Celia, A Slave Trial (1855)

For nineteen-year-old Celia, a slave on a Missouri farm, five years of being repeatedly raped by her middle-aged owner was enough. On the night of June 23, 1855, she would later tell a reporter, "the Devil got into me" and Celia fatally clubbed her master as he approached her in her cabin. The murder trial of the slave Celia, coming at a time when the controversy over the issue of slavery reached new heights, raised fundamental questions about the rights of slaves to fight back against the worst of slavery's abuses.

Background and the Crime

Around 1820, Robert Newsom and his family left Virginia and headed west, finally settling land along the Middle River in southern Callaway County, Missouri. By 1850 (according to the census), Newsom owned 800 acres of land and livestock that included horses, milk cows, beef cattle, hogs, sheep, and two oxen. Like the majority of Callaway County farmers, Newsom also owned slaves--five male slaves as of 1850.

During the summer of 1850, Newsom purchased from a slave owner in neighboring Audrain County a sixth slave, a fourteen-year-old girl named Celia. Shortly after returning with Celia to his farm, Newsom raped her. For female slaves, rape was an "ever present threat" and, far too often, a reality. Over the next five years, Newsom would make countless treks to Celia's slave cabin, located in a grove of fruit trees some distance from his main house, and demand sex from the teenager he considered his concubine...