Celia’s Trial

In 1855, Celia, a 19 year old slave, killed her master Robert Newsome in Callaway County, Missouri. After years of being raped, and bearing two of his children, Celia decided that she no longer wanted her relationship with her master to continue in that manner. 1 On the night of June 23, Newsome went to Celia’s cabin to and Celia killed him, she confessed soon after and was held in jail to await her trial 2.

The judge who presided over her trial, Judge Hall decided to appoint John Jamison as Celia’s defense.3 Celia’s jury was comprised of all white men, at least three of whom were slave owners.4 During the course of the trial, it was revealed that Celia’s motive was self defense against rape.5 Celia was not allowed to testify on her own behalf, due to an 1845 law rendering slaves legally incapable of testifying against whites6.

The prosecution argued that because Celia was considered property by an earlier Missouri Law, that even if a man raped her, it would be considered trespassing, and a man surely could not trespass upon his own property7 Judge Hall restricted the jury from considering Celia as a woman, therefore eliminating a self defense claim. Ultimately the jury found her guilty and sentenced her to hang8 .

Jamison wrote to the Missouri supreme court at the time, asking for a stay of execution and an appeal, citing Judge Hall’s refusal of his argument9. Celia was set to hang before the Missouri Supreme court gave its verdict, and it is alleged that she was taken from the jail by outraged citizens until after the date of her hanging had passed10 After her original hanging date passed, she was returned to the jail until such time as the Supreme court rejecter her appeal11 Eventually, Celia was hanged.

According to Missouri law, as a woman, Celia had a right to defend herself. As a slave, Celia had a legal right to defend herself, but none of these laws were taken into account on her behalf. Judge Hall flouted the law, and imposed a certain death sentence on this slave who would dare kill her master. At the time the social and political tensions were running high, and it seems unlikely that a jury of all white males would acquit a slave. One could only imagine the social consequences of acquitting a slave girl who killed her master because he raped her. This verdict was both racist and sexist, however Judge Hall’s disregard for the law in lieu of prevailing social attitudes was commonplace.
The social attitudes at the time affected the law in that people largely disregarded the law or used it to suit their own needs. Vigilantism, illegal jailing of suspected abolitionists, the aiding of slaves escape their hanging dates, and manipulating one’s legal standing to ensure a verdict are all examples of the overall lack of accountability to the law in 1850’s Missouri. The abolitionist press, or the prevailing threat of abolitionism, mobilized social forces to break the law, commit fraud, threaten violence and murder others. The press affected the social attitudes of Missourians to entrench themselves deeper into their beliefs.

The verdict of Celia's trial

The verdict of Celia’s trial

Courtesy of Douglas Linder

Celia had no real chance of ever being free. The social and political climate doomed her the moment she confessed, and her trial is an glimpse into the past where the law of the land was not so much legislated, rather played out in competing news columns, political and judicial theatre and violence.