Celia, a Slave
CELIA, A SLAVE
Celia, a slave, was probably born in Missouri in 1836. No documentation of her birth date, birthplace, or parentage exists. Her recorded history begins in the summer of 1850 when she was purchased by Robert Newsom, of Fulton Township, Calloway County, Missouri; at the time of the transaction she was about fourteen years old. Celia's recorded history ends five and a half years later when she was tried and hanged for the murder of her owner; she was nineteen years old and the mother of at least two children at the time of her death. Her final resting place and the fate of her children are unknown.
The circumstances of Celia's short life—and the events that led to her hanging—illustrate the realities of slave life in the South and the personal choices the institution of slavery forced upon slaves and slaveholders. The course and outcome of Celia's trial were influenced by individuals and a court system that were trying to reconcile the personal consequences of slavery with existing moral codes, politics, and economics—at a time when nationwide struggles over the same issues were increasingly heated and often violent.
By 1850, when knowledge of Celia begins, Missouri had already been at the center of the national slavery debate for more than a quarter of a century. The U.S. Congress had confronted the dilemma presented by the existence of slavery in a free society in 1819 when Missouri petitioned for statehood. Angry and emotional debates considered whether a territory should be asked to abandon slavery as a condition of statehood. Congress preempted the debate by passing the Missouri Compromise, under which it preserved the nation's balance by admitting Maine as a free state in 1820 and Missouri as a slave state in 1821. The Missouri Compromise also drew a line between North and South by limiting the expansion of slavery in the Louisiana Territory to areas south of Missouri.
During this volatile time, Newsom left Virginia and brought his wife and children to the Missouri Territory. In the fall of 1822, with state-hood granted and slavery assured for his new home, Newsom settled in southern Calloway County. Hard work and slave labor made him a prosperous farmer—and Calloway County went on to become a large slave-holding county.
Because many core issues of the slave debate were unresolved by the Missouri Compromise, leaders on both sides of the issue knew that it was only a matter of time before the nation's expansion would force another confrontation. That confrontation came in 1850 when Congress found itself waging a battle over the expansion of slavery in territories gained as a result of the Mexican War. Northern politicians wanted to stop the expansion of slavery and assure the admission of California to the Union as a free state. Their Southern counterparts did not want slavery prohibited in territories for which Southern soldiers had fought and died. Missouri, with roughly equal numbers of citizens supporting each side of the issue, was as deeply divided as the nation.
The residents of agriculture-based, slave-holding Calloway County—including Newsom—probably favored the pro-slavery rhetoric and politics described in the papers of the day. The 1850 census for Calloway County, which shows that Newsom owned five male slaves, supports this assumption, as does Newsom's decision to purchase Celia even while the controversy over slavery was escalating to its ultimate conclusion—civil war.
In all likelihood, however, Newsom did not purchase Celia as a political statement. His reasons for buying Celia were much more personal. Newsom's wife had died in 1849. Following her death, his household comprised a widowed daughter named Virginia Waynescot; her children, James Coffee Waynescot, Amelia Waynescot, and Thomas Waynescot; and an unmarried daughter, Mary Newsom. Two sons, Harry Newsom and David Newsom, were married and living nearby.
When Newsom went to purchase Celia, outward appearances suggested that he was looking for a domestic servant to assist his daughters with cooking and household work. Subsequent trial testimony and transcripts indicate otherwise. At any rate, in the spring of 1850 Newsom traveled by wagon to Audrain County, a day's ride to the north of his home, to buy his new slave. On the return trip, Newsom raped the young girl and established the true nature of her future role in the Newsom household.
Over the next four years Celia's life revolved around her role as Newsom's conjugal partner. He provided her with a brick cabin near the main house and other material possessions indicating both her status and his affection for her. He visited her often and he was most likely the father of her first two children.
The kind of relationship Newsom had with Celia was fairly widespread in the South but seldom acknowledged or publicly condoned. Given the daily rhythms and routines of rural life in 1850 Missouri, Newsom's adult daughters were most likely aware of their father's intimate relationship with Celia; because of their economic dependence on their father they also likely did not make an issue of his relationship with the slave. Though not much is known about the details of Celia's interaction with members of the Newsom household, one author concluded from court documents that she must have been a disturbing presence on the Newsom farm.
By 1854, Celia had tired of Newsom's attentions and begun a forbidden relationship with a Newsom slave named George. Sometime in early 1855 George started staying in Celia's cabin when Newsom was not there. Within months, Celia was pregnant and uncertain of the child's father. George, believing the child to be his, pressured Celia to end her physical relationship with their owner. Newsom, believing the child to be his, and unaware of Celia's intimate friendship with George, saw no reason to change the established pattern of their relationship.
Caught in the middle, Celia was forced to make a choice that would eventually cost her her life. At some point in June of 1855, Celia made an attempt to satisfy George's demands and to stop Newsom's sexual advances by appealing to Newsom's daughters. She threatened to hurt Newsom if he did not stop forcing his attentions on her while she was ill (court documents indicate that the early stages of Celia's third pregnancy were difficult, causing her to be sick much of the time). It is not known if his daughters spoke to Newsom on Celia's behalf but it is clear that Newsom's sexual demands on her did not stop. On Saturday, June 23, Celia confronted her master directly, asking him to leave her alone. He ignored her request and told her he would visit her cabin that evening.
Newsom went to Celia's cabin later that evening and was never seen again. When he did not appear for breakfast on Sunday morning his children and neighbors began to search for him and to question the slaves. A statement from Celia's lover, George, led the family to suspect her involvement in Newsom's disappearance. George told the search party that they were not likely to find anything unless they searched near Celia's cabin.
Celia initially denied any involvement in Newsom's disappearance. But worn down by questioning, she finally confessed to his murder. She admitted that Newsom had come to her cabin the night before. She described how she struck him twice with a large stick to stop his advances. Realizing she had killed him, she decided to burn his body in the fireplace to cover her crime. She buried the bones that did not burn under the hearth and she enlisted the help of Newsom's own grandson, James Coffee Waynescot, to carry the ashes out of the cabin on Sunday morning. A buckle and buttons retrieved from the ashes and bone fragments found under the hearth confirmed her story.
On Monday, June 25, State v. Celia, a Slave, Celia File No. 4496, began. Two local justices, D. M. Whyte and Isaac P. Howe, and a jury of six men—George Thomas, Daniel Robinson, John Wells, Simpson Hyton, George Brown, and John Carrington—considered an affidavit filed by David Newsom accusing Celia of murder. They found probable cause to charge her with murder and she was arrested and taken to the Fulton County jail. An October trial date was set and Judge William Augustus Hall was named to preside.
Newspaper accounts of the murder at the Newsom farm fueled local fears by reporting that the crime was committed without sufficient cause (no mention was made of Celia's intimate relationship with the victim or her reasons for attacking him). These fears, along with Celia's physical condition and the belief that her two children were in the cabin at the time of the murder, led the community to believe that Celia did not commit the crime on her own.
Acts of violence by slaves and the possibility of conspiracy and organized slave rebellion were very much on the minds of Calloway County residents in the spring of 1855. A free-slave conflict in neighboring Kansas Territory had moved from debate to bloodshed. Passage of the kansas-nebraska act, which called for "popular sovereignty" in the territories, along with a threatened repeal of the Missouri Compromise, made Kansas Territory a national battleground. Northern activists channeled antislavery settlers into the territory hoping they would eventually vote against slavery. Slaves themselves were encouraged to commit violent acts as a means of asserting their rights and winning their freedom. Missouri residents poured across the Kansas-Missouri border to antagonize Northern settlers, support pro-slavery residents, and keep the slaves in submission.
With supporters on both sides of the slavery issue watching the proceedings, Judge Hall was under pressure to see that Celia received credible representation at her trial. On August 16 he appointed John Jameson and his associates to defend her. Jameson was a popular citizen in Fulton Township. He was a slave owner but he was not personally involved in the ongoing slavery debates. He had practiced law in the community for three decades and had represented Missouri for three terms in the U.S. Congress. With political savvy and a reputation as an excellent trial lawyer, Jameson was acceptable to those on both sides of the conflict.
On October 9 Celia entered the Calloway County Courthouse for trial. After dealing with numerous preliminary and procedural matters, including jury selection, Celia's attorneys entered a plea of not guilty to the charge of murdering Newsom. Like the inquest jury, Celia's trial jury was made up of male residents of the county: all were married and had children, all but one were farmers, about half were slave owners, and none were as prosperous as Newsom. Though certainly not Celia's peers, they were as good a jury as could be expected for the time.
The next day testimony began. The prosecution stressed the facts of the case and reminded the jury that Celia had confessed to the murder.
The defense focused on Celia's sexual exploitation and the motive for her actions. Jameson argued that Celia was entitled, by law, to use deadly force to protect herself from rape, regardless of her previous sexual relationship with the victim. His argument was unconventional and bold because it was based on a Missouri statute that had been created to protect white women; in most of the South sexual assault on a slave was considered trespass, and owners could not be accused of trespass on their own property.
After concluding their arguments, both sides were allowed to propose jury instructions for Judge Hall's consideration. Jameson requested several instructions that would have allowed Celia to be acquitted if the jury found from the evidence that she had killed Newsom in an effort to prevent his sexual advances. The prosecution objected to Jameson's instructions and Hall ultimately refused to deliver them to the jury. Denied any grounds for acquitting her, the jury found Celia guilty of murder.
On October 11 Celia's attorneys filed a motion to set aside the jury verdict and grant a new trial. Judge Hall's prejudicial rulings and his refusal to issue critical jury instructions were cited as grounds for the motion. On October 13 Hall denied the defense motion and Celia was sentenced to death by hanging on November 16. This execution date may have been set to allow for delivery of Celia's expected child; under Missouri law a pregnant woman could not be executed. Court records indicate she delivered a stillborn baby while in custody.
After the sentencing, Judge Hall was asked to issue a stay of execution while Celia's case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. He refused. Though no record of the appeals document exists, Jameson probably included many of the same arguments and issues outlined in his motion for a new trial. By early November the Missouri Supreme Court had not considered the appeal. When it looked as though Celia would be executed before her appeal was heard, her supporters took drastic measures. On the night of November 11 she was helped to "escape" from jail. She was not returned to custody until after her original execution date had passed. Upon her return a new execution date of December 21 was set.
On December 6 Jameson wrote a letter to Judge Abiel Leonard asking the Missouri Supreme Court to issue a stay of execution until the case could be heard. On December 14 the court ruled that it found no probable cause for an appeal. Accordingly, the stay of execution was refused. Celia's fate was sealed by the same court that had earlier exhibited its pro-slavery leanings in the famous Dred Scott decision, in which a majority of the court ruled that a slave remained a slave—even if he traveled and lived in free territory (dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 ).
The Missouri Supreme Court's ruling in Celia's case was filed in the circuit court of Calloway County on December 18. On the afternoon of Friday, December 21, Celia was hanged for the murder of Newsom. In a final statement, she repeated her story: she had acted alone, she had struck Newsom to stop his advances, and she had not intended to kill him. Unable, or unwilling, to challenge the underlying beliefs and behaviors that allowed slavery to exist, Missouri's pre–Civil War supreme court failed to extend the protection of an existing law to a slave.
1850 federal census for Calloway County, Missouri, including slave and agricultural schedules. Dakota/Wescott Library and Minnesota Historical Society.
McLaurin, Melton A. 1991. Celia, A Slave: A True Story. Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press; and New York: Avon Books.