Sunday, January 30, 2005


Who Are You?

The Christian Science Monitor reviews John Bailey's The Lost German Slave Girl, which digs up a strange legal tale from 1840s New Orleans:

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.

There was a resulting court fight to free her, led by fellow German immigrants who swore that Sally was the little Salome that they once knew. Such identity squabbles were not unknown in the pre-DNA era: the one-time "trial of the century" in Britain was the Tichborne Case, which for a while also held the title of the longest trial in British history. A grieving mother insisted that a butcher found in Wagga Wagga, Queensland was in fact her son Roger, a scion to a huge family fortune and presumed lost at sea years earlier. Not surprisingly, the other heirs to the fortune were mightily unamused by his alleged rediscovery, which created the bizarre spectacle of a mother arguing with her family over whether this gentleman was her son.

Curiously, The Lost German Slave Girl came out first in Australia (where it received a glowing review in the Sydney Morning Herald). It sounds like Bailey has done a lot of digging into the court records and racial politics of a long-forgotten case: here's to hoping that more US book reviewers take notice.

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