1855: The slave Celia, who had no right to resist

5 comments December 21st, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

In 1850, 60-year-old Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer, traveled forty miles from his home in Callaway County, Missouri to neighboring Audrain County to buy a slave. Newsom was the head of a large and complex household that included several of his grown children, grandchildren, and five enslaved boys and men. His wife had died a few years earlier, a consideration that may have influenced his decision to purchase a female slave, a fourteen-year-old girl named Celia.

From the first day, Newsom treated Celia as his concubine. Testimony given before the Missouri Supreme Court in 1855 indicates that Newsom raped Celia for the first time on the journey home from the slave market. He installed her in a small cabin behind his house, where he continued to rape her on a regular basis over the next five years. During that time, she gave birth to two children.

In the spring of 1855, Celia began a relationship with George, another slave on the farm, and soon discovered that she was pregnant again. At George’s urging, Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and pled with them to protect her from their father during her pregnancy. The oldest daughter, Mary, later testified that Celia had threatened to hurt Newsom if he came to her cabin again, but there is no evidence that either she or her sister intervened.

On the night of June 23, 1855, Robert Newsom went to Celia’s cabin, no doubt intent on raping her yet again. He never returned to his own home.

Although Celia was never allowed to testify in her own defense, investigators reconstructed the events of the night through a combination of physical evidence and Celia’s confession. Fearful of Newsom, Celia had hidden a hefty stick in a corner of her cabin. When Newsom attacked her that night, Celia retrieved her weapon and beat him to death with it. She then dismembered the body and burned it to ashes in her fireplace. The next morning, Celia offered Newsom’s eleven-year-old grandson two dozen walnuts in exchange for his help cleaning out the fireplace and spreading the ashes in the yard.

The jury that convicted Celia of murder accepted her confession as fact, but some elements of her tale do not ring true. As Melton McLaurin observes in his book, Celia, A Slave, the task of cutting enough wood and tending the roaring fire necessary to consume a human corpse in a single night “would have taxed the strength of a healthy woman, and Celia was pregnant and sick” (McLaurin, 49). McLaurin implies that George either helped Celia or was primarily responsible for Newsom’s demise and that Celia may have lied to protect him. George disappeared shortly after the murder and was never arrested or charged.

Celia stood trial for Newsom’s murder in October of 1855 (State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave). Her lawyer, John Jameson, argued that Celia was legally entitled to defend herself from a would-be rapist under an 1845 law that made any attempt “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled” a felony. He requested that the jury be instructed that

The words “any woman” in the first clause of the 29th section, of second article of laws of Missouri for 1845, concerning crimes & punishments, embrace slave women, as well as free white women.

The judge, William Augustus Hall, refused to honor the defense’s motion. Instead, he instructed the jury that a slave had no right to resist her master, even in the case of sexual assault. The jury found Celia guilty and sentenced her to death. (Celia’s child was delivered stillborn in prison.) The Missouri Supreme Court denied her appeal, and she was hanged on December 21, 1855.

Celia’s story is currently part of the interactive Slavery and the Making of America exhibit at PBS.org.

For more information, please see the following books:

McLaurin, Melton A. Celia, a Slave: A True Story. (University of Georgia Press, 1991). Google Books preview

Gordon-Reed, Annette, ed. Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. (Oxford University Press, 2002). Google Books preview.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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