Celia’s Choice- When an Enslaved Young Woman Killed Her Master For Love, She Shook Up 19th Century America
Sometimes, history’s most powerful stories are its forgotten ones.
In a month that marks the end of slavery with Juneteenth and the freedom to love whom we choose with Pride Month, it bears noting that the month of June also marks the passing of another anniversary. You’ve probably never heard of the date of June 23, 1855 ,but the events of that day teach an enduring lesson about choosing whom you love and at what cost.
The date also marks a personal moment of one enslaved woman’s resistance to slavery’s shameful body politics. Celia Newsom’s unthinkable act and personal declaration of independence caused a national stir at the time, yet has quietly been tucked from view.
But this oversight hardly makes it less important.
At a time when sovereignty over Black bodies, Brown bodies, trans bodies, and women’s bodies has been asserted with ruthless disregard for Constitutional integrity, humanity and freedom through unscrupulous policies and politics Celia Newsome’s story could not be more timely.
A Motherless Child
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home…”
Few words have described the alienation of the enslaved experience like the traditional African-American spiritual “ Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Due to their status as little more than chattel without recognizable legal rights, enslaved parents had no power or enforceable authority to protect their children, an especially devastating consequence of slavery.
Celia Newsom was only 14 years old when she was purchased in 1850 by Robert Newsom, the widowed owner of a large farm in Calloway County, Missouri. Nothing is noted in the historical record about her life before that, but we know that she had a mother who likely loved her.
The maternal bond that enslaved mothers had with their children was both deep and tenuous. The prospect of that day on which they would be sold away from each other and separated for life from was an unflinching reality that loomed over the lives of enslaved mothers and their children like a giant Damocles sword.
That day came for Celia at a tender age-fourteen. Fourteen is a precious, chrysalis moment between becoming and blossoming out of childhood’s waning grip.
You cannot yet own who you will be, but within the sacrosanct, untouched geography of self, you can still hope to chart a course that is different from those who came before you. And there is freedom in that, even if only for a few fleeting moments, for an enslaved teenage girl.
For Celia, the realization that the trajectory of her life left no room for the brightness of hope. One can only imagine the terror and grief of being sold away from your mother at the age of 14.
Then imagine the compounded trauma of having to grasp the shattering shock of enduring a rape by a 60-year old man who is a complete stranger to you within an hour of your sale to him. We would be catatonic. In one day, in one hour in fact, Celia experience the brutal reality of of having lost both her mother and her innocence.
When she finally arrived at her new home, there was no balm of consolation there for her physical and emotional violation. There were no surrogate slave mothers to hold her close to their chests and whisper words of solace.
There were no tender hands to help her clean herself with herbal remedies that could heal her broken child’s vagina. There were no songs about joy in the morning from the voices of women who knew something about dark, dark nights.
She was alone, the only female slave out of six slaves. The women around were Newsom’s widowed daughter, Virginia Wainscott, and his younger daughter, Mary. She was 14, the same age as Celia. And like Celia, she was also motherless.
But their realities could not be more different.
Over the next five years, Newsom’s unceasing sexual abuse of Celia would result in her bearing two children for him. Their children were her only family at the farm. When not caring for them, she worked at the farm as its cook. Her cabin was located exactly 50 yards from the main house, along a path that was not marked, but well worn.
“The Thing We Cannot Name”
“God, forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and inequity”-Author, Mary Boykin Chestnut, A Confederate Lady’s Diary (1861)
Sexual violence and coercion were an embedded norm of slave life. In many ways, it was a degrading and exploitative extension of the idea of conjugal privilege that men felt entitled to from their wives. But as the writer Mary Boykin Chestnut noted, this behavior turned slave women into prostitutes and made White women complicit in a “social evil.”
For free white women, sexual coercion within a marriage was equally rampant and legally sanctioned as part of a wife’s duty. It’s stunning to think in the era of #MeToo, that rape had no legal consequences in this country until the mid-19th century.
Before state laws were passed against sexual assault, the bodies of women were for all intents and purposes akin to community property. Legal remedy for assault against their person was considered within the context of whose property they were.
Under the common-law principle of coverture, even White women who were free were considered the property of their husbands. Their wages, any land or gifts, all belonged to their husbands,unless a special trust was created for their personal use.
Like enslaved women, White women had no legal governance over their bodies or legal entitlement against rape or non-consensual sexual relations. Their status as property of either husbands or fathers mirrored that of enslaved people.
The press for freedom was not only a guiding principle in the national debate about slavery’s expansion, but the nascent women’s rights movement that began gaining traction in the 1840s. The parallels were largely lost on the bubbled bliss of plantation society, even its women who were indifferent to repeated sexual violence leveled against enslaved women.
But the undercurrents of change were roiling with increasing fierceness on the Newsom farm. And nothing could turn the tide.
Celia Newsom had fallen in love.
Love Among the Ruins
His name was George. He also worked at the farm, one of the newer slaves purchased by Newsom. Celia found herself pregnant in the winter of 1855 with a third child, uncertain as to whether it was George’s or Newsom’s. George however, was convinced that it was his child and became increasingly territorial regarding Celia.
Celia became so ill during this pregnancy that she could not longer work in the kitchen of the Newsom household. The stress and turmoil of balancing her love for George with the unyielding demands of Robert Newsom, now 65, was taking a toll. But her spirit had also been emboldened.
Love had given her a sense of something that she had never thought possible in her circumstances- happiness.
So Celia went to Newsom’s daughters and implored them to ask their father to leave her alone. She never mentioned George, of course, but referenced being “sick” as a reason for asking Newsom to put an end to his late night jaunts to her cabin.
His daughters, unsurprisingly, failed to intervene. Celia’s request put them in the uncomfortable position of both acknowledging their father’s illicit behavior and recognizing Celia’s right to resist it.
Things came to head in a confrontation some time in the spring or early days of June between George, Celia and Robert Newsom. It’s unclear what was said. What is clear is this- Both men felt they were singularly entitled to Celia’s time and affections.
Days later, George drew a line in the sand. He told Celia that she either “quit” Newsom ( as if she had a choice) or they were through. He must have known that his words would place an unbearable psychological weight on Celia’s devoted heart.
He had presented her with an impossible choice that created emotional and physical risk. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And for Celia, now 19-years old, loving George as an enslaved woman was the one thing that she had freely chosen for herself in life that belonged to someone else.
On June 23, 1855, Celia confronted Newsom. She warned him that the next time he came to her cabin pressing for sex, she would “hurt him.” Newsom with a bemused dismissiveness told Celia to expect a visit from him later that night. Her warning meant nothing, after all it had been a fool’s errand in the first place. Moreover, Newsom believed that he had the upper hand.
But he was wrong.
“ The Devil Got Into Me”
On the evening of June 23, sometime after 10pm, Robert Newsom left the bed that he shared with his grandson and ventured out of his house in the warm summer air towards Celia’s cabin. Undaunted by Celia’s warning, he believed that this night would be like all the others of the last five years.
When Newsom entered Celia’s cabin, he found her alone. George spent nights there, but he was not there this night, not after his ultimatum. Newsom reached for Celia,but she protested and a quarrel ensued.
Enraged, Newsom backed Celia into a corner pressing her against the wall. Celia shifted to the side and reached for a large stick behind her, a stick she described as being “nearly as large as the top part of a Windsor chair”, that she used a a fire poker.
She struck Newsom on the top part of his head and he stumbled back into a nearby stool. It appeared to Celia that he was reaching up to grab her and she struck him on the head again. This time, her blow cracked his skull. When Robert Newsom tumbled out of the stool onto the floor of her cabin, he was dead.
It’s unclear where her children were in the midst of this turmoil. It’s unclear as to whether her heart was beating so fast and furiously that she felt lightheaded and unsteady as the blood rushed through her ears like a bursting dam.
Based on her written testimony later, Celia simply sat in her rocking chair for approximately an hour peering at the dead body of Robert Newsom thinking about she should do next. She said later that she expected to “hang” for what she had done. As she came to terms with what happened, she pondered how to buy more time to avoid the fate that lay before her.
Finally, as she rocked, an idea came to her.
Mustering up her remaining strength Celia gathered the firewood needed to build a huge raging fire. Then, giving Robert Newsom one last look, Celia Newsom pushed and heaved her tormentor’s body into the fireplace. And burned it.
The smoke curled up through her chimney into the night air like a phantom. No matter why lie ahead, Celia was finally free.
The Morning After-Sorry, not Sorry
The only thing that remained now of Robert Newsom were ashes.
Celia didn’t dispose of the large piles of ashes now in her fireplace, however. Instead, she offered Newsom’s 11 year old grandson, Coffee, a treat of dozen walnuts if he would do her the special favor of carrying out the ashes in her fireplace.
He had no idea that the ashes contained his grandfather’s incinerated remains. He didn’t know that he committed an unwitting act of poetic justice when he emptied the bucket of those ashes along the unmarked, but well worn path between Newsom’s house, Celia’s cabin and the stables.
Newsom’s disappearance had drawn the immediate attention of his family and a search party of neighboring farmers was quickly organized to find him. There was no sign of him by the creek, in the fields or stables. It was if he had vanished into thin air.
Someone remembered the confrontation between Newsom, George and Celia. Foul play was suspected. All eyes turned to George, Celia’s lover, as the probable culprit. He was questioned as a suspect, but quickly flipped and pointed the finger at Celia saying that the last time he saw Robert Newsom was on the path to Celia’s cabin. He advised the search party to look there.
Celia’s cabin was searched. No body. Celia was questioned. No answers. For hours she proclaimed her innocence. No threat could shake her, not even the possible sale of her children or George from the plantation.
After she was threatened with torture, she conceded having hit Newsom, but said she had no idea where he went after stumbling out of her cabin. Finally, she asked William Powell, the farmer whom she knew best, to ask the other farmers to leave. Then, she confessed to having unintentionally killed Newsom. She told Powell that she’d only meant to “hurt him , not kill him. She did not beg for Powell’s mercy or forgiveness
The Improbable Trial, the Inevitable E.nd
The days and months that followed Celia’s confession were a whirlwind. The country was riveted by her story. Plantation society and slaveowners were in a tailspin. The nation, torn by the conflict between the free state of Kansas and the state of Missouri was on the verge of civil war.
Only fourteen years earlier, Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia and the smaller, less notorious revolts that followed had turned slavery into an even meaner institution. The unease of slave owners resulted in brutal, unspeakably violent retribution against slaves for the smallest of infractions, let alone their participation in a slave revolt. Death and torture were now the currency of control on plantations and farms.
And yet Celia, this nineteen-year old woman in Calloway County, Missouri survived her confession of killing her master for another six months. It was remarkable that she wasn’t the victim of vigilante justice or whipped within an inch of her life.
After her confession, the local court conducted an inquest, which included her account of the events. The inquest led to a finding of probable cause for charging Celia with murder and she was arrested. The collective restraint of the citizens of Calloway will always be a mystery and a reminder that there were nuances to slavery west of the Mississippi
This was especially evident in the court’s appointment of an excellent lawyer for Celia-John Jameson, a former Congressman and well-regarded member of the bar. Jameson was also a slaveowner, but he was determined to defend Celie as vigorously as he could. He hired two young lawyers to join his team.
They decided to base her defense on a new theory stemming from Missouri’s new sexual assault law, which was passed in 1845. Under this law, the state declared it a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and, by force, menace, or duress, compel her to be defiled.”
Celia’s case raised three important questions under this statute.
First, could the rule of law protect slave women against rape and sexual assault by their masters? Second, did a pattern of rape in this instance mitigate the charge of first-degree murder? Third, were enslaved women, women first with recognized legal rights, rather than property?
It was the first case of its kind in the country. And Celia was the right victim and defendant for its consideration. Like Rosa Parks a century later, It was clear that Celia had a certain standing and respectability within the Calloway County community.
While she had been questioned aggressively, she was not physically harmed. She had been able to order a young white boy to carry out a chore for her. She had been able to take a sick leave from her duties. Her trial wasn’t scheduled until October due to her pregnancy. And the community was split on what her fate should be. Some felt quite strongly that Celia’s actions were justified.
The unsympathetic presiding judge over her trial ordered that witness references to her forced intercourse with Robert Newsom be stricken from the record. He denied the defense motions, there were nine of them, which raised legally viable questions about whether Celia has the requisite motive for committing murder in the first-degree.
The defense also submitted a request for instructions that would have advised the jury that Celia has the right to defend herself about the imminent possibility of coerced intercourse. The jury had not choice but to find Celia guilty based on the judge’s instructions and rulings.
Had the judge allowed everything presented by the defense, Celia would have been found not guilty under the laws of Missouri. But all hell would break loose. A slave rebellion among enslaved women would shake the very foundations of how slavery and domestic order in slave states.
Celia’s legal team immediately appealed her verdict and sentence based on the judge’s evidentiary rulings. Surprisingly, the trial judge allowed the team to submit an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Celia was scheduled to hang in November.
When the State Supreme Court failed to rule on the appeal, a mysterious group of citizens helped Celia “escape” from her jail cell five days before her hanging in November. The action forced the Court’s hand.
Almost a month later on December 14, after Celia’s original hanging date of November 11, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled on her defense team’s appeal . The Court denied a stay of Celia’s sentence. On December 21, she was scheduled to meet her fate at the gallows.
While in jail, Celia’s baby had been born stillborn. She had no more cards left to play. The night before her hanging, six months after killing Robert Newsom, Celia told a reporter that 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.” And no, she didn’t apologize.
An Exception to the Rule
There is nothing in our country’s history that prepares us for Celia’s trajectory in the legal system of 19th century America. All that we’ve ever been told about slavery and the particularly shameful violence directed towards slave women has portrayed them all, with the exception of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, as victims.
Like Margaret Garner, the enslaved mother and muse for the movie Beloved, who slit the throats of her children rather than return them to slavery, Celia Newsom’s defiance has been a victim of the crime of obscurity, erased from the texts of our academies and relegated to the margins of minutiae.
Yet, her act of insurrection was as chilling and violent rebuke of the system of slavery as Nat Turner’s slave rebellion or John Brown’s standoff at Harper’s Ferry.
Why was Celia treated so differently? Why was she permitted to defend her actions as vigorously as a free woman with recognized legal rights?
We can come up with several theories. But what matters most in this story is that Celia Newsom was a beacon of improbable light in America’s darkest period, not just for enslaved women, but all women. She pioneered the notion that rape could be a defense in a murder case. Her death was reported in The New York Times. Her trial, Celia v. Missouri, was one of the 19th century’s most famous trials.
More than century later, Joan Little, a black woman and descendant of slaves in Washington, North Carolina would be the first woman in our country to be acquitted in a murder case due to a self-defense theory based on rape.
There are similarities, but it’s important to recall one key difference. Celia Newsom was led by love.
At the end of day, her story is a love story. Yes, one that went horribly wrong, but a love story nonetheless. It’s about love that a woman had for a man and the way he made her feel. It’s about the love that a broken ,abused enslaved woman still had for herself and her dreams for happiness.
This mattered to her. This made her feel free. It was a form of hope that she had been denied her entire life. And in the end on her own terms, she decided that is was worth dying for.