Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
Chief Justice Watkins of the Arkansas Supreme Court, 1854
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 Américain 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 waterfront; 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 Müller. 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. Salomé'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 Salomé Müller sought her freedom in the First District Court of Louisiana in 1844.
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". 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 Salomé Müller's cousin and godmother, and had accompanied the Müller family on the voyage to America. If anyone could confirm to Madame Carl that she had found the lost girl, it would be Eva.