John Bailey examines this piece of New Orleans history in his fascinating though somewhat flawed new book, The Lost German Slave Girl. The book presents the celebrated trials of Sally (the anglicized version of Salome) Miller as she sued for her freedom in the Louisiana justice system. Although her story drew a great a deal of attention at the time, it had been largely forgotten until Bailey serendipitously rediscovered her case while researching another book.
He had intended to write on the history of slave law. During the course of his research inside the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans, however, he opened a volume of Louisiana law reports for 1845. While reading the reports, Bailey realized that there was a more important book to write.
"There I met Sally Miller, the Lost German Slave Girl. I was immediately enthralled by her story," Bailey says in a phone interview. "By the end of the day, I had shoved my notes on lawyers, judges and politicians into my bag, and opening a fresh page in my diary, had began to jot down ideas for entirely different project -- this one on the saga of Sally Miller's bid for freedom."
It is a compelling story and illustrates many of the issues of slave law that Bailey had initially been concerned with. For instance, how it was possible for a woman, who appeared to be white, to still be considered black and a slave. The answer points out not only the convoluted logic of slave law, but also the subjugation of women in general. It wasn't a question of her color, but of her race. It didn't matter that Sally Miller looked white. Her maternal bloodline determined her status. If her mother was a slave, then Sally was a slave.
Although her life was on trial, Sally Miller ironically wasn't the defendant; she was the plaintiff. For her story to be plausible, at some point someone must have chosen to enslave her. John Fitz Miller, a prominent businessman and Sally's former owner, was accused of the crime. Fitz Miller's attorney, John Randolph Grymes, countered that Sally Miller was an imposter. Her mother was of African descent and a slave.
Bailey, a former attorney, demonstrates a fine sense of dramatic timing during the trial section of the book. Up until the presiding judge delivers his verdict, readers will quickly turn the pages with anticipation. And it doesn't end there -- there are a number of appeals, new discoveries, and legal arguments to be made. Bailey saw it as opportunity to show readers the intricacies of slave law.
"The law of slavery, like all law, is complex and, some would say, tedious," Bailey says. "It would be impossible to get the average reader to read about slave law. But if the injustice of the law is brought home to an individual case, then it becomes interesting and vital. Making the book readable, while not dumbing it down, was the task I set myself."
Bailey accomplishes this task, almost to a fault. In furthering the drama, Bailey admits in the author's note, "in some instances I have created conversations and scenes." This produces problems since the reader is never completely sure of the book's veracity. The endnotes that list Bailey's sources offer some aid, but there aren't enough of them. Additionally, the book doesn't have an index, which most historians would find troubling.
Bailey says he was writing for the general public, not academics, and his invented scenes and conversations are a way to keep people reading. "My aim was to get people interested in what I'm interested in," he says. "I saw myself as writing not so much about slavery, but about injustice. At numerous points in The Lost German Slave Girl I have expanded on bare historical sources to inject a sense of the times and to reflect upon the thoughts of the persons involved. All historians do this; I do it more than most."