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. Celia gave birth to two children between 1851 and 1855, the second being the son of Robert Newsom.
Sometime before 1855, a real lover, another one of Newsom's slaves named George, entered Celia's life. On several occasions, George "stayed" at Celia's cabin, although whether for a few hours or an entire night is unknown. In late winter, either February or early March, of 1855, Celia again became pregnant. The pregnancy affected George, and caused him to insist that Celia put an end to the pattern of sexual exploitation by Newsom that continued to that time. George informed Celia that "he would have nothing more to do with her if she did not quit the old man" [trial testimony of Jefferson Jones].
Celia approached Newsom's daughters, Virginia and Mary, asking their help in getting Newsom "to quit forcing her while she was sick." It is not clear whether either of the Newsom daughters made any attempt to intervene on Celia's behalf, but it is known that the sexual assaults continued. In desperation, Celia begged Newsom to leave her alone, at least through her pregnancy, but the slave owner was unreceptive to her pleas.
On June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia "he was coming to her cabin that night." Around 10 P.M., Newsom left his bedroom and walked the fifty yards to Celia's brick cabin. When Newsom told Celia it was time for sex, she retreated to a corner of the cabin. He advanced toward her. Celia then grabbed a stick placed there earlier in the day. Celia raised the stick, "about as large as the upper part of a Windsor chair, but not so long," and struck her master hard over the head. Newsom groaned and "sunk down on a stool or towards the floor." Celia clubbed Newsom over the head a second time, killing him [testimony of Jefferson Jones].
A slave cabin
After making sure "he was dead," Celia spent an hour or so pondering her next step. Finally she decided to burn Newsom's body in her fireplace. She went outside to gather staves and used them to build a raging fire. Then she dragged the corpse over to the fireplace and pushed it into the flames. She kept the fire going through the night. In the early morning, she gathered up bone fragments from the ashes and smashed them against the hearth stones, then threw the particles back into the fireplace. A few larger pieces of bone she put "under the hearth, and under the floor between a sleeper and the fireplace." Shortly before daybreak, Celia carried some of the ashes out into the yard and then went to bed.
In the morning, as Newsom's family was growing concerned about Robert's disappearance, Celia enlisted the help of Newsom's grandson, Coffee Waynescot, in shoveling ashes out of her fireplace and into a bucket. Coffee testified later he decided to help when the slave said "she would give me two dozen walnuts if I would carry the ashes out; I said good lick." Following Celia's instruction, Coffee distributed the remains of his grandfather along a path leading to the stables.
Investigation and Inquest
On the morning of the 24th, Virginia Newsom searched for her father in along nearby creek banks and coves, fearing he might have drowned. By mid-morning, the search party grew to include several neighbors and Newsom's son, Harry. After fruitless hours of searching, suspicion began to turn to George, who--it was thought--might have been motivated to kill Newsom out of jealousy. William Powell, owner both of slaves and an adjoining 160-acre farm, questioned George. George denied any knowledge of what might have happened to Newsom, but then added--suspiciously--"it was not worth while to hunt for him any where except close to the house." Faced with, most likely, severe threats, George eventually provided an additional damning bit of information. He told Powell "he believed the last walking [Newsom] had done was along the path, pointing to the path leading from the house to the Negro cabin." George's comment immediately led investigators to the conclusion that Newsom had been killed in Celia's cabin.
When a search of Celia's cabin failed to turn up Newsom's body, Powell and the others located Celia doing her regular duties in the kitchen of the Newsom home. Powell falsely claimed that George had told the search party that "she knew where her master was," hoping this approach might prompt a quick confession from Celia. Instead, Celia denied any knowledge of her master's fate. Faced with escalating threats, including the threat of having her children taken away from her, Celia continued to insist on her innocence. (She undoubtedly understood that confessing to the murder of her master would be an even more serious threat to her relationship with her children.) Eventually, however, Celia admitted that Newsom had indeed visited her cabin seeking sex the previous night. She insisted that Newsom never entered her cabin, but rather that she struck him as he leaned inside the window and "he fell back outside and she saw nothing more of him." Finally, after refusing "for some time to tell anything more," Celia promised to tell more if Powell would "send two men [Newsom's two sons] out of the room." When Harry and David left, Celia confessed to the murder of Robert Newsom.
Following Celia's confession, the search party located Newsom's ashes along the path to the stables. They also gathered bits of bones from Celia's fireplace, larger bone fragments from under the hearth stone, and Newsom's burnt buckle, buttons, and blackened pocketknife. The collected items were placed in a box for display during the inquest that was to come.
Acting on an affidavit filed by David Newsom, the case of State of Missouri v Celia, a Slave commenced. Two justices of the peace, six local residents comprising an inquest jury, and three summoned witnesses all assembled at the Newsom residence on the morning of June 25. William Powell testified first, providing the jurors with an account of his interrogation of Celia the day before. Twelve-year-old Coffee Waynescot told jurors of Celia's request that he distribute what turned out to be his grandfather's ashes along the path. The third and last witness was Celia, who reaffirmed that she killed Newsom, but insisted that "she did not intend to kill him when she struck him, but only wanted to hurt him." The inquest jury quickly determined that probable cause existed that Celia feloniously and willfully murdered Robert Newsom, and the slave girl was ordered taken to the Callaway County jail in Fulton, nine miles to the north of the Newsom farm.
Doubts as to whether Celia could have pulled off her crime without help lingered, and Callaway County Sheriff William Snell allowed two men, Jefferson Jones and Thomas Shoatman, to conduct further questioning of Celia in her jail cell. Celia added some additional detail to her original story, describing the history of rape and sexual exploitation that began soon after her arrival on the Newsom farm, but she continued to deny that George played any role in Newsom's death or the disposal of his body.
The Trial of Celia
Celia's trial came at a time of heightened tensions over the issue of slavery. In 1854, Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed settlers in those territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery within their boundaries. Northern opposition to the new law led to the establishment of the Republican Party and to campaigns by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups to influence the outcomes of elections in Kansas. Some prominent Missouri figures, such as U. S. Senator David Atchinson and University of Missouri President James Shannon, encouraged their slave-state residents to counter the efforts of abolitionists who were moving to Kansas in the hope of keeping it slave free. Pro-slavery mobs of Missourians attacked both Free-Soil voters in Kansans and threatened fellow Missourians who dared to criticize their bullying tactics. By the summer of 1855, Missouri was awash with pro-slavery rhetoric and increasingly active vigilante groups organized to ensure Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state. On October 6, three days before the start of Celia's trial, John Brown arrived in a Kansas that contained two state legislatures, one supporting Kansas's admission as a free state and one enacting slave laws. On Missouri's western border, the possibility of civil war seemed real.
The political implications of Celia's trial could not have escaped Circuit Court Judge William Hall. Certainly, he knew, pro-slavery Missourians expected Celia to hang. Hall's choice as Celia's defense attorney, John Jameson, was a safe one. Jameson's reputation as a competent, genial member of the bar and his lack of involvement in the heated slavery debates (despite being a slave owner himself) ensured that his selection would not be seriously contested. Jameson could provide the defendant with satisfactory--but not too satisfactory--representation. In addition, Hall appointed two young lawyers, Isaac Boulware and Nathan Kouns, to assist Jameson in his defense.
Celia's jurors, of course, were all male. They ranged in age from thirty-four to seventy-five and, with one exception, were married with children. All were farmers. Several were slave owners.
The prosecution's first witness, Jefferson Jones, described his conversation with Celia in the Callaway County jail. He told jurors Celia's account of the murder and how she had disposed of the body. On cross-examination, Jameson questioned Jones about what Celia had said about the sexual nature of her relationship to the deceased. Jones testified that he had "heard" Newsom raped her soon after her purchase from an Audrain County farmer--and that Celia told him that Newsom had continued to demand sex in the five years that followed. Jones also acknowledged that Celia had told him that she "did not intend to kill" Newsom, "only to hurt him."
Virginia Waynescot, Newsom's eldest daughter, testified next. She described the search for her father on direct examination, testifying, "I hunted on all of the paths and walks and every place for him," including "caves and along the creeks," but "I found no trace of him." Virginia faced questioning on cross-examination concerning Celia's possible motive for the killing. She admitted that Celia became pregnant ("took sick") in February "and had been sick ever since"-- too sick even to cook for the Newsoms.
After Coffee Waynescot described for jurors his unknowing dumping of his grandfather's ashes, William Powell took the stand. Jameson cross-examined Powell vigorously, gaining admissions from the search party leader that he had threatened Celia with the loss of her children and with hanging to obtain her confession. Powell also testified that Celia had complained that Newsom repeatedly demanded sex and that the slave girl had approached other Newsom family members in a vain attempt to stop the rapes. Powell also admitted that Celia told him that her attack on Newsom came from desperation and that she only intended to injure, not kill, her master. After Powell's testimony, the prosecution called two doctors who identified the bone fragments found in Celia's cabin as those from an adult human. Following the doctors' testimony, the state rested its case.
Dr. James Martin, a Fulton physician, testified first for the defense. (Celia, as a slave, was not called as a witness. Under the existing law in Missouri and most other states, a criminal defendant could not--under "the interested party rule"--testify.) Jameson posed for Martin questions designed to suggest that Celia was incapable of committing the alleged crime without the aid of another person. The defense attorney asked whether a human body could be so completely destroyed in a simple fireplace in a span of only six or so hours, but the question met with a prosecution objection, which Judge Hall sustained. Jameson tried rephrasing the question a couple of different ways (e.g., "What, in your opinion as a scientific physician, would be the time required to destroy an adult human body?"), but fared no better with the objections and was forced to abandon that line of questioning.
The second and last defense witness, Thomas Shoatman, testified that, during her jail house interview, Celia had said that after she struck Newsom the first time he "he threw his hand up to catch her." The judge, however, again sustained a prosecution objection to the testimony, and jurors were instructed to ignore the evidence that suggested the second and fatal blow came only after Celia was physically threatened. Satisfied, perhaps, that the jury had at least heard the reasons for Celia's desperate act, Jameson rested his case.
Judge Hall's jury instructions made an acquittal all but impossible. He rejected all nine proposed defense instructions that addressed the question of motive or degree of culpability. Among those thrown out were instructions that would have allowed the jury to return a "not guilty" verdict if the jury believed that Celia killed Newsom in an attempt to fight off his sexual advances. The defense, for example, proposed that the jury be told that they could acquit Celia on a self-defense theory if she believed she was "in imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse." Instead of suggesting any viable self-defense argument, Hall instructed jurors that "the defendant had no right to kill [Newsom] because he came into her cabin and was talking to her about having intercourse with her or anything else." Given the threat the defense's proposed instructions presented to established understandings concerning the very minimal rights of slaves, Hall's pro-prosecution instructions should have come as no surprise. Neither, it is likely, was anyone in the Callaway County courthouse surprised when, on October 10, the jury quickly convicted Celia of first-degree murder .
The jury's verdict in the trial of Celia (October 10, 1855)
Celia's attorneys appeared again in court the next day to move for a new trial, based on Judge Hall's evidentiary rulings during the proceeding and his allegedly erroneous instructions. Judge Hall took twenty-four hours to consider the defense motion, then rejected it and sentenced Celia to be "hanged by the neck until dead on the sixteenth day of November 1855." The defense motion that it be allowed to appeal the judge's ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court was granted.
In jail awaiting her execution, Celia delivered a stillborn child. As the date for her execution approached, still no word had come from Jefferson City on her appeal filed in the Missouri Supreme Court. The possibility that she might be hanged before her appeal was decided seemed ever more real to Celia's defense team and whoever else she might count among her supporters. Something had to be done.
On November 11, five days before her scheduled date with the gallows, Celia and another inmate were removed from the Callaway County jail, either with the assistance or the knowledge of her defense lawyers. The defense team, in a letter to Supreme Court Justice Abiel Leonard written less than a month after her escape, noted that Celia "was taken out [of jail] by someone" and that they felt "more than ordinary interest in behalf of the girl Celia" owing to the circumstances of her act. Celia was returned to jail--by whom it is not known--in late November, only after her scheduled execution date had passed. Following her return, Judge Hall set a new execution date of December 21--a date, the defense hoped, that would give the Supreme Court time to issue its decision on their appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled against Celia in her appeal. In their December 14 order, the state justices said they "thought it proper to refuse the prayer of the petitioner," having found "no probable cause for her appeal." The stay of execution, the justices wrote, is "refused."
Celia was interviewed for a final time in her cell on the evening before her execution. Again, she denied that "anyone assisted her...or abetted her in any way." She told her interrogator, as reported in the Fulton Telegraph, "as soon as I struck him the Devil got into me, and I struck him with a stick until he was dead, and then rolled him into the fire and burnt him up." Celia died on the gallows at 2:30 P.M. on December 21, 1855.