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Celia, a slave, stood trial in 1855 in Fulton, Missouri, for the murder of her master, Robert Newsom, a prosperous Callaway County farmer. The events that led to her arrest, her trial, and her ultimate fate provide a fascinating case study of the significance of gender in the slaveholding South, illustrating the manner in which the southern legal system was manipulated to ensure the slaveholders' power over their human chattel while creating the illusion of a society that extended the protection of the law to its slaves.

Purchased a year after the death of Newsom's wife in 1849, Celia served as his concubine for five years, during which time she bore him two children. She lived in a brick cabin he built for her behind the farmhouse, where Newsom lived with two adult daughters, one of whom had two children of her own. By the mid-1850s, Newsom's two sons had established their own farms near that of their father. Sometime in 1854, Celia began a relationship with George, another of Newsom's slaves. When she became pregnant for the third time, George demanded that Celia cease to have sexual relations with her master. Celia appealed to the Newsom women to prevent their father from sexually abusing her. The daughters, however, were in no position to control the actions of their father, who continued to view sexual relations with Celia as his privilege.

On a June night in 1855, Newsom demanded sex of Celia, who responded by beating him to death with a club and disposing of his body by burning it in her fireplace. The family's efforts to find the missing father led George to implicate Celia in his disappearance, and under threat to her children, she confessed and was arrested and tried. Missouri law assigned her public council, led by John Jameson, a noted attorney and democratic politician. Jameson based his defense on the claim that Celia, under Missouri law, had the same right to use deadly force to defend her honor as did white women. This defense not only recognized the crime of rape against slave women, something the legal system of no southern state did; but it also threatened a slaveholder's control over the reproductive capabilities of female slaves. For precisely these reasons it was disallowed by the presiding judge, who agreed with the prosecution's traditional contention that a female slave had no right to use force to reject her master's sexual demands. A jury of local farmers convicted Celia, and the Missouri Supreme Court rejected her attorneys' appeal for a new trial. On December 23, 1855, Celia was hanged in Fulton.

See also Slavery and the Constitution


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

State of Missouri Against Celia, A Slave. File 4496, Callaway County Court, October Term, 1855: Callaway County Courthouse, Fulton, Mo.

Williamson, Hugh P. "Document: The State of Missouri Against Celia, A Slave." Midwest Journal 8 (Spring/Fall, 1956): 408420.

melton a. mclaurin (1996)
Updated bibliography