The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of the Slave Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of the Slave Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom

3.7 31
by John Bailey

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On a spring morning in the Spanish Quarter of New Orleans, 1843.,on a street lined with flophouses and gambling dens, Madame Carl recognizes a face from her past. It is the face of a German girl who disappeared twenty-five years earlier, the daughter of her closest friend. But the young woman is the property of a Frenchman who owns a nearby cabaret. She is a slave,… See more details below

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On a spring morning in the Spanish Quarter of New Orleans, 1843.,on a street lined with flophouses and gambling dens, Madame Carl recognizes a face from her past. It is the face of a German girl who disappeared twenty-five years earlier, the daughter of her closest friend. But the young woman is the property of a Frenchman who owns a nearby cabaret. She is a slave, with no memory of a "white" past. And yet her resemblance to her mother is striking, and she bears two telltale birthmarks. What happened? Had a defenseless European orphan been callously and illegally enslaved, or was she an imposter? So began one of the most celebrated and sensational crusades of 19th century America-the battle to free the Los German Slave Girl. John Bailey, author of the multi-award winning The White Divers of Broome, has brought to life an incredible true story. The Lost German Slave Girl is a tour de force, a work of narrative non-fiction that is a fascinating exploration of slavery and its laws, a brilliant reconstruction of mid-19th century New Orleans, and a riveting courtroom drama. It is also a compelling portrait of a young woman in pursuit of freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
Who was Sally Miller: was she Salom Miller, a long-lost German immigrant girl enslaved by a Southern planter? Or was she really a light-skinned black woman, shrewd enough to exploit her only opportunity for freedom? Bailey (The White Diver of Broome) keeps us guessing until the end in this page-turning true courtroom drama of 19th-century New Orleans. Bailey opens the story in 1843, when a friend of the Schubers-a local family of German immigrants-discovered Miller outside her owner Louis Belmonti's house. Struck by her remarkable resemblance to their late cousin Dorothea Miller, and unusual birthmarks exactly like he daughter Salom 's, the Schubers claimed Sally as kin and set about trying to prove her identity as Salom and obtain her freedom. Bailey brings to life the fierce legal proceedings with vivid strokes. The case was controversial because it wasn't Belmonti but her previous owner, the perfect Southern gentleman John Fitz Miller, who faced disgrace if proved to have forced a white German girl into slavery. Bailey elucidates the bewildering array of possible identities turned up for Sally by numerous witnesses as well as the complexities of 19th-century Louisiana slave law and the status of black women. Sally herself remains an enigma at the center of this highly engrossing tale. Agent, Catherine Drayton of Arthur Pine Associates. 50,000 first printing. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
In this expertly woven expos of a hotly disputed 19th-century court battle, Australian historian Bailey (The White Divers of Broome) takes on the early American South. A series of highly contentious trials was held in the mid-1800s to determine whether Sally Miller, a New Orleans woman, was born a multiracial slave or was in fact a German immigrant trapped in bondage from childhood. The stuff of television miniseries, this sensational and emotional cause celebre 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. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/04.]-Elizabeth Morris, Illinois Fire Service Inst., Champaign Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal - School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A fascinating mystery obsessed and polarized New Orleans from 1843 until its shocking conclusion in 1849. A close-knit community of German immigrants made an amazing claim: they had seen a young slave woman whom they were sure was the daughter of a relative who had sailed with them from Holland years earlier. After her parents died, the girl and her sister had been sent off to become indentured servants. No one knew what had happened to them, but the community was positive that the slave woman known as Mary or Brigit Wilson was really Salome Muller. Lawyers were assembled, and the battle lines were drawn. The Germans maintained that an unscrupulous former owner, John Fitz Miller, had enslaved an indentured child and later sold her to her current owner. Miller hired a "dream team" to press his claim that Mary was merely a clever slave, duping a bunch of credulous immigrants. Adding to the puzzle was her lack of memory of a German childhood and Miller's inability to prove that he had bought her. Bailey has provided a rich, vibrant New Orleans setting. Using court transcripts, pamphlets produced by both sides, newspaper stories, and biographies, he has produced a courtroom thriller with unexpected twists and turns. The details he includes about the horrors of the immigrant experience, and his discussions of laws governing slave owners, make this a valuable history lesson as well.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An immigrant family's struggles bring a web of intrigue leading to a cause celebre in antebellum New Orleans, known then as America's "Sin City." In his dogged dissection of one of the most ornate and convoluted legal cases ever played out in an American slave state, Bailey, who originally published this in his native Australia, does a fine job of resurrecting the ambience and cultural atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1840s. The dominant Creoles' lifestyle in the Vieux Carre is luxuriously carefree; the poor, on the other hand, are scourged by yellow fever, harried by constant threat of floods, and preyed on by landholders, river-men, and other opportunists. And beneath even the poor are the slaves, locked into their fates by Louisiana's elaborate system of racist legal codes administered by courts as corrupt as the municipal power structure that populated them. Into this mix, in 1843, suddenly walks a young woman immediately recognized in a German neighborhood as Salome Muller, the long-lost daughter of fellow immigrants arriving in 1818. She responds by giving her name as Sally Miller and reporting that she is in fact the property-a slave-of the owner of a nearby cabaret. Thus begins the epic struggle of the German community to reclaim one of its own and, in the process, impugn the honor of a plantation owner who supposedly took advantage of an orphaned white girl. But, the court inquires, is she really white? Is she really who she claims to be-or a light-skinned runaway slave imposter? Bailey's trial narrative is a virtual education on the bizarre legalisms once regularly applied to human chattel; when, for instance, freedom eventually comes to Sally-or whoever she was-it is denied herchildren. An eye-opener to the racism that's so deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. Agent: Catherine Drayton/Arthur Pine Associates

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Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.08(h) x 1.34(d)

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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, 1854
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 Carr�. 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 Am�ricain 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 M�ller.

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, Salom�. Madame Carl stood spellbound. Salom�, she whispered. Is that you, Salom�?

My name is Mary Miller, missus.

Madame Carl looked at the woman in bewilderment. You are Salom�, 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 Salom� M�ller.

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 M�ller 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.

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 Salom� M�ller 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 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.

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