The unjustified execution of Celia: A slave who killed her master in self-defence

The unjustified execution of Celia: A slave who killed her master in self-defence 5

For nineteen-year-old Celia, a slave on a Missouri farm, five years of being repeatedly raped by her middle-aged owner was enough. On the night of June 23, 1855, she would later tell a reporter, “the Devil got into me” and Celia fatally clubbed her master as he approached her in her cabin.

The unjustified execution of Celia: A slave who killed her master in self-defence 6

Celia was tried for the first-degree murder of her owner, Robert Newsom. She was convicted and sentenced to death. An appeal of the conviction was denied by the Supreme Court of Missouri in December 1855, and Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855.

The Crime Of Celia

Celia was an enslaved woman found guilty of the first-degree murder of her master, Robert Newsom, in Callaway County, Missouri. Her defence team led by John Jameson argued an affirmative defence: Celia killed Robert Newsom by accident in self-defence to stop Newsom from raping her, which was a controversial argument at the time. Celia was ultimately executed by hanging following a denied appeal in December 1855.

In Brief:
  • Celia was a slave who killed her master while resisting sexual assault.
  • Missouri State Law deemed “any woman” in such circumstances to be acting in Self-defence.
  • The court ruled she wasn’t a woman.
  • She was a slave whose Master had complete power over a person.


Sometime around 1819, Robert Newsom left his home state of Virginia and travelled west, eventually settling in Callaway County, Missouri with his wife and children. By 1850, Newsom had established himself as a prosperous man in his new home, where he owned eight hundred acres of land, a successful farm, and five male slaves.

Newsom’s wife died sometime in 1849, and, less than a year later in 1850, Newsom travelled to Audrain County to purchase Celia, his first female slave. It is likely that Newsom raped the then fourteen-year-old Celia for the first time on the journey from Audrain County back to Callaway County.

Back on Newsom’s property in Callaway County, Celia was given her own cabin, about fifty feet away from the main house, where she lived separately from Newsom’s male slaves.

Between 1850 and 1855, Newsom repeatedly raped Celia, and she bore two children over the course of those five years, at least one of whom was fathered by Newsom. At some point before 1855, Celia began a romantic relationship with George, one of Newsom’s other slaves. In early 1855, Celia, approximately nineteen, was pregnant for a third time with a child that was likely fathered by either George or Newsom.

At some point, George gave Celia an ultimatum, telling her “he would have nothing more to do with her if she did not quit the old man.” After this, Celia repeatedly attempted to plead with Newsom’s family members and with Newsom himself. Sometime on or around June 23, 1855, Celia begged Newsom to leave her alone because she was sick and pregnant. Newsom refused, and told her “he was coming down to her cabin that night.”

Celia threatened Newsom, telling him that she would hurt him if he tried to rape her again. After her conversation with Newsom, Celia went and found a large stick, which she placed in the corner of her cabin.

On June 23, 1855, when Newsom came to her cabin that night, Celia struck Newsom twice with a large stick, killing him with the second blow. She burned his body in her fireplace while her two children slept through the confrontation.

The next morning, Celia took the help of Newsom’s grandson, twelve-year-old Coffee Wainscott, in scattering the ashes of Robert Newsom. According to Coffee’s testimony, Celia told him “she would give him two dozen walnuts if he would carry the ashes out.”

After that, when Newsom’s daughters found him absent in the breakfast table, they began to worry started to search for him around the property. The search party consisting of the Newsom household and William Powell, a neighbouring farmer, questioned first George and then Celia, who after sustained questioning, eventually confessed.

However, Celia repeatedly denied George’s involvement in the planning or execution of the murder, as well as the disposal of the body. After Celia’s arrest, George was sold to another family.

The State Of Missouri vs. Celia, A Slave

The State of Missouri vs. Celia, a Slave ran from June 25 to October 10, 1855. Celia’s testimony does not appear in the trial records because, at that time in Missouri, slaves were not allowed to testify in their own defence if their word disputed a white person’s.

Judge William Augustus Hall appointed Celia’s defence team: John Jameson, the lead defence attorney and himself a slave owner, Nathan Chapman Kouns, and recent law school graduate Isaac M. Boulware. The defence contended Newsom’s death was justifiable homicide and argued that Celia, even though she was a slave, was entitled by Missouri law to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual coercion.

The defence based their argument off of the Missouri statute of 1845, which declared “any woman” could be the victim of sexual assault; the defence argued, “any woman” included enslaved women like Celia.

Judge Hall denied the defence’s jury instruction to acquit based on the sexual assault and denied the jury any ability to acquit on grounds for self-defence or to find Celia justified to ward off her master’s sexual advances with force or at all. Celia’s jury consisted entirely of white male farmers, four of whom were slave owners, convicted Celia on October 10, 1855.

Celia’s defence team filed a motion for a retrial based on alleged judicial misconduct by Judge Hall; this motion was overruled by the judge, and Celia was sentenced on October 13, 1855, to be executed by hanging November 16, 1855. The defence appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but the judge did not grant a stay of execution.

Celia escaped Callaway Country Jail on November 11 and remained at large until the beginning of December in order to prevent her death before the Supreme Court could rule on her case. Harry Newsom, one of Robert Newsom’s adult sons, returned Celia to the jail after she escaped.

The Callaway Circuit Court ruled against Celia’s stay of execution on December 18, 1855, as there was no doubt she had killed Robert Newsom, and they judged her motives irrelevant. The night before her execution, Celia gave a full confession and once again denied that anyone had helped her, including George.

This confession was reported in the local newspaper called Fulton Telegraph and published no mention of the sexual abuse of Celia or her children by Newsom. On December 21, 1855, Celia was hanged at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Final Words

Celia’s trial and execution were widely reported on various local and national newspapers like The New York Times, Fulton Telegraph, Brunswick Weekly Brunswicker and many more, they included all the details of the murder and Celia’s execution but they never put forth her motive.

There was no understanding nor forgiveness for Celia in the Missouri courts. She was tried and treated as a symbol, against the very system of justice, for slaves had no rights. Death set her free from the evil bondage and oppression of all that slavery was.

Celia left behind three children, the last born in jail, and sold into slavery for $50.00. Celia’s descendants would care where she is buried but there is no known record of the burial.

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