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 and purchased by farmer Robert Newsom 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 14 year old Celia. It immediately became apparent to Celia, however, that Robert Newsom had purchased her primarily to serve as his concubine. Perhaps to keep his liaison secret from his daughters Virginia and Mary, but certainly to provide easy access to his concubine, Newsom provided Celia with her own cabin, a relatively spacious and solid brick structure located a mere sixty paces from his own home. Newsom may have also deliberately separated Celia, the only black woman on the Newsom farm, from her fellow slaves to prevent her from forming friendships or alliances with them. Court records show that over the next four years the rapes continued, and that Newsom repeatedly forced Celia to have sex with him against her will. He 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, who had been poorly throughout her pregnancy, begged Newsom to leave her alone. When he instead returned to her cabin and demanded 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 all-white 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 on November 16. Five days before her scheduled execution date, however, she and another slave on death row escaped from the Callaway County jail, but were subsequently recaptured. The historian Melton McLaurin has speculated that Celia's attorneys may have aided her escape in order to force the Missouri Supreme Court to hear her appeal. On 14 December 1855 the court unanimously rejected the defense appeal for a stay of execution.
Interrogated on the eve of her execution Celia continued to insist that she had acted alone and that she had not intended to kill Newsom that night. Pregnant, ill, and having suffered from Newsom's abuse for more than five years, something inside her had simply snapped. “As soon as I struck him,” she confessed, “the Devil got into me, and I struck [Newsom] with the stick until he was dead, and then rolled him in the fire and burnt him up” (McLaurin, 114). Celia, still only nineteen years of age, was executed by hanging on 21 December 1855. Her case, according to the legal historian and federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham , was even more “venal and racist” than the more famous Missouri slave case, Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). Unlike Scott, who was ultimately freed and who died of natural causes, Higginbotham argues, Celia was executed because the Missouri courts held that “a slave woman had no virtue that the law would protect against a master's lust” (Higginbotham, 694).
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/
Hall, Kathleen. “State of Missouri vs. Celia, A Slave: Trial Record, Selected Links & Bibliography.”
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.
Briona Jones and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.