In the year 1850, a prosperous Missouri farmer named Robert Newsom buys a teenaged slave named Celia. Very little is known about Celia’s life before she lived on Newsom’s property, but it’s known that when Newsom bought her, she was fourteen years old. Robert Newsom is in many ways typical of his Missouri community. He’s a farmer who migrated westward to seek fertile, cheap land. He has a large family, with many sons and daughters, two of whom, Virginia and Mary, still live with him.
Robert buys Celia because his wife has died, and he wants a sexual partner. The same night that Robert buys Celia, he rapes her. This pattern continues for years. Celia is utterly helpless to defend against Robert’s sexual aggression. She’s Robert’s property, and has no legal rights to refuse him.
At the same time that Robert purchases Celia, there’s an intense debate about slavery going on throughout America. The abolition movement, which supports the unequivocal banning of slavery, has been gaining strength for many years. Furthermore, there are many northern politicians who believe that slavery shouldn’t be allowed to expand into the western territory America has acquired in the Mexican-American War. After much debate in Congress, the territory of Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state. This is a major victory to pro-slavery politicians, because it sets a precedent for adding new slave states to the Union, and requires the federal government to recognize the institution of slavery.
Celia’s life on Newsom’s farm is miserable and lonely. She has no friends, either among the slaves or the white residents of the farm. It’s likely that Virginia and Mary know about their father’s relationship with Celia, but regard Celia as a sexual predator, blaming her for “seducing” their father.
In the early 1850s, Celia begins a romantic relationship with another slave, George. George becomes furious when he finds out that Celia and Newsom have an “affair.” The situation finally becomes critical in early 1855, when Celia finds out that she’s pregnant, either with Robert Newsom’s child or George’s. Furious, and too frightened to confront Newsom directly, George gives Celia an ultimatum: either break off the “affair” with Robert, or he’ll never speak to her again.
Celia has been put in a frightening position. She knows she has no power to stop Robert from raping her, but she doesn’t want to lose George. She first tries to appeal to Virginia and Mary, telling them that she’s been sick from her pregnancy, and can’t stand Robert’s advances right now. She also hints that if Robert tries to have sex with her again, she’ll have no choice but to defend herself with force. Virginia and Mary seem to do nothing in response to Celia’s request. Most likely, they rationalize their inaction by telling each other that Celia is a “seductress.”
On the night of June 23, 1855, Robert Newsom sneaks out of his bedroom, as is his custom, and enters Celia’s cabin. There, Celia warns Robert to stay away from her. When Robert ignores her, she strikes him with a heavy stick, and then, when he staggers back, she strikes him again, killing him. Celia is understandably frightened: she knows that she’ll probably be hanged for killing her owner. She decides to hide the body by burning it in the fireplace. By dawn, she’s successfully burned Newsom’s body to ashes.
The next morning, Robert’s family and neighbors begin a search party to find him. William Powell, Robert’s neighbor, questions Celia and eventually learns the truth: Celia killed Robert. Celia is placed in custody and a trial is scheduled for October.
At the time, white America is terrified of slave uprisings. In living memory, slaves have staged a successful uprising in Haiti, expelling the French colonialists, and more recently, the slave preacher Nat Turner has a led a failed, but destructive, uprising in Virginia. So it seems like that Celia will be punished to the full extent of the law.
Judge William Augustus Hall appoints a man named John Jameson to defend Celia in the trial. Jameson is a jovial, charismatic lawyer with a great reputation in his community. With his two legal aides, Jameson proceeds to build a case for his client. Jameson is a deeply religious man, meaning that he’s probably more sympathetic toward slaves than the average person in Missouri at the time. He plans to argue that Celia has the legal right to defend herself against rape from her master—he cites a statute in Missouri law that gives women the right to use deadly force to defend their “honor.” Making this argument, however, will require him to convince a judge that the law applies to slaves, who are legally considered property, not people.
The national debate over slavery has become bloody in the 1850s. The influential senator Stephen Douglas has passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing the residents of new western territories to vote on whether or not slavery should be allowed in their state. In Missouri, the influential politician and slavery advocate David R. Atchinson engineers a series of measures designed to make Kansas a slave state. He sends “border ruffians” into Kansas to ensure that the population is predominately in favor of slavery. Meanwhile, the Free Soil party, which wants Kansas to become a free state, sends thousands of people out west to ensure that Kansas doesn’t vote for slavery. The conflict in Kansas quickly becomes violent. Riots and demonstrations break out throughout the region, showing how contentious the issue of slavery has become.
At Celia’s trial, Jameson mounts a brilliant defense, based on the fact that Celia has the legal right to defend herself from rape. He also manages to use his cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses to prove that Celia was being sexually assaulted by Robert Newsom—an unpleasant fact that most of the witnesses try to hide. However, the prosecution successfully objects to many of Jameson’s points and witnesses.
The most important part of the trial is jury instruction—the defense and prosecution must convince Judge Hall to guide the jurors in a way that will help their side win. Robert tries to convince Hall to instruct the jurors to interpret Missouri law to allow a slave to defend herself from rape. But Hall refuses to do so, and as a result, Celia is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Later in the month, Jameson and his aides go beyond their original plan and draft an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Court doesn’t reply, however. Just days before her execution, Celia is freed from jail, for reasons that have been lost to history. However, it is known that she’s returned to captivity shortly after the day of her execution passes, and she’s sentenced to be executed in December. Tragically, the Missouri Supreme Court rules against Jameson’s appeal and upholds the jury’s initial decision. This ruling is consistent with the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in the Dred Scott case earlier that year: at the time, the American legal system defines slaves as the property of their masters, meaning that slaves have no legal or human rights.
Celia is hanged at the end of December. Her life is a testament to the tragedies of slavery, particularly for female slaves, who often had to endure sexual assault from their male owners. A few years after Celia’s death, civil war breaks out in the country, proving that the evils of slavery cannot be remedied with peaceful means.