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This Day in Labor History: June 23, 1855

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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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