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Missouri v. Celia, a Slave: She killed the white master raping her, then claimed self-defense

Celia was facing the gallows when she went on trial in 1855 for the murder of the white slave owner who had been raping her. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

She warned the white slave owner that the rapes had to stop. Celia, 19, had endured five years of assaults by Robert Newsom, the Missouri widower in his 70s who’d purchased her when she was 14. She’d borne two of her predator’s children.

Now she was being courted by an enslaved black man named George. When she  became pregnant a third time, George told her the farmer’s abuse could not continue.

Celia warned Newsom that she would hurt him if he came to her cabin again. She also asked his two adult daughters for help keeping their father away.

But on the night of June 23, 1855, Newsom crept into her cabin and tried to force her to have sex with him. Celia took a stick and bashed his head with it, killing him, according to court documents. Then she pushed his body into a roaring fire in her cabin’s fireplace. The next day, his bones were carried out in the embers.

What followed was her arrest and a groundbreaking legal case known as the State of Missouri vs. Celia, a Slave — a dispute that played out long before #MeToo hashtags on Twitter and the explosive sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby and other powerful men.

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In Missouri in 1855,  it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” allowing women to argue self-defense in resisting such assaults. Did that law apply to enslaved women?

Celia’s court-appointed defense lawyer argued that it did. He asked Circuit Court Judge William Hall to instruct the jury that a slave master had no right to rape a slave and that the slaying could be considered justifiable.

But the judge refused to give the jury those instructions. Instead, Hall told the 12 white men weighing the evidence: “If Newsom was in the habit of having intercourse with the defendant who was his slave and went to her cabin on the night he was killed to have intercourse with her or for any other purpose and while he was standing in the floor talking to her she struck him with a stick which was a dangerous weapon and knocked him down, and struck him again after he fell, and killed him by either blow, it is murder in the first degree.”

Professor Martha S. Jones provides historical context and analysis on the State of Missouri v. Celia case during a lecture on March 23, 2016. (Video: State Historical Society of Missouri)

Though Celia had pleaded not guilty, she’d confessed to the crime, according to Jefferson Jones, who investigated the killing. Jones had interrogated Celia in jail about a week after she was arrested to learn if there were any accomplices in Newsom’s slaying.

“I asked her whether she thought she would hang for what she had done,” Jones testified, according to court documents. “She said she thought she would hang. I then told her to tell the whole truth.”

Celia told Jones the farmer had been abusing her for years and “he had told her he was coming down to her cabin that night. She told him not to come, that if he came she would hurt him.”

“I asked her if George had asked her to kill the old man; said he never had. Said that George had told her that he would have nothing to do with her if she did not quit the old man.”

She told Jones that after she killed Newsom, his body lay about an hour on the floor, before she decided to burn it, he testified.

Christopher Gordon, director of library and collections at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, called the trial “a sham. Most everyone on the jury was either pro-slavery or they owned slaves themselves. The thought of a slave — and let alone a female slave — getting away with something like this was not anything they would permit. The defense tried very hard to play on sympathy and cast Robert Newsom as a predator. … But the racial politics of the day won out.”

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At the time, the country was edging toward civil war over slavery, and Missouri was a microcosm of those tensions. White people who supported slavery wanted Celia executed for the murder of her master. But others expressed sympathy for her, wrote Melton A. McLaurin, author of the book, “Celia: A Slave.”

“Although slave law had come in the course of the 19th century to recognize a slave’s right to use force to protect her life, it had not extended this right to include protection against sexual assault,” McLaurin wrote.

On Nov. 1, 1855, the Glasgow Weekly Times reported that Celia had been found guilty in Callaway County Circuit Court “of murder in the first degree … for the murder of her master.”

The jury sentenced her to death, though her case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

While awaiting her execution, Celia escaped. “The negro woman ‘Celia’ confined in the Calloway jail, and under sentence of death, made her escape a few days before she was to have been executed, and was at large last accounts,” the Glasgow, Mo., newspaper reported on Nov. 22, 1855. “She was to have been hung last Friday.”

Celia was captured a few days later.

The state Supreme Court refused to overturn Celia’s conviction. But her execution was delayed long enough to allow her to give birth to her third child. The baby was stillborn.

On Dec. 21, 1855, Celia was taken to the Calloway Courthouse in Fulton, Mo., and “hanged until she died.”

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