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A READER'S JOURNAL
The Lost German Slave Girl
The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller
and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press/NY in 2003
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007
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The story of Sally Miller has been told several times before this book, but those earlier stories and books were devoted to sensationalizing Sally's life, instead of documenting it. What John Bailey provides us in this book is something rarely found in literature: a compelling account of Sally Miller's attempt to be free from slavery combined with a full documentation of the twists and turns of the court cases. In addition to the battle for Sally to be freed once and for all from the stigma of slavery, there is the battle for her original owner, John Miller, to be free from the stigma of having impressed a white woman into slavery. Both battles will be vociferously fought in Civil Court, Louisiana Supreme Court, Federal District Court, and miscellaneous other courts and courtyards of early nineteenth century New Orleans before the amazing resolution is reached by the end of the book.
This is a vibrant book full of life, heartaches, promises, misery, separations, and reunions. The story pulls you irresistibly along and by the third chapter, "The Year Without A Summer", you will likely be as hooked as I was. I read it straight through in about six hours, pausing only long enough to eat and sleep overnight before finishing it. By the last third of the book, I felt as though I had entered the nineteenth century -- I could hear the man pushing his wheelbarrow of watermelons through the French Quarter, and the urchins tap-dancing on the sidewalks for coins, and horse-drawn carts making deliveries. The courts were located in the Presbytere, the building to the right side of St. Louis Cathedral, off Place des Armes (later renamed Jackson Square when the statue fo Andrew Jackson was added as its centerpiece).
The author is a lawyer from Australia and he stumbled upon Sally Miller's case while studying law reports on slavery cases. He saw an opportunity to tell a compelling story while reaching his objective of shedding light on how slaves were treated in the American court system. In the Author's Note, Bailey writes:
[page x] 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. The 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 those decisions of judges who flexed the law to free slaves, and of those who bent the law to ensure that slaves could never be free.
As for Sally's case, he writes:
[page xi] Litigation about the identity of Sally Miller ran in the Louisiana courts for years. What commenced as a petition for freedom developed into a trial about the honor of a wealthy Southern gentleman accused of the heinous misdeed of enslaving a helpless white girl. As claims and counterclaims were made, and mutual accusations of fraud, lies, and simpleminded gullibility were leveled, Sally Miller's fate became a cause célèbre and was discussed at length by river men in the taverns, traders in the markets, idlers in the coffeehouses, and matrons in the parlors of the highborn. People strained for a glimpse of her whenever she walked abroad so that they too could pass judgment on whether African or German blood flowed in her veins.
In other words, it had a notoriety equivalence to the O. J. Simpson trial in recent decades. Everyone talked about it everyday with everyone they met. Everyday brought new ramifications and even the end of the trial did not settle the mystery. In 2007 Simpson has written a book about the case which answers the question, "If I did it, here's how it might have happened."
In the Author's Note, Bailey speaks of the Cajuns in a rather offhanded fashion when he says, "The British hounded them [the Cajuns] out of Nova Scotia (then called Acadie) in the 1750s because of their unreliable loyalty to the Crown." In reality the British never experienced any acts of disloyalty from the Acadians until they began forcibly arresting the Acadian men, tearing them from their homes and possessions and families, and shipping them offshore of Acadie to other parts of the world. To call this "hounding" is an egregious understatement of the facts of the matter of imprisonment, disenfranchisement, exile, deprivation, and death suffered by so many peaceful Acadian families at the hands of the British who coveted the land of Acadia the Cajuns had ingeniously reclaimed from the sea(1).
Remember the image of Aunt Jemima on the pancake mix packages smiling broadly out from under her yellow and purple bandana? Bailey reveals the origin of such scarfs and why they attained popularity among black women in the South. It goes back to a Spanish governor of Louisiana.
[page xiii] A tignon is a bandana-like headscarf of brightly colored cotton. The story goes that a Spanish governor, dismayed at the unsettling allure of the free ladies of color, ordered that they keep their hair covered at all times. Taking his edict as a compliment, the ladies continued to wear the tignon, long after the law had lapsed.
What was Sally Miller's origin? To Madame Carl who spotted her sitting on the stoop of a cabaret in the French Quarter she was Dorothea Müller, then realizing Dorothea had died on the boat from Germany twenty-five years ago, she was sure Sally was Salomé Müller, Dorothea's daughter. But Sally gave her name simply as Mary Miller. Upon further investigation of Salomé Müller roots, the names of Bridget Wilson and Polly Moore were also uncovered as other names for Salomé Müller. What became of Salomé Müller? Did she become Sally Miller or Polly Moore? And what about Sally Miller -- was she of African descent or German? Was she born as a slave or was she Salomé Müller turned into a slave by some mishap of fate after her father Daniel Müller died on the way from New Orleans to the Miller plantation in southwestern Louisiana. Did she originate as an immigrant from Germany or a slave from Mobile? Did Salomé become Sally Miller of New Orleans in Southeastern Louisiana or Polly Moore of Moorehouse Parish in Northern Louisiana?
In the effort to get Sally Miller free, all of the above origins of Sally and Salomé were uncovered and presented in court with documented evidence. The most crucial evidence were two congenital moles on the inside of both Sally and Salomé's thighs. Those of Sally were inspected by two respected doctors for the court and those of Salomé were attested to by every German immigrant who knew her as a three-year-old in Germany and on the boat over. Either they saw the moles when they changed her diapers or they had heard the moles talked about as a way of ensuring future proof of Salomé's identity by her parents and her godmother, Eva Schuber. Now Eva Schuber was living in New Orleans and was able to identify her godchild by inspecting those birthmarks.
Bailey devotes an entire chapter to "The Children of Slaves" in which he discusses the various laws which applied to the offspring of slaves under various conditions of parentage. The primary law was partus sequitur ventrem which means literally "that which is brought forth follows the womb." The law took care of the problem of ownership when the mother belonged to one master and the father to another. But it had a serious defect, the ramifications of which shows up today in the lack of presence of fathers in so many black families.
[page 14] If it wasn't for partus sequitur ventrem, a slave woman who became pregnant to a white man could demand freedom for her child.
[page 15] Another consequence of partus sequitur ventrem was to gut the role of fathers. It mattered not whether the father was a slave or free man, white or black -- the offspring of slaves belonged to the owner of the mother. Children could be sold, hired, or sent out of the state without their fathers' knowledge. A free man who married a slave woman had to live with the possibility that their children could be taken from them at any time. As a judge in Kentucky once dryly observed, "The father of a slave is unknown to our law."
The emigration from Germany began after 1815, the "year without summer", during which the temperature at night dropped below freezing in June and August brought the return of winter.
[page 22] Potatoes, parsnips, and carrots became rotten in the ground, and beans were nipped away by the frosts.
Winter approached and a desperate search for food began. On the hillsides, grapes, still green and as small as fingernails, were picked while frozen on the vine. Peasants walking across the fields at midday felt the crackle of frost beneath their feet as they searched for beets that might have survived. Gathering enough to eat became a battle with nature. Snails, mice, moss, thistles, and cats were placed in the stew pot. Children were sent into the forest to search for nuts and berries. Bakers without flour made loaves from oats and potatoes. When even that ran out, they saw no reason to light their ovens at all.
As bad as the conditions the Germans suffered which triggered their emigration to America, their emigration was voluntary. While the conditions and losses of life the Germans suffered in their passage to America were as onerous as those suffered by the Cajun a century earlier, at least their emigration from their homeland was voluntary and they mostly made the passage together as a family. There was one advantage the Cajuns had over the Germans: their passage was at least free. The Germans waited in Amsterdam on a miserable boat whose passage they had used all their savings to pay for and whose captain absconded with their money. Stranded in Amsterdam without money, they sold themselves into servitude in America until their passage could be repaid. What both the German and Cajun emigres had in common was that they were on their own if they became unproductive through injury or through illness. The redemptioners, as the Germans were called, could be let go if they were unable to work without consequences. The slaves on the other hand were protected in Louisiana by this law which made their master responsible for them until their death: Section 4 of Louisiana's Black Code stated: "The slaves disabled through old age, sickness, or any other cause, whether their diseases be curable or not, shall be fed and maintained by their owners . . . under penalty of a fine."
The local newspaper and media have given much attention in this nascent twenty-first century of New Orleans' crime rate and murder rate. It was much the same almost two hundred years ago as it is now and for much the same reasons.
[page 54] Those defending New Orleans's reputation of having the highest crime rate of any city in the United States, and a murder rate higher even than Kansas City, pointed out that almost all the criminal activity was confined to the riverboat men, sailors, and the Irish and German laborers. This sort of thing happened in all port cities, and after all, New Orleans was one of the greatest port cities in the world.
Where else but in New Orleans could the concept of the "left-handed marriage" rise to prominence and be accepted without question by all the parties involved? While it may have existed in other places such as New York, London, or Paris, it was accepted in the social mores of nineteenth century New Orleans.
[page 57] The arrangement was described as a left-handed marriage. According to the singular mores of New Orleans, a placee was considered virtuous if she was faithful to her provider, never, ever approached his wife, home, or children, and was decorous in her declining years as his ardor waned. She could never expect to be taken by her gentleman into polite society, nor could she dare risk arousing his jealousy by cavorting in public. The permanency of the relationship depended on the honor of the gentleman (always an unreliable commodity), although if he abandoned the relationship without just cause, he was expected to maintain her, or set her up in some modest business such as millinery or dressmaking. No one expected him to take responsibility for her children. Her daughters, yet another shade lighter, were available for a similar arrangement when they grew up, while her sons were left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, plaçage was one of the few Creole customs adopted by American males of wealth.
When I grew up in the New Orleans area, the concrete walkway in front of our house was called by everyone a banquette and the strip of grass separating four lane boulevards and highways was called a neutral ground. It wasn't until I lived in other parts of the country as an adult that I discovered these usages were strictly local to my home town. Bailey, being an Australian may not know about our usage of "neutral ground" as it exists today, but as a historian, he describes its roots in the center strip of Canal Street which separated the French Quarter from the Américain sector of the city.
[page 58] The two nationalities then proceeded to build separate markets, canals, docks, and railway lines. The broad thoroughfare of Canal Street (the canal was never built) served as the neutral ground between the feuding sides.
But as separated as their business lives are from each other, all the barriers of New Orleanians, then as now, broke down when they have fun, especially during Mardi Gras time, that six week period in winter when everyone who wishes to can be royalty.
[page 59] Kept apart by culture, religion, and politics, the Creoles and the Américains mingled for food, sex, and amusement. They rubbed shoulders in the elegant coffeehouses, in the plush bordellos, at the quadroon balls, and in the tiered cockfighting pits of the French Quarter. They met over the green felt of the gambling tables, and on the horse track at Metairie. They were also likely to meet on the dueling field.
In a footnote on page 60, Bailey notes that "In 1830, one in every seven slaves in New Orleans was owned by a free black." This may be a consequence of that fact that the laws of Louisiana were more liberal to free blacks than those of the Northern states. "Louisiana was also unique among the American slave states in prohibiting the sale of children under ten apart from their mothers." (Page 61)
[page 60] . . . Louisiana accorded free persons of color many rights denied black people in the slave-free North: they could leave property by wills, they could sue in court, even where the defendant was a white person, and they could be witnesses in court cases against whites. There was no prohibition on free blacks owning slaves, and many did so. A thriving middle class of free black people lived in the Fauborg Tremé (located in the First Municipality), which lays claim to being the oldest black urban neighborhood in the United States. The ran small businesses, the men working as tailors, bricklayers, day laborers, gardeners, carpenters; the women as seamstresses, laundresses, and tavern proprietors. A few became wealthy enough to send their children to schools in France and to build large houses for themselves.
To an Australian it would seem unlikely to find water only a few feet down and Bailey notes that in this next passage, but the truth is and on any summer day in the New Orleans miles from the river, one can find water in the ground soil only a few inches down! This explains why there are no sprinklers needed in this area. Even in dry spells only newly planted grass, shrubs, or trees need watering -- the mature plants have roots to reach down to the deepest level of the water table during the driest of seasons with the exception of rare droughts lasting 6 months. Also note how our sidewalks came to be called banquettes, which translates literally as a "small raised bank or walkway". While some barges took a one way trip downriver, many smaller barges were taken apart, packed in wagons and hauled back up the Natchez Trace to the Tennessee River for another trip. In the Westwego Museum one can a visit a home built from the thick planks of river barges.
[page 65] In the more established areas, pedestrians could walk on raised paths of thick planks, call banquettes -- the wood obtained by breaking up flatboats, those huge, lumbering vessels that carried cargo downriver on a once-only journey. Because the Mississippi was higher than much of the metropolis, gardeners digging in their backyard usually found a puddle of brown water a few feet down.
Lawyer L. J. Sigur filed the suit for Sally Miller's freedom in January 1844 with the First Judicial District Court of the State of Louisiana. It claimed that Sally was born of Bavarian parents who emigrated to this country in 1817, who were bound into service as Redemptioners to John Miller in the Parish of Attakapas, her father died, she was later sold as a slave to Louis Bemonti, the defendant in the suit, and thereby illegally reduced to slavery. Now the damning of John Fitx Miller wasn't an essential part of securing Sally's freedom, but it may have been Eva Schuber's wish to blacken his name for his deed of reducing her godchild to slavery. What she had reckoned with was the ferocity that Miller would bring to the defense of his good name. He cared more for that than whether Sally remained a slave or not!
[page 82] "For the value of the slave I care nothing," declared Miller. His motivation, he claimed, was to defend not only his own honor as a gentleman, but the honor of his mother as well. Miller, a lifelong bachelor, was in his mid-sixties. He had rarely lived apart from his mother, and he realized that if people supposed he had reduced a German child to a slave, they would also suppose that his mother must have known about it. "What is far dearer to me than reputation or even life itself," he wrote, is "to remove suspicion from a beloved mother now near ninety years of age, still in full possession of all her: faculties, though sorely grieved that her long life of charity, benevolent feelings, and beneficial deeds, were not a security against the shafts of falsehood and of slander."
During the trial, the new lawyer Upton, who replaced Sigur after he abandoned the suit, became aware that Sally remembered no German words. "When Upton closed his eyes and listened to her, she sounded like any other black servant." Since Sally began speaking English around three, she would have learned all the phonemes of English from the black servants around her and have stored the speaking of these phonemes as doylic memories which can be stored until one is five years old. This would account for her ability to sound just like any black servant to Upton. On the other hand, if Upton had known about the science of doyletics, he could have tested Sally to find out if she also had stored doylicly the phonemes of German! In her pre-three years in Germany, she would have certainly learned to say simple one-syllable words in German like "ich", "mich", "dich", and "nichts" which require a phoneme that no slave would ever be naturally exposed before five years old, especially in the English speaking John Fitz Miller household. If Sally had even said one of those words before five, she could say it accurately with a little prompting. This is a feat which is daunting to adult Americans. For example, U.S. servicemen came back saying "mox nix" from Germany, oblivious of the aspirant "ch" sound of the German phrase, "macht nichts." Nichts is not pronounced anything like nix, but it is the closest approximation to the average American ear. Unfortunately Sally lived 150 years before the advent of the science of doyletics.
Yellow fever, when it infected a child under five, caused a slight fever which the strong healing forces of the child quickly overcame. In addition the healing states during the fever were stored permanently as doylic memories or healing doyles for short. When infected later as an adult, anyone with those stored healing doyles would quickly recover. A doctor, Rudolf Matas, developed such healing states as a five-year-old child, and at age 96 he could still test himself and find the antibodies(2) in his blood stream from that early exposure. Through the insight provided by the science of doyletics, we can understand why long-time residents were mostly unaffected by the disease -- they had been naturally immunized as pre-five children.
[page 95] With a cruel efficiency, [yellow fever] particularly carried off children and newcomers to the city, earning it yet another nickname, "strangers' disease." Eight thousand Irish and German immigrants died of yellow fever while digging the New Basin canal in the American sector (for which they were blamed for disturbing the soil and releasing the miasma). Long-established residents of the city, and those of African and Indian descent, appeared to have an immunity from the disease.
One of the strong points of evidence in Sally's behalf came from Madame Poigneau, who upon seeing Sally around the time of the trial, said, "Yes, yes, I remember you. You were Bridget Wilson, and you spoke like a German." (Page 118) Unfortunately Judge Buchanan was persuaded by defense attorney Grymes's eloquent plea and would not allow Sally's attorney extra time, just ten minutes more, to bring Madame Poigneau to the trial to give this testimony. For this reason and many others, Sally's first trial resulted in Judge Buchanan delivering the judgment on Tuesday, June 25, 1844, that Sally was indeed a slave.
That led to an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court headed by Justice Martin. Upton discovered a ruling finally in the law books in the case of Adelle v. Beauregard which stated that "colored persons were freed unless those claiming them showed them to be slaves." That case was ruled upon by the very young Judge Martin who now headed the Supreme Court in Sally's case. Her slave master was unable to prove that he had purchased her. For this and other considerations, Sally would have the verdicts overturned and she was declared a free woman.
But things began to get stranger and stranger. If Sally were never a slave, then her two remaining sons, still alive and in servitude as slaves to John Fitz Miller, should be set free. Sally demanded that of Miller and he refused. Another suit was brought against Miller which set off his ire, and new charges and counter-charges flew around. The final settlement is left you, dear Readers, to determine for yourselves in the pages of John Bailey's fine book.
I have described the roller coaster for you and I hope have given you the sense of the ride which awaits you. It is now up to you to get aboard and enjoy the ride for yourself. Hop aboard and take a trip into another world, the world of the nineteenth century, when some people could be bought and sold as property, and whether one was such a person or not could be determined by evidence and judges in a court of law. If you undertake this journey into the past, you will return from it with a better appreciation of the land in which you live, and if you live in New Orleans, a better appreciation for how your city came to be the way it is today.
---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
Footnote 2. It seems likely to me that Dr. Matas' testing for antibodies triggered his body's healing doyles which immediately created the antibodies.Return to text directly before Footnote 2.
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