Today, we’re talking about a very real murder that was committed by a very real woman who lived in Missouri in the 1850s. But while this murder had all the elements that make for a flashy and exciting true crime story – sex, rape, murder, dramatic court room scenes – it is a very different kind of true crime tale and must be understood within its historical context. This is the case of Celia, an enslaved woman in 1850s America, and based on the work of  historian Melton McLaurin in Celia, A Slave.

Other Episodes of Interest:

Transcript of Celia, A Slave:

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded and produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate

Sarah: This series, we’re talking about true, historical crimes, which is a podcast and television genre that generates huge audiences. People are continually fascinated by these transgressive tales loaded salacious details about everything that we are told we must not do – and I’m talking about myself, too! I love a good Investigation Discovery or Dateline binge. But sometimes, the fascination with murder and the people that commit them glosses over the troubling broader social and cultural forces behind crime.

Elizabeth: Right – take for example the cultural phenomenon sparked by the podcast Serial. For a lot of people, the story is just fascinating murder mystery. But when you really dig into the case, it’s also a story about racial and religious prejudice. The Serial producers did a good job dealing with this, but it was a more nuanced point that for some listeners just gets lost in the shuffle.

Sarah: Today, we’re talking about a very real murder that was committed by a very real woman who lived in Missouri in the 1850s. But while this murder had all the elements that make for a flashy and exciting true crime story – sex, rape, murder, dramatic court room scenes – it is a very different kind of true crime tale and must be understood within its historical context.

Elizabeth: So we’re not going to spoon feed you salacious details. Instead, we’re going to make you think pretty deeply about the culture that made this murder possible – and may have, in fact, made it excusable.

Sarah: Today, we’re talking about the case of Celia, a slave.

I’m Sarah
And I’m Elizabeth
And we’re your historians for this episode of DIG: A History Podcast.

image of a book cover with a wagon wheel, slave cabin, and superimposed image of a young black girl dressed in white

Cover of Melton McLaurin’s Celia, A Slave, University of Georgia Press

Sarah: Right off the top, we want to acknowledge that all of what we’re going to say here about Celia and her life as a slave comes from the work of historian Melton McLaurin, who taught history at the University of North Carolina: Wilmington for decades. We’re going to include a link for you to purchase this book in the show notes, because this is a slim but powerfully important book that I honestly believe everyone should read.

One other thing. Lately, there’s been a powerful push to use the term “enslaved” rather than “slave.” This is because the word “slave” is a label, which makes it seem as though human beings can simply be categorized as possessions; whereas “enslaved” makes it clear that in order to people to become possessions, they need to be actively enslaved. We try to use “enslaved” whenever possible, but sometimes, we will use the term slave because that’s what people in the 1850s said.

Elizabeth: In June 1855, a slave owner named Robert Newsome walked from his home out to the cabin occupied by his slave, a young 19 or 20-year-old woman named Celia. They had a conflict, and Celia killed Newsom. Panicked, Celia dragged the corpse to the fireplace of her cabin, lit a fire, and sat watch through the night, tending the flames, while they slowly destroyed the body of her master. By the time light broke, nothing remained of Robert Newsom except ashes.

Sarah: That doesn’t sound all that different from the kinds of stories that you might hear on a modern true crime podcast. But this is not a straight forward story of a woman killing the man in her life. Instead, the murder of Robert Newsom was a flash point in the most serious and long-simmering conflict of the 19th century: slavery, its expansion, and the sexual violence that lay at its heart.

Elizabeth: So let’s explore how this crime came to occur. Sometime between 1819 and 1822, a young man named Robert Newsom moved his family – wife and two small children — from Virginia to Missouri. The move took place at almost the same moment that Missouri made the big transition from territory to state. As you might remember from your US History I class way back when, this was the result of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, an attempt to keep the peace between the slave-holding states of the South and Northern states, which were either already free, or in the process of ending slavery. In 1819, when the Missouri territory applied for statehood, it touched off serious fears about the fragile balance between the sections. As it stood, there was an equal number of slave states to free; but Missouri wanted to enter as a slaveholding state. If Missouri was successful, it would mean that slave states would have the upper hand in Congress. In an effort to solve the problem, New York congressman James Tallmadge tried to add an amendment to the statehood bill that would require Missouri to prohibit any additional slaves from entering the state, and would require slaves born in the state to be freed by their 25th birthday. The amendment was eventually voted down, and Missouri entered as a slave state with the compromise that Maine – originally the northern reaches of Massachusetts – would enter as a free state to keep the balance. In addition, the compromise dictated that slavery could no longer expand north of the 36’30” parallel, or what became known as the Missouri compromise line.

A map of the United States with the slaveholding states in red and free states in blue, with a green line bisecting the two sections

The green line indicates the Missouri Compromise Line, 36’30” | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Today, it’s common for people to interpret the many failed compromises of the first half of the nineteenth century as good things: they were attempts to avoid the tragedy of war. But that’s not at all how it was interpreted at the time, certainly not by the most important political minds of the day. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it the death knell of the Union.” John Quincy Adams saw the controversy over the compromise as “a mere preamble – a title page to a great tragic volume.” To many Americans in the early 19th century, it was abundantly clear that this was not a smart way to avoid a civil war; this was a clear indication that all of the attempts in the Constitution to appease both non-slaveholding and slaveholding factions had failed, and would continue to fail. This seemed like a very ominous precursor to much, much worse things. As Melton McLaurin writes, “The compromise and the defeat of the Tallmadge amendment gave notice of the South’s commitment to the permanence of slavery. Slavery, the compromise asserted, was not merely a necessary evil, an institution that could be eliminated within a generation or two, or whose fate could be determined by a congressional majority. Rather, slavery was an institution fundamental to the existence of southern society, a permanent part of the southern way of life.” So, in other words, the compromise made it clear that slavery was not dying out, like some members of the founding generation believed (including Thomas Jefferson!), but actually (as we said in our Texas episode!) the cornerstone of Southern society. [Side note: Someday maybe we can have an episode about slavery and the Constitution!]

Elizabeth: But back to our story about Robert Newsome and Celia the slave. In the early 19th century, the states of the eastern seaboard were filling up – Virginia, specifically, was first settled starting in 1607, and after two centuries, the population had increased so that good land was both becoming scarce and had become really expensive. For people like Robert Newsom – not completely impoverished, but certainly not landed aristocracy – didn’t have a really good shot at buying land, which made largely unsettled territories like Missouri really appealing. The land wasn’t quite what it was in Virginia – not necessarily fit for huge tobacco plantations, for instance – but it was also plentiful and affordable. Robert Newsome, by 1855, owned around 800 acres of land in Calloway County, MO, where he grew a variety of crops, such as corn, wheat, rye, and oats, and raised livestock.

Sarah: Newsom’s wife died at some point after his move to Missouri, but he had three children: Harry, Virginia, and Mary. His son, Harry, was in his forties in 1855, and lived on an adjacent farm with his wife and children, as did his grandson, David. His daughter Virginia was in her late 30s, and was widowed (or, at least, was not living with her husband). In 1855, Virginia had been living at home with her father for several years, and was raising her children on the family farm. She had four children: James Coffee, who was 12, Thomas, 9, and Amelia, 6. Another child, Billy, was a little bit of a mystery: he was born after Virginia had moved back in with her father, without a husband. Finally, Robert Newsom’s youngest daughter, Mary, was nineteen, and also still lived at home.

Elizabeth: Also living on the Newsom farm were nine enslaved people: five adult men, a small boy, plus Celia and her two small children. Missouri, of course, had successfully entered the Union as a slave state, and the enslaved population had slowly grown over the thirty years that Newsom had lived there. But slavery in Missouri didn’t look exactly the same as it did in Virginia or the deep South. In Missouri, farmers typically owned just a few slaves, and those slaves typically worked alongside farmers in their fields or at their other work, whether it be barrel or wheelmaking or running a shop in town. Over half of the white families in Calloway county owned at least one slave; but only 12% owned more than 10 slaves. Almost all slave owners owned between 1-10 enslaved people. This does not mean that the farmers of Calloway county didn’t rely on slave labor, or that slavery wasn’t an incredibly important part of their culture: it was. They just were not wildly wealthy, and could not own dozens of slaves unless it was through natural population growth (children). But even those 1, 2, 3, 4 slaves became critical to the successful running of farms like Robert Newsom’s.

Sarah: The male slaves were most certainly purchased for their labor potential. Newsom was running a large and productive farm, and he had no sons living at home to help him with the work. The male slaves would have worked planting and harvesting, caring for livestock, and the day-to-day operations of the farm. And for a long time, that is all the slaves Robert Newsom owned, at least until 1850. It was at that point that Robert Newsom decided to purchase Celia, who was about fourteen years old. Newsom never left a letter or diary that explicitly described why he purchased Celia. Of course, a strong young woman could be helpful around the farm – but he already had four adult men for that work. What could a fourteen year old girl offer? Well, the answer lies in the fact that in 1850, Robert Newsom had been widowed for just over one year. His daughter, Virginia, ran the household as her mother had before her: she would have been the symbolic female mistress, the hostess, the person who managed household affairs. He did not have small children that needed a stepmother to raise them. But Newsome still didn’t have a wife. In other words, Robert Newsom needed sexual release. He saw in Celia an opportunity: a sexual release that would be entirely controllable, subservient, and who, if she bore children, would add to his overall wealth and status by producing more slaves. Celia was purchased with the intent that she be a sex slave.

I’m struggling here with language, and I want to be clear about that. What Robert Newsom purchased Celia for was rape. He was raping her. However, he did not conceive of it as rape. So when I say that he needed sexual release, or he needed someone to have sex with, I am saying that from his point of view. From Celia’s point of view, and from our point of view today, it was rape. This gets tricky quickly. There are many people who interpret any sexual relationship between a white person and a black person during the age of slavery rape; and in a sense, this is right, because there was always a severe power imbalance, especially between enslaved people and whites, and even more especially between enslaved women and white men. But, scholar Annette Gordon-Reed had argued throughout her writings on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that it often isn’t quite that simple. For instance, she argues, Hemings may have felt a great number of things about Jefferson, and she might have also thought of her sexual relationship with him as a tool at her disposal. This was something that she could use, as leverage, to get a better life. She could also have felt tenderness or love or ambivalence for him, and he for her. That doesn’t excuse or negate the power imbalance or the fact that, for instance, Jefferson never freed Hemings, but it does add significant nuance to that relationship.

A political cartoon of a rooster with Thomas Jefferson's face and a chicken with the face of a black woman

James Akin, A Philosophic Cock | Charles Pierce Collection, American Antiquarian Society

Elizabeth: What we know for certain is that was not the situation between Robert Newsom and Celia. While with Hemings and Jefferson we have very, very little information about what their relationship was like, except for a few things recorded or stated by their sons, in Celia’s case, we have trial transcripts from witnesses describing the relationship, and describing things that Celia had told her. And of course, we have the evidence of the fact that Celia murdered Robert Newsom in the summer of 1855.

In 1850, Robert Newsome decided to travel to Audrain County to purchase the teenaged Celia. On the way home, Newsom raped Celia. Rape was a constant threat, and ever-present reality, for virtually every female slave; we know this because nearly every narrative written by a female slave makes reference to the threat, or the experience, of rape. It was not unusual, and while what Robert Newsom did in purchasing a very young slave for the express reason of sexual concubinage was blatant, it was far from socially condemned.

Sarah: Right. This was part of the experience of being enslaved and part of the experience of enslaving. It was written in from the beginning. In the 1662, as slavery started to become coded into the law, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law that stated that children born to female slaves followed the status of their mother – meaning that any time an enslaved woman bore a child, that child was born a slave. This, of course, meant that slavery became cradle to grave. It was permanent. It also meant that there was an incentive for slave masters to rape their female slaves. Every child born to their female slaves meant increased wealth.

A small painted portrait of a woman in a baroque frame

Mary Boykin Chestnut | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: And rape was one of the “open secrets” of slavery. As described by Mary Boykin Chestnut, one of the most famous diarists of the 19th century south: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children – & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.” It wasn’t necessarily something that people talked openly about, or bragged about, or did in a way that drew attention, but it was something that everyone did and everyone knew took place. This isn’t to say every master was a rapist, or every Southerner was a rapist, but every Southerner lived in a society that knew that rape was endemic, and did nothing to stop it.

Sarah: It also was a society that believed that black women were naturally, biologically promiscuous. Black women were seen as overtly sexual and naturally fertile. White women often believed that enslaved women tempted and entrapped white men, luring them into sexual relationships, especially white women who felt trapped in loveless marriages while watching their husbands sneaking out to the slave cabins and little mixed-race children who resembled their husbands. At the same time, there was little white women could do. Southern masculinity centered on what historian Stephanie McCurry has called mastery: they were the masters of their worlds, not just their slaves. Landed men commanded deference, and white women, children, social inferiors and slaves all were expected to defer to the master. Even if a white woman wanted to stop a sexual assault or relationship, she had very little power to do so – and further, it would risk losing her own protected status within the household.

Elizabeth: So in 1850, Celia arrived at the Newsom farm. It seems clear that Newsom intended that Celia primarily serve as his sexual slave. She was referred to publicly as the cook, but it doesn’t appear that she actually worked at that task. Newsom built her her own private cabin, constructed of brick, with its own large fireplace. This cabin would have been luxurious compared to a standard slave cabin, and indicates that Newsom treated Celia differently than his other slaves. Between 1850 and 1855, Celia bore two babies – most likely both fathered by Newsom – that were raised in this cabin. The cabin was just fifty yards behind the family home, so that Newsom need only step out the back door and take a few steps to visit his sex slave.

Sarah: Celia’s life was very much at Robert Newsom’s whim. This, of course, was true for all slaves, but particularly for a female slave being used for sex: while other slaves often could construct their own private relationships, Celia belonged to Newsom even in the most intimate sense. He did not want to share her, sexually or emotionally, with another person. So even while he built her this very nice cabin, it was not really an act of kindness: it was an attempt to keep her isolated and mark her as his own.

But Celia still managed to make a connection with George, one of enslaved men on Newsom’s farm. From what we know, it sounds like they struck up a relationship in 1854, and by early 1855, George was staying the night in the cabin with Celia. We don’t know whether he was only sleeping the night, or living in the cabin with her, or whether Newsom was aware that he was doing this, but it seems very likely that either he did not. During this time, Newsom was still making regular visits to the cabin to rape Celia, and it doesn’t seem likely, given the efforts he took to isolate her, that he would be very supportive or tolerant of her having relationships with other men.

Elizabeth: We also know that in the winter or very early spring of 1855, Celia became pregnant a third time. This time, it was unclear who the father was: Robert Newsom or George. This added a significant new strain to the already fraught triad. According to statements given at Celia’s trial, it’s clear that George was not happy about Newsom’s continued sexual assault of Celia, and the pregnancy – which may have been his – made him even more angry. George was made powerless by Celia’s abuse. He had to stand by and figuratively watch as Celia was raped, perhaps even to stand by and watch as Celia bore another of Newsom’s children. (Again, this was a typical experience of slavery.) This was a serious blow to George’s sense of manhood: he could do nothing to protect this woman who likely considered his wife. He couldn’t confront Newsom – that would certainly have resulted in torture or potentially, even his death. So instead, George did the one thing he could do: confronted Celia. He demanded that she “quit the old man” or George would leave her. Now, it’s not at all clear what George expected Celia do. She couldn’t very well tell Newsom to stop, or fight back the next time he tried to rape her, without risking her own life. She couldn’t claim a “marriage” between herself and George because slaves could not legally marry; even if they could, it wouldn’t interfere with Newsom’s claim to her body. It’s important to point this out too: George did not offer to help Celia end this relationship. He didn’t say, hey, let’s try to runaway together! What could she do?

Sarah: Celia went to the two people on the farm who might be able help her: Newsom’s two grown daughters, Virginia and Mary. She tried to explain that the pregnancy was difficult and she was sick, asking them to intercede with their father to stop coming to her for sex while she was in this condition. At some point, she also stated that if he kept coming to her, Celia would hurt him. We don’t really know how Virginia and Mary reacted to this. Celia’s plea would have unmasked the open secret of the sexual abuse taking place on the farm, and taking place on many farms in the slaveholding south. This also placed the two daughters in a quandary. As unmarried young women, they were entirely economically reliant on their father. Further, they were socially and culturally reliant on their father, and conditioned to be submissive and deferential to him. Finally, sex was really the domain of men – the girls would be risking their honor to confront their father about his sexual proclivities. We also need to consider the possibility that the daughters utterly dismissed Celia’s protests for racist reasons. Almost all white women in the slaveholding South supported the institution of slavery and shared equally in the racist thinking that made it possible. They may very well have believed that Celia was manipulating their father into sex, and then using the resulting pregnancy as a way to get lighter duty on the farm. Finally, we also have to remember that many white women enjoyed the protected status they had within the slave system, which placed white men as the master of the entire household. Confronting their father would mean damaging their position of privilege.

Elizabeth: So what was Celia to do? Well, we know that at some point just before or on June 23, 1855, she went directly to Newsom and begged him to leave her alone, claiming sickness rather than George as the reason. We don’t know what Newsom said, and we don’t know what he felt. To quote Melton McLaurin here: “What he thought of or felt for her, whether he regarded her as a person or experienced even an occasional stirring of compassion for her, we cannot know. It is possible that he felt all of these things, or none. His past behavior toward Celia, however, unequivocally proclaimed that, whatever he felt for Celia, as her master he considered sexual relations with her his privilege.” What we do know is that, perhaps to prove that he could do with her what he wanted, he responded to her plea by telling her that he would come to her cabin that very night to have sex with her. Celia was now more trapped than ever. If she did not stop Newsom, George – who she likely loved – would leave her. She would be completely and utterly isolated, without anyone to relieve terror and trauma of repeated rape and childbirth. At some point, she pointedly warned her master: if you come to me again demanding sex, I will hurt you.

Sarah: On the night of June 23, at 10 pm, after the rest of the family had gone to sleep, Robert Newsom made the 50 yard journey from the backdoor of the family home to Celia’s cabin. We don’t know exactly what happened, but most likely, Newsom tried to initiate sex. We know that the two talked – probably argued. Then, Newsom backed Celia into a corner, insisting that she allow him to rape her. Celia reached behind her, seized a large stick that she used as a fireplace poker, raised it, and struck Robert Newsom hard on his head. He started to fall, stunned, but not dead. Seeing him wounded and defenseless, Celia raised the stick again and smashed it into Newsom’s skull, this time killing the old man.

Elizabeth: Celia knew immediately that if Newsom was discovered, she would be executed. There really was no chance of explaining the situation, and even if she did, a slave killing her master was inexcusable. She could not very well drag him out of the cabin without being discovered or leaving evidence. She sat by the body of her rapist for an hour, thinking about her options. Finally, she built a roaring fire in the fine, large fireplace Newsom had built for her, folded the body up as best she could, and shoved him in. She sat by the flames all night, pushing the body around to ensure it was entirely consumed by the flames and crushing bones into ash. Some of the very large bones would not disintegrate, so she gathered them up and hid them beneath a floorboard.

A large wood paneled room with a large stone fireplace with a wooden chair next to it

A stone fireplace in a slave cabin at Belle Mead Plantation, Tennessee | Flickr CC-BY-SA

Sarah: In the morning, Newsom’s absence was immediately noted by his family. While the daughters and grandchildren tried to determine where Newsome had gone, Celia turned her attention to the large heaps of ashes in her fireplace. She found Robert Newsom’s twelve-year-old grandson Coffee, and told him she would give him a treat if he came into her cabin and cleaned the ashes out of her fireplace. Melton McLaurin weaves this powerful scene: “Stooped over the hearth within the confines of Celia’s small cabin, Coffee Waynescot inevitably would have inhaled the remains of his grandfather, would have breathed his grandfather’s ashes deep into his lungs.” This wasn’t coincidence. Celia would have absolutely understood what she was asking Coffee to do, and I think this is evidence that Celia saw this act as a kind of vengeance.

Elizabeth: The family was immediately concerned that something had happened to Newsom, and seemed to quickly believe that whatever it was had to be foul play. Initially, the family suspected that George might have something to do with disappearance. This is further evidence that the family knew that George, Celia, and Newsom were in conflict. William Powell, Newsom’s neighbor, singled George out for questioning. This placed George in his own quandary. He would be the likely suspect, and it didn’t take much evidence to convict a slave of murder. But if he flipped, and revealed that he suspected Celia, he would be condemning her for something that he effectively asked (forced?) her to do. We don’t know exactly whether George had spoken to Celia that morning, so we’re not sure he knew for a fact that Celia had committed the act, but it certainly would have been in the forefront of his mind that Celia was involved, given her relationship with Newsom and George’s ultimatum. Either way, George told Powell that Newsom’s “last walking” had been from the house to Celia’s cabin. Suspicion immediately fell on 19-year-old Celia.

Sarah: Probably because she understood she couldn’t realistically escape, Celia made no effort to hide or run away. Despite Powell’s intense questioning, Celia initially denied having anything to do with the disappearance. (Remember, at this point, they don’t know the man is dead.) When Celia refused to confess, Powell moved to threats. He told her that her children would be taken from her – a threat that, honestly, didn’t terrify Celia, in part because this was part and parcel of the nature of slavery, and in part because Celia knew that if she did confess, her children would be taken from her anyway. Then, Powell threatened Celia with torture, telling her he “had a rope provided for her if she did not tell.” Celia refused to give in. But after continued questioning, Celia began to break down. First, she acknowledged that Newsom had come to her cabin and insisted that Celia have sex with him. Then, she admitted to hitting him with the stick, but said he was outside the window of the cabin, suggesting that he had then stumbled off. But finally, Celia gave in. She had no one left: George had left her, she could not rely on help from Newsom’s daughters, and with her and her children’s life and health at stake, she gave in and confessed to murdering Robert Newsom and disposing of his body. Powell brought in Newsom’s son and grandson, who then began the search for Robert Newsom’s body. They readily found the ashes and bone fragments. Virginia Newsom gathered the bone fragments in a box, which she kept in her bedroom, along with other items found in the ashes: metal buckles, buttons, and a knife handle.

Elizabeth: The trial of the State of Missouri v. Celia, A Slave began in the fall of 1855. Celia was granted a court-appointed attorney named John Jameson, a highly respected member of the community, former Congressman, and himself a slaveholder. Jameson was considered a good man: a “good” slaveholder, middle of the road in his politics, someone who could give Celia a fair effort. All of the jurors were white men from the county. Less than half owned slaves, and were generally fairly poor farmers.

One thing that is fairly remarkable – at least to us, neither of who are real experts in the field of slavery and the justice system – is that Celia’s lawyer did make an effort to give her a good defense. He probed witnesses about Celia’s ill health, asked them about how Robert Newsom snuck from his bed at night to go to Celia’s cabin, and even questioned the legality of Powell’s questioning and the circumstances under which Celia confessed. He tried to raise doubt over the whether it was possible that Celia actually destroyed the body in the fire in the time available, and even encouraged a witness to describe Celia’s hitting Newsome as an act of self-defense. But, of course, the effect was limited. Jameson was hesitant to push too hard when it came to the sex abuse, being careful to remain with the bounds of propriety so as not to alienate the jury.

Sarah: After the trial ended, what remained was to give the jury instructions – essentially, to give their closing statements in which the prosecution and defense would tell the jury what they wanted them to focus on or what to disregard as they came to their verdict. The defense, led by John Jameson, did not allege that Celia did not commit the crime, but rather than Celia had the right to defend herself from rape and from attack. In other words, they tried to argue that Newsom’s death was a justifiable homicide. The prosecution, on the other hand, suggested that regardless of motives, Celia had no right to kill her master. However, it was ultimately up to the judge which of these instruction were given to the jury. Judge William hall delivered all of the prosecution’s instructions, but chose not to give the jury the instructions from the defense that centered on the issue of motive. Instead, he only read to them the instructions that focused on reasonable doubt and the legality of her confession; nothing regarding her rape or the justifiability of Newsom’s murder was ever uttered to the jury. Why? [General discussion of why: because this offered Celia a humanity that was not considered acceptable for a slave. There was no such thing as rape of a black woman, it did not exist in the law. Black women were sexually available at all times, people believed that they were biologically built to be sexually available. Saying that rape legitimated murder was extremely dangerous – this would mean that slaves like Celia all over Missouri and the larger South could justifiably murder their rapist masters and be exonerated. As Melton McLaurin writes, “acceptance of the defense’s argument that slave women were protected by law from sexual exploitation by white men, including their masters, would have granted slave women legal equality with white women in an area of social activity that, more than any other, symbolized class relationships within the South’s slaveholding society.”

Elizabeth: In a greater sense, Jamesons’s argument amounted to a suggestion that slaves were to be treated under the general Missouri law – not just the slave codes designed to control enslaved people. In plain English, that would mean, simply, that slaves have human rights. This was a serious threat to the very institution of slavery – in order for slavery to survive, it required the inhumanity of those who were enslaved. Acknowledging that slaves have the right to defend their bodies, that they had the right to dignity, was an acknowledgement that slavery was, in fact, the ownership of truly human beings.

It also undermined the concept of mastery. Remember that the Southern gender and class hierarchy relied on the idea that white landed men were the masters of their worlds, not only caring for those within their “household” (expanded to include all those who fell under their social and economic power) but also protecting them. If enslaved women needed the power of the law to protect them from sexual assault, it suggested that their masters failed in one of their fundamental tasks as men. And if enslaved women needed that added protection, then perhaps white women also needed that protection. And if white men could not protect their women, then they were no men at all.

Sarah: The end result of the instructions delivered to the jury was that the twelve men really could not acquit Celia. They could not consider the fact that she might have killed Newsom in self-defense, and they could not consider her years of rape. Faced with only reasonable doubt and the legality of her confession, the jury had little choice but to convict. Judge William Hall upheld the jury’s decision and days later, condemned Celia to hang in mid November. Celia might have had a stay of execution – it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman – but it seems Celia was no longer pregnant by mid November. At some point – the date is not know, whether before or after the trial – Celia delivered a stillborn baby. She had no way of postponing her execution date except for an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Elizabeth: So she took matters into her own hands. On November 11, Celia escaped, aided by someone from outside the jail. The evidence suggests that this outside aid came from a group of concerned Calloway County citizens, maybe even including Celia’s own attorneys. Evidence for this comes from Celia’s attorneys, who wrote a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court explaining that Celia had escaped, aided by “someone,” and that the crime, the result of extreme and inexcusable sexual abuse at the hands of her cruel master, was dividing the white community.

The Missouri Supreme Court met in mid December to hear Celia’s appeal, and upheld the conviction and sentence. No matter how her attorneys felt about her case, they had no recourse. No one tried to break Celia out of jail this time. Celia was interviewed again on the night before her execution, and she recounted the same story. On December 21, at 2:30 pm, Celia was marched to the gallows and hanged.

Sarah: Why did the Supreme Court uphold her sentence? Well, the easiest answer is: she was a slave, and she had killed her master. They didn’t need more reason than that, and to think that Celia would have gotten a fair shake was pretty fanciful. But we also need to understand the intense upheaval taking place in the region in the mid 1850s. The Kansas Nebraska act, which left Kansas’s status as slave or free up to the voters, had created the conflict that became known as Bleeding Kansas. Everyday, newspapers were filled with rumors that anti-slavery forces might be moving into Missouri from Kansas, seeking to incite slave uprisings and free slaves. In fact, in early December 1855, as Celia was likely brought back to jail from her escape and was awaiting the appeals decision, the Wakarusa War, a small skirmish in the long Bleeding Kansas war, took place near Lawrence, Kansas. A small army of pro-slavery Missourians invaded Kansas after a pro-slavery settler killed an anti-slavery man and was then arrested for the crime. Fears about slave insurrection were at an all time high: if the court was to allow Celia to go free after murdering her master would set a very dangerous precedent.

Sources and Further Reading:

McLaurin, Melton A. Celia, A Slave. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

This is the case of Celia, an enslaved woman in 1850s America, and based on the work of  historian Melton McLaurin. Today, we’re talking about a very real murder that was committed by a very real woman who lived in Missouri in the 1850s. But while this murder had all the elements that make for a flashy true crime


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