The Lost German Slave Girl

Written by John Bailey
Review by Colleen Quinn

Salomé Müller claimed to have no memory of how she ended up as a slave in 1840s New Orleans. Was she a German immigrant separated as a child from her family and fellow travelers, then kept and sold as a slave by an unscrupulous bayou landowner? Or was she an unscrupulous light-skinned slave, manipulating the legal system and the emotions of an immigrant community all too willing to rescue a long-lost child of their own?

In the slave-holding states, it was common to keep a slave who looked white, yet unconscionable for a white person to enslave another. But how were the courts to tell the difference between a woman who looked white and a woman who was white? In truth, the idea of blackness was just as crucial as color itself. Author John Bailey traces the many legal precedents the court used to establish its decisions as the case dragged through appeals and questions concerning Salomé herself and the fates of her children.

Salomé Müller’s case was tragic, but no more tragic than the fates of everyone else held as slaves. Her story is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the cruel, arbitrary nature of slavery, and the state’s elaborate attempts to impose fairness on a system in which fairness was the last concern.