Celia, a Slave

by

Melton McLaurin

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Celia, a Slave: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The judge at Celia’s trial is a man named William Augustus Hall. Judge Hall grew up in Virginia and later attended Yale. He studied law and was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1841. He served as a circuit court judge, and became an important Democratic ally. While it’s unclear what, exactly, Hall believed about slavery, Hall must have realized that the results of the trial would reverberate throughout the country. In all probability, he would have wanted the trial to end as “decorously as possible,” to avoid an outbreak of further violence in Missouri and Kansas.
Like many officials in Missouri at the time, Hall’s priority was to preserve law and order in his state. While the situation in Missouri was becoming increasingly violent in 1855, neither side particularly wanted violence; rather, they wanted the government to protect their rights and enforce the laws (though, of course, both sides disagreed about which laws should be protected).
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The defense attorney for Celia is John Jameson, the uncle of Jefferson Jones. He’s a respected figure in the county, not just as a community leader but as a gregarious, fun-loving fellow. He’s served in the Missouri House of Representatives, but failed to distinguish himself as a great politician. In general, Missouri politicians think of him as a likeable and fair-minded man, even if he’s no genius.
McLaurin characterizes John Jameson as a likeable, average guy—sort of the 19th century version of college fraternity president. By emphasizing, again and again, that Jameson is not a particularly extraordinary person, McLaurin humanizes Jameson and arguably makes him a more sympathetic and interesting character.
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Politically speaking, John Jameson supports the expansion of the United States. As a lawyer, he’s not a brilliant scholar, but he’s a persuasive rhetorician and a shrewd judge of character. Hall is also a slave owner, though there’s no evidence that he supports the expansion of slavery. By appointing James as Celia’s attorney, Hall has made a clever move: nobody can deny that Celia has been given adequate representation.
Jameson is, in many ways, typical of the population of the United States at the time. He’s moderate on a lot of political issues: he doesn’t believe slavery is inherently wrong, but he also finds himself inclined to sympathize with slaves. In this way, Hall ensures that Celia’s defender is a neutral, unbiased figure (or at least as unbiased as it’s possible for a Missouri slave owner to be in 1855).
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Hall appoints two additional attorneys to the defense, to assist Jameson with research. The first is Nathan Chapman Kouns, the son of a prominent Missouri slave owner. Nathan is a young man, and this is his first trial. The second is Isaac M. Boulware, also a young, inexperienced attorney. He’s the son of a prominent Baptist preacher, admitted to the Missouri bar just months before being assigned Celia’s case.
Kouns and Boulware are fairly minor characters in this book: they’re instrumental in helping Jameson with his case, but McLaurin has little to say about their personalities.
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Two other factors make Jameson’s appointment to Celia’s case somewhat unusual. First, there’s the fact that Jameson has two daughters of about Celia’s age. Second, Jameson is one of the Disciples of Christ (a Presbyterian movement), and has been studying religion seriously for years. Therefore, Jameson is perhaps unusually likely to develop sympathy for Celia, and to consider the moral aspects of the case. Whether Hall considers these two factors when appointing Jameson isn’t known.
In some ways, Jameson is likely to sympathize with Celia because of his family and his religion. The passage further suggests a connection between Christianity (or at least certain sects of Christianity) and the abolitionist cause. While Christianity was used to justify slavery for centuries, it was also instrumental in inspiring people to fight against slavery.
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At the time, the Disciples of Christ are divided on the issue of slavery. In the South, most of the Disciples see no contradiction between their faith and owning slaves. In the North, some abolitionists identify with the Disciples. Out west, the Disciples tend to be moderate on the issue of slavery, but believe that slaveholders have a moral obligation to treat their slaves kindly. One of the key leaders of the Disciples of Christ, Alexander Campbell, argues that slavery is a political issue, not a religious one, meaning that the Disciples can make up their own minds.
For some Americans, Christianity was a political tool, used to justify both slavery and abolitionism. But for many other Americans, Christianity and slavery were entirely unrelated: many Christian leaders stressed that Christians should make up their own minds about owning slaves (much as Stephen Douglas argued that states could make up their own minds about legalizing slavery).
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It’s impossible to know what Jameson thinks personally about Celia’s innocence. However, he and his aides prepare Celia’s defense. By late September, he’s arranged for his witnesses to come to the trial in October. The lead attorney for the prosecution is a circuit attorney named R. G. Prewitt, who’s served in this capacity for less than two years.
At first it’s unclear how sympathetic Jameson is to Celia. The passage also introduces R. G. Prewitt. Although Prewitt is obviously important to Celia’s trial, he’s a minor character in the book, and McLaurin only mentions his name a few more times.
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The trial begins with the jurors—who, following the laws of the time, are exclusively white and male—taking their oaths. Only one of the jurors is from Missouri—the rest have migrated west in search of a better life. All have been married and have children, and none are particularly wealthy. At least four jurors own slaves. “From the perspective of the defense,” McLaurin concludes, “the jury was about as good as could be expected.”
At every step of the process, the investigation into Robert Newsom’s killing is absurdly unfair. White male jurors, some of whom own slaves, could hardly be considered neutral parties in this case. But as McLaurin points out, the jury is probably as unbiased as it could be, considering the time and place.
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The defense begins by pleading Celia not guilty to the charge of murder. The next day, the prosecution calls its first witness, Jefferson Jones. Jones reports that, during his interview with Celia, Celia claimed she’d had “sexual intercourse” with Robert Newsom, and that she’d tried to end the sexual relationship with Newsom. When Jameson cross-examines his nephew, he focuses on the sexual relationship between Celia and Robert. On further questioning, Jones admits that Celia claimed Robert raped her many times. He gives evasive answers, trying to foil Jameson’s attempts to portray Robert “as a fiend.”
Surprisingly, McLaurin doesn’t elaborate on the fact that Jameson and Jones were related (conceivably, this fact would have had some effect on the trial, and by contemporary standards it could have been sufficient cause for Jameson to recuse himself). Jameson suggests that Jones is being dishonest and evasive with the court, deliberately hiding valuable evidence about Robert’s sexual history with Celia. Of course, Jameson isn’t just trying to portray Newsom as a fiend: he’s trying to establish Celia’s motive for killing Newsom.
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The next witness for the prosecution is Virginia Newsom Waynescot. She explains how she searched for her father’s body for hours, and again the prosecution focuses on the facts of the murder, rather than asking questions about why Celia would kill Robert Newsom. In cross-examination, Jameson presses Virginia to admit that Celia was pregnant and sick in the months leading up to the killing. He does not, however, ask Virginia about her father’s rape—to do so would be a violation of “Victorian sexual mores.”
Jameson is caught in a dilemma: he desperately needs to establish that Robert raped Celia, and Virginia would be the ideal witness to testify to this effect. But he also doesn’t want to offend Virginia and alienate the jury by forcing Virginia to talk about her father’s sexual behavior. While it seems odd by modern standards that Jameson would ignore such an important line of questioning, Jameson does so in order to remain in the jury’s good graces.
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The next witness is James Coffee Waynescot. He explains how, horrifically, he gathered the ashes of his own grandfather. Jameson’s cross-examination is quick, and doesn’t mention Robert Newsom’s rape.
James Coffee’s gruesome testimony is instrumental in portraying Celia as a wicked, vengeful woman.
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The next witness, William Powell, describes how Robert Newsom’s bones were discovered the day after the killing. In cross-examination, Jameson asks Powell if he knew whether Robert had slept in his own bed on the night of the murder. Under pressure, Powell admits that Celia told him about how Robert repeatedly raped her. Powell also admits that Celia stressed that she was acting defensively.
Again and again, Jameson is able to establish that Robert Newsom was having sex with Celia; he’s also able to make the prosecution look evasive by showing that witnesses are concealing important evidence.
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The final two witnesses for the state are doctors who confirm that the ashes found in Celia’s fireplace most likely belonged to Robert Newsom. The state introduces into evidence Celia’s signed confession of the murder, and the prosecution rests its case.
The prosecution concludes its case, meaning that it’s time for Jameson to begin his defense.
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The defense calls its first witness, Dr. James M. Martin. The very fact that Martin, a prominent doctor in the county, would testify for the defense suggests that many people sympathize with Celia. Martin testifies that it’s possible, but extremely difficult, to burn a human body in one night. When Jameson asks more specific questions, however, the state objects, and Hall sustains the objections. Jameson is forced to dismiss his witness.
While there are many slave owners in Missouri, there’s also a sizeable chunk of the population that sympathizes with Celia. Many of the issues that Martin raises in this section McLaurin himself is never able to address—he can’t really explain how a sick, pregnant woman got rid of an adult body. In raising legitimate questions about the logistics of the killing, Jameson is able to establish doubt that Celia really committed the crime of which she’s accused.
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The next witness for the defense is Thomas Shoatman, the man who accompanied Jefferson Jones to Celia’s interrogation. Shoatman testifies that Celia claimed to have feared for her life. This is a crucial point for the defense, since there’s a robust legal precedent for slaves using deadly force for self-preservation. Shoatman also testifies that Celia struck Robert Newsom to stop him from raping her, not to kill him. This testimony is stricken from the record, but Jameson makes sure the jury hears it.
Jameson scores a mixed victory here: he makes sure the jurors know that Celia may have been acting defensively, but because the testimony is stricken from the record, it’s highly unlikely that the judge will bring it up during jury instructions (meaning that the issue of self-defense probably won’t have much of an impact on the jury’s decision).
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In all, Jameson does a spectacular job in the trial. He presents compelling evidence that Celia acted on the legal right to repel her master’s sexual advances, and that Robert Newsom regularly raped her. The energy and inventiveness with which James has presented his case suggests that he not only believes all slaves are entitled to a fair trial; he believes that Celia is innocent.
Although McLaurin doesn’t have a lot of insight into Jameson’s character, he argues that Jameson went above and beyond his duties as a defense attorney, which would further suggest that he sympathizes with Celia—as do many people in the state of Missouri.
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