Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Lost German Slave Girl

The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans

by John Bailey

“Bailey has the gifts of a novelist and a readiness to blend fact and conjecture . . . with the result that The Lost German Slave Girl reads like a legal thriller. . . . He is a diligent researcher and a gifted storyteller, and The Lost German Slave Girl zips right along.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date January 17, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4229-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9978-2
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

It is a bright, spring morning in New Orleans, 1843. In the Spanish Quarter, on a street lined with flophouses and gambling dens, Madame Carl Rouff recognizes a face from her past. It is the face of Salomé Müller, her best friend’s daughter who disappeared twenty-five years earlier. But the young olive-skinned woman claims her name is Mary Miller–she is the property of a Frenchman who owns a nearby cabaret. She is a slave, with no memory of a “white” past, or of the Müller family’s perilous journey from its German village to New Orleans. And yet her resemblance to her mother is striking, and she bears two telltale birthmarks. Had a defenseless European orphan been callously and illegally enslaved, or was she an imposter? So began one of the most celebrated and sensational trials of nineteenth-century America.

In brilliant novelistic detail, award-winning historian John Bailey reconstructs the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, an “infernal motley crew” of cotton kings, decadent river workers, immigrants, and slaves. Miller’s dramatic trial offers an eye into the fascinating laws and customs surrounding slavery, immigration, and racial mixing. Did Miller, as her relatives sought to prove, arrive from Germany under perilous circumstances as an indentured servant or was she, as her master claimed, part African and a slave for life? The trial pits a humble community of German immigrants against Mary’s previous owner, John Fitz Miller, a hardened capitalist who is as respected by the community for his wealth and power as he is feared and distrusted, and his attorney, John Randolph Grymes, one of the brashest and most flamboyant lawyers of his time. Was Sally Miller’s licentious lifestyle proof that she was part African, as the defense argued? Or was she the victim of a terrible injustice? Bailey follows the case’s incredible twists and turns all the way to the Supreme Court, and comes to a shocking conclusion.

A tour de force of investigative history that reads like a suspense novel, The Lost German Slave Girl is a fascinating exploration of slavery and its laws, a brilliant reconstruction of mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, and a riveting courtroom drama. It is also an unforgettable portrait of a young woman in pursuit of freedom.

Praise

“Engrossing, meticulous history. . . . The fierce debate over the mysterious slave’s identity inflamed 1840s Louisiana, and it has lost little of its fascination today. A” –Entertainment Weekly

“Bailey has the gifts of a novelist and a readiness to blend fact and conjecture . . . with the result that The Lost German Slave Girl reads like a legal thriller. . . . He is a diligent researcher and a gifted storyteller, and The Lost German Slave Girl zips right along.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Bailey keeps us guessing until the end in this page-turning true courtroom drama of nineteenth-century New Orleans. He brings to life the fierce legal proceedings with vivd strokes. . . . A highly engrossing tale.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Expertly woven expos’ . . . This sensational and emotional cause c”l”bre of its time is revived into a fresh drama from the vantage point of the present. Bailey’s revisiting clearly shows the legal bias and the transparent motivations while delivering a shocking new conclusion. He weaves a deft and captivating plot with astonishing detail culled from historical and archival records. Highly recommended.” –Elizabeth Morris, Library Journal

“Bailey [is] that rare scholar whose writing lives and breathes.” –Debra J. Dickerson, Boston Globe

“John Bailey tells her engrossing story . . . with polish and verve, weaving history and mystery neatly together. Along the way, he gives readers a thorough tour of early New Orleans, where raffishness and aristocracy coexisted by mutually ignoring each other. . . . He has crafted a compelling tale of one woman’s complex life and . . . given readers a revealing look at one of the darker periods of American history.” –Kathleen Krog, Miami Herald

“Bailey . . . relishes telling this remarkable story as the courtroom drama it was, peppering it with fascinating tidbits of Louisiana history and elegant explanations of the law. He fleshes out every angle, every character, and pinpoints the legal pitfalls and triumphs with equal zeal.” –Mary-Liz Shaw, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Bailey limns in engrossing detail the complex investigations, strategies and legal arguments.” –Linda Wolfe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Bailey . . . does a fine job of resurrecting the ambience and cultural atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1840s. . . . Bailey’s trial narrative is a virtual education on the bizarre legalisms once regularly applied to human chattel . . . An eye-opener to the racism that’s so deeply embedded in the fabric of American society.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A compelling account of life in slave society before the Civil War, the story of Sally Miller/Salome Mueller reads like fiction”.A darned good read–a true mystery.” –KLIATT

“Bailey brings a lawyer’s eye to the court records and creates a courtroom drama from the raw data. . . . He deals deftly with his often inscrutable heroine. . . . Bailey is a glib and readable writer, and he offers a page-turner of a story.” –Carolyn Kolb, Times-Picayune

“Bailey adroitly uses transcripts and newspaper coverage of this case . . . to illustrate the ironies and idiocies of slavery from a unique perspective.” –Nan Goldberg, NJ.com

“Fascinating history . . . an exhaustive account . . . His tale reads like a whodunit mystery novel, full of courtroom drama, twists and turns, shocking surprises, and disappointment. Be warned: this book may be impossible to put down until Sally’s fate is revealed. A” –Maria Kwiatkowski, On-the-Town

“A rare achievement–a book that is both important and spellbinding. Important because John Bailey takes us another step closer to the mad and evil heart of slavery, which twisted every household, every courtroom and every community it got hold of. Spellbinding because Bailey recreates a young nation, a bawdy city and a stirring struggle for a young girl’s freedom with grace and page-turning drive.” –David Von Drehle

The Lost German Slave Girl is a marvelous page-turner with unique and fascinating insights into the institution of slavery in the pre-Civil War South intertwined with a heartbreaking story of misfortune.” –Winston Groom

“[This] marvelously vivid account of the legal maneuverings, of the successive court trials where Sally’s fortunes continually seesawed, reads like a splendid thriller. . . . An accomplished writer, [Bailey] provides engaging pen-sketches of the chaos, exhilaration, and many horrors of life in New Orleans. . . . What Bailey himself makes of all this is left–in the manner of the best thriller writers–until the very last page.” –Andrew Riemer, The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum

“John Bailey’s stupendous book, based on a true story . . . is a splendid reconstruction. . . . It’s a wonderful read.” –Australian Country Style

“A living, breathing morality tale delivering timeless messages about freedom, truth, and justice . . . One person is carefully spared critical exposure, however–the woman at the human heart of this story, Salom”-or-Sally. That’s until the last page of the book. Then Bailey finally breaks the suspense, delivering his own unforgettable verdict.” –Australian

“A fascinating examination of the laws and attitudes that upheld slavery . . . An immensely readable courtroom drama for readers who like their history to be serious, but also compelling and entertaining.” –Katrina Ford, Book News

Awards

A Book Sense Selection
Nominated for the NSW Premier’s Award (the Douglas Stewart Prize)
Nominated for the Crime Writers Award

Excerpt

ONE – MARY MILLER

“The elevation of the white race, and the happiness of the slave, vitally depend upon maintaining the ascendancy of one and the submission of the other.” –Chief Justice Watkins of the Arkansas Supreme Court, 18544

This much we know: that on a bright, spring morning in 1843, Madame Carl Rouff left her timber-framed house in Lafayette to travel across New Orleans to visit a friend who lived in the Faubourg Marigny. It was a distance of four miles, following the bend of the Mississippi as it turned abruptly on itself in its winding course to the Gulf. She caught the mule-driven omnibus along Tchoupitoulas Street to the city, a journey of an hour and a quarter, swaying gently as she watched the unloading of the keelboats, skiffs, and packets anchored alongside the levee. She had allowed herself plenty of time, so it was without urgency that she alighted and crossed the expanse of Canal Street to enter the Vieux Carré.

She had only a vague idea of how the streets fit together in the narrow grid at the back of the Place d’Armes, so doggedly she followed Bourbon Street, hoping eventually to run into Esplanade Avenue, which would guide her to her destination.

She entered an area of narrow streets and alleys where a jumbled variety of wooden tenements leaned against one another for support. For decades, poor Spanish-speaking families had lived there, but increasingly their homes were being bought up by Americain speculators who had converted them into flophouses, gambling dens, and bawdy houses for the boatmen who poured in from the riverfront each evening. It was an area of New Orleans where no respectable woman should venture, even in daylight. Set incongruously in its midst, enclosed by a high wall on three sides, was the Ursuline Convent.

As Madame Carl crossed the street, she felt the heat of the sun reflecting off the surface of the road. She hadn’t been feeling well for some months, so it was no surprise to her when she suddenly felt light-headed. She placed a hand on the front rail of one of the houses and took a moment to recover her breath. In front of the nunnery was a small marble statue of a tormented Jesus, a showy display of Catholic idolatry of which she disapproved. Running down to the levee was a terrace of narrow buildings of weather-bleached clapboards. On the front doorstep of one, sat a woman bathed in sunlight, her legs drawn to her chest, her head resting on her knees.

Madame Carl waited, hoping she would soon feel better. She watched a black man push a barrow of watermelon from the water-front; some urchins, naked to the waist, scrambled to kick a rag ball along the gutter. After a minute or two, she felt strong enough to continue. She pushed herself off the rail. She was no more than three paces from the sidewalk on the other side of the street when the woman sitting on the step sighed deeply and, with her eyes closed, faced into the sun. Madame Carl stopped and took a sharp intake of air. She knew her. It was Dorothea Müller.

Madame Carl held still, fearful that if she moved, the marvel would end. The same high cheekbones, the same smooth, olive skin, the same full mouth. Dorothea M’ller. On that stinking, foul ship, tossing endlessly on the Atlantic, she had watched Dorothea’s husband carry her body onto the deck, wrap it in a canvas sheet, and slide the bundle into the sea.
Dorothea, whispered Madame Carl to herself. She was looking at the death mask of someone who had died over a quarter of a century ago. Dorothea! Her dearest friend, her school companion in a village half a world away.

The woman opened her eyes and Madame Carl stared intently into her face. She was as Madame Carl remembered her, seated just like that, on the front step of Frau Hillsler’s house.

How are you, Dorothea? asked Madame Carl, her voice quavering with emotion. The woman didn’t answer. Gently Madame Carl repeated the question. She took a few steps closer and bent over her. Where have you been, Dorothea? It’s been so long. The woman, discomfited by Madame Carl’s gaze, shook her head.

But, of course, this couldn’t be Dorothea. Madame Carl recoiled at her own stupidity. Then it struck her with a clear and abiding certainty. It was Dorothea’s lost daughter, Salomé. Madame Carl stood spellbound. Salomé, she whispered. Is that you, Salomé?

My name is Mary Miller, missus.

Madame Carl looked at the woman in bewilderment.

You are Salomé, the child who was lost.

The woman shook her head once more. Madame Carl flinched in disappointment. She didn’t know what to say. She began to feel ill again and leaned against the wall of the building for support. She studied the figure beneath her. The woman wore a tignon of brightly colored madras cotton and a dark kersey shawl over a long dress of coarse linen. They were slave’s clothes. Her face was tanned and her hands were engrained with dirt. Unsettled by the attention of Madame Carl, the woman stooped her shoulders in submission. At that gesture of huddled servility, it occurred to Madame Carl that the woman might be a slave. It was an appalling thought that hit her in the pit of her stomach. How could this be? Madame Carl’s thoughts tangled in confusion. Was her mind unraveling in the heat?

Please, whispered Madame Carl.

The woman looked up. I am a yellow girl. I belong to Mr. Belmonti, she said, inclining her head toward the interior of a shop behind her.

Madame Carl straightened and took a deep breath. Could she be mistaken? The two women glanced fleetingly into each other’s eyes, hoping to understand the other’s thoughts. Madame Carl asked her to remove her tignon. The woman on the doorstep paused, then reached behind her head, unwrapped the cloth, and shook her head, unfurling long, dark auburn locks. The hair was Dorothea’s, but it was the woman’s action–the toss of her head, the sensual delight in the display that took Madame Carl’s breath away. Again Madame Carl was shaken, but she pressed on. You are not rightly a slave, she said. You are Salomé Müller.

There was a blank expression on the woman’s face, then a look of puzzlement, followed by a slow grin as she pondered a joke she didn’t get. Then, finding no answer, she bowed her head in deference.

You are of pure German blood, urged Madame Carl, her voice rising. I knew your mother. I know you. We came together to this country–on the same ship–twenty-five years ago. You are German.

As she waited for a response, Madame Carl’s attention was snagged by a shadow moving in a room of the house behind the woman. Madame Carl turned and caught a glimpse of a moon-faced man with a bushy mustache who was leaning forward to listen to their conversation. He stepped back out of view. Salom”‘s owner, she supposed. A Frenchman. She looked around, noticing for the first time that she was standing outside a barroom of some sort–inside the front parlor were tables and chairs, and a bench containing bottles of colored liqueurs and a cabinet of cigars. She turned back to the woman on the doorstep. Please don’t be afraid. I can help you. You are German.

No, I am Mary Miller and I belong to Mr. Belmonti. You ask him. Her eyes begged to be left alone.

Please listen to me. You are not a slave. You are from the Müller family.

There was no response. It was hopeless. Madame Carl wondered if she should speak to the woman’s owner, but that would take more strength than she felt she could muster. She could take no more. Abruptly she turned and walked away. At the corner she stopped and looked back. The doorway was empty. It was as if the woman had never existed. In her place stood her master, a tall, plump man smoking a cigar.

Over a century ago, two Louisiana writers, J. Hanno Deiler (a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans) and George W. Cable, working independently of each other, told the story of the Lost German Slave Girl. Deiler’s article appeared as a pamphlet in a German-language newspaper in New Orleans in 1888. Cable’s version appeared in The Century Magazine of 1889 and was later included as a chapter in his Strange True Tales of Louisiana. Since neither spoke to either Madame Carl or Mary Miller, their reports of the conversation between the two women were clearly imaginative creations, derived from hand-me-down renditions supplied by relatives. The version presented here is adapted from both these sources and from the notes of evidence of the trial when Salom” M’ller sought her freedom in the First District Court of Louisiana in 1844.5

In Cable’s version, on the very day Madame Carl discovered Mary Miller, she enticed her away for a few hours so that she could show her to members of the German community in New Orleans. However, according to the lawyer who represented Salomé Müller in her quest for freedom, this didn’t happen until “the following day, or shortly after”.6 Whenever it was, soon after the initial meeting Madame Carl managed to convince Mary Miller to accompany her across New Orleans to the house of Francis and Eva Schuber in Lafayette. Eva Schuber was Salom” M’ller’s cousin and godmother, and had accompanied the M’ller family on the voyage to America. If anyone could confirm to Madame Carl that she had found the lost girl, it would be Eva.

The journey to Eva Schuber’s house took Madame Carl and Mary Miller through the market of the Vieux Carr”. Madame Carl was surprised, then disconcerted, to see that her companion was known to many of the black labourers in the market. Madame Carl had to wait as Mary stopped to talk to a half-naked man carrying chickens tied by the legs to a pole balanced across his shoulders, then to some slaves loading boxes of vegetables on to a dray. A Negro butcher wearing an apron spotted with blood called out to her. Madame Carl waited patiently while Mary chattered for a few moments, and then together they walked to Canal Street. From there they caught the omnibus to Lafayette.

Nowadays, Lafayette is part of the urban sprawl of New Orleans, but in the 1840s the area near the river was given over to market gardens, slaughterhouses, bone grinders, and tanners. Eva Schuber and her husband lived in a narrow timber house of two stories on the corner of Jersey and Jackson streets.
Eva Schuber later gave evidence to the First District Court about what occurred on the day her goddaughter was returned to her. She said she was standing on the front steps of her house when she saw Madame Carl opening the front gate. She hadn’t seen Madame Carl for some time and it wasn’t her friend’s habit to make an unannounced visit.

What happened then? her lawyer had asked.
Eva paused, her eyes half-shut, as if visualizing the scene.

I noticed a woman standing behind her, and I said, Is that a German woman?

What did she say?

She said yes, and I said, I know her.

And then?

Madame Carl said to me, Well, if you know her, who is she?

And what did you say?

I then replied, My God, the long-lost Salomé Müller!

Eva took her visitors inside– into a house so small that one of her sons slept in the parlor directly off the street. He sat on his bed as the three women entered. Then, recognizing Madame Carl, he stood and bowed to her. He looked at the other woman, but his mother made no introduction and instead, in an excited voice, told him to run down the street and get Mistress Schultzeheimer and Mrs. Fleikener. He was to tell them that one of the lost daughters of Shoemaker M’ller had returned. They must come immediately and see for themselves. He must tell them to hurry. The boy put on his boots and scrambled down the steps.
Eva pushed her son’s bed against the wall and placed three chairs in the centre of the room. She indicated to Mary Miller that she should take a seat, and she and Madame Carl took chairs facing her. For a full minute, Eva sat opposite Mary Miller and examined every feature of her face. It was amazing. She was the image of her mother. The same full, rounded face with small dimples in each cheek, the deep, dark eyes, the olive complexion, and long auburn hair. Eva took it all in, and the more she looked, the more certain she became that her goddaughter had returned. Not a day had passed in the last twenty-five years when she hadn’t thought of her. There wasn’t a day when she hadn’t prayed for her return. At last, at last, she was lost no more.

She is a slave, whispered Madame Carl.

Eva stared at her friend in disbelief. How could she be a slave? she asked. Madame Carl didn’t know. She explained how she had found her outside a low-class barroom in the Spanish part of the city. The two women exchanged glances.

Does she remember her mother?

She remembers nothing.

Oh, but she must. Her beautiful mother.

Madame Carl shook her head.

Does she remember her father?

Again Madame Carl shook her head.

Eva returned her gaze to the woman who would be Salomé Müller. He made shoes, Eva insisted, pointing to her own shoes.

There was an awkward silence.

What happened to your sister? asked Eva.

I remember no sister, replied Mary Miller.

Her master’s name is Louis Belmonti, said Madame Carl. A Frenchman.

Now both women avoided the eyes of the woman seated in front of them. A feeling of dread enveloped Eva. How could she be a slave? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. For years she had rehearsed the joyful reunion in her mind–the tears of emotion, the laughter, the rejoicing as all her German friends gathered to welcome home the Müller sisters. She looked in sad dismay at Mary Miller. This couldn’t be Salomé.

There was a clumping up the steps and Mrs. Fleikener burst into the room. Her husband, her son, her daughter, and her daughter’s husband followed. Eva and Madame Carl rose to greet them. More people entered: Mistress Schultzeheimer, along with Eva’s son who had been sent to collect her. They stood in a circle staring at Mary Miller, still seated in her chair in the middle of the room. Madame Carl made the introductions. Mary Miller looked blankly into their faces.

The news spread quickly from house to house. The woman who lived next door crept into the Schubers’ front room to have a look, followed by her five children. Outside, on the front steps, there were whispered conversations as the history of Daniel M’ller and his children was explained to neighbors. Questions were asked and the astounding news conveyed: two of Daniel’s daughters had been lost for twenty-five years, but now one was found. Eva’s husband, Francis, returned from work to find a crowd spilling out into the street. People rushed to tell him what had happened, and then he was ushered into the house to stare at the woman sitting on a chair in his front parlor. Is that one of the two girls who was lost? he asked.

Then occurred an incident that would be as hotly contested as any other during the court battles that followed. According to the testimony of Eva and Francis Schuber, they took the slave woman into their bedroom and shut the door. Eva sat her on the bed and told her that there was one certain way of identifying her as Salomé Müller. The real Salomé had moles, the size of coffee beans, on the inside of each thigh just below her groin. They were Salome’s identification and positive proof of who she was. Did she have such marks? Mary Miller said that she did. Eva insisted on seeing them. As her husband stood guard with his back to the door, she pushed the passive Mary back on the bed, pushed her legs apart, and gathered up the folds of her dress. She examined her right leg. The mole was there. In mounting excitement she rummaged along the other leg, then raised herself from the bed, her face beaming in exultation. She was Salomé Müller. Her goddaughter had returned. She rushed out of the room and into the front parlor. There could be no doubt. Truly, Salomé Müller had returned. There was a great cheer, followed by clapping. Jubilant voices repeated the news to those in the street. Eva had bathed Salom” when she was a child and had seen the moles on her legs. And now she had seen them again. The lost girl had been found. She was back with those who loved her. At last her troubles were over.

In Eva and Francis Schuber’s bedroom, the woman who had been identified as Salomé Müller lay spread-eagled on the bed, staring with glazed eyes at the ceiling.

Mary Miller didn’t remain with her rescuers that night. She slipped away from the celebrations and hurried across the city to the house of her owner, a journey that took her several hours on foot.

A few days later, Eva Schuber set off in pursuit. She had hoped that Madame Carl would accompany her, but when she called to collect her friend, she was too ill to rise from her bed. Madame Carl gave detailed instructions on how to find Belmonti’s cabaret. It was located in a street close by the convent, she said. In Madame Carl’s stead, Eva took along her neighbor, Mrs. White, for moral support.

Belmonti’s establishment was described by Cable as “a small-drinking house, a mere cabaret.” Cabarets in New Orleans (and there were scores of them) weren’t grand affairs–a few chairs for customers to sit on while being served spirits and coffee. They were usually run in single-fronted dwellings; the owners lived upstairs, and often a prostitute conducted her business in the back room. Some cabarets sold groceries, bread, and vegetables, while others were fronts for gambling dens. The better class of cabarets might serve meals and have a man playing a fiddle in the evenings. Belmonti’s cabaret wasn’t of the better class. His only assistant was Mary Miller, who carried drinks to the tables, went to the market each day to purchase food, and attended to the cleaning and dishwashing.

When Eva Schuber and Mrs. White arrived, Mary was setting up chairs in the street. She took a step backward as she saw the two women striding toward her. However, it wasn’t part of Eva’s plan to speak to Mary; instead, she swept inside looking for Belmonti, leaving Mrs. White to detain Mary outside. Eva found him seated at a low table in one of the rooms with a small cup of coffee in his hand. He looked up in surprise, but then observing the woman’s dress of German respectability, seemed to guess who she was and stood up to bow to her. He spoke to her in French, a language Eva understood imperfectly, but she took in enough to grasp that he had been expecting her. With elaborate courtesy, he beckoned for her to sit down. He offered her a drink and pushed a plate of beignets in her direction. She refused both, instead asking him if he spoke English. Little, little, he replied, showing a thin gap between his thumb and forefinger.
Eva came straight to the point. He must release Mary. Her real name was Salomé Müller and she was a white woman. She told him of the tragedy of the family’s journey to America and the death of Salomé’s mother, and of how no one knew what had happened to Salomé and her sister, Dorothea. She told him about the moles. Couldn’t he see that there could be no doubt about it? Salomé was rightly German and must be freed.

Belmonti smiled. Mary had never said anything to him about being freed, he replied in broken English. He had paid a lot of money for her. She had been with him for over five years.

Mary is pure German, Eva responded. Her real name is Salomé.

He shook his head. No, no, she is Mary, the slave. That is her name.

Eva, her voice rising in anger, retorted that the woman was Salomé. And she was free. Belmonti appeared to be enjoying himself. He again offered Eva coffee; again she refused. No, she didn’t want biscuits either. He shrugged, then explained at length why it was best for Mary to remain where she was. Her life was nice with him, he said. When he had purchased her from Mr. Miller, he had said that since she looked as white as anyone, she could easily run away. He might have freed her, but Miller had told him that it was the law that she would have to leave the country, so he couldn’t. Mary was happy with him. She bought the meat and vegetables, she cooked, and she served in the cabaret. Why should she want to be German?

Reading Group Guide

1. When modern readers encounter a book like The Lost German Slave Girl, they are often amazed and horrified by the brutality of a society not so far removed from their own. How did so many people condone the practice of slavery? Why is slavery so distasteful to us today? Consider the human instincts that promoted such treatment of other men and women. While evidence has shown that slavery exists today in certain parts of the world, some have suggested that it continues today in America, albeit in a less primitive, more socially acceptable form. Do you believe this? If so, where and how does slavery exist in America today?

2. In chapter 2 we learn that “the universal rule of the South was that if the mother was a slave, so was her child. The law was contained in the Latin tag of partus sequitur ventrem. Literally, it means: “that which is brought forth from the womb” (pp. 13–14).

Bailey goes on to describe bondage as being “transmitted like a birth defect from mother to daughter, then to her daughter, and to her daughter, in perpetuity” (p. 14). What does this biological interpretation suggest about the fundamental popular attitude toward persons of color in early America? Look at the rule of partus sequitur ventrem in the case of a freed slave named Polly whose grandson was seized by her former slave owner (pp. 17–18). In the appeal heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ruffin declared, “If we were permitted to decide this controversy according to our feelings, we should with promptness and pleasure announce our judgment for the plaintiff [Polly’s grandson]. But the court is to be governed by a different rule, the impartial and unyielding rule of the law” (p. 18). What does this reveal about the ‘different rule” of law? How did this injustice become protected by law? Are there dangers inherent in laws existing in the United States today?

3. Chapter 3 describes the arduous journey of Germans who, choosing to leave the hardships of their impoverished homeland, are forced to sell themselves into servitude to buy passage to America. In effect, they become slaves to their own hopes. How did this story make you feel about freedom as it exists today? Have you ever had to suffer for your freedoms?

4. Consider the Louisiana Gazette‘s 1818 commentary about the German redemptioners: “That there are many privations and sufferings incidental to a voyage of this nature, is undeniable; but from the appearance of those people now in our city, we should not conclude that their case has been more than ordinarily so. The servitude they have to submit to here, is not of a grievous kind, and probably will leave them more vitally free than the political institutions of their own country” (p. 44). Do you agree with this assessment? How can it be determined if the cruelties suffered by the redemptioners resulted from criminal behavior or the natural hardships of emigration?

5. At the start of chapter 4, Bailey writes, “New Orleans was, and still is, the most un-American of cities’ (p. 48). What does he mean? What characteristics of the city support this idea? What factors created this unique environment? How does New Orleans also reflect the American tradition?

6. The vast economic boom created by the production of cotton in the South is cited here as the chief force behind slavery. “No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king,” declared South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond (p. 50). Revisit Cincinnati journalist David Christy’s King Cotton missive on page 51. What does cotton symbolize in this statement?

7. Many of the gray areas in slave proprietorship as presented in The Lost German Slave Girl arise from masters forcing themselves sexually on their own slaves and producing offspring. How did this further complicate the legacy of slavery for both whites and blacks? Bailey writes, “If racism gave birth to slavery, sexism was its handmaiden. It was a world of entrenched double standards’ (p. 103). What other double standards did you recognize in this account of the culture of slavery? Where do double standards exist in today’s social institutions and what forms do they take?

8. The question of Sally Miller’s heritage ultimately demanded a physical examination of specific body parts, and Bailey points to other instances where people claiming to be white were forced to offer their bodies up for public scrutiny (pp. 150–153). What physical attributes were used as evidence against a person believed to have “tainted blood” (p. 151)? Consider the remarks of witness Carlisle Miller, who believed Sally Miller to be black even though, by all appearances, she appeared to be white. “People who live in countries where there are many colored persons acquire an instinctive means of judging that cannot well be explained” (p. 159). What do a person’s physical characteristics ultimately reveal about them?

9. In their cross-examination during the first case of Miller v. Belmonti & Miller, the prosecution alleged that the defense’s witnesses believed Sally Miller was a slave because John Miller treated her as a slave, and that “because everyone treated her as a slave, Sally Miller, a helpless orphan-child, believed it herself” (p. 159). This tactic proved useful to the plaintiff’s case and illuminated the psychology of slavery. Can psychological coercion be as effective as physical coercion? What were slavery’s psychological effects on whites as well as blacks? Identify other prominent points in history when psychological persuasion was used to motivate or subdue people.

10. Miller v. Belmonti & Miller was a high-profile case in New Orleans, capturing the citizens’ interest and dividing their allegiances. Clearly the case was about more than whether the plaintiff was black or white. What other prejudices surrounded this case and influenced onlookers? Despite having heard all of the formal evidence, what factors caused nonparticipants to align behind either litigant?

11. In the first case of Miller v. Belmonti & Miller, what is your opinion of Buchanan’s final judgment? Was the evidence strong enough to prove the plaintiff’s case? Was there bias in the judge’s decision? How might this case have been presented differently in today’s courts?

12. As in most stories centered around court cases, the attorneys on both sides emerge as central characters in The Lost German Slave Girl. Compare and contrast the legal styles of Upton and Grymes. Were they ethical? Did their private ambitions encroach on their legal decisions? Who would you rather have on your side in a crucial court fight? Were there other court figures who emerged as multidimensional characters central to the story’s outcome?

13. As the plaintiff awaits the final judgment from the Supreme Court in 1845, the author notes a lack of enthusiasm in the courtroom: “Experience had taught them to be wary of justice” (p. 213). Is justice more fair when it is based on the decision of a panel of men rather than one man alone? Did this book make you reconsider the notion of justice? What is fairness, and how far should a society go to enact it?

14. Take a second look at the following paragraph from page 215, which describes the scene following the Supreme Court’s final judgment freeing Sally Miller: “People embraced their neighbors. Eva Schuber and her husband hugged each other. Mr. Grabau stood with tears flowing down his face. Mr. Eimer did a dance to the front of the bar table. Upton turned to look at Salom” M’ller. She sat slumped in disbelief. He called to her, and she looked up and smiled at him, then she disappeared behind a crowd of well-wishers.” The details in this passage are very specific and convincingly portray the emotions of the room, and for a moment the text almost reads like a novel. Do you agree with the author’s use of “poetic license” to lend more drama to the research? Did you find it helpful in evoking mood and character? Where in the book were these details most memorable?

15. Do you agree with the author that Sally Miller, the lost German slave girl, was actually Bridget Wilson the mulatto slave? Does that make the story better? At what point in the book did you become suspicious of Sally Miller?

16. Throughout this narrative, various parties make a call to cast aside feelings and regard the facts as they stand. Is it possible to make judgments without feeling? Must we view history with a cold eye if we are to discern truth? What role do “feelings’ have, if any, in determining the lessons of history?

Related reading:
Strange True Stories of Louisiana, by George Washington Cable; The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, by Herbert Asbury; Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball; Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, edited by James Mellon; The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Wiencek; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs; Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese; Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams; Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone; Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, by Adam Hochschild; Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, by Walter Johnson; Storyville, New Orleans, Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, by Al Rose; A New World: The History of Immigration into the United States, by Duncan Clarke, Elkan Presman, and Stephen Small; The Crucible, by Arthur Miller; The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; Yellow Jack, by Josh Russell

Author Q&A

1. How did you first learn the story of the slave Sally Miller and what inspired you – an Australian author – to recount the tale of a sensational courtroom drama in antebellum New Orleans?

Why me? Why an Australian? Well don’t underrate the pervasiveness of American culture, for better or worse, on the rest of the world. Films and TV of the US are as familiar to Australians as if we lived in Homer Simpson’s street in Springfield. Today, our perception of slavery in the American south comes from Hollywood, or books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this version, the plantation owner regards the slaves as property, just like the cows in his pasture, and if he wants to whip them unmercifully, that is his perfect right.

I wondered was it really like this?

After the moderate (and surprising) success of my book, The White Divers of Broome, about diving for pearls off the West Australian coast, I threw in the law, and decided to do what I always wanted to do – be a writer. My plan for my next book was to put together a slim volume explaining in non-legalistic terms the petty regulations and day to day controls on slaves in the U. S.

My plans unraveled, when one day, in the quiet corner of a law library on a university campus in Louisiana, as I struggled to bring some semblance of order to my unruly and ever expanding manuscript, I opened a volume of the Louisiana law reports for 1845. There I met Sally Miller, the Lost German Slave Girl. I was immediately enthralled by her story. By the end of the day, I had shoved my notes on lawyers, judges and politicians into my bag, and opening a fresh page in my diary, had began to jot down ideas for an entirely different project – this one, on the saga of Sally Miller’s bid for freedom.

The story of the Lost German Slave Girl was one of the most extraordinary cases in slave litigation. When she was discovered in 1843 she was the property of another human being and working in a squalid cabaret located at the back of the New Orleans waterfront. A succession of German immigrants living in the city came forward to say that she should not be a slave because they knew her as Salom” M’ller, a white child, born in a village of the lower Rhine. They swore in court that her father was a shoemaker and recalled the time he had migrated to the United States twenty-five years earlier with his wife and four young children.

Litigation about the identity of Sally Miller ran in the Louisiana courts for many years. What commenced as a petition for freedom developed into a trial about the honor of a wealthy Southern gentlemen accused of the heinous misdeed of enslaving a helpless white girl.

For me, one of the attractions of writing about Sally Miller, was that I could use her story to illustrate many of the issues I had been attempting to put on paper in my book on slave law, particularly how judges decided issues according to principles of property when that property was human, and how it was possible for white-looking people to be regarded as slaves.

During my research I learnt to my surprise that it was a capital offence to murder slaves. A few white men (admittedly not many) were hung for killing slaves, while others were sentenced to years in prison. Branding of slaves was outlawed (only judges could order brandings, on the face of the slave, with the initial of the offence: R for rebellious, T for thief, etc). Castrations were prohibited. In 1850 a slave owner in Tennessee was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for castrating a slave he described as lewd, insolent and a repeat runaway. He and his son had jumped on this ungovernable man as he was returning from the fields, and amidst much struggling, attacked the job with a paring knife.

By the 1800’s much of the law relating to the discipline and control of slaves appeared in the so-called “Black Codes.” Much amended by state legislatures anxious about slave revolts, the codes, in detail piled upon detail, set restrictions on slave activity. The intent was to ensure that slaves remained under the absolute control of their masters, and indulgent owners did not loosen the shackles. The codes ranged over many topics. The drinking of alcohol or the playing of cards was prohibited. Pass systems were set up to stop slaves wandering around at night. In Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia it was unlawful to teach slaves to read or write. In South Carolina it was a crime to hand out any literature to slaves, including the bible.

But the legislators were wise enough to realise that as well as controlling slaves, they also had to control their owners. The more sadistic pleasures of slave masters were curtailed. It was forbidden to scald, burn, and extract the tongues or eyes of slaves. The law designated the proper instruments for the correction of slaves as being ‘the horse-whip, cow-skin, switch, or small stick or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning’. The Penal Code of Georgia prohibited “unnecessary biting or tearing with dogs.” Sufficient food and clothing had to be provided. South Carolina set a 15-hour working day in the summer months and 14-hour day in the winter. Most states prohibited toil on a Sunday, except for household work and when punishment was due. If a slave was hired to another, the hirer had to provide medical attention and care.

2. You have authored four books, each of which offers a strong narrative developed within an exotic location. THE WIRE CLASSROOM (1969) was set in colonial New Guinea; THE MOON BABY (1972) took place in an unnamed future metropolis; and THE WHITE DIVERS OF BROOME centered around pearl shell diving in a coastal town of Western Australia. THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL is set in the Spanish Quarter and the turbulent, international port of New Orleans in 1843. In each instance, you brilliantly create a potent sense of place. How important is travel in your research process?

No book can succeed merely because it is set in an exotic location. Local color helps, but if the narrative, or the message behind the narrative, is weak, the result is as about as interesting as your neighbor’s holiday videos. I enjoy travel, but much of my travel is to the past, where on a cerebral adventure I image how things used to be. The past is always outlandish. People thought and believed in things 200 years ago, which seem extraordinary to us today. However, in writing of the past, the challenge is to appreciate the perspective of a citizen of the times, and to avoid the unsympathetic viewpoint of a busybody intruding from the 21st century.

3. In addition to painting a fascinating portrait of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL offers both an exploration of the strange laws and customs surrounding race, slavery and immigration, and a fascinating David and Goliath courtroom drama that pits a community of working class immigrants against one of the most notorious capitalists and legal teams of the day. What kinds of historical documents were available to you and how challenging was it to find them?

To my surprise I discovered that there were hundreds of law and rules about slavery on the statute books. Legislators, lawyers, judges and priests gave the regulation of slave life and the responsibilities of ownership close and detailed attention. I was even more surprised to discover that there were thousands of cases on slavery in the volumes of America’s law reports. I found judgments touching upon almost every conceivable aspect of slavery. Even litigation concerning a mortgage reveals much when the mortgaged property is a ten-year-old girl. Judgments told of blood curdling brutality, iron discipline, and a judicial hardness of heart. But they also told of compassion, clemency and a high regard for justice. It was a checkerboard of darkness and light. I read the decisions of judges who flexed the law to free slaves, and the decisions of judges who bent the law to ensure they could never be free. I read of cases where judges speedily dispatched slaves to the hanging tree, but I also read of judges who went to uncommon lengths to ensure that slaves received a fair trial – even in emotionally charged cases such as the of rape of a white woman, or the murder of a master.

I spent many weeks at University libraries in Missouri and Louisiana ploughing through old law reports. I looked at archives in New Orleans and the federal repository in Fort Worth, Texas. I read volumes of old newspapers and history books in my hunt for the Old South. I traveled to Germany, following, through records, the path Sally Miller’s family took to the Americas. I cannot read German so I hired a history student from a University in Berlin to dig for me and translate what I was looking at.

4. You are an award-winning historian and an attorney. This tale seems tailor made for you.

The story of the Lost German Slave Girl gave me the opportunity to explore a topic which has long fascinated me. How does a society cope with mass hypocrisy? Louisiana was part of a Union which accepted the credo that all were created equal and had an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – yet a sizeable segment of its population lived in chains.

It is sometimes difficult for us to understand that 150 years ago slavery was not only tolerated in the southern states of America, but also justified as a viable, continuing institution. In the years immediately prior to the Civil War the defense of slavery was both strident and defiant. Legislators, clergymen, judges, journalists, academics, all in ringing, sincere voices, proclaimed that slavery was an institution worth preserving – that slavery was a positive good. There was no discernible cant in their words; these people really believed that there was much that was right in slavery.

Slavery was supported as being natural. It was more universal than marriage and more permanent than religion. Slavery was ever-thus; it was time-honored. Aristotle thoroughly approved of slavery. The might of Rome was built on slavery. The Taj Mahal or the Parthenon would never have been built without slavery. Pharaohs, emperors, kings, queens, popes, tzars, were all slaveowners. The first settlers in the Americas discovered that the Indians held slaves. The Britain purchased slaves for the Americas from African chiefs. John Caldwell Calhoun, a prominent South Carolina statesman who was twice elected US Vice-President, told the Senate that “never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live of the labor of the other.”

Southern thinkers saw a society built on slavery as a bulwark against the violent labor disputes and wild revolutionary movements which swept Europe in the 1840s. The south had created a society where a large white working class was not required. So long as the slaves were kept ignorant, superstitious and cowed, this was a workforce unlikely to rise in rebellion. Southern politicians advised white laborers to forget trade unions and instead save up and to buy a young black man and woman who could provide for him and his family for life.

In an argument (which today we would recognize as “the trickle down effect”), it was claimed that slaves, as well as poor whites, benefited from the prosperity derived from the system. By 1850 southern commentators claimed that slave’s conditions were better than ever. Influenced by these notions, Henry Hughes, a lawyer from Mississippi proposed that slavery should be renamed warranteeism to emphasize that in exchange for work the master warranted the slave security, shelter and food.

The true slave, so the argument ran, were the white “pauper slaves’ of Chicago and New York. The “benevolent” treatment of slaves in the South was contrasted with the ‘destitute and miserable poor” in the crowded cities in the industrial north. It was claimed that slaves, for the most part, were far better fed and clothed; more contented and happy than poor factory fodder who delude themselves by thinking they were free.

5. With so much of the world in crisis, this story of a search for freedom still has resonance in 2004. Do you think there will ever come a time when a story about the search for freedom will seem dated or quaint?

Not a chance! Freedom is the great unfinished business of humanity. But take care – freedom for one, is often the burden levied on another. In democracies, such as where I come from, Australia, and the US, the greatest threat to our freedoms, comes when Governments, in the strident defense of national security, nibbling away at the freedoms of us all. In my philosophy (very much a work in progress) political and individual freedoms are valuable, but so is the freedom to live in peace with family and friends, and peace will never be possible until we face up to the fact that many people of the world go to bed hungry each night – and these people want to be free from stomach-wrenching poverty!