Celia’s defense team drafts an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, but its exact contents aren’t known. What is known is that by early December, the Supreme Court hasn’t made any reply to the appeal. Jameson realizes that Celia stands a very high likelihood of being executed before the Supreme Court responds.
In this chapter, McLaurin comes up against the limits of historical knowledge: he doesn’t know what legal strategies the defense uses in its appeal, and he doesn't know how the Supreme Court responds.
On the night of November 11, Celia and a fellow slave escape from jail. Shortly afterwards, she’s recaptured, and the state sets a new execution date: December 21.
Similarly, McLaurin offers frustratingly little information about Celia’s escape—how she escaped, or who helped her, is a mystery.
In response to Celia’s upcoming execution, Jameson and his two aides draft a remarkable letter to Abiel Leonard, a circuit court attorney, in which they express their personal feelings on the case. They write that they’re highly sympathetic to Celia, and add that the issue of Celia’s trail has divided the white community in Missouri. They beg Leonard and the circuit court to reexamine the trial record, which they insist shows that Judge William Hall gave illegal jury instructions and refused to make fair rulings for the defense.
By this point, it’s become clear that Jameson sympathizes with Celia and actively wants to acquit her of murder. In the letter, Jameson shows a savvy awareness of the political ramifications of the court’s decision: he knows that tensions are high in Missouri at the time, meaning that the Court has an incentive to be fair and honor the rule of law—which is precisely what Judge Hall has failed to do, at least according to the defense.
It’s unclear how, exactly, Celia escapes from jail. But it’s possible that white abolitionists, knowing that Celia is going to be executed soon, conspire to “Remove her from the county jail.” Furthermore, once it appeared that the Missouri Supreme Court would have the opportunity to hear Celia’s appeal after all (because the original date of the execution passed), Celia’s allies may have returned her to jail, rather than violate further laws by moving her to a free state.
Here, McLaurin engages in some speculation. Left with no historical evidence for Celia’s escape, he guesses that abolitionists may have been responsible for the prison break. While McLaurin’s speculations can be frustrating, they’re useful in conveying the uncertainty inherent to the study of history, in a way that longer, more authoritative works of history often don’t.
At the time when the defense filed its appeal, another intense debate about slavery was underway. On October 23, Free State party delegates met in Topeka to draft a new state constitution. The Free State delegation formally applied to Congress to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a free state, with a constitution designed to prevent the expansion of slavery. These actions constituted a direct challenge to the authority of the pro-slavery Governor William Shannon.
The Free State party believed itself to be the rightful political party, because it refused to accept the results of the most recent elections (which, the party claimed, had been contaminated by Atchinson’s cronies). The party argued that it had a moral duty to prevent the expansion of slavery, while also portraying itself as a party that respected legitimate elections and rule of law.
In response to the Topeka Convention, supporters of slavery in Missouri and Kansas formed the “Law and Order party,” and passed a resolution claiming that civil war would break out if Congress recognized the Free State party’s constitution.
Not for the last time in American history, a group of white supremacists organized themselves under the guise of protecting “law and order.” But even though the Law and Order party presented itself as being conservative and law-abiding, it demonstrated otherwise by threatening violence if Congress recognized the Free State party.
By November, tensions between the two new political parties had reached their peak. Both sides armed themselves in preparation for war. Then, on November 21, a pro-slavery settler shot and killed a free state settler in the city of Lawrence, Kansas. The next day, the Free State party staged protests in the streets. David R. Atchinson sent armed men to confront the protesters in Lawrence, supposedly to “sustain the law.”
In November, violence finally breaks out in Kansas, showing that the issue of slavery is beyond compromise. (This episode is often called “Bleeding Kansas.”) Peaceful, political solutions have failed, meaning that violence and radicalism seem to be the only means of change left. Notice that Atchinson, ever the crafty politician, presented himself as being a defender of law and order, even though he was clearly fortifying his side.
By December 7, fighting had broken out in the city of Lawrence. Armed Missourians sent by David R. Atchinson had burned buildings and destroyed the building out of which the Free State party-affiliated newspaper operated. Both sides experienced heavy casualties, and soon both political parties agreed to negotiations.
At least in McLaurin’s depiction of the events, the pro-slavery factions in Kansas are more aggressive and violent than their political opponents: they’re the ones who burn down buildings and threaten journalists. However, both sides resort to violence (hence both sides sustaining casualties).
By December 9, the Free State and Law and Order parties had reached a compromise, the Treaty of Lawrence. As part of the treaty, Atchinson’s supporters left Lawrence. In part, Atchinson may have agreed to the treaty because he recognized that the fighting posed a long-term threat to his own political career, as well as the pro-slavery cause.
The compromise between the pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Kansas suggests that Americans could still reach a compromise on the issue of slavery, at least in the short term. But by 1860, it was clear that, in the long term, the issue of slavery could only be addressed through radical and violent means of change.
In late November, at a time when the state seemed to be on the verge of civil war, the Missouri Supreme Court met in St. Louis to address Celia’s case. The three justices, William Scott, John F. Ryland, and Abiel Leonard, have all ruled against Dred Scott in 1852, suggesting that they’ll most likely affirm the decision from Celia’s trial.
The outlook doesn’t look good for Celia: the justices on the court have shown themselves to believe that slaves are their masters’ property, and therefore don’t enjoy the rights afforded to human beings.
On December 14, the Missouri Supreme Court rules on Celia’s appeal. The court upholds the original decision and orders that Celia’s execution be performed as ordered, at the end of the month. Jameson is out of legal means of preventing Celia’s execution. It’s clear that he considers Celia’s conviction a “travesty of justice.”
Over the course of his defense, Jameson seems to have changed from a moderate slaveholder into a supporter of slaves’ rights (and, arguably, an opponent of slavery itself). The struggle for justice has transformed him.
On December 20, the night before her execution, Celia is interrogated one final time. For the last time, she denies that she had any assistance in the killing of Robert Newsom. However, she elaborates on her earlier answers and says that “the devil got into me” after hitting him once on the head.
The fact that Celia sticks to her story even after she’s going to die makes it especially unlikely that she was lying about having killed Robert Newsom on her own.
The next day, Celia is executed. It’s likely that many people witness her hanging. One of these people is a reporter for the Telegraph, who believes Celia to be a vile murderer. Ironically, he writes of Celia’s hanging, “Thus closed one of the most horrible tragedies ever enacted in our country.” Historians don’t know where Celia’s remains are buried—just as the early events of her life are unknown, so are her final whereabouts. Robert Newsom is interred in the family cemetery, next to his wife, and his grave still stands over a century later.
While the Telegraph reporter means that Robert’s death was a great tragedy, his words could be interpreted to mean that Celia’s execution was the horrible tragedy—surely a more accurate statement. Celia’s remains are lost, symbolizing the historical ambiguity surrounding her entire life. Meanwhile, Robert, as a wealthy white man in the 19th century, enjoys a more permanent form of burial.