On December 21, 1855, at 2.30pm, Celia an enslaved woman was hanged for the murder of her abusive enslaver, Robert Newsom.
In 1850, Celia was sold to Robert Newsom when she was about 14 years old. Newsom was a prosperous man, who around 1820, had left Virginia with his family and headed west, finally settling land along the Middle River in southern Callaway County, Missouri. Thirty years late (according to the census), Newsom owned eight-hundred acres of land and livestock that included horses, milk cows, beef cattle, hogs, sheep, and two oxen. Like the majority of Callaway County farmers, Newsom also had enslaved Blacks working on his farm. He owned five enslaved Black men. Newsom had two sons – Harry and David – and two daughters, Virginia and Mary. Virginia, who had been married and retained her husband’s family name, Waynescot, lived with him. Virginia, who had three children from her marriage to Waynescot, functioned as the mistress of the Newsom home, as her mother had died sometime in 1849. Mary was fourteen the same age as Celia.
Practically nothing is known about Celia’s life before her arrival at the Newsom farm. She was purchased in Audrain County, ostensibly to help his daughters with the housework. However, the recently widowed Newsom seemed to have deliberately chosen to acquire an enslaved woman to fulfil his sexual desires. From the moment he purchased Celia, Newsom regarded her as both his property and his concubine, although her assigned task on the farm seems to have been that of a cook. On his way to his home in Callaway County, Missouri, Newsom raped Celia. For the next five years, Celia was cruelly and repeated sexually assaulted by her abusive enslaver. During this period, she gave birth to two children who were probably fathered by Newsom. Her life was one of continual sexual exploitation by her enslaver. Newsom ‘rewarded’ Celia with material goods and gave her a cabin of her own, one that was luxurious in comparison to the housing in which the vast majority of enslaved Americans resided. Built of brick, it was a one-story structure with a single front entrance and windows on the back. The cabin possessed a large chimney and fireplace.
Eventually Celia begin romantically involved with George, one of the five men enslaved by Newsom. By early 1855, George had began staying with Celia in her cabin. However, during this period, Newsom continued to sexually exploit Celia. Upon her third pregnancy, Celia was uncertain about the child’s paternity. She did not know whether the child was sired by her enslaver or by her fellow bondsman. The pregnancy affected George, and caused him to insist that Celia put an end to the sexual exploitation by Newsom. George informed Celia that “he would have nothing more to do with her if she did not quit the old man.”
In an effort to stop Newsom’s sexual assaults and thus retain George’s affections, Celia first appealed to Newsom’s daughters to intercede. She told Mary (19 years old, as was Celia in 1855) and Virginia (36) that her pregnancy was making her feel unwell and that she wished Robert Newsom to respect her condition and leave her alone. Records do not show whether or not the sisters, both of whom were financially dependent on Newsom were able to intervene on Celia behalf. It is known that although Celia threatened to hurt Newsom, the sexual abuse continued.
Celia then confronted Newsom directly sometime on or shortly before June 23, 1855. She begged Newsom to leave her alone, again using her pregnancy as an excuse. Newsom dismissed her request with a threatening promise that “he was coming to her cabin that night.” Pushed to her limits, Celia secure a large stick, determined to physically defend herself if necessary, which she placed in the corner of her cabin.
Newsom entered her cabin that night and demanded that she have sex with him. Upon his approach, Celia reached into the corner and retrieved the large stick that she had placed there earlier in the afternoon. As Newsom continued to approach she raised the stick and brought it down against Newsom’s head. Dazed by the blow, Newsom “sunk down on a stool or towards the floor,” groaning and throwing up his hands as if to catch Celia. Afraid that an angered Nesom would harm her Celia gave him a second blow to his skull, which killed him. She would later tell a reporter, “…as soon as I struck him the Devil got into me, and I struck him with the stick until he was dead, and then rolled him in the fire and burnt him up.”
Frightened by what she had done, Celia decided to to get rid of the evidence of the murder. Fearing that Newsom’s body would be discovered and she would be hung, Celia decided to burn Newsom’s body in her fireplace. She went outside to gather staves and used them to build a raging fire. Then she dragged the corpse over to the fireplace and pushed it into the flames. She kept the fire going through the night. In the early morning, she gathered up bone fragments from the ashes and smashed them against the hearth stones, then threw the particles back into the fireplace. A few larger pieces of bone she put “under the hearth, and under the floor between a sleeper and the fireplace.” Shortly before daybreak, Celia carried some of the ashes out into the yard. Celia also enlisted the help of Newsom’s grandson, Coffee Waynescot, in shoveling ashes out of her fireplace and into a bucket. Coffee testified later he decided to help when the slave said “she would give me two dozen walnuts if I would carry the ashes out; I said good lick.” Following Celia’s instruction, Coffee distributed the remains of his grandfather along a path leading to the stables.
With Newsom missing his daughter Virginia began searching for her father in along nearby creek banks and coves, fearing he might have drowned. By mid-morning, the search party grew to include several neighbors and Newsom’s son, Harry. After fruitless hours of searching, suspicion began to turn to George, who, it was thought, might have been motivated to kill Newsom out of jealousy. William Powell, an enslaver and owner of an adjoining 160-acre farm, questioned George. George denied any knowledge of what might have happened to Newsom, but then added, suspiciously “it was not worth while to hunt for him any where except close to the house.” George told Powell “he believed the last walking [Newsom] had done was along the path, pointing to the path leading from the house to the Negro cabin.” George’s comment immediately led investigators to the conclusion that Newsom had been killed in Celia’s cabin.
When a search of Celia’s cabin failed to turn up Newsom’s body, Powell and the others located Celia doing her regular duties in the kitchen of the Newsom home. Powell falsely claimed that George had told the search party that “she knew where her [enslaver] was,” hoping this approach might prompt a quick confession from Celia. Instead, Celia denied any knowledge of her enslaver’s fate. Faced with escalating threats, including the threat of having her children taken away from her, Celia continued to insist on her innocence. Eventually, however, Celia admitted that Newsom had indeed visited her cabin seeking sex the previous night. She insisted that Newsom never entered her cabin, but rather that she struck him as he leaned inside the window and “he fell back outside and she saw nothing more of him.” Finally, after refusing “for some time to tell anything more,” Celia promised to tell more if Powell would “send two men [Newsom’s two sons] out of the room.” When Harry and David left, Celia confessed to the murder of Robert Newsom.
Following Celia’s confession, the search party located Newsom’s ashes along the path to the stables. They also gathered bits of bones from Celia’s fireplace, larger bone fragments from under the hearth stone, and Newsom’s burnt buckle, buttons, and blackened pocketknife. The collected items were placed in a box for display during the inquest that was to come.
Acting on an affidavit filed by David Newsom, the case of State of Missouri v Celia, a Slave commenced. Two justices of the peace, six local residents comprising an inquest jury, and three summoned witnesses all assembled at the Newsom residence on the morning of June 25. William Powell testified first, providing the jurors with an account of his interrogation of Celia the day before. Twelve-year-old Coffee Waynescot told jurors of Celia’s request that he distribute what turned out to be his grandfather’s ashes along the path. The third and last witness was Celia, who reaffirmed that she killed Newsom, but insisted that “she did not intend to kill him when she struck him, but only wanted to hurt him.” The inquest jury quickly determined that probable cause existed that Celia feloniously and willfully murdered Robert Newsom, and the slave girl was ordered taken to the Callaway County jail in Fulton, nine miles to the north of the Newsom farm.
Doubts as to whether Celia could have pulled off her crime without help lingered, and Callaway County Sheriff William Snell allowed two men, Jefferson Jones and Thomas Shoatman, to conduct further questioning of Celia in her jail cell. Celia added some additional detail to her original story, describing the history of rape and sexual exploitation that began soon after her arrival on the Newsom farm, but she continued to deny that George played any role in Newsom’s death or the disposal of his body.
On October 9, 1855, Celia entered the circuit court of Callaway County, where she stood accused of murder. Approximately nineteen years old, she was defended by a team of three lawyers. Presiding over the trial, Circuit Court Judge William Hall held Unionist sympathies. In an effort to ensure that Celia would receive a trial that would not be easily dismissed, he assigned the well-respected John Jameson to defend Celia. Using witness testimony, Jameson emphasized that Newsom had continually raped Celia since she was 14 years old. Celia, he argued, had acted out of desperation to stop the abuse, but had not intended to kill Newsom. In spite of his attempts to argue that Celia had the legal right to refuse Newsom’s sexual assaults, Judge Hall supported the prosecutions’ contention that jurors could not acwuiy Celia on grounds of self-defense or based on the idea that she had the rights to repel with force Newsom’s sexual assaults.
On October 10, the jury found Celia guilty.
Celia’s attorneys appeared again in court the next day to move for a new trial, based on Judge Hall’s evidentiary rulings during the proceeding and his allegedly erroneous instructions. Judge Hall took twenty-four hours to consider the defense motion, then rejected it and sentenced Celia to be “hanged by the neck until dead on the sixteenth day of November 1855.” The defense motion that it be allowed to appeal the judge’s ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court was granted.
In jail awaiting her execution, Celia delivered a stillborn child. As the date for her execution approached, still no word had come from Jefferson City on her appeal filed in the Missouri Supreme Court. The possibility that she might be hanged before her appeal was decided seemed ever more real to Celia’s defense team and whoever else she might count among her supporters. Something had to be done.
On November 11, five days before her scheduled date with the gallows, Celia and another inmate were removed from the Callaway County jail, either with the assistance or the knowledge of her defense lawyers. The defense team, in a letter to Supreme Court Justice Abiel Leonard written less than a month after her escape, noted that Celia “was taken out [of jail] by someone” and that they felt “more than ordinary interest in behalf of the girl Celia” owing to the circumstances of her act. Celia was returned to jail, by whom it is not known, in late November, only after her scheduled execution date had passed. Following her return, Judge Hall set a new execution date of December 21, a date, the defense hoped, that would give the Supreme Court time to issue its decision on their appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled against Celia in her appeal. In their December 14 order, the state justices said they “thought it proper to refuse the prayer of the petitioner,” having found “no probable cause for her appeal.” The stay of execution, the justices wrote, is “refused.”
With the supreme court’s ruling, all appeals were exhausted. Jameson, and his team lacked any legal means to prevent Celia’s execution. Her defense counsel, having waged a prolonged and tenacious fight to save her, accepted the inevitable, as did those parties unknown who had engineered her ‘escape’ from jail. The record showed that Jameson saw Celia’s conviction and sentence as travesties of justice. Yet, no one stage a public protest or took additional extralegal measures to save her.
During the night of December 20, the eve of her newly designated date of execution, celia was once again interrogated in her cell. In a final statement, Celia repeated her story: she had acted alone, she had struck Newsom to stop his advances, and she had not intended to kill him. She denied that “anyone assisted her, or aided or abetted her in any way.
On the afternoon of Friday, December 21, Celia was marched to the gallows. At 2.30pm, the trap was sprung and Celia fell to her death. One of the witnesses to her death was an unidentified Telegraph reporter. He wrote: “Thus closed one of the most horrible tragedies ever enacted in our country.”
“Where Celia’s remains were interred, much like the events of her life before her fatal confrontation with her [enslaver], was not recorded. Just as her Celia’s final resting place is unknown, there are no records of what became of her children…
John Jameson survived Celia by little more than a year. He died suddenly on January 24, 1857, and was buried in the family cemetery in Fulton. Robert Newsom was also interred in a family cemetery, beside his wife on the farm… His gravestone still stands in a field just off a Callaway County road, some nine miles south of Fulton”
Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia edited by Daina Ramey Berry and Deleso A. Alford.
Celia, A Slave: A True Story by Melton A. McLaurin