The peculiar color of racial justice

Was Sally a clever slave using a corrupt law?

In the 19th century, the story of Sally Miller was seen as the shocking tale of a white woman trapped in slavery and her desperate struggles to win freedom. More than a century later, historian John Bailey reexamines the evidence and reveals a quite different, even more compelling, tale.

Her life is tantalizing both for what is known and what remains a mystery. Five-year-old Salomé Müller had come to New Orleans in 1818 from the Alsace region on the Franco-German border, along with her parents and two siblings. In Amsterdam, they had been swindled out of their passage money, and the father had agreed that upon arrival the family would serve as indentured servants to pay for the fare.

Shortly after landing, along with hundreds of other German-speaking immigrants, the Müller family disappeared into the teeming port city. A quarter-century later, in 1843, another German immigrant, Madame Carl Rouff, saw someone on the street who looked like Salomé Müller's mother. She concluded it must be the long-lost Salomé, now grown to adulthood. But to her horror, Madame Carl learned that not only did Salomé not remember her, but she was a slave with the name Sally Miller, whose owner ran a local cabaret.

A group of German immigrants, led by Salomé's cousin and godmother, resolved to free Salomé from her appalling fate. Their opponent in court was John Fitz Miller, a prominent slaveowner who had sold Sally to the cabaret owner and who felt that his reputation had been sullied.

The circumstances fascinated New Orleans and later the rest of the country: Had a Southern gentleman broken the code of honor by enslaving a poor immigrant white girl? As the case progressed, people strained to get a look at Sally Miller on the street or in the courtroom and debated whether she had African or German blood in her veins.

Sally was defended by Wheelock Samuel Upton, a Harvard-educated lawyer who had come south to carve out a legal career. Among his arguments was that Sally couldn't be even a quartronne - 1/16th Negro - because of her demeanor. "The Quartronne is idle, reckless and extravagant, this woman is industrious, careful and prudent," he told the judge. Such matter-of-fact talk of racial stereotypes - even by her defender! - was used routinely during the period and can't help startling contemporary readers.

Merely looking white was no sure defense: Mixed-race children were common throughout the antebellum South and were nearly always slaves under the dictum partus sequitur ventrem, "that which is brought forth follows the womb."

Seven German immigrants who had known Salomé Müller as a child insisted at the trial that they recognized Sally Miller as the same person. Several also remembered that Salomé had coffee bean-shaped moles on both thighs.

Physical inspection in the courtroom - including perhaps disrobing - was routine in such cases, but Upton decided against it; no self-respecting Southern white woman would permit such an indignity, he reasoned. Eventually, two doctors privately examined her and produced a document stating that the moles were indeed present.

Nonetheless, Fitz Miller's lawyer outmaneuvered Upton and managed to cast doubt on every point he made. The case eventually moved to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Throughout the book, Sally-Salomé remains a mysterious character. She never conceded, even to her defenders, that she remembered her early childhood, and she didn't testify at her trials, so her own voice is absent from the court records, which otherwise provide rich source material for Bailey, along with newspaper accounts.

Was Sally Miller really Salomé Müller? Bailey thinks not. His research leads him to believe that Sally Miller's is the story of a clever slave woman. "She seized the one chance of liberty that was ever likely to come her way," he writes, "and she hung on to that chance with a tenacity I could only marvel at."

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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