters found gathering in crowds should be whipped, possibly branded with a fleur de lis, and even killed in extreme cases. Violence against one’s master or members of the master’s family earned a slave capital punishment, as could violence against any free person. A major theft conviction constituted grounds for the death penalty, and petty theft a whipping and branding with the fleur de lis. Some of the Code Noir’s most brutal penalties were reserved for runaway slaves: first offenders had their ears cut off and were branded on the shoulder with the fleur de lis, second offenders were hamstrung and branded on their other shoulder, and third offenders were killed. 
Instruments of Punishment
The tools of slave punishment in French Louisiana were fairly simple, but this did not make them any less brutal. Most common was the whip, administered in doses from a few lashes to over 100, which could leave the victim’s back a bloody mess. Runaway slaves could be made to wear heavy iron collars with long iron spikes, such as the collar shown in the photograph of Wilson Chinn on the right. These made even simple movements difficult, especially disconcerting as some slaves were forced to wear them for months at a time.
The brand used to mark runaway slaves was a fleur de lis, and for thieves a “V” (from the word_voleur_, French for “thief”). These were not unlike the brands used to mark livestock. Branding was a brutal punishment in and of itself not just because of the pain caused by the burn, but because it was a permanent and visible mark of one’s criminal past.
The whippings and hangings prescribed by the 1724 Code Noir didn’t end in the 1700’s. In an article published in the Daily Picayune on January 18, 1895 about the Orleans Parish prison moving locations, the author claims that such severe punishments were carried out well into the 1800’s.
- Allain, Mathé, “Slave Policies in French Louisiana,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 21, no. 2 (1980): 128.
- Allain, “Slave Policies,” 128.
- Allain, “Slave Policies,” 135-136.
- Brasseaux, Carl A, “The Administration of Slave Regulations in French Louisiana, 1724-1766,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 21, no. 2 (1980): 153.
- Brasseaux, “The Administration of Slave Regulations,” 153.
- Brasseaux, 153.
- Ingersoll, Thomas N, “Slave Codes and Judicial Practice in New Orleans, 1718-1807,” Law and History Review 13, no. 1 (1995): 34.
- B. F. French, “Black Code of Louisiana,” Historical Collections of Louisiana: Embracing Translations of Many Rare and Valuable Documents Relating to the Natural, Civil, and Political History of that State, (New York: D. Appleton, 1851).