Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
Asserted Control Over Her Own Body
In August of 1855, Celia, an enslaved woman of 18, stood before a jury of 12 white men accused of the murder of Robert Newsom. Newsom was a successful Missouri farmer who had purchased Celia four years earlier. Facts not in dispute were that Newsom had sexual relations with Celia frequently since purchasing her at the age of 14 (fathering two children by the teenager) and that Celia had bludgeoned Newsom to death. The question before the jury was whether Celia’s actions were murder or self-defense.
The State of Missouri vs. Celia, a Slave remains significant in United States history because it brought before the court another, larger question. Namely: Was Celia a person, or property?
In Celia, A Slave, author Melton A. McLaurin details the events of the trial and its aftermath. Celia herself was not called to testify. On the stand, two men recounted their conversations with her on the morning the crime was discovered. Thomas Shoatman, a defense witness, testified that Celia insisted she hadn’t intended to kill Newsom, “only to hurt him, to keep him from having sexual intercourse with her,” he said. The prosecution objected and the reference to preventing sexual intercourse was removed from the official record.
Celia’s trial laid bare to history the deep racial inequities in the application of the law. While it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” this law had never been used to prosecute crimes against black women. The defense argued that the phrase “any woman” included Celia, and therefore her actions were justifiable self-defense against defilement. This argument was not popular in slave-holding states. The Emancipation Proclamation was still 10 years in the future and the abuse of slaves, and particularly the sexual abuse of female slaves, was widespread and entirely accepted by the majority of the white population.
As the jury recessed to make their decision, the defense and prosecution were permitted to submit instructions for the 12 men deciding Celia’s fate. The defense requested that the jury consider Celia’s rights as a woman, “any woman,” under the law. Therefore, if they believed that Celia was defending herself against sexual assault, they must rule the murder justifiable self-defense. Judge William Augustus Hall rejected this request and the jury received no such instructions. In the eyes of the law, Celia was Newsom’s property; he could do anything he wanted to her, including rape. The jury found Celia guilty and Judge Hall sentenced her to be hanged on Nov. 16, 1855.
Believing her a victim of assault who had rightfully defended herself, the men in charge of Celia’s defense felt “more than ordinary interest on behalf of the girl.” Five days before her scheduled November execution, Celia was “taken out by someone,” removed from her cell, hidden, and only returned to prison after the date passed.
Celia’s defense team, lead by John Jameson (who had served as a Missouri State Representative), immediately requested a stay of execution and began preparing a petition to the Supreme Court of Missouri to hear the case. Judge Hall refused to change the date of the hanging, likely intending for Celia to be executed before the Supreme Court could review the petition for her life. Believing her a victim of assault who had rightfully defended herself, the men in charge of Celia’s defense felt “more than ordinary interest on behalf of the girl.” Five days before her scheduled November execution, Celia was “taken out by someone,” removed from her cell, hidden, and only returned to prison after the date passed. Celia was then granted a new execution date of Dec. 21.
The Missouri Supreme Court responded to the defense team’s petition on Dec. 14. “Upon an examination of the record and proceedings of the Circuit Court of Callaway County in the above case,” their reply read, “it is thought proper to refuse the prayer of the petitioner … It is therefore ordered by the Court, that an order for the Stay of the execution in this case be refused.”
Celia was hanged on Dec. 21, 1855.
The contradiction revealed by this case—that Celia was property until punishment—has received scrutiny by historians studying slave law, abolition, and the early days of the United States government. Saidiya V. Hartman writes in Seduction and the Ruses of Power, “As Missouri v. Celia demonstrated, the enslaved could neither give nor refuse consent, nor offer reasonable resistance, yet they were criminally responsible and liable. The slave was recognized as a reasoning subject, who possessed intent and rationality, solely in the context of criminal liability.”
Though Celia’s defense was unsuccessful and the morality of her actions debatable, she is one of the first enslaved women known by name who asserted, both physically and legally, her control over her own body.