Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 23, 1855

This Day in Labor History: June 23, 1855


On June 23, 1855, a 19 year old slave woman named Celia murdered her master rather than allow him to rape her. She then attempted to burn his body, nearly succeeding in erasing all traces of the crime. She was arrested, convicted, and executed. This story gets at both the inhumanity of slavery and the sexual labor forced upon millions of African and African-American women during two centuries of chattel slavery in the United States.

Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer in Callaway County, Missouri, purchased Celia in 1850. She was 14. In the 1850 census, Newsom owned 800 acres and five male slaves. Celia was the first female slave he purchased and it seems that he did so in order to use her for sex, as well as to serve as the house cook. His wife had died in 1849 and he decided on a sex slave rather than a new wife. He first raped Celia before they returned to his plantation. She eventually had two children by him.

In 1855, Celia took a slave named George as her lover. George pressured Celia to end Newsom’s rapes. Of course, he could do nothing about it himself, a subject that has gone far in defining the history of black masculinities in this country (there is a large literature on this topic). Celia did everything she could. She asked Newsom’s daughters to intervene. She pleaded to Newsom. Nothing helped. The rape continued.

On June 23, Newsom told Celia he was coming to her cabin that night, which he did at around 10 p.m. When he made his advances, she picked up a stick and beat him over the head. The first blow knocked him down and the second ended his life.

She hadn’t really intended to murder him. She just wanted him to not rape her. Not knowing what to do, she thought for about an hour. And then decided to burn him in her fireplace. Her house, an actual brick house built for her status as Newsom’s concubine, was a good distance from the main house so she had some ability to conceal her activities. She did a pretty complete job, smashing bone fragments and throwing them back into the fire, then spreading some of the ashes outside. The next morning she even got Newsom’s young grandson to hide the ashes, meaning he likely literally inhaled his own grandfather.

Because Newsom was so brazen about raping Celia, everyone knew that’s where he went the night before. So the blame immediately focused on her when he could not be found the next day. She went to work as normal and when confronted, denied everything. The police threatened to take away her children, but of course she knew that being caught meant death for her, so this was unsuccessful. She did admit Newsom had come to her cabin for rape. And finally she confessed after hours of continued questioning. After an official inquest the next day, Celia was hauled off to jail in the county seat of Fulton.

This all took place within the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and growing violence on the western frontier over the expansion of slavery, a labor system that increasing numbers of northerners either found abhorrent or at least a threat to their own status as free white workers. The Republican Party, founded the previous year, held the threat of slavery to white labor as central to its ideology. Three days before Celia’s trial began, on October 9, a man named John Brown arrived in Kansas for the first time, soon to become infamous for his use of violence to free people from slavery. Celia’s trial therefore was not just about punishing a crime, rare and salacious as it was. It was also about defending a system of labor that increasingly seemed to masters as threatened on all fronts, even as it was more profitable than ever. On top of all this was the constant fear slaveowners had that their bonded labor would rise up and kill them. Haiti was always on their minds, especially after the Nat Turner revolt. At the heart of this fear was the knowing injustice of the slave system that no amount of mental gymnastics and philosophical musings could erase.

Celia of course had no chance of an acquittal. The judge was William Hall, later a staunch Unionist in the Civil War, But in his instructions to the jury, he explicitly told them that if they believed she killed him to stop her own rape, this was not enough to be found not guilty. Hall really had no choice as he was ambitious and judges were elected positions in Missouri. Yet the defense pushed a radical line that slaves had the right to defend themselves from rape. Given that slave owners could legally do anything they wanted to their slaves without punishment, setting a legal precedent that there were limits to masters’ behavior would have overturned the entire moral basis of slavery. There is not a single known case in the American South of a slaveowner facing criminal charges for raping a slave, even though it happened every day all over the region. Giving slave women the right to resist would have been a major blow for slavery, yet in a slave state, that’s exactly the argument made by the defense attorneys, who seem to indeed have believed Celia was morally innocent. The attorneys were part of a small group of southerners who wanted to use the law to reform slavery’s worst abuses, saving the system while rejecting the attacks of abolitionists by undermining their ability to tell what seemed like sensationalized (regardless of their actual truth) stories about the horrors of slavery. But such reforms were impossible without granting slaves something like human rights.

On October 10, the jury found Celia guilty of first-degree murder. While in prison, Celia delivered a stillborn child. She was not allowed to testify, but that wasn’t only because she was a slave, but because the accused could not testify on their own behalf in Missouri at this time. She was scheduled for execution on November 16, but five days prior, she was moved out of jail to an unknown location and not returned until after her original date. Probably the defense attorneys were involved in this, although it’s unclear. They wanted to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which was not going to happen before the 16th. A new execution date of December 21 was scheduled. On December 14, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution. Celia was executed by hanging on December 21.

Other than the quite exceptional act of murdering her master, Celia’s story is the story of millions of black women, forced into sexual labor for their masters.

There is an excellent book on this case that I recommend for your own reading and for assigning to students, Melton McLaurin’s Celia, a Slave: A True Story.

This is the 109th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Thank you for posting this.

    • DrDick

      Indeed. An important addition to the series.

  • Reading this, I want just want to weep…

    What comment can a mortal make, that will…?

    Well, I think you get the idea……………………..

  • Karen

    Thank you. Our duty is to remember Celia and the millions like her, and to ensure that, as much as is within our power, stop anything like this from happening again.

  • Pingback: ExecutedToday.com » 1855: The slave Celia, who had no right to resist()

  • Brad Nailer

    I’m reading Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. It’s not a history per se, but it gives the flavor of the times when northern (especially New England) abolitionists were settling the Kansas Territory in order to make it a free state. Told from the abolitionist point of view, it does not paint a pretty picture of the Missouri slavers, who are depicted as bigoted, uncivilized and cruel–kind of what you would expect in most cases.

    • NBarnes

      it does not paint a pretty picture of the Missouri slavers, who are depicted as bigoted, uncivilized and cruel

      So, accurately, then?

      • Brad Nailer

        Seems like it.

  • I appreciate especially putting this in a labor history context. Its important to remember and teach what slavery was truly about-and what stealing labour and bodies was all about for white men and women. Once you enslave others all social and familial and sexual relations are deformed and destroyed.

    • Too often, the history of slavery is disconnected from the history of labor in the U.S. And the experiences of female slaves, especially their sexual labor, gets less attention as labor than it should. As does the experience of white women engaging in sexual labor. So I try to rectify these issues a bit here.

      • shah8

        I’d think you’d have a harder time convincing people than you’d like to think, because that makes for a very wide conflation of activities for what labor is. Celia was being raped, day in, day out, specifically for who she was, and not because she was any good at sex. Is rape culture today, then some kind of socially mediated corveé system, where any woman has to pay a tax for being a woman and please some random (or not so random) man’s need to feel a bit more powerful that day?

        • Este


          Also, it doesn’t matter that Celia was being raped because of who she was and not because she was “any good at sex.” Africans weren’t kidnapped and enslaved because they were any good at picking cotton. Doesn’t make picking cotton any less labor.

          There’s nothing particularly “wide” about including sex as labor. The only reason people are loathe to see it as such is that it’s traditionally women’s labor, like mothering and housework. The existence of people who get paid to have sex (not necessarily because they’re any good at it–people get paid to just lie there), either as prostitutes or as *wives* (and sometimes as husbands, since marriage was an economic transaction for both parties), illustrates that sex is labor.

          • shah8

            That’s…uh…pretty terrible reasoning.

            I was talking about the consideration that Celia was no better than an “input”, practically as a farm animal, just because she was identifiable as having a drop of african blood or more.

            More than that, repeated rape is not actually labor, and again, I’d invite you to go out in public and try that line, and make bets on just how charbroiled you’d get. Not because people are unsophisticated (or narrow-minded) about what labor is, but because people, one way or another, is entirely too familiar with coerced regular sex. Not just husbands raping wives, but stepfathers diddling stepdaughters. That the very first step is to realize that they are not fully people and to treat their bodies as alienable. Celia was **preferred** to any white wife for largely the same reason that a sheep might be preferred. Would you say that a sheep is performing labor when a shepherd molests it? Many people will refuse to let you pass the whole dehumanifaction aspect.

            Not all human activities can simply be lumped together as “labor”. Someone who plays the piano for his own amusement is, of course, laboring. Another person running away from a death squad is, of course, laboring. However, we have a number of verbs that are far more appropriate which signifies the cultural context of the activity. Words like jamming, or fled. When you abuse “labor” like this, what you are really doing is erasing context. Some people like the idea, like Loomis, because the context of whoring inputs terrible things about the whore that very much isn’t true. Other people hate the idea because erases the idea that their personal trauma (or personal fear of future possibilities) was particularly terrible (or should be considered so by “decent society).

            • rm


              The thing about chattel slavery is that the person’s entire existence becomes labor/property for the “owner.” Saying that Celia was subject to rape as one of the horrific labor conditions is obviously true, and doesn’t mean you are required to call all rape victims laborers.

              • shah8

                whups, ignore the point I made to Erik below. I thought you were supportive at first glance.

                anyways. look:

                Do you agree that being subject to rape is a part of horrific labor conditions? Do you agree that sex, as part of being subject to rape, is labor? From that point on, how do you estimate the time when you’re supposed to call rape sexual labor and rape just as rape?

                • rm

                  You look at the particular circumstances of the particular case, in its historical and social and legal and moral context.

                  Why does it concern you that words don’t always mean exactly the same things in all contexts regardless of different circumstances?

                • It depends on the circumstance, obviously. When you are purchased and part of your labor expectations is sex, then yes, of course the rape is labor. This was how the slaveowners themselves would have defined it. There is no difference in terms of your role as a laborer between being enslaved to pick cotton and being enslaved as a sex slave. None. Again, slaveowners themselves defined it this way.

                  After 1865, no, it is not labor per se.

                  This sounds to me like you need a course on the history of American slavery.

                • shah8

                  My point of view is that the use of the word “labor” tends to elide, erase, or otherwise disqualify the qualia of assaultedness, dehumanization.

                  Remember, I’ve always accepted that sex can be labor, and I made extreme comparisons about how any activity can be labor, in support of using more appropriate and narrow terms for what goes on.

                  So, rm, take a look at your own words: “You look at the circumstances of the particular case, in its historical and social and legal and moral context.” These are fine words, and anyone could agree with it. In practice, when these words are spoken by men, is not “rape isn’t rape” usually the point of their discourse? That we have to repeatedly state that no means no?

                  When we’re talking about Sally Hemmings, so much less violent, would you say that Hemmings loved Thomas Jefferson, or vice versa? Why then, do you think, there is so much effort to declare their relationship sort of tragic romantic?

                • shah8

                  Naw, Erik, totally wrong.

                  Why should we center what words means according to who was powerful?

                  Shouldn’t we center the meaning of the words involving actions on slaves by how slaves viewed it?

                  And it’s a silly joke to suggest that I need a course on the history of American slavery. Try another tack.

                • Please provide evidence for any of your points.

                  Funny how everyone thinks you are wrong and yet you continue with belligerence.

                • Why should we center what words means according to who was powerful?

                  I don’t know if Erik meant that the words of the powerful as an exclusive definition but merely an additional one.

                • rm

                  I just don’t agree that looking at the situation as labor takes away from the dehumanizing aspect of the situation. I’m not sure what phenomenology has to do with this. If you were a novelist like Toni Morrison imagining the lived experience of people who endured slavery in the past, you’d think about the “qualia of assaultedness” and the relationships that could exist within that context, but you would also pay attention to the economic and labor aspect of that situation. If you were a labor historian, you’d focus on the economic and labor aspects. These perspectives are different but overlapping and congruent. One doesn’t erase the other.

                  My philosophical orientation is pragmatic and rhetorical, so I don’t think we can fix the meaning of any word or concept ever, without having to always argue for our way of thinking, so we will always have to speak up for important ideas like the centrality of consent in sexual ethics. Slaveowners did not think about consent; we do. The pragmatist philosopher would say that this is because we understand ethics better in hindsight than they did in their time. Meanings and concepts change, and if we think we have the right meaning we have to argue for it. We’ll never have an absolute rule that tells us exactly when to look at something as labor and when not to.

                • Este

                  shah8, you seem to be operating under the assumption that calling rape labor implies that it’s not really rape, or assault, or torture.

                  I can’t see that. The use of the term “labor” implies, at most, that there is physical or mental effort or endurance on one side, and economic benefit on the other. That’s the broadest definition I can think of, but it has nothing to do with not being assaulted. Being a whipping boy is labor. That doesn’t mean the whipping boy isn’t being assaulted. A lot of labor *is* dehumanizing in the utmost, especially in the context of slavery.

                  Sally Hemings has nothing to do with it, except in so far as Hemings was a rape victim and a forced laborer.

                  You seem to think you’re defending rape victims with your argument, but I’d say the opposite. Classifying rape as not-labor doesn’t seem like it would be helpful to rape victims. It seems that it would be a way of denying how some people economically benefit from institutionalized or sanctioned rape.

                • shah8

                  Evidence, eh?

                  There is plenty of discussion around the term “unrapable”

                  You can also read stuff like Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

                  One can, obviously, be quite immersed in this sort of thing, and have strong objections to the use of more neutral terms.

                • rm
                • shah8

                  rm, Este… it’s not just the slavery experience here. It’s pretty much something I see as very consistent, particularly in the twentieth century. The Japanese Army in the thirties and fourties constructed sexual slavery as “labor”. That history might be the most obvious example, but it’s not really a very lonely one. Even to this day, I understand that Amanda Berry provided sex labor to Ariel Castro for ten years. Most people do. However, most people do not actually call it “sex labor”. There are pretty strong emotional reasons for not doing so.

                • rm

                  I think the patriarchal thinking behind the dehumanization of women in cases like this includes the ideas that women are property and that women provide sexual labor. That is not a “true” picture, but it’s an important aspect for understanding what happens and achieving a feminist perspective on it, for fighting such thinking.

                • In white western culture sexual relations between a man and a woman of own class and community were slready transactional and included aspects of gendered labor as well as sacred and religious and non monetary aspects. Its important to recognize that consent after marriage was a courtesy, not a legal reality. Even a separate legal identity was not alwsys permitted to a married woman. So rather than arguing that the rape of slaves was wholly distinct in kind from other kinds of labor/duties that a white woman owed her “lord and master” we might be better off talking about how these relationships were on a continuum and even in tension and even dialogue with one another. The man in the story had three ways of getting sex :marrying it, renting it, buying it. The first came with financial and social liabilities, the second did not include access to other gdndered labor like cooking, cleaning, reproduction of the labor force, snd the third gave the owner all rights, no duties or liabilities.

                • shah8

                  To be more clear, I think this is probably the clearest way I want to say this:

                  People will rarely call what Amanda Berry did as forced sex labor. What people actually call what happened to Amanda Berry is repeated rape. And people do so because they consider Amanda Berry a real person with real personal rights.

                  People find it fucking easy to call just about any underprivileged woman as someone who provides sexual labor during the course of their lives. There are whole reams of libels about the nature of such women’s sexuality such that it’s okay to treat such women in a way that (compassionate) you would never do to your sister, daughters, or mothers. That in the end, their duty is to provide sex to calm the terrible emotions of men with vim and vigor.

                  And this sort of word choice distinctions on the basis of race and class continues to this day. We are supposed to see Celia as someone who provided sexual labor rather than see Celia as someone raped, or forced to have sex by the slavemaster. We are somehow supposed to take the slavemaster’s definition of labor seriously, even though there aren’t any of them today. Even if it was just the nature of those times, we are fully free to call what happened to Celia repeated rape (even understanding that it was expected labor!). Gritty realism was not a good thing in fantasy fiction, and it’s certainly not a good thing in progressive discourse. And I care about this because I want people to see Celia as a real person who should have had rights, who fought for her rights, and who can say that she was raped. She couldn’t convince the slave society that then, but we can accept it now.

                  This is important because the progressive community tends to be very casual about the rights and needs of lower class and non-white women. It’s all so fatalistic for the Michelle Knights and Gina DeJesus of the world–being mostly interested in low grade charity to help them make it through the world, but if their needs interfere with the ambitions of upper class white women, say Sheryl Sanderson’s Lean In project, they get dropped like hot potatoes. They just aren’t real people. Just laboring drones to use and dispose of as needed.

                • Aimai

                  I disagree with you on the cases you cite. We don’t call what he did to those women “forced labor” only and we do call it rape and imprisonment. But Celia was purchased with a view to purchasing her as a sex slave. It was both rape and also an use of her as a laborer–she also did other forms of labor for him and sexual partner was one of the most typical forms of female labor in general. You couldn’t substitute for that, for example, with male labor.

                  The rest of your points are stupid and manipulative so I won’t address them.

                • shah8

                  Heh, stupid and manipulative, eh? And you wonder why womanism is a thing?

                  I don’t think I’m being at all unreasonable. Do a google search. Amanda Berry was *never* described as doing labor. Because it was always recognized as illegitimate due to her rights being violated. Moreover, what benefit would we gain from describing Amanda Berry’s confinement and rape in terms of labor? That Ariel Castro gets 10 hedonism points that he otherwise could have gotten if he bought 1000 ice cream cones? Or spending $2000 on prostitutes in that same space of time? Or could we simply say that Ariel Castro’s actions are not economic (and we deny the obvious economic impacts in favor of) but crimes against the state and of Amanda Berry’s person. We’d do the same if there was a bizarro Ariel Castro who gets his jollies off of physically cutting and torturing Amanda Berry in his dungeon. We wouldn’t consider Amanda Berry as providing labor when she is being whipped or cut. And we wouldn’t consider the economic impacts of Castro visiting pet shops and lighting purchased cats on fire instead.

                  I view the insistence on viewing labor, work, economies in the absence of any respect for personal autonomy or rights as to be reprehensible. Crimes are crimes, and we consider them crimes from a standpoint that usually do not include economic motive, and indeed, are intended to reduce the legitimacy of economic motives. Considering the labor implications of forced labor is definitely important as Rick B sez, but that doesn’t mean we don’t consider it a crime, first and foremost, and try to reduce it!

                • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

                  I’m not going to bother engaging you on the rest of it, but:

                  Gritty realism was not a good thing in fantasy fiction

                  This is very much a YMMV thing.

                • shah8

                  Oh, but Origami Isopod! I’m entirely willing to engage with a woman of such high rank as you!

                  However, when I’m talking about gritty realism, I’m basically talking about this sort of critique you find here: http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/on-grittiness-grimdark/ . As I’ve found issues like what was discussed in the post in most grimdarks, I’m not inclined to think of it as a YMMV sort of issue, in the sense that I could find something more tolerably gritty. The issues are pretty pervasive.

                  Eric Loomis’ wish here, to see the rape of slave women as labor (as an emphasised reality) tends to have the same problematic angles, even though that’s the opposite of the purpose of his ambitions.

                  As part of grounded analysis, it’s not really kosher! A slave master keeps good records of how much cotton is picked or how quickly the sugar cane fields are cut, but unless s/he is selling a female slave to other men, the intensely capitalist people of those times didn’t make notches (in ledgebooks, not diaries) about how compliant the domestic servants were in providing sex at home. Moreover, treating all rapes of slave women as labor intended to benefit the owner erases the sort of context that rm, among others, feels that free women have, so that rape is rape for them. And there are a whole lot of different circumstances for how slave women were raped! Just as many, if not more than free women!

                  Look, seriously, this is just not a huge deal I’m asking people here to consider. I’m not even arguing against the thrust of the OP. I’m mostly arguing against the sentiment of one comment made by Erik. Rape isn’t labor–it is, of course, in its most incidental way, but the term rape is prejudicial in a way that’s supposed to protect the sense of what is legitimate labor and what is not. Nobody has trouble talking about how rape contributes to GDP, when that is what is called for. Nobody has trouble recognizing the intended benefits to the slave owner and slave society of raping slave women. Thus, typically, abusing the word labor tends to be about erasing context that we *should* be aware of and uppermostedly conscious of, and people in history have abused “labor” in that fashion. Erik, as in grimdark fantasy, is not privileging some sort of under-appreciated reality, but is privileging a specific slant on reality as according to his intellectual interests.

            • Este

              Uh, I have tried that line in public and it goes over pretty easily because most people do, upon reflection, realize that the forced labor of slaves included forced sexual labor. It doesn’t erase the dehumanization or personal trauma at all to call it labor.

              Not all rape victims are laborers, but Celia was.

            • Comparing rape to someone playing the piano for their own amusement is extremely offensive.

              It’s also wrong because a slave being raped is doing work for someone else while someone playing the piano for themselves is working for no one.

              But it’s more offensive than it is wrong.

              Because that’s a gross comparison.

              • shah8

                Yeah, way to miss the point. My point was that your usage of the term conflates things that shouldn’t be conflated. As rm replies above, I think your accusation of offensiveness is absolutely not going to fly.

                • Well, regardless of that, your point about my definition of labor is objectively wrong, as others have pointed out.

                • rm

                  No, I must not have made myself clear. Your argument was offensive, shah8, for exactly the reasons Erik points out. I just focused on a different part of how you were wrong, which is that your analogies were all spurious.

                  Something can be spurious AND offensive at the same time.

                • shah8

                  From my vantage point, I think that your position is deeply morally suspect. And from my vantage point, you attempt to avoid engaging in the meat of my critique through mostly talking about how wrong and spurious I am.

            • Rick B

              The reason for the growth and continued existence of slavery was because cotton was the major export of the U.S., and slavery permitted it to be grown with nearly free labor. All the value created by the slaves was monopolized by the capital owners. And don’t forget that the investment in slaves was the major capital investment in the U.S. at that time.

              Free sex with slaves was a side benefit of the economic institution of slavery. Men who can get women for sex at their whim often will, and the institution of slavery permitted that. It was and remains a perk of wealth.

              If you think that sexual slavery is not labor, I suggest you review the book “Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective” by Louise Shelley (2010). It’s about the global traffic in slaves today. The slave traffic remains a way of providing human beings to do jobs they often cannot be paid to desire and to transfer the wealth that results to the owners of capital. The two major uses of slaves today are sweatshop work and the sex industry.

              Both require punishment and confinement (social and physical) to make the laborers do the work since there is little likelihood of any reward.

              Sex work is a labor issue first because that is why others force the workers to do the work in the first place.

              • Hogan

                Free sex with slaves was a side benefit of the economic institution of slavery.

                It was also a way to make more slaves, at a time when it was illegal to import them.

                • The rape of African slaves was already institutionalized by Europeans in Africa before their shipment to the Americas. At Cape Coast Castle which is the largest slave castle in Ghana and the former seat of the British colonial government before moving to Christiansborg Castle in Accra there is a rape room. The guides describe how it worked pretty graphically. But, needless to say the British government and military including the governor of the castle were directly involved in raping African slaves.

      • Matt McKeon

        Something to consider is that when Celia became pregnant and had children, these children became economic assets for the owner. So she was useful to him as a sex slave, a laborer, and a producer of more slaves.

    • liberal

      Saw a talk at the Smithsonian by a Lincoln scholar. He claimed that Lincoln was against slavery because he himself was rented out by his father to do labor on neighboring farms.

      • drkrick

        Lincoln’s reasons for being against slavery were a good deal more involved than that. I’m sure it’s part of the reason – although it’s probably a bigger part of the reason Lincoln refused to pay for a tombstone when the old man died.

    • Gator90

      Once you enslave others all social and familial and sexual relations are deformed and destroyed.

      But my dad says Jefferson really loved Sally Hemings, so that’s totally different.

  • Este

    Yes, thank you for posting this. Though I object to the description of what Celia did as murder. It was self-defense, not murder.

    • Anon21

      Yes, I agree. A small point, but an important one.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        more I think about it, this seems to be a rather major point. seems to me they set it up so that as a slave Celia didn’t legally have a self to defend. it’s one of those things that get more and more mind-boggling

        • Anon21

          I think it’s a major point in terms of what was done to Celia, but a minor point in terms of this post–the terminology doesn’t really get in the way of Erik’s point. Still, it would be nice to change that initial “murdered” to “killed.”

          • Legally, it was a murder.

            • Anon21

              But referring to Celia as having “murdered” her master outside of a quote or a description of contemporary attitudes embeds an apparent moral judgment, one that you obviously don’t endorse.

              Similarly, if referring to a self-induced abortion in a jurisdiction where all abortion is considered murder, I doubt you would say that the woman committed infanticide, or murdered her baby, despite how that action would be classified legally.

              • Este

                Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. Obviously the legal system classified it as murder, I’d just prefer it if we didn’t do so in our modern descriptions of the event.

            • Would not homicide (the killing of a human) be a better term here? I know what the court decided, but murder involves a certain mens reas that is not in actual evidence here.

  • MeDrewNotYou


    So men can rape 14 year-old girls with impunity.

    /Tea Party

    • Lee Rudolph

      Well, not other men’s!

  • Anonymous

    The ‘notorious’ John Brown?

    I thought he was (virtuously) committing treason is defense of abolition?

    • panda

      Did you know that Sherman’s troops sang “John Brown’s body” as Atlanta burned? How awesome was that?

      • MeDrewNotYou

        Whenever I read or hear about right-wing craziness or evil that emanates from the South, I try to remember Sherman and his troops and sing the song to myself. Things still get worse but it takes a bit of the sting out.

    • socraticsilence

      He was at the time getting ready to broad sword some slavers.

  • DrDick

    Now, now, Erik! Everybody knows all them coloreds was well fed, treated kindly, and happy back then. Why they was always singing!

    • “I get no kick from champagne…”

      • Chris

        The “like” button. Where’s the “like” button on this thing?

    • Wrangler Bill

      Yeah, the solution is to hold people accountable….ya’ know, people that weren’t even born at that time…for the sins of their forefathers.

      Oh, wait…

      • Malaclypse


      • DrDick

        Yeah, the solution is to hold people accountable….ya’ know, people that weren’t even born at that time…for the sins of their forefathers which they have continued to perpetuate, in somewhat attenuated form, into the present.

        Fixed that for greater accuracy.

        • Aimai

          The argument is that some members of US society benefit from the past actions of previous citizens of the US in the same way that the current owners of a business benefit from the decisions/loans/assets of the previous members even if the corporation was founded 100 years ago. If you buy into a business at a high level, and instantly get a seat at the top table, you can be held liable for the behaviors of your immediate predecessors and even for their debts just as you reap the benefit of co-owning their assets. This holds true for the ability of a modern white citizen to benefit from, for example, the house they inherited from their white father who benefitted from the GI bill which excluded blacks from buying houses under the same GI benefit. Or people who benefitted first from segregated schools and later from a biased system of taxation which benefitted white children over non white children.

          • DrDick

            I understand that part of the theory, but my point was that it is not simply actions and conditions that existed in the past. The impacts of racism are ongoing and have abated only somewhat, despite laws intended to eliminate such harms.

            • Im agreeing with you, Dr. Dick. Just adding a bit for our troll.

  • Matt McKeon

    I second the recommendation of “Celia, A Slave.” I read it several years ago.

    Celia’s lawyer(I can’t recall the name) went on to become a clergyman. I remember his performance in the courtroom was skillful and persistent in the face of the obvious hostility of Judge Hall. His defense: that Celia had the right to defend her body, as white women did, could have had a greater impact on slavery than the Dred Scot decision, according to McLaurin. The fact it wasn’t accepted speaks volumes.

    • Aimai

      Two other great books of the period are Modern Medea

      The first in-depth historical account of the events that inspired Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

      In the middle of a frigid Sunday night in January 1856, a twenty-two-year-old Kentucky slave named Margaret Garner gathered up her family and raced north, toward Cincinnati and freedom. But Margaret’s master followed just hours behind and soon had the fugitives surrounded. Thinking all was lost, Margaret seized a butcher knife and nearly decapitated her two-year-old daughter, crying out that she would rather see her children dead than returned to slavery. She was turning on her other three children when slave catchers burst in and subdued her.

      Margaret Garner’s child-murder electrified the United States, inspiring the longest, most spectacular fugitive-slave trial in history. Abolitionists and slaveholders fought over the meaning of the murder, and the case came to symbolize the ills of the Union in those last dark decades before the Civil War. Newspaper columnists, poets, and dramatists raced to interpret Margaret’s deeds, but by the century’s end they were all but forgotten. Steven Weisenburger is the first scholar to delve into this astonishing story in more than a century. Weisenburger integrates his innovative archival discoveries into a dramatic narrative that paints a nuanced portrait of the not-so-genteel Southern culture of slavery and its destructive effect on all who lived in and with it.

      and The Lost German Slave Girl

      It is a spring morning in New Orleans, 1843. In the Spanish Quarter, on a street lined with flophouses and gambling dens, Madame Carl recognizes a face from her past. It is the face of a German girl, Sally Miller, who disappeared twenty-five years earlier. But the young woman is property, the slave of a nearby cabaret owner. She has no memory of a “white” past. Yet her resemblance to her mother is striking, and she bears two telltale birthmarks. In brilliant novelistic detail, award-winning historian John Bailey reconstructs the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, as well as the incredible twists and turns of Sally Miller’s celebrated and sensational case. Did Miller, as her relatives sought to prove, arrive from Germany under perilous circumstances as an indentured servant or was she, as her master claimed, part African, and a slave for life? A tour de force of investigative history that reads like a suspense novel, The Lost German Slave Girl is a fascinating exploration of slavery and its laws, a brilliant reconstruction of mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, and a riveting courtroom drama. It is also an unforgettable portrait of a young woman in pursuit of freedom.

      All three stories explore the pivotal, central, role of women, sexuality, and motherhood in the horrors of slavery. Slave women had special horrors visited on them–their labor and their bondage included both sex work and child bearing as well as other gendered and non gendered labor styles–and the legal battles they fought relate to these specifically female issues. Its really interesting to think about the differences in the kinds of cases fought to get male slaves rights qua free men vs. the kinds of cases fought to get female slaves rights qua free women at a time when male and female and father and mother, husband and wife were seen as such different kinds of roles.

      • Matt McKeon

        I second the recommendation of “The Lost German Slave Girl” a story so full of twists and turns, as well as vivid characters, its a fascinating read.

        Disturbing fact from LGSG: Tennessee deliberately took out the harsh penalty for sex with children, when the child in question was black.

        • This is something I need to know more about.

  • Not to detract from the focus on Celia; however

    but because the accused could not testify on their own behalf in Missouri at this time

    Uh, WHAT?

    • I am no expert on this, but from what I read, the state had this ban because it was believed defendants couldn’t be trusted or objective. So I don’t know.

      • MacCheerful

        My sense is that this was actually a common rule among courts at the time. Distrust of juries, as well as defendants.

      • This case should be taught in law schools to illustrate the importance of incorporation of the bill of rights. Many states routinely violated due process until the courts stepped in.

      • Anon21

        Yeah, at common law parties to civil or criminal cases were prohibited from testifying, apparently from fear that they would perjure themselves and so imperil their immortal souls. Criminal defendants were permitted to make an unsworn statement to the jury, and could then be informally cross-examined by the complaining party (which until the 18th century was generally the victim, not the government).

        While googling this, I just found out that Georgia actually retained the prohibition on defendants testifying in their own defense until 1961 (!) when the Supreme Court stepped in: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/365/570/case.html

        • Thanks!! I did not know this history at all.

      • LeeEsq

        The testimony was viewed as worthless by the Courts because it was seen as self-serving. It was assumed that everybody would testify in a way that made him or her look good and in the right. In days where non-testimonial evidence of any sort was difficult to come by, testimony was really the only way to find out what happened.

        • Mary Dyer

          I’m wondering also how this relates to other histories of testifying on one’s own behalf–such as for the Icelanders and the Norse? Because my guess is there that swearing to one’s own statements was approved then for certain classess of people. In effect you had to testify for yourself in (for example) murder trials since there might be no witnesses at all. But your social standing (free or thrall, stranger or local) came into play. I used to actually know some of this stuff since Njall’s saga is my favorite book of all time and I taught it, briefly, in a legal anthropology course but I can’t remember the details now. But I really think that the idea that the accused may not testify is not logically related to the lack of evidentiary science or police procedure during this early period (as LeeEsqu suggests). Because testifying for yourself certainly exists in other pre-modern, pre-police periods. What was the position in the English law courts? They didn’t have any serious evidence gathering at all and didn’t have police until the birth of hte Peelers in the 1800’s. What was their procedure for swearing and taking testimony from the accused?

          • Aimai

            Damn, Mary Dyer was me.

      • Matt McKeon

        Slaves couldn’t give testimony of any kind.

    • Matt McKeon

      Slaves, and often free black people couldn’t testify in court, depending on the state. One of the reasons Solomon Northup couldn’t win his lawsuit against the men who kidnapped him was because he couldn’t testify in Washington DC.

  • rm

    Haiti was always on their minds

    When you begin to read on that topic, it’s astonishing how much the Haitian Revolution shaped American culture.

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  • Brad Lee

    I Honor You Sister Celica For Knowing In Your Heart And Mind That Enough Is Enough!
    And The Presence Of Mind To Burn The Evidence So That What They Say You Did And What They Could Proved That You Did, Without Evidence They Had None!
    Being A Pioneer Of Law To Give Women The Right To Resist Rape!
    You Are A Strong Symbol For All Women The World Over!
    May You Rest In Peace My Sister! The Struggle Goes On!

  • Patricia Kayden

    “She hadn’t really intended to murder him.”

    I assume that if she had just knocked him out, when he came through, she would have been severely punished, if not killed, anyways. She was in a no win situation.

    I’d heard this story before but never read the details. Great post.

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