THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL
The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans
By John Bailey
Atlantic Monthly. 268 pp. $24
The prodigiously accomplished Australian writer John Bailey was in the United States a while back, poring through old Louisiana law books with the intention of writing "a modest volume explaining in nonlegalist terms the petty regulations and day-to-day controls on slaves in the days before the Civil War," when one case stopped him cold. Himself a lawyer, Bailey recognized at once that the story of Sally Miller, "The Lost German Slave Girl," was "one of the most extraordinary cases in slave litigation." Abandoning his plans, Bailey turned to Sally's story:
"When she was discovered in 1843 she was working in a squalid cabaret near the New Orleans waterfront, the property of one Louis Belmonti. A succession of German immigrants living in the city came forward to say that they knew her as Salomé Müller, a white child, born in the village of Langensoultzbach in the lower Rhine. They swore in court that her father was a shoemaker and recalled the time he had migrated with his family to the United States twenty-five years earlier. They told the judge that the last time Salomé had been seen, it was as darkness gathered on a day in April 1818 when she stood on a jetty on the edge of a swampy wilderness in St. Mary's Parish, Louisiana."
What ensued was a legal battle that kept the courts of Louisiana busy for years. Though the story is a matter of historical record, its outcome will be known to almost no readers today, so a review of Bailey's book must discuss it without betraying its conclusion. Beyond that, Bailey has the gifts of a novelist and a readiness to blend fact and conjecture -- fiction, if you will -- with the result that "The Lost German Slave Girl" reads like a legal thriller.
About Bailey's inclination to fictionalize, more in a moment. First, the story. Salomé Müller was discovered in bondage by a German immigrant named Eva Schuber, who said that she was Salomé's godmother and had sailed with her on the overcrowded ship that brought several hundred Germans to Louisiana in 1818. It was a terrible voyage during which about half those aboard died, including Salomé's mother, and at its end lay the uncertainty of redemption, a system under which immigrants who could not pay their fare agreed to sell themselves into servitude for several years.
Precisely what happened to Salomé's father, brother and sister after their arrival is lost to history. Daniel Müller, her father, was reported to have died, and her brother was said to have fled into the Louisiana wilderness. Salomé and her sister apparently were last seen alone on a riverbank, awaiting an utterly unknown fate.
What followed is a mystery, and an entirely fascinating one. For a time Salomé may have been known variously as Bridget Wilson, Mary Miller and Sally Miller, this last fixed on her by the first lawyer to take her case, perhaps because her supporters in the German community "may have wanted to demonstrate loyalty to their adopted country by jettisoning a name so obviously foreign." She may have been a redemptioner serving various employers. She may also have been a slave owned by as many as six men, the most notable -- and the most crucial to her legal case -- being the formidable John Fitz Miller.
It was Miller, according to legal action filed by the alliance of German Americans, who "in violation of all law human and divine, converted [the] Petitioner into his slave, and as such, did for a long series of years, compel her to perform all the work, labor and services which slaves are required to perform, reducing her in all labor and things to the level and condition of that degraded class." Miller, who was proud and had a fierce temper, was infuriated. "I am unwilling," he wrote, "that the finger of scorn should be pointed at me as a man capable of holding in bondage a white child of tender years entitled to her freedom, for the sake of the trifling value her services could ever be to me."
Though the cabaret owner Louis Belmonti was the alleged slaveholder, Miller took over the case as his own, seeking to "expose to the best of my abilities, the tissue of perjury, folly and corruption of which this case was made up, and in which I was made the victim." Both sides hired high-profile lawyers, and both dug into evidence that was often vague, confusing, incomplete and contradictory. Beneath it all lay the central question: Was Sally Miller white? Bailey writes: "A pure white person couldn't be a slave. This wasn't a presumptive rule that could be rebutted by an owner bringing evidence to the contrary. Quite simply, no white person could be a slave -- and no number of contracts of sale, court records, or memories of mothers in bondage could make it otherwise. At the core, the issue in Sally Miller's case was whether she was of pure German descent. If she was, it didn't matter how Miller obtained her, she must be free."
In other words, the case cut to the ridiculous question with which the slaveholding South was obsessed: What is white? If Sally was as purely Teutonic as the driven Schnee, then there was no question about it: She could not be a slave and must be declared free. But as Bailey points out, at various times it was claimed that she "was a mulatto; she was part Amerindian; she was pure German; she was yellow; she was white." If she had even the proverbial drop of black blood, she was black, and could be in bondage.
To whatever extent the question can be answered in Sally's case, Bailey does so, though his ultimate solution to the many riddles she poses will likely surprise most readers. Certainly it surprised me, though Bailey makes a fairly convincing case for it. He is a diligent researcher and a gifted storyteller, and "The Lost German Slave Girl" zips right along. Some of Bailey's set-pieces are exceptionally well done, most notably his account of the perilous transatlantic journey and his depiction of New Orleans, "notoriously decadent, irreligious, Catholic in name, but not in church attendance."
There remains, however, the somewhat unsettling question of fiction vs. fact, especially for some reason where Sally's lawyer, Wheelock Samuel Upton, is concerned. "Upton's mind wandered through the various aspects of the case." He "sat in the gathering darkness of his office, thinking about what he had read. Was it possible? He dare not think about what it meant."
Those are but two examples among scores. Over and over, the reader cannot help but ask: How does Bailey know that? The answer appears to be that he doesn't so much know it as intuit it. "In some instances I have created conversations and scenes," Bailey writes, "and have woven a sense of the times and the reality of slavery into the narrative. Where the court records are incomplete I have made assumptions about the progress of the litigation and the tactics of the parties; however, the story I relate is true in all its basic elements and the law is as accurate as I can make it."
Fair enough. The true test when such a strategy is employed is whether the results ring true, and in this instance they do. "The Lost German Slave Girl" feels accurate. But it falls somewhere between history and fiction, and the reader does well to bear that in mind.