For most of us, the finer points of litigation only grow interesting in human form. Or so says Australian author John Bailey, who recently told Xpress by e-mail, “If the injustice of the law is brought home to an individual case, then it becomes interesting and vital.
“I saw myself as writing not so much about slavery, but about injustice,” he goes on to say.
Bailey’s latest book, The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), is exactly as the title suggests — the tale of a New Orleans slave and her struggle for independence.
Which, of course, leads to many questions. Why would a German girl be a slave? Why in the American South? And why is an Australian writing about it, anyway?
Injustice given cerebral form
“Don’t underestimate the pervasiveness of American culture, for better or worse, on the rest of the world,” warns the author in a press release. Growing up on the opposite side of the world, Bailey believed that “in the U.S., people in the cities were gunned down by gangsters and in the country they were shot with arrows by [Native American] Indians.” Imagine his relief to discover a very different America than the one portrayed in movies.
Still, as an attorney and historian, he was drawn to one of the most inexplicable and complex anomalies of American culture: the bygone institution of slavery.
“I have a theory that when injustice is given cerebral form by the leaders of a community, be they judges, politicians or newspaper editors, it becomes entrenched in the soul of a nation,” Bailey explains by e-mail.
While conducting research on slave law at the University of Louisiana, he stumbled across the story — embedded in legal notes — of Sally Miller, whose crusade for freedom tied up Louisiana courts for years.
Miller was discovered in 1843 by a German woman who claimed to recognize her as the long-lost daughter of immigrants. The story goes that 25 years earlier, in a harrowing journey from her native country, the young Salome Mueller was separated from her family and sold into servitude to pay for her passage. With no adult to care for her, Salome vanished in New Orleans. As delighted as the German woman was to find this lost relation, she was horrified to learn that the woman she claimed as Salome was, in fact, the slave of a local cabaret owner. And she had no memory of a German past.
In fact, Sally Miller believed she was a black woman. After all, according to law, no white person could be a slave.
Quadroons and Metifs and Sang-Melees — oh my!
“To most Southerners, the presence of people with pale skins in slave gangs was accepted as a matter of course,” Bailey reveals in Lost. Sally Miller, it is reported, had olive skin and dark eyes. And the author goes on to write that “In Louisiana the Creole slavocracy created an extensive vocabulary for the grades of miscegenation …” He defines in the book the different terms for people who were a quarter (quadroon), a sixteenth (metif) and even a twenty-fourth (sang-melee) black.
The author uses his book to expose the complexity of slave-holding society, revealing laws that bound children as slaves after their mothers were freed, allowed white men to sexually abuse black women and girls, and refused basic education to enslaved people.
But the story of Sally Miller is more of a mystery than straight litigation. Once the supposed German immigrant came forward and asked the support of the German community to secure her freedom, the ensuing court case took wild twists and turns. It wasn’t a simple matter of proving identity: Here, now, was a lawyer hoping to further his career, a slaveholder determined to clear his name after being accused of oppressing a white child, and a woman seeking freedom for herself and her children. “While the other players’ motives were understandable, I regarded [Sally’s] campaign as the more honorable,” Bailey notes by e-mail.
To give any more details of the case would ruin the surprising outcome. Let’s just say that the book, rooted in fact, reads with the momentum and intrigue of a true crime novel. John Grisham, be very jealous.
Law and disorder
One impressive aspect of the story is how the case, set more than 150 years ago, trudged on with little hard evidence. Forget forensics specialists and crime-scene evidence in zip-lock baggies. Proof was gathered by scouring the neighborhoods of New Orleans on foot, knocking on doors, and dragging witnesses out from under rocks.
“In writing this book I have relied heavily on the notes kept by the clerk of the courts, particularly in portraying the events of the trial,” Bailey points out in a footnote. “The approach I have taken is to reconstitute the evidence into what I think counsel asked, and the witness replied.”
Even with the help of the author’s conjecture, in this age of technology and instant information, it’s hard to imagine courtroom drama built largely on hearsay. “Court cases in the 19th century were usually very short,” Bailey maintains in our interview. Sally Miller’s circumstance was the exception.
“Does justice emerge from a longer trial?” he muses of modern law. “Probably, but only for those rich enough to be able to afford drawn-out litigation. The bulk of us give up, and settle for a peaceful settlement out of court.”
As to the relevancy of Sally Miller’s story today, Bailey has a few ideas. Oppression in any age, he believes, is achieved by ” … the presence of an accommodating middle class which is prepared to reap the economic advantages and the security of suppressing a minority, and the readiness to accept moral theories which people know in their heart of hearts cannot be right.” For readers looking for a modern comparison, the author offers as examples the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay without trial, and refugee seekers arrested by the Australian government.
As Bailey wryly suggests, “The law has changed. People have not.”
John Bailey discusses The Lost German Slave Girl at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) on Monday, March 28. 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.