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The Lost German Slave Girl : he Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans
"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
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 Salom? M?ller, 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 M?ller 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.
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January 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey
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 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 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 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'ss 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 1844.5
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 Salom? M?ller 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.
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 Salom? M?ller!
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 Salom? M?ller. 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 M?ller sisters. She looked in sad dismay at Mary Miller. This couldn't be Salom?.
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 Salom? M?ller. The real Salom? 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 Salom? M?ller. Her goddaughter had returned. She rushed out of the room and into the front parlor. There could be no doubt. Truly, Salom? M?ller 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 Salom? M?ller 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 Salom? M?ller and she was a white woman. She told him of the tragedy of the family's journey to America and the death of Salom?'s mother, and of how no one knew what had happened to Salom? and her sister, Dorothea. She told him about the moles. Couldn't he see that there could be no doubt about it? Salom? 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 Salom?.
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 Salom?. 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?