Let’s Talk About Celia
At 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1855, Celia was hung in Callaway County, Missouri.
Her crime: Defending herself against a rapist who had sexually assaulted her for years.
There is no documentation of Celia’s birthdate, birthplace or parentage. Her recorded history begins when she was purchased at the age of 14 in 1850 by a man named Robert Newsom. Records show that Newsom purchased Celia in Audrain County, Missouri, but the record is unclear as to whether the first time he raped her was on the return trip to his farm in Callaway County or immediately upon arriving at his farm.
A year after his wife’s death, Newsom bought the 14-year-old for the explicit purpose of sexual exploitation. And for the next five years, he subjected Celia to repeated rapes. Newsom placed Celia in a brick cabin near the main house for his convenience and abused her often.
It is reported that Celia had appealed to Newsom’s white adult daughters to intervene and stop their father’s repeated assaults. But there is no evidence that they did anything to aid her.
At 16, Celia was pregnant with her first child by Newsom, a daughter. Within two years after that, she gave birth to a second daughter by her enslaver. In the summer of 1855, Celia, now 19, was having difficulty during her third pregnancy by Newsom and was sick much of the time.
On June 23, 1855, she was desperate and appealed directly to Newsom to leave her alone. His response was to tell her that he was coming to her that night to rape her.
Unable to endure the sexual abuse any longer, Celia found a large tree branch to use as a club and took it back to the cabin she shared with her two small daughters.
That night, when Newsom entered Celia’s cabin while her two children were present, Celia pleaded with him to leave her alone. He ignored her, but she managed to grab the club and struck him in the head. This blow did little more than anger Newsom who lunged at her. She delivered a second blow to his head that killed him. Realizing the extreme danger she was in for killing him, Celia attempted to dispose of Newsom’s body by rolling him into the cabin’s fireplace. She spent the night reducing his body to ashes and a few small fragments of charred bone.
When Newsom’s family became aware of his disappearance, they instituted a search and discovered ashes that Celia had scattered along the path leading from her cabin to the stables. After intense questioning and threats by members of the family, Celia confessed to the killing and was arrested.
The record of the trial in the Callaway County court is evidence of the inhumane way enslavers denied justice to the enslaved. Celia was not allowed to testify in court. Instead, the court appointed two investigators to take her statement and present it to the court through their testimony.
At the time of Celia’s trial, Missouri law forbade anyone “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled.” However, the presiding judge, William Augustus Hall, refused to instruct the jury that the enslaved Celia fell within the meaning of “any woman,” which prevented the jury from considering Celia’s killing of Newsom as a justifiable act of self-defense. In most of the antebellum slave states, sexual assault of an enslaved woman was considered a trespass, and owners could not be accused of trespass on their own property.
Celia was sentenced to death by hanging on Nov. 16, 1855. The execution date was set to allow for the birth of Celia’s third child by Newsom. Under Missouri law, a pregnant woman could not be executed until after the birth of the baby.
Court records indicate she delivered a stillborn baby while in custody. While Celia was not afforded the protection of the law so she could defend herself from rape, she was considered a woman when she was carrying a valuable unborn baby to be enslaved.
Celia managed to escape from jail before the November execution date, but she was captured, and she was hanged on Dec. 21.
We should remember Celia to honor her as someone who was denied justice in so many ways during her short life. But we should also remember her trial as representative of the American judicial system.
Contrary to the mythical narrative, laws are not neutral. They are created by certain individuals within a community to establish and maintain a particular public order. And that public order is most often designed to serve those who make the laws and those voters who put the lawmakers in power.
The enslaved like Celia had no vote in 1855 Missouri, and what was considered justice was delivered to Celia at the end of a rope. Who knows what type of justice will be delivered to marginalized Americans if we allow the vote to be taken away from us? For this reason, we must struggle with all our might to protect the votes of people of color, poor people, members of the LGBTQ community and other marginalized peoples.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/