Celia, A Slave
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In the summer of 1855, a slave named Celia committed a crime that would test the laws and precedents placed on slaves in Missouri during this time period. Celia was only fourteen when purchased by a slave owner, Robert Newsom in 1850. Five years after being purchased, she murdered her owner in self-defense because he tried to rape her. Throughout the 1800’s, slaves had few rights, if any at all. Celia, A Slave brings up many questions about these rights because of the controversy surrounding a black woman and her white owner. Many of these questions were also sparked because of the brutal crime Celia committed.
One of the many questions brought up while reading this book was the relationship between Celia and her master. Celia’s master, Newsom, bought her in Audrain County in 1850. Audrain County was a neighboring county to Callaway County where Newsom owned a farm and had five other male slaves. Celia was only fourteen years old when she was purchased. On the way back from purchasing Celia, Robert Newsom raped her. This act “established and defined the nature of the relationship between the master and his newly acquired slave” (McLaurin, 24). Newsom showed his dominance over Celia and where her place in his household was and would be for the rest of her life when he committed this wrongful act. Over the next five years, Celia’s relationship to Robert Newsom intensified with the amount of sexual favors Newsom required of her.
The reason Newsom bought Celia was simple, he wanted a replacement for his deceased wife; “what is certain is that Newsom’s reasons for acquiring Celia were different from those that motivated his previous slave purchases…he had set out to purchase a replacement for his wife” (McLaurin, 21). Robert Newsom was lonely after his wife passed away, but it was apparent he did not want to get remarried. Robert was a “prosperous farmer and respected community member” so it was very unlikely that he would have trouble finding a new wife if he chose to do so, but he didn’t (McLaurin, 22). Instead he chose to purchase Celia; an innocent fourteen year old turned into his own personal sex slave for the rest of her life.
There was another form of relationship between Newsom and Celia that formed when he purchased her. Celia was constantly treated as “both his property and his concubine” (McLaurin, 22). Celia was considered property because she was sold to Newsom. In current times, you cannot sell a human being to another person; it is illegal, but in the 1800’s it was not illegal and it happened all the time. Celia was a black teenager and could do nothing when she was sold to Newsom. From the moment she was born she was considered property; when she was sold to Robert Newsom as a sex slave, it only confirmed that idea. Newsom owned Celia and because he owned her, he could do what he wanted. Throughout her five years with Newsom, Celia was constantly treated and regarded as property.
She eventually bore him two children, and later birthed a still born child, though the father was never determined. In the eyes of her master, Celia was not considered a real person, but property instead. Newsom regarded Celia as property and “he felt that his ownership of the young Celia entitled him to use her for his sexual pleasure” (McLaurin, 25). Newsom constantly sexually attacked Celia, but because he owned her, he believed this was alright. She was Robert Newsom’s property and because of this he could do what he pleased with her. The relationship between Newsom and Celia was first established when Celia was purchased, but continued to grow throughout the rest of her time with Newsom. Throughout her life their relationship was purely physical, something Newsom wanted but Celia did not.
The relationship found between Newsom and Celia was not uncommon in southern slave states. Though, just because this relationship was common, it was never openly discussed. A master’s constant sexual assault on his female slaves was not unusual. In fact, McLaurin states, “female slaves were frequently raped by masters” and “white southerners were aware that the sexual abuse of female slaves was widespread” (McLaurin, 24). This is proof that this terrible act was very typical within slaveholding societies. Now, just because this relationship seems usual in the south, it does not mean everyone condoned it. The wives of many slave owners proved they were not okay with a white male and a black female relationship by the way they acted with “anger and resentment” towards other slaves (McLaurin, 26).
Wives chose to ignore this behavior simply because if they didn’t, not only would their lives be in danger, but so would their children’s. As for the matter of sex, whether it was between a man and his wife or a man and his slave, this was never discussed in the southern society either, even though it was quite typical. The reason this type of relationship was never discussed in public was because this “practice was never condoned by public opinion” (McLaurin, 25). Everyone knew this type of relationship happened, but no one wanted to bring it up and talk about it. It was like there was an unspoken rule about how you don’t talk about the sexual relations between two people, especially when those two people are a master and his slave.
A sexual relationship between master and slave was typical in U.S. slave holding society, but sometimes this type of relationship lead to certain complications. One complication that came from a sexual relationship between a master and a slave would be if the slave wanted to stop being used for sex by their master or even stop having a relationship entirely. In the 1800’s, this type of relationship was common, but not spoken about. So when a slave wanted to end a relationship like this, it was unheard of. A slave could not go and seek legal counsel in this type of situation because there were no laws that helped slaves during this time period. The only laws that were helpful during the 1850’s had to do with when a man raped a woman. Only under certain circumstances did this help women.
When a black man raped a white woman or a white man who raped a white woman, legal actions were taken to seek justice. In a situation when a white slave owner raped his black slave, it was often looked over and ignored because of the frequency of this terrible act. A slave’s only hope would be to ask a friend of the master or even family members for help; which is what Celia did when she wanted to end the sexual relationship between herself and Robert Newsom. In some cases, outside people like friends or family may try to help, but that never guaranteed that the owner would stop his abuse. If a black female slave was raped by her white master, there was nothing that could legally be done to help her; she was property of her owner and that meant he could do what he wanted.
Lawyers could not intervene in that type of situation because they would risk their license or their standing in the community, for the same reasons judges could not step forward either. No one could help a black slave if they ever came forward and wanted to seek legal help for the terrible situation they found themselves in. Although, there was one legal principle that stated, “a slave could, in extreme circumstance, resort to the use of deadly force to protect her life” which was also something Celia did (McLaurin, 102). This legal principle fell through in court when Celia was put on trial for murdering her master in self-defense. It was proven to not work as a legal remedy for a black female slave who had been raped by her white master. This legal principle also proved to be one of the many legal problems found while defending Celia, a slave.
John Jameson was chosen by Judge William Hall to defend Celia when she was put on trial for murdering her master. While defending Celia, he came across many legal problems that proved this case to not only be difficult, but more than likely unwinnable. He found himself struggling with the defense from the very beginning. The jury had already made up their mind about Celia simply because she was a black slave who murdered her master. The jury could not get past the racial part of the court case like Jameson wanted. Jameson wanted the jury to be “focused on the sexual nature of the relationship” between Celia and her slave owner, Newsom (McLaurin, 96). By focusing more on the sexual part of the relationship, Jameson hoped jurors would have some sympathy for Celia and would begin to see why she fought back against her master. He also wanted Celia to have a fair case which is why he was chosen to defend Celia in the first place.
The jury’s biased opinions were not much of a legal problem for Jameson as much as it was just a general problem with the trial. Another way John Jameson tried to help Celia with her defense was by attempting to make Newsom into a “fiend” (McLaurin, 96). He did this throughout all of the trial because it was one of the few defense tactics he had. Legally, he was allowed to say bad things about Newsom because he did not agree with what he did. Jameson was a father of two girls, had black female slaves, and was also “ordained in the Christian Church” (McLaurin, 89). Jameson’s views were obviously different than Newsom’s, hence why he did not care if he slandered Newsom’s name. Jameson wanted to fight for Celia because he knew Celia did what she had to do to save herself and her family. Unlike the jury, he understood why Celia murdered her master.
Newsom’s family on the other hand did not like their father’s name being slandered throughout this trial and sided more with the jury; they did not agree with Celia having to resort to killing their father. Although most of them knew what Robert Newsom used Celia for, none of them attempted to help Celia; instead they all sat back and condoned it. The family and the jury posed a legal problem because of their biased opinions about the whole trial. Jameson was forced to work around this general prejudice in order to help Celia to have a fair trial. John Jameson also had difficulty defending Celia because the court would not recognize that Celia had a right to defend herself. Jameson wanted the jury and the courtroom to understand that “Celia feared for her life at the time she killed Newsom” (McLaurin, 101).
It was important for Jameson to get this point across because it will help him get sympathy from the jury as well as help back up the legal principle and law in all slaveholding states. There was a legal law that “gave a slave the right to use force to repeal physical attacks that threatened his or her life… a slave could, in extreme circumstance, resort to the use of deadly force to protect her life” (McLaurin, 102). In Celia’s case this is exactly what happened. Celia threated Robert Newsom’s life if he went to her cabin that night to have sex with her, he decided to go anyways. When he went after her, Celia hit him with a stick and knocked him unconscious. If Celia would have stopped there, Jameson would have won the court case for Celia, but Celia went one step further. She hit Newsom again causing him to die and then burned the body to hide the evidence against her. The prosecution fought against Jameson and said this law did not apply to Celia because she was not defending herself after the first blow to Newsom.
The first strike to Robert Newsom was self-defense, but anything after was not. Jameson argued that if she did not do all she could to get Newsom away from her, he would wake up and go after her and her children. Celia had to kill her master in order to save her children, but the prosecution did not care about this; they cared that a black female slave murdered her master in, what they considered, cold blood. The prosecutions refusal to let this law be applied to Celia was just another legal problem John Jameson ran into while defending Celia. John Jameson’s fight for Celia was not over, though. He was road blocked with a few more legal problems during Celia’s trial. The judge would not allow the jury to decide between a guilty and not guilty verdict; instead he made the trial go in a direction of guilty.
Judge William Hall knew what the verdict in this case had to be in order to keep the peace within Callaway County and the surrounding areas. The Judge knew the “defense in Celia’s case… posed an immediate threat, one of enormous magnitude to slaveholders” which is why he had to rule against the defense and basically forced the jury to vote guilty (McLaurin, 113). There was much disagreement throughout all of Missouri and other slaveholding states because of this case. If Celia won, it meant slaves would have the right to legal ratifications against their slave owners and the abuse they commit; “Black female slaves were essentially powerless in a slave society, unable to legally protect themselves from the physical assaults of either white or black males” (McLaurin, 113).
Judge Hall did not want to be the person who approved this, who let slaves have rights. He had to get the jury to rule against the defense in order to keep the power in society with white male slave owners, instead of the slaves. The way the Judge was able to influence the jury to vote guilty was the way he sided with the prosecution. He favored the legal ideas the prosecution stated during trial and could be considered biased throughout the whole trial. He made the trial go in a direction that gave the jury no choice but to plead guilty. Jameson ran into multiple problems with Judge Hall and the way he dealt with this trial. Judge Hall wanted a quick trial so “once a verdict was rendered the judge wished to dispose of the case as quickly as possibly because of political tensions” (McLaurin, 122).
Judge Hall wanted the case to be out of his hands so he did not have to deal with any legal ramifications afterwards. He did not want the blame for anything that happened in this trial. For this reason not only did he basically fix the trial for a guilty verdict, but he also quickened the trial. For both of these reasons Celia did not have as fair of a trial as she could have had. Between the judge fixing the trial to have a guilty verdict, quickening the trial, the jury’s biased opinions, and the court’s refusal to acknowledge Celia’s right to defend herself, John Jameson dealt with a lot of legal problems while he defended Celia. As hard as he tried, he could not change anything and Celia’s verdict was determined as guilty. Out of all of the questions brought out throughout Celia’s trial, the most important would be if she found justice within the Missouri court system.
I do not think Celia found justice in the Missouri court system. There may have been a lot of controversy surrounding this case, but that should not influence anything within the case. In the 21st century, outside influences have little to no affect during a court case and the decision the jury makes. Back in the 1800’s it was understandable that outside influences may sway a jury or a judge to vote a certain way or feel a certain way, but that does not make it right; which is exactly what happened to Celia throughout her trial. People were so afraid of black slaves getting power they did everything they could to stop it. This included not doing the right thing in Celia’s court case.
There were many factors that were a part of the trial that if they could be changed, they could have resulted in Celia having a fair trial. For instance, if the Judge had stopped worrying about what would happen to him and his town after the trial and instead focused more on Celia and the situation she was in, maybe Celia would have gotten justice. Or if the jury was not biased at the start of the trial they would have been able to see why Celia murdered her master. A black slave murdering someone, especially her master was punishable by death, but if you think about the situation and how if Celia had not murdered Newsom, but just knocked him out, he more than likely would have gone after her and her children and would probably have killed all of them. Celia had no choice. I think she needed to kill her master in order to save her children. Murder was not the moral or right option at the time, but it was something that had to be done.
There are many questions that come up while reading Celia, A Slave. Some of these questions include what was the relationship between Celia and Robert Newsom, how typical was this relationship, what rights slaves had if they were raped by their master, what some of the legal problems John Jameson had while defending Celia, and lastly, did Celia find justice in the Missouri court system. All of these questions were explored and all came up with conclusions. Celia’s relationship to Robert Newsom was a sexual one; a sexual relationship pursued by Newsom and denied by Celia. This relationship led Celia to do what was unheard of back in the 1800’s; she murdered her master in order to save herself and her children.
The sexual relationship between Celia and her master was found to be very common throughout all of the slaveholding societies, but was a topic that was never discussed. Celia’s master, like most masters within slave societies, used Celia as a sex slave for five years. After those five years Celia could not stand to be used for sex any longer. She attempted to find help within Newsom’s family, seeing as there were not legal remedies for black female slaves during this time. She was denied help and took matters into her own hands. She murdered Newsom and burned the body. Celia was later arrested and put on trial where John Jameson defended her against what felt like the entire state of Missouri. Just like Celia, Jameson faced many problems, mainly because his defendant was a black female slave.
Jameson tried as hard as he could to help Celia win her case, but could not get past many of the biased opinions of the jury as well as the Judge. Celia’s case was a hard case to defend, but Jameson worked hard to seek justice. In the 1850’s, there was little to no justice found for any black slaves, Celia being one of them. Though there are many questions that are asked when reading Celia, A Slave, there are also many answers that are found. Celia, an innocent fourteen year old slave did not know what she was getting into when Newsom purchased her; later on she definitely found out. She fought for the rights of many more slaves after her time and continues to provide an unfair example of life as a slave in the 1850’s.