June 23rd, 1855

Enslaved Black Woman Kills Her White Rapist; Later Hanged for Murder

In the summer of 1850, Robert Newsom, a sixty-year-old white man, purchased Celia, a fourteen-year-old black girl, from a man in a neighboring county. Before Newsom had even returned to his farm, he raped the enslaved girl, and he continued to do so frequently over the next five years. Newsom regularly came to Celia’s cabin and forced himself on her, and she gave birth to a child in 1855. At some point during the course of this abuse, Celia entered into a relationship with a man named George who was also enslaved by Newsom. When Celia became pregnant again in late winter of 1855, George insisted that she put an end to Newsom's sexual abuse.

Celia begged Newsom to stop “forcing her while she was sick” and even appealed to his daughters for help. The assaults continued. On June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia he was “coming to her cabin” that night. When Newsom arrived and began to lower his face over hers, Celia struck him in the head with a stick. Eventually, Celia realized that Newsom had died from the blow. Not knowing what to do, she disposed of the evidence by cremating the body in her fireplace.

An investigation into Newsom’s disappearance led authorities to question Celia until she admitted to the act. Missouri law at the time allowed a woman who believed she was in “imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse” to be acquitted on a self-defense theory. However, the judge in Celia’s case did not give such an instruction to the jury because, in his view, she was a slave with no right to refuse her “master.”

The jury convicted Celia of first degree murder on October 10, 1855. On December 20, 1855, she was hanged.