Celia, the property of Robert Newsom, stood trial in Fulton, Missouri, in 1855 for the murder of her master, 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 and the manner in which the southern legal system was manipulated to ensure the slaveholder’s power over his human chattel while creating the illusion of a society that extended the protection of the law to its slaves.
Purchased by Newsom a year after the death of his 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 that Newsom built for her behind the farmhouse that he shared with two adult daughters, one of whom had two children of her own. By 1850 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. Upon Celia’s becoming pregnant for a third time, George demanded that she cease to have sexual relations with their 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 regard sexual relations with Celia as his privilege.
Although Celia warned her master that she would use force to prevent further sexual exploitation, on a June night in 1855 Newsom demanded sex. She responded by striking him with a club. Then, frightened that an angered Newsom would kill her, she beat him to death and disposed of his body by burning it in her fireplace. The family’s search for the missing father led George, at first accused of harming Newsom, to implicate Celia in his disappearance. Under threat to her children, Celia confessed and was arrested and tried. Missouri law assigned her public counsel, led by John Jameson, a noted attorney and Democratic politician who had served as Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives and won three terms in the US House of Representatives. To aid Jameson, who was renowned as a jury advocate rather than as a legal scholar, two young lawyers from well-established Callaway County families, Isaac M. Boulware and Nathan Chapman Kouns, were also assigned to Celia’s defense.
Jameson based his defense on the premise that under Missouri law Celia possessed 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 not acknowledged by the legal system of any antebellum southern state, but 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 deadly force to reject her master’s sexual demands. A jury of local farmers convicted her, and Celia was sentenced to hang. Her defense attorneys immediately appealed the verdict, only to have the presiding judge refuse to allow a stay of execution for the appeal to be heard. After what appears to have been an escape arranged to ensure that Celia’s appeal would be heard, she evidently hid in the woods near the Newsom farm in an effort to see her children. While there she was recaptured by Harry Newsom, Robert’s oldest son, and returned to jail, but only after her original execution date had passed. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected her attorneys’ appeal for a new trial. On December 23, 1855, Celia was hanged in Fulton.