Controversy over slavery is a familiar theme in Missouri’s history. In the early 19th century, the territory was in the process of being admitted to the Union as a state, but there was a passionate debate over whether slavery should be legal there or not. Representatives in New York introduced a resolution accepting Missouri into the Union only if all slaves were freed by their twenty-fifth birthday, and all further slavery was banned. South Carolina responded with its own measure, proposing that slavery be permitted. Congressmen worked frantically to develop a compromise that would be acceptable both to Southern politicians, who generally endorsed slavery, and Northern politicians, some of whom opposed the expansion of slavery. In Missouri itself, the vast majority of landowners supported slavery.
McLaurin alternates between chapters that tell the story of Celia’s life and chapters that provide useful background information that informs Celia’s story. In the early decades of the 19th century, slavery was a controversial institution, but for the most part, America’s political leaders supported peaceful means of resolving the controversy. These political means often took the form of a legal compromise, reflecting the fact that many Americans supported slavery, many others opposed slavery, and still others were neutral on the issue.
In 1821, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, on the condition that Maine be admitted as a free state, and slavery be banned in all future territories north of Missouri. Southern politicians scored a huge victory: they created a process whereby slave states could be admitted into the Union, and pressured the federal government to give a slave state formal recognition.
The Missouri Compromise was, in many ways, an outright victory for supporters of slavery. In the short term, the admission of Missouri to the Union was balanced out by the admission of Maine. But in the long-term, the Compromise benefitted Southern slaveholders by giving them credibility and paving the way for future slave states.
By the 1840s, Callaway was one of the leading slave counties in the state. By 1850, slaves made up nearly half of the Callaway population. Farmers invested money in purchasing slaves—and Robert Newsom was no exception.
The Missouri Compromise had immediate ramifications for the population of Missouri. Farmers migrated west, knowing that they could make their fortunes with the help of slaves. As a result, there was a massive influx of slaves in Missouri.
Of Robert’s five slaves, one is a young boy. It’s unclear why Robert purchases the child, but it’s possible that the boy is related to one of the other slaves he buys. He purchases Celia in a neighboring county. He doesn’t want Celia to help with fieldwork; rather, he wants a replacement for his dead wife. He wants someone who can cook and keep him company, and he wants a sexual partner, too.
Here, it becomes clear that McLaurin was referring to Newsom at the end of the last chapter. Newsom isn’t a fine, upstanding farmer: he’s a vicious rapist who believes he’s entitled to have sex with an underage girl he purchases at an auction, whether she consents (or is even able to consent, due to her age and enslaved status) or not.
At the time when Robert buys Celia, Missouri is engaged in another bitter debate over the expansion of slavery. Southerners, led by John C. Calhoun, support the expansion of slavery into the territory the U.S. has gained in the Mexican American War. This time, Missouri is divided on the issue: one of the state’s two senators, David R. Atchinson, supports the expansion while the other, Thomas Hart Benton, does not.
The Missouri Compromise had lessened the controversy over slavery’s expansion. But within a few decades, tensions flared up once more, since there were still many more territories to settle—and therefore, more potential slave states to admit to the Union.
Robert Newsom buys Celia when she’s fourteen years old. As soon as he’s brought her back to his home, he rapes her. It’s clear enough that he feels no remorse for his act—he repeats it again and again, and he considers Celia his property. Robert’s behavior isn’t uncommon for male slave owners at the time, many of whom rape and abuse their female slaves.
Robert’s behavior is terrifying, in part because Celia has no good way of fighting back and in part because Robert believes that he’s not doing anything wrong. The passage is also disturbing because it suggests that thousands or even millions of female slaves had to endure similar patterns of assault from their owners.
Undoubtedly, Celia is devastated by Robert’s savage sexual acts. Modern research suggests that rape victims go through many different responses to their rape, including fear, anger, and a deep sense of helplessness. In Celia’s case, the sense of despair must be overpowering: unlike other unfortunate rape victims, Celia faces the terrifying fact that Robert will rape her again and again with impunity. Between 1850 and 1855, Celia gives birth to two children, both probably fathered by Robert.
Celia is a helpless victim of Robert’s cruelty. Notice that, by emphasizing Celia’s emotions, the passage makes nonsense of slaveholders’ claims that slaves were property, not people. Furthermore, the fact that Robert bought Celia with the express purpose of “replacing” his wife suggests that he recognized that Celia was a person, even if he denied this to others (and himself).
Celia probably doesn’t have any friends. She lives with Virginia and Mary, but scholarship suggests that white women often expressed resentment toward black slaves, largely because of the “possibility of a relationship between a male in the household and a female slave.” Robert’s son, David Newsom, who’s just married, and lives nearby, may have hoped to rape Celia, too—again, it wasn’t uncommon for slave owners’ sons to rape their fathers’ slaves. However, Robert’s eldest son Harry conceivably may have objected to his father’s behavior. But no matter what he felt, it’s unlikely that Harry would have expressed his disapproval directly. Historians don’t know much about how Celia gets along with the other slaves on Robert’s property, but it is known that Robert rewards Celia with presents, something that quite probably alienates Celia from the other slaves, and makes them jealous of her.
Even by the standards of antebellum slaves, Celia’s situation is horrible. Like all slaves, she has no control over her own life. But unlike other slaves, who at the very least have the ability to befriend other slaves or form alliances with their white masters, Celia is on her own. Other slaves, and Robert’s family members, despise her. One of the most disturbing points this passage makes it that there were dozens of people in the Newsom house who knew about Celia’s rape and did nothing about it—either because they were afraid of angering Robert or because they disliked Celia—a classic case of “blaming the victim.”
In the years leading up to 1855, Celia begins a romantic relationship with another slave, George. Although Celia stays in a special cabin at night, George often sleeps with her in the cabin. At some point, George tells Celia that she has to break off her “affair” with Robert.
Celia and George’s relationship appears to have been consensual. However, George seems not to understand Celia’s dire situation: he pressures her to end the relationship with Robert, even though it should be obvious to him that she has no control over whether or not Robert rapes her.
In the early months of 1855, Celia becomes pregnant with another child. However, she’s unsure whether the child is George’s or Robert’s. Therefore, George faces a challenge. He can confront Robert and tell him to stop raping Celia, who George seems to regard as his wife. But this could cost George his life. Instead, George angrily tells Celia to break off her relationship with Robert, or else he’ll never speak to her again.
George’s behavior is sympathetic, and yet cowardly. Instead of risking his own life to protect Celia from Robert’s aggression, he passes the burden on to Celia, knowing that she faces a difficult, almost impossible decision (the same decision he’s chosen not to make).
Celia now faces her own challenge. She has no power whatsoever over Robert Newsom, and she has no contacts outside the farm. Whatever she does—even if she does nothing—she’ll be placing herself in jeopardy. Eventually, she decides to appeal to Robert’s family—most likely Virginia and Mary. She explains that she is pregnant and sick, and begs them to influence Robert to leave her alone. She even claims that she’ll be forced to hurt Robert if he keeps raping her.
Left with no better choice, Celia asks Virginia and May for help, gambling that they’ll be sympathetic and prevent their father from raping her. Notice that Celia doesn’t say that Robert has no right to rape her (perhaps because she knows Virginia and May, as the daughters of a slaveholder, wouldn’t agree). Instead, she makes a less controversial point that, she prays, Virginia and May will agree with.
It’s highly unlikely that either Newsom woman speaks to Robert—after all, they’re almost as dependent on Robert as Celia is. Most likely, they choose to do nothing, and rationalize their passivity by telling each other that Celia is really the source of the problem—a “dark, sensual temptress who seduced their father.” Robert continues raping Celia.
Celia overestimates the influence that Virginia and May have over their father—in many ways, they’re Robert’s slaves, too, since they depend on him for money, food, and the little freedom they have. The passage is a painful example of the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. Faced with two contradictory thoughts—that Robert is a rapist, and that Robert is their beloved father—Virginia and May “resolve” the dissonance by callously blaming Celia for her own rape.
Some time shortly before June 23, 1855, Celia confronts Robert Newsom directly. She tells him that he must stop raping her, but doesn’t say that she’s in a relationship with George—instead, she tells Robert that she’s been sick because of her pregnancy, and doesn’t want to have sex. Robert brushes aside Celia’s plea, and informs her that he’ll continue having sex with her.
Again, notice that Celia doesn’t tell Robert that he has no right to rape her; she only says that he shouldn’t have sex with her right now, since she’s pregnant. But even this milder, less provocative point doesn’t sway Robert: he considers Celia his property and refuses to respect her wishes.
On the evening of June 23, 1855, the Newsom women retire to their bedrooms, wishing their father goodnight before they do. Around ten pm, Robert Newsom walks over to Celia’s cabin, where Celia is sleeping with her children. What happens next is unclear. Almost certainly, Robert tries to have sex with Celia. It’s likely that they exchange words of some kind. Following this, Celia attacks Robert with a stick. She beats Robert over the head, two times, since she’s afraid that if she hesitates, he’ll attack her. Robert crumples to the floor, dead.
McLaurin acknowledges that he doesn't know how Robert died. Therefore, he’s forced to make some deductive leaps: for example, he can’t say for certain if Celia hits Robert because she’s afraid that he’ll attack her—perhaps she’s just enjoying her revenge (very understandably so). By being upfront about his uncertainties, McLaurin avoids misleading the reader while still managing to tell a gripping story.
Celia’s first reaction is probably to panic—she knows she’ll probably be hanged for killing Robert Newsom. But then, she decides on a plan: she’ll burn Robert’s body in her fireplace, destroying any evidence that she killed him. Over the course of the night, Celia burns Robert’s body, crushing his bones into tiny pieces. By dawn, Robert’s body is nothing but ashes.
Again, McLaurin doesn’t know for sure how Celia gets rid of the body, but he chooses to believe Celia’s own testimony and conclude that Celia disposes of the body by herself. Nevertheless, there are some major reasons to question this testimony—for example, the idea that a sick, pregnant woman could get rid of a heavy corpse in just a few hours, with only a small fire to help her, seems pretty questionable.
The next morning, the Newsom family finds that Robert is missing. Celia notices Robert’s grandson, James Coffee Waynescot, and says she’ll give him a present if he carries the ashes out of her fireplace. This act, McLaurin says, clearly demonstrates the depths of Celia’s hatred for Robert.
Skillfully, McLaurin uses the historical record to paint a picture of Celia’s personality. She obviously despises Robert: therefore, she finds satisfaction in the macabre sight of a little boy disposing of his own grandfather’s remains.