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A house divided against itself cannot stand
Abraham Lincoln

In a somewhat crappy 1957 movie called Band of Angels, Yvonne De Carlo played a southern belle, heiress to a plantation in Old Dixie, who discovers when her father dies that: a) the estate is bankrupt, b) it and all the property attached - slaves included - is to be sold off to pay the creditors, and c) the mother she never met was actually her late father’s slave mistress (somebody probably should have given her the heads-up on that one), which means that she herself is a slave, which means down the river she goes with the rest of the goods and chattels. Based on a Robert Penn Warren potboiler, this kind of salacious, sub-soft porn was about as far as mainstream Hollywood ever went in the service of its kinkier patrons, but since Yvonne had the good fortune to be bought by Clark Gable, you just knew it would all come right in the end. In reality, however, when things like that happened (and actually, yes, they did happen), not everyone was as lucky as Yvonne De Carlo.

One such less than lucky person was a slave girl named Sally Miller of Louisiana. Or maybe she was Bridget Wilson from Alabama. Possibly her name was Sally Brigger (her owners had changed it arbitrarily). Or maybe, just perhaps, she was actually Salomé Müller, an Alsatian German from the village of Langensoultzbach in the Lower Rhine. Nobody’s really sure, for the last person who could swear to having seen Salomé was her aunt, Eva Kropp when she (Salomé) was five years old. Then she just vanished.

Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century was not a place you wanted to be. The Napoleonic wars had laid it waste, and climatic conditions had gone into one of their periodic nosedives, resulting in crop failure and famine. In 1817, the Müllers, along with hundreds of other German families, made the trek to Amsterdam and there took ship (actually, a flotilla of rotten old scows) to the New World. Like many before and since, their start was not auspicious. Arriving in New Orleans, those who had survived the crossing were sold as “Redemptioners”, indentured servants, little better than white slaves. Still, unlike their black counterparts, they retained some rights in their service, which, in any event, was only for a limited period. Most were sold in New Orleans, but Salomé, her brother, sister and father were sold up country, and the last Eva Kropp saw of her niece was when she bid her goodbye.

Twenty-five years later, on a New Orleans street, Madame Carl Rouff, former redemptioner and pillar of a now prosperous German community, saw someone she never expected to see again; Dorothea Müller, mother of Salomé. Two problems: Dorothea had died on the voyage over, and anyway, this woman didn’t seem to have aged a day in twenty-five years. There was only one answer - this wasn’t Dorothea, it was her daughter, the lost German child, Salomé.

The woman Madame Carl saw, however, had no memory of Dorothea, spoke no German and introduced herself as Sally Miller, a slave belonging to a Mr Louis Belmonti. Thereafter, there followed a series of trials and appeals though the Louisiana courts which rocked the state for five years and which had repercussions thoughout the ante-bellum US. Were one to go looking for material for a blockbuster movie, one couldn’t find better than this. It had everything, slavery, racism, mystery, the American Dream, trial and appeal lurching first one way and then back the other, it was all there. And yet, curiously, the case was almost completely forgotten, perhaps subsumed into the war which followed on after, until Bailey ran across it while researching some related issues.

After Madame Carl found Sally (or was she Salomé?), the German community rallied to the colours. Salomé’s cousin and godmother, Eva Schuber, became Sally’s rock and champion, coaxing short Teutonic arms ever deeper into cavernous pockets to pay for Sally’s lawyer, and generally keeping her case before the public.

Once battle was joined across the floors of the Louisiana courts, the deepest and ugliest scars of American history were exposed - not merely slavery itself, but the assumptions which underlay the institution, and in the dry, detached and yet hypnotic manner of a skilful lawyer building his case point by point, Bailey lets the facts speak for themselves. Reading this story, you begin to understand why Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield speech electrified America. He was quite right; the differences between North and South were just too huge to be papered over for much longer, and what lay at the heart of this case was the reason why. For Sally Miller (or was she Salomé Müller?) was as white as a button mushroom, a fact which nobody denied, and which nobody in the South found in the least odd or disconcerting.

The law which guided the sale and control of slaves in pre-Civil War America was an ancient legal maxim called Partus Sequitur Ventrem, an old English common law principle which was actually developed to adjudicate disputes between animal breeders as to who owned the offspring of a breeding pair. Roughly translated, it means that the issue follows the womb, or more generally, the owner of the female parent also owns the child. Fine when you’re talking about cows and horses, a little problematical (not to mention chilling) when the livestock in question is human. In practice, what it meant was that a child’s father was of no relevance; status was decided solely on who the mother was. If she was a slave, so was the child. If, as was generally the case, a white slave-owner chose a lighter skinned slave woman as his “lover”, it tended to follow that successive generations of slaves became lighter skinned. That, however, made no differnce to their status, for the issue followed the womb.

This pernicious line of legal reasoning had devasting effects across generations. In one notorious case, the grandson of an emancipated slave was dragged back into slavery because his own mother had been born while his grandmother was still a slave. His mother was therefore also born a slave, notwithstanding her mother’s subsequent emancipation, and therefore her issue would also be born into slavery. This law was enforced quite relentlessly, as contract and property law tends to be to this day. The reason, ironically, is because in civil matters (and slaves being “property”, their ownership is a civil, not a criminal, matter) it is held that the worst that can happen is that you lose some money - nobody loses their liberty.

After the legal proceedings started, Belmonti dropped out of the picture. He never even showed up in court, and there is some evidence that he had genuine feelings for Sally (or was she Salomé?), notwithstanding that he held her in slavery. It appears that he may not have been particularly upset at her gaining her liberty, but “liberty” in the case of an emancipated slave is a relative concept. The reason the Germans funded a court battle, rather than simply using the money to buy Sally from Belmonti was because the rights of a “free person of colour” were severly constrained. Had the law recognized her only as a freed slave, she would have had to leave the state within thriry days unless she got special permission to stay, and even had she secured that, she would have been hedged in by a forest of petty regulations designed to keep such dangerous beings as emancipated slaves under control. It was necessary that the courts recognize Sally as white.

Which brings us to the second principal in the case - John Fitz Miller, the man who sold Sally to Belmonti. Belmonti may have been open to Sally’s emancipation, but Miller was a horse (if you’ll pardon the pun) of an entirely different colour. He considered the implication that he was responsible for enslaving a white child a slur on his honour and presented a parade of highly respectable citizens of Louisiana to testify that Sally Miller was a slave, had always been a slave and they had never seen her in any office other than that of a slave.

How Sally’s lawyer, Wheelock Samuel Upton (what a wonder name) answered this strategy cut straight to the heart of the question of slavery. It was quite simple and quite clever, and also devastatingly effective. Possibly, more effective than Upton might have liked. Something of a shyster, he had planned to use this case to launch his career, but his zealous defence of his client got him marked out as an abolitionist, which, in the Old South, was not the way to win friends and influence people; as well as pissing off a lot of powerful interests, Upton’s defence caused Cletus and Eula-May down in the bayou to think, and that’s always a dangerous game.

In all of this, of course, there remained the central mystery of who, exactly, was Sally Miller (or was she Salomé Müller?). They say everyone has a twin somewhere, and John Fitz Miller’s argument was that Sally was Salomé’s, that she was “merely” a clever octoroon taking advantage of a chance likeness. What followed was a classic legal battle involving missing witnesses, legal technicalities, birthmarks, medical opinions, birth certificates and baptismal registers. By the time it was all over, it hardly mattered whether Sally was black or white, since the effect of the trials was to leave everyone wondering exactly where the line between the two lay. In the hands of an unsentimental writer like Bailey, the effect (as I presume he intended) is to obliterate that line.

Bailey’s style veers from the coldly (and sometimes warmly) factual when he is writing of the Old South and New Orleans culture, to a kind of soft non-fiction novel when examining individual scenes which he imagines must have happened. The overall effect is a page turning narrative which keeps the reader guessing to the end, and which neither “dumbs down” nor patronizes him. It is a remarkable exploration of a by-gone culture and the assumptions upon which it was built, and opens up a seam of American life which is still having racial implications to this day.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 4th, 2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
And my library system has it! It's on my "wishlist," so I don't forget it. Your review ought to go on the author's Amazon.com page. This is the sort of thing I'd normally pass over, but you've made me want to read the book.
Apr. 4th, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
Hi Loupnoir,

Thanks for the flattery! You'll enjoy this one - a fast and engrossing read.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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