3 minute read

a Slave State of Missouri v. Celia: 1855

The Trial Begins

Celia's trial began on October 9, 1855. Her court-appointed attorneys, Isaac M. Boulware, John Jameson, and Nathan Chapman Kouns, seem to have given the most vigorous defense possible. On her behalf, they pleaded not guilty and described Celia as one who was "ready for trial, and prayed herself upon her God and her Country."

On October 10, prosecutor Robert Prewitt called Jefferson Jones to the stand. Jones recited for the court the account that Celia had given to him several months earlier. He said that Celia said she "had been having sexual intercourse" with her master and that George had threatened to leave her if these relations continued. When Jameson cross-examined Jones about Celia's account of the rape on the day of Newsom's purchase, Newsom's sexual demands during the following five years, and the birth of her two children fathered by Newsom, Jones said that he couldn't "say positively whether Celia said the accused had forced her on the way home" and couldn't "know with certainty whether she told me so."

Robert Newsom's daughter, Virginia Waynescot, was called by the prosecutor, and she described the discovery of some of her father's remains. Jameson then cross-examined her and tried tactfully and not very successfully to examine the relationship between her father and the enslaved Celia. Asked where her father customarily slept, Virginia replied: "[I] did not notice the [Newsom's] bed. Sister made the bed up." Virginia did, however, disclose that Celia "took sick in February. Had been sick ever since." Virginia's son, Coffee Waynescot, then testified about his disposal of his grandfather's ashes. On cross-examination, Jameson tried—again, with tact and with little success—to elicit information about the sexual relationship between Newsom and Celia.

William Powell was the next witness. For the prosecution, he related Celia's detailed confession that she had killed Newsom. During his cross-examination of Powell, Jameson abandoned the reticence he had shown to Newsom's daughter and grandson. Powell testified that Celia had told him of Newsom's misconduct and of her pleas to Newsom's daughters for intercession. He also testified that Celia had claimed to act only from a desperate wish to end Newsom's sexual demands.

Jameson called Dr. James M. Martin, a Fulton doctor, to testify. All of Jameson's questions to Dr. Martin concerning how long it would take to burn an adult human body brought objections from the prosecutor, which were sustained by Judge William Hall. Thomas Shoatman then testified for the defense, saying "the reason she gave for striking him the second blow was that he threw up his hands to catch her" and "only to hurt him, to keep him from having sexual intercourse with her." Judge Hall ordered both of these statements stricken from the record.

Jameson had valiantly tried to bring Celia's motives before the jury, and the prosecutor had fought to keep her motives from consideration. Slaves had the legal right to preserve their lives, even if the use of deadly force was required. Moreover, according Missouri law, it was a crime "to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace, or duress, compel her to be defiled." A homicide committed while warding off such a crime against one's person was justifiable. Therefore, when it was time for both the prosecuting and defending attorneys to present Judge Hall with proposed instructions for the jury, Jameson asked that the jury be instructed that "if they … believe from the testimony, that the said Newsom at the time of said killing, attempted to compel her against her will to sexual intercourse with him, they will not find her guilty of murder in the first degree." He also asked that "the words 'any woman'" in the Missouri rape statute quoted above, "embrace slave women, as well as free white women."

Jameson's proposed instructions challenged Missouri slave law, which held that since the owned woman was property, what we would view as the rape of an enslaved woman by someone other than her master was actually considered trespass. And, as Melton McLaurin summarizes the legal quandary posed by this definition, "an owner could hardly be charged with trespassing upon his own property."

Judge Hall refused to present Jameson's self-defense arguments to the jury. On October 10, 1855, Celia was found guilty and ordered "hanged by the neck until dead on the sixteenth day of November 1855." In the meantime, either during or shortly after her trial, Celia's pregnancy ended in a stillbirth.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882a Slave State of Missouri v. Celia: 1855 - Celia Speaks, The Trial Begins, On To The Missouri Supreme Court, Suggestions For Further Reading