On June 23, 1855, after enduring five years of sexual violence, Celia, a nineteen-year-old enslaved woman from Missouri, killed her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom was a widower at least forty-five years older than Celia who purchased her when she was fourteen. On the day he purchased her, Newsom raped her on the way to his farm.
By the time she killed Newsom, Celia already had two children and was pregnant with a third. According to trial records, she had started a relationship with one of Newsom’s male slaves named George, who insisted that she end her sexual “relationship” with Newsom if she wanted to continue her relationship with him.
Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and implored them to ask their father to end the sexual assaults. No one could or would protect her, and so she confronted Newsom herself when he came to force yet another unwanted sexual encounter. She clubbed him to death and then burned his body in her fireplace.
Celia’s court-appointed defense lawyers suggested that a Missouri law permitting a woman to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual advances extended to enslaved women as well as to free ones. The court rejected this vigorous defense, finding that Celia was property rather than a person and was therefore guilty of murder. She was sentenced to death by hanging. While Celia was not considered a person under the law and could therefore not be considered to have been raped, she was granted enough agency to be judged a murderess and punished for her act of resistance.
While incarcerated, Celia gave birth to a baby that the public record suggests was stillborn. On November 11, five days before her scheduled execution, Celia was rescued from her jail cell by sympathetic supporters who were concerned that she would be killed before her appeal had been heard. She was returned to jail after her execution date had passed. After the Missouri Supreme Court rejected an appeal of her case, Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855.
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