Celia, a Slave

Celia, a Slave Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On the morning on June 24, 1855, Virginia Newsom and Mary Newsom notice that Robert Newsom is missing. They search around the farm and find nothing. Then they call their neighbors for help. By noon, Robert’s friends and neighbors are hunting in vain for any trace of him. As the search proceeds, someone suggests that George might know something about Robert’s disappearance.
Celia has disposed of Robert’s body without attracting any attention, which is why Robert’s family spends the next morning searching for him.
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William Powell, one of Robert Newsom’s neighbors, and the self-appointed leader of the search party, finds George and demands information. Powell is, in many ways, like Robert: both came westward in search of cheap farmland, both have children around the same age, and both own slaves.
William Powell is like Robert in many ways (though it’s not clear if, like Robert, he rapes his female slaves). This suggests that, like Robert, he’s strongly biased against slaves and in favor of slave owners, and is likely to be especially unsympathetic to Celia’s situation.
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George is understandably frightened when Powell demands information about Robert Newsom. He wants to protect Celia, but he also fears for his own safety. George probably knows that Celia has threatened to hurt Robert if he rapes her again. Frightened, George tells Powell what he knows, immediately making Celia the prime suspect in Robert’s disappearance.
George endangers Celia’s life in order to protect his own—just as he’s already done. As before, his behavior is cowardly but also understandable: George faces the strong possibility of being executed for playing some part in Robert’s death, and wants to avoid this grim fate.
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William Powell finds Celia and immediately confronts her about Robert’s disappearance. To his disappointment, Celia doesn’t crack under pressure: she claims she knows nothing about her master’s whereabouts. Furious, Powell begins to threaten Celia’s life, and the lives of her children. Terrified, Celia tells half the truth: Robert entered her cabin, where Celia struck him with a stick. However, Celia claims that Robert, still alive, staggered out of the cabin.
Notice that Celia puts up a good fight against Powell’s questioning. She has a lot to lose—if she confesses to the murder, then she’s as good as dead. Only when she realizes that she needs to protect her children’s lives (since, tragically, she has no real power or rights in the situation) does she begin to reveal some of the truth.
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Powell isn’t satisfied by Celia’s explanation. He continues to yell at her and threaten her children’s lives. Celia is frightened, but she knows she has nothing to lose: if she tells the truth, the Newsoms could kill her on the spot. Fearing for her children, however, Celia promises Powell that she’ll tell the complete truth, on the condition that the Newsoms leave the room. Celia then proceeds to explain what she did. Powell investigates the ashes in the fire, and confirms that a body has been burned. Among the ashes, Virginia finds small objects that belonged to her father, confirming Celia’s gruesome story.
Celia believes that her best chance of surviving is to confess her crime to Powell, rather than the Newsoms—she trusts Powell to be fairer than Robert’s two daughters. Afterwards, Powell confirms Celia’s story by examining the fire. However, it’s still unclear how Celia disposed of an entire body in one night with one small fire, without arousing any suspicion.
Themes
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The next morning, June 25, the case of State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave begins. The inquest is conducted by two justices of the peace: D. M. Whyte and Isaac P. Howe. Howe is a landowner and a slave owner, and while the historical record isn’t conclusive, it’s very likely that Whyte is, too.
The legal process is strongly biased against Celia, because virtually all of the people who conduct the investigation are slave owners, and seem to think of slavery as a normal part of life.
Themes
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That morning, Whyte and Howe issue a warrant for Celia’s arrest, and summon witnesses. The inquest jury consists of local Callaway farmers, all of whom own land and slaves, and all of whom have migrated to Missouri in search of fertile land. It’s likely that most or all of these jurors knew Robert Newsom personally.
The inquest jury is also heavily biased against Celia: they’re unlikely to be sympathetic to her behavior because they accept slavery as a part of life (and also because some of them know Robert).
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The first inquest witness is William Powell, who explains interrogating Celia on the morning after the killing. James Coffee Waynescot testifies that he moves the ashes from Celia’s fire. No other member of Robert Newsom’s family testifies. Celia testifies that she killed Robert and burned the body. However, she insists that she wasn’t trying to kill him, and was defending herself. The inquest jurors quickly arrive at a decision: they urge the county constable to arrest Celia and charge her with murder. Celia is placed in the county jail, where she’ll await her trial.
Celia’s defense—that she was defending herself—falls on deaf ears. The inquest jury seems unwavering in its belief that a slaveholder may do whatever he pleases with his property—and therefore, the jury convicts Celia almost as soon as it’s heard the evidence.
Themes
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The local newspapers describe Robert Newsom’s murder as a horrific crime: Robert is characterized as an old man who lives alone. Many of the accounts are factually inaccurate: one report says the murder took place in a kitchen. This report also claims that Celia may have had help from another slave, George, and that she killed “without any sufficient cause.” Many newspapers pick up the story of Robert’s murder, reflecting the widespread fear of slave uprisings in the white community.
The newspapers unapologetically take Robert’s side: instead of telling the full truth about Celia’s motives for the crime (which she clearly expressed at the inquest), they characterize Celia as a remorseless killer who murdered a gentle old man in cold blood. Slaveholders are already frightened of slave uprisings, and the newspapers appeal to those fears by characterizing slaves as untrustworthy and violent (and selling more newspapers in the process).
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George is in a precarious situation. Even though Celia has confessed, the Newsom family suspects him of killing Robert. His survival is dependent on Celia taking sole blame for the murder. But he knows that Celia is going to be subjected to aggressive questioning from white authorities, and might change her story. Afraid that he could be charged with a crime, George flees the farm. This makes reporters conclude that he was involved in the murder.
McLaurin suggests that George flees the farm because, even though he’s innocent, the Newsoms suspect him of killing Robert. However, McLaurin has already acknowledged that there are some big holes in Celia’s story, meaning that it’s possible that George really did have some role in Robert’s murder. As with so much about Celia’s trial, it’s impossible to be sure of what happened.
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Slave violence was seen as a constant threat in early white America, especially in the antebellum South. In 1789, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful slave uprising in Haiti and slaughtered thousands of white slave owners. Later, during the debate over Missouri statehood, politicians on both sides voiced their fear that slaves would one day outnumber whites in Missouri, leading to an uprising. Then, in 1831, Nat Turner led a slave uprising in Virginia that resulted in the killing of more than fifty white men, women, and children. And as recently as 1850, thirty Missouri slaves were caught arming themselves with knives and guns and plotting an escape—a crime for which their leader was shot.
The frequent slave uprisings in the New World reflected, first, the massive number of slaves: in many states in the U.S., for example, slaves came close to outnumbering whites. In some cases, slaveholders argued that they had a duty to treat their slaves cruelly in order to prevent them from rising up. But of course, slaveholders’ cruelty was one of the reasons why slaves tried to organize uprisings in the first place.
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There’s strong circumstantial evidence that Celia didn’t act alone, considering that Celia is a young teenager and Robert was a grown man. Furthermore, some reporters find it unlikely that Celia could have disposed of Robert’s body all by herself, since she was sick and pregnant.
McLaurin acknowledges some of the implausibilities in Celia’s story but doesn’t seriously pursue them, because there’s not enough evidence available to him. Even though Celia’s story seems questionable, McLaurin has no better option than to take her at her word and point out these inconsistencies to the reader.
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The Callaway sheriff arranges for two men, Thomas Shoatman and Jefferson Jones, to interrogate Celia about having accomplices. The two men are very different: Shoatman is relatively poor, and owns no property or slaves. Jones, on the other hand, is wealthy, and is one of the county’s leading attorneys. He owns many slaves. Jones takes the leading role during Celia’s questioning.
Although Shoatman isn’t a slaveholder (meaning that he doesn't share the inquest jurors’ bias), Jones is, and he takes the more active role during question. This again reflects the one-sided nature of the investigation: many of the key investigators take it for granted that slaveholders have the right to do whatever they want with their slaves.
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During the investigation, Jefferson Jones asks Celia to tell the whole truth. Celia explains that Robert Newsom regularly raped her, and that she’d threatened to hurt him if he proceeded to do so. She insists that she had no help in killing him. Jones tells Celia that George has run away, hoping that she’ll implicate him in her crime. Even so, Celia sticks to her story, and reiterates that George wasn’t involved. There are thus two possibilities: first, Celia is telling the truth; second, Celia and George did kill Robert together, but Celia is still fiercely loyal to George.
The most convincing reason to believe that Celia acted alone is that, even after Jefferson Jones tells her that George has run away, she doesn’t say anything to implicate him in her crime.
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In the weeks following the killing, Harry Newsom becomes furious with the local newspapers for misreporting the details of the story. He writes an angry letter to the Republican, a popular newspaper, pointing out that the murder didn’t take place in a kitchen. However, he doesn’t correct the single biggest error in the Republican’s account: that Celia killed without cause. His reason is very simple: he doesn’t want to broadcast the fact that his father was raping his slave. In short, Harry focuses on the facts but ignores the motive altogether, setting the tone for Celia’s trial.
Harry’s reaction to the newspapers’ account of his father’s death is hypocritical and even darkly ironic. Newsom has no problem with reading about how his father owned slaves, and he seems to have no problem with the fact that the newspapers omit any explanation of why Celia might have wanted to kill Robert—but he’s livid that they got the location of the murder wrong. Harry is a hypocrite, who pretends to be an upstanding member of Missouri society, even though he condones rape with his silence.
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