Celia was a Missouri slave who resisted rape by killing her master and was tried and executed for her actions.
Practically all the information that is known about Celia is taken from court and newspaper records of her 1855 trial. She was probably born in central Missouri around 1836. Farmer Robert Newsom purchased Celia in Audrain County around 1850. Celia became the cook and only female slave in the Newsom household in neighboring Calloway County.
At some point on the return journey from Audrain County, seventy-year-old Newsom raped young Celia. Over the next four years the rapes continued, and Newsom fathered one or both of the children born to Celia between 1851 and 1854. After the birth of her second child, she began a sexual relationship with George, another of Newsom's slaves. When Celia became pregnant again in March 1855, she did not know which man was the father. George then demanded that she abandon Newsom.
Sometime around June 23, 1855 Celia begged Newsom to leave her alone. When he instead returned to her cabin for sex that night, she resisted his advances and struck him twice with a stick. Upon discovering that Newsom was dead, Celia attempted to cover up the crime. Newsom’s daughters roused a search party of neighbors. Fearing for his own life, George told the leader that he had last seen Newsom heading towards Celia's cabin. Under threat of having her children taken away, Celia eventually confessed to the murder.
Celia was indicted for Newsom's murder on June 25, 1855. The hearings took place during a period of growing national and local divisions about slavery. Missouri law did not allow slaves to testify on their own behalf, but the court did provide Celia with counsel. The man chosen was John Jameson, a respected and experienced trial lawyer. Jameson argued that the killing was necessary in self-defense and that the criminal laws of Missouri made no distinction by race. He quoted a section that stated simply “homicide shall be deemed justifiable when committed by any person resisting” a felony such as rape. Jameson also hoped to earn sympathy for his client by informing the court of Newsom's history of forced sexual assaults on Celia. At some point during Celia's incarceration and trial, she gave birth to a stillborn child.
In spite of Jameson's efforts, trial judge William Hall advised the jury that they could not acquit Celia on the grounds of self-defense, and all but instructed them to find her guilty of murder in the first degree. They did so on October 10, 1855 and three days later Judge Hall sentenced her to death. Five days before Celia was due to be executed, she escaped with Matt, another slave on death row, but was subsequently recaptured. On December 14, 1855 the court unanimously rejected the defense’s appeal for a stay of execution. Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855, a brutal reminder that slaves were denied the same protections as white citizens.
Brown, DeNeen L. “Missouri v. Celia, a Slave: She Killed the White Master Raping Her, Then Claimed Self-Defense.” Washington Post, October 19, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/19/missouri-v-celia-a-slave-she-killed-the-white-master-raping-her-then-claimed-self-defense/.
“Celia” in African American National Biography
Hall, Kathleen. “State of Missouri vs. Celia, A Slave: Trial Record, Selected Links & Bibliography.” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/celialinks.html
Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. “Race, Sex, Education and Missouri Jurisprudence: Shelley v. Kraemer in a Historical Perspective.” Washington University Law Quarterly 67 (1989).
McLaurin, Melton A.. Celia: A Slave. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Niven, Steven J.. "Celia." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e1331 (accessed Thu Sep 05 11:27:10 EDT 2019).