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,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.
AroundRobert Newsom and his family left Virginia and headed west, finally settling land along the Middle River in southern Callaway County, Missouri. By according to the censusNewsom owned 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 During the summer ofNewsom 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 andthe second being the son of Robert Newsom.
Sometime beforea 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, ofCelia 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. 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,Newsom told Celia "he was coming to her cabin that night. 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.
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. 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. 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 ading 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. 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. 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 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.
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. Two justices of the peace, six local residents comprising an inquest juryand three summoned witnesses all assembled at the Newsom residence on the morning of June William Powell testified first, providing the jurors with an 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 Celiawho 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. 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.
Celia's trial came at a time of heightened tensions over the issue of slavery. InCongress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 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. 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 ofMissouri 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.
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.
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 Jonesdescribed his conversation with Celia in the Callaway County jail. He told jurors Celia's 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 WaynescotNewsom'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. She admitted that Celia became pregnant "took sick" in February "and had been sick ever since"-- too sick even to cook for the Newsoms.
Jackson county courthouse
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.
James Martina 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 deed 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.