Life and Death in Slavery

Celia: A Slave

by Melton A. McLaurin
University of Georgia Press, 148 pp., $19.95

On occasion, as with the two excellent books under review, a gifted historian may discover a remarkable story about ordinary people that illuminates the laws, themes, and disputes of history. This interplay between private lives and public events enables the reader, who knows in retrospect how the official scroll of time will unfold, to recapture the contingency of the past, to enter a world when, for example, no one could predict how long the Fugitive Slave Law would be in effect or know whether Kansas would become the next slave state.

Robert Newsom and Edward Gorsuch, the murdered slaveholders who are the subject of the books by Melton A. McLaurin and Thomas P. Slaughter, were not owners of great plantations but rather presided over prosperous family farms. Gorsuch ruled a homestead in Baltimore County, Maryland, that had belonged to his family for nearly two centuries. Between 1819 and 1822 Newsom and his family had migrated from Virginia to the new slave state of Missouri, where they had settled in the rich river bottom lands of Callaway County, due west of St. Louis and almost precisely in the center of the state. In 1850 Newsom was sixty years old, Gorsuch fiftyfive. Both were fathers of grown children and were respected members of their border state communities. McLaurin’s portrait of Newsom as “the self-sufficient yeoman farmer,” “the fulfillment of the Jeffersonian dream” applies equally well to Edward Gorsuch.

Neither Newsom nor Gorsuch was rich, but for both of them a lifetime of hard work and shrewd management had brought satisfying rewards. Newsom’s farming region was noted for its healthy herds of livestock and its impressive crops of wheat, rye, corn, and oats. In 1850 Newsom owned, in addition to his eight hundred acres of land, eighteen horses, six milch cows, twenty-seven beef cattle, seventy pigs, twenty-five sheep, and two oxen. Gorsuch owned twelve horses, fifty pigs, thirty sheep, some forty cows, and flocks of chickens and ducks. Both Newsom and Gorsuch had been able to provide opportunities and advantages to their children. Even in 1855, when Newsom was sixty-five and a widower, he shared his house with two daughters who were nineteen and thirty-six, to say nothing of the latter’s four children, who ranged in age from twelve to four.

These family farmers, almost archetypal of the mid-nineteenthcentury American, one a western “pioneer,” the other a settled native of the East and a “class leader” in the local Methodist Episcopal church, seem far removed from the popular image of the cotton-growing slaveholder. Yet in 1850, 36 percent of the slave labor force had nothing to do with cotton cultivation; 43 percent lived on plantations or farms with fifteen or fewer slaves.1 Edward Gorsuch owned twelve slaves including four young adult field hands. Robert Newsom owned five male slaves including a five-year-old boy. Then, in 1850, he purchased a girl named Celia, who was about fourteen, the same age as his own youngest child, Mary. There was nothing unusual about such ownership of human beings. The neighbors of Newsom and Gorsuch, including the business and professional men in towns like Fulton, Missouri, commonly bought their first slave, often a household servant, when they began to become prosperous. What distinguished Newsom and Gorsuch was the fact that both of these aging farmers were murdered by their own slaves.

Blacks who lived on farms or small plantations had little opportunity to form slave communities that might provide some protection from white surveillance, interference, instruction, domination, and exploitation. The historical controversy over the black family has seldom recognized that families headed by the mother were 50 percent more frequent on plantations with fifteen or fewer slaves than on larger units, or that black women were more sexually vulnerable to white men when they lived apart from genuine slave communities.2 Nothing could dramatize this point more forcefully than McLaurin’s eloquent account of how Robert Newsom purchased the teen-age Celia for his own sexual pleasure. As McLaurin puts it:

Newsom seems to have deliberately chosen to purchase a young slave girl to fulfill this role [as a sexual partner], a choice made the more convenient by the ability to present the girl as a domestic servant purchased for the benefit of his daughters.

Presumably because it had been about a year since his wife had died, the sixty-year-old farmer could not even wait until he had driven Celia home from neighboring Audrain County. He raped the girl on the way.

McLaurin is both scrupulous and imaginative in his interpretation of the evidence, which sometimes presents glimpses of slavery that are almost never revealed in other accounts but which then becomes mute at the most frustrating points. There can be no doubts about Celia’s own suffering, anguish, and humiliation during the five years that Newsom kept her as his sexual slave. Newsom may well have granted her favors and expressed affection—he built her a comfortable brick cabin with a large fireplace, and assumed that she would always welcome his nocturnal visits. He never acknowledged, however, the two children she bore, who were almost certainly his own progeny. Celia’s later actions gave expression to a kind of accumulated hatred few males could ever feel.3

The most intriguing questions concern the thoughts of Newsom’s family and even neighbors, such as William Powell, who led the search when Newsom disappeared and who interrogated Celia and finally got her to confess. Though McLaurin considers the possibility “that Newsom managed to conceal his relationship with Celia from the family. Or, [that] family members might have chosen to ignore the relationship, to convince themselves that it did not exist,” it seems inconceivable that Celia’s sexual relations with Newsom could have been kept a secret. Virginia Waynescot, Newsom’s eldest daughter, who was either a widow or separated from her husband, had managed her father’s household since her mother’s death. The mother of four children, the youngest apparently conceived after her husband died, Virginia would certainly have noticed her father’s movements to Celia’s cabin, only fifty yards from the family home, as well as the birth of Celia’s presumably lightskinned children. The same can be said of Virginia’s sister Mary and her brothers Harry and David, all of whom lived in the Newsom house after Celia had replaced their mother. Citing the example of Senator James Henry Hammond, who passed on a slave mistress to his son, McLaurin even speculates that David, at age seventeen, may have hoped to share Celia’s sexual favors.

In dealing with the sexual exploitation of black women McLaurin might have said more about the conflict between Victorian images of respectability and the world of male boasting, outhouse talk, and whispered exclamations over black female sensuality. Certainly Celia’s public trial for murder, which revealed the facts of her sexual relationships, must have been the main subject of gossip in central Missouri. Evidence that many of the citizens in the region were sympathetic to Celia suggests a significant division of opinion regarding the sexual exploitation of a teen-age slave, even on the part of slaveholders. McLaurin could well have said more on this point.

He does consider, however, the possible feelings of Newsom’s daughters. The comments of southern women in other cases suggest that the daughters might have sympathized with Celia and deplored their father’s behavior; more likely, McLaurin writes, they regarded Celia as “the dark, sensual temptress who seduced their father.” In any event, Mary and Virginia were financially dependent on Newsom, who also supported Virginia’s four children. In view of the patriarchal structure of southern society, the sisters were unlikely to take up Celia’s cause, even when she privately appealed to them in 1855 to put a stop to their father’s sexual advances, citing pregnancy and a long illness as her reasons.

Celia had an even more pressing reason. She had fallen in love with George, one of Newsom’s young slave workers, who had begun spending time at her cabin and who demanded that she cease sexual relations with their master. Much has been made in historical literature about the powerlessness of male slaves to “protect” their wives and lovers. George proved to be a feckless protector, since he implicated Celia when Newsom suddenly disappeared. He helped the Newsom family search for his master’s remains, and he then deserted Celia and fled the farm as soon as she got into trouble. But initially George stiffened Celia’s own formidable courage and made her resolve that she would confront Newsom. To retain George’s affection, Celia decided on a Saturday night in June 1855 that she would resist Robert Newsom—at first with words and then, if necessary, with a club she had prepared for such a purpose.

This decision obviously involved grave risks. Even when she had later been convicted of murder and was about to be hanged, Celia stuck to her story that neither George nor anyone else had been an accomplice. Yet in June she was pregnant and ill and could hardly expect that a stick would deter a healthy farmer who had raped her and who could easily have her flogged for insubordination or sold her apart from her small children in the more lucrative slave markets of the Deep South. By Celia’s account, Newsom ignored her pleas and warnings; he kept advancing until she struck him on the head; as he sank down and then threw up his arms as if to catch her, she grabbed the club with both hands and hit his skull with all her might (in her final confession, she said that as soon as she first struck Newsom, without intending to kill him, “the Devil got into me, and I struck him with the stick until he was dead”).

Panicked at first by Newsom’s death, Celia finally decided to burn the body in her large fireplace. Without commenting on the symbolism, McLaurin vividly describes Celia’s success in picking out and crushing Newsom’s bones and in later persuading Virginia Waynescot’s son Coffee to remove his grandfather’s ashes. Nothing is known about the response of Celia’s own children, who must have been awakened by the heat of the fire and the stench of their father’s burning corpse.

McLaurin juxtaposes the story of Celia’s inquest and trial, extending from June to October 1855, with the rising national furor over attempts to legalize slavery in Kansas Territory. As a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in the preceding year, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and delegated the decision on slavery to “popular sovereignty,” members of the proslavery and free soil factions rushed to the contested ground of Kansas, due west of Celia’s Missouri. The vigilante tactics used in Kansas by Missouri’s “border ruffians” presented a sharp contrast with the procedural correctness of Celia’s trial. At a time of such national turmoil over slavery, Judge William Hall, a Democrat with strong Unionist feelings, was determined to show that a slave like Celia could receive what he considered a fair trial. But the Kansas issue inflamed Missouri politics in ways that may have worked as much against Celia as in her favor.

McLaurin’s main point, however, is that Celia’s trial revealed deep and disturbing truths about the institution which Democratic politicians and officials were determined to impose on Kansas even against the will of a majority of settlers. A century earlier John Woolman, the great Quaker reformer, had insisted that no human beings were saintly enough to avoid being corrupted by the kind of power slaveholding entailed. Woolman had spoken in general terms and had not addressed the special corruption of limitless power over women—as evidenced, for example, by the absence of any laws against the rape of slave women. Although nineteenth-century abolitionists called attention to the sexual abuse of female slaves, southern reformers failed to enact any legislation to protect women, although they enacted other laws that showed concern for the safety and well-being of human property. They dared not infringe on the owner’s control over the reproductive capacities of his female slaves. In effect, the law not only condoned Newsom’s kind of behavior but stripped slaves of most distinctions of gender.4

Since Celia confessed that she had killed her master, Judge Hall might easily have arranged a perfunctory defense leading to a quick trial and execution. He probably got more than he bargained for when he chose John Jameson, a seasoned trial lawyer and former congressman, to represent Celia, as well as two young attorneys who had been well-trained in legal research. All three were slaveholders or came from slaveholding families, but Jameson clearly believed that Celia was morally innocent. He and his young assistants were determined to prove that she was not guilty of murder, even if this meant challenging some of the basic premises of American slavery.

Jameson knew that everything hinged on Judge Hall’s instructions to the jury. Jameson’s success in bringing prominent and respected witnesses to the stand would mean nothing unless the issue of Celia’s motives could be made central to the jury’s deliberations. In principle Judge Hall could have instructed the jury that Celia was innocent of first-degree murder if she had acted in self-defense, fearing for her life; or if she had not intended to kill Newsom; or if she had struck him “without deliberation and premeditation, and in the heat of passion.” Jameson managed to present evidence on these points, but when it came to the argument over the jury’s final instructions, Judge Hall sustained objections from the prosecution, and made no reference in his charge to such mitigating circumstances.

Apparently the defense lawyers anticipated this outcome and adopted another strategy which was, as McLaurin writes, “as bold as it was brilliant.” They shifted the argument from self-defense, which some southern courts had extended to slaves accused of capital crimes, to sexual honor. Missouri statutes, according to the defense, entitled “any woman” to use deadly force to protect her honor when a man attempted to compel her against her will to have sexual intercourse. Moreover, in Jameson’s view the law held that the woman’s previous sexual conduct conferred no absolute right, even on the part of a slave master, to compel the slave woman to have sexual intercourse with him. The defense built its elaborate argument on the premise that the words “any woman” in an 1845 Missouri statute applied to slaves as well as to free white women. McLaurin rightly points out that this “radical” request to “extend the protection of the general statutes to Missouri’s slave population” would in effect have nullified “the underlying concept of slave codes” and threatened “the very foundations of the institution of slavery.”

Although McLaurin underscores the moral implications of the personal choice Judge Hall now had to make, he interprets the judge’s denial of the defense’s instructions as “practically a foregone conclusion.” Jameson, however, by no means accepted the inevitability of Celia’s conviction and execution for first-degree murder. Accusing Hall of delivering “illegal” instructions to the jury before Celia’s conviction, the defense moved for a new trial. Two days before Celia was scheduled to be sentenced, she and a black male convict were somehow allowed to “escape” from the Callaway County jail (the male convict was promptly returned, however). Celia’s lawyers took no steps to free her but sought to prevent her execution before a ruling could come from the Missouri Supreme Court. In a personal appeal addressed to a newly elected member of the court, the defense claimed that a majority of Callaway’s citizens opposed Judge Hall’s refusal to issue a stay order to prevent Celia’s execution: “The greater portion of the community here are much interested in her behalf.”

McLaurin skillfully builds suspense by combining an account of a proslavery army gathering around the wellarmed antislavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, with a discussion of the political views of the three justices of the Missouri Supreme Court who on December 14 finally examined Celia’s case and found no grounds for an appeal or for a stay of the execution. Celia, who had been returned to custody, went to the gallows on December 21. McLaurin could find no record of what happened to her two children (her third pregnancy ended in miscarriage), though he notes the possibility that a nine-year-old girl owned in 1860 by one of Newsom’s sons was in fact “Celia’s daughter, and his half sister.” Without ever moralizing McLaurin conveys the raw horror and “psychic costs” of a legal and thoroughly American institution that condoned the rape, sexual abuse, and hanging of a girl known only as Celia.

Edward Gorsuch, the Maryland farmer who in status and success so closely resembled Robert Newsom, must have had misgivings about the ethics of perpetual servitude. He adopted the policy of setting his slaves free at the age of twenty-eight. In Bloody Dawn, the historian Thomas Slaughter cautions us not to marvel at such seeming generosity. While taking account of Gorsuch’s Quaker ancestry, the moral influence of his church, and his reputation for honor, fairness, and liberality, Slaughter makes the point that farmers in northern Maryland had less need for a permanent year-round labor force as they shifted from tobacco production to livestock and cultivating wheat. The continuing demand for slaves in grain-producing regions like Callaway County, Missouri, casts some doubt on the adequacy of this explanation. But certainly in northern Maryland the number of slaves had declined dramatically by 1850, and no other slave state came close to Maryland in either the absolute or relative size of its free black population.5 As Slaughter notes, Gorsuch could easily have sold any slaves for whom he had little use in the markets of the Deep South. Instead, he offered them freedom and even seasonal jobs and a place to live if they wanted to continue working for him.

Slaughter describes Gorsuch as “a good man” who, presumably like most masters, repeatedly misjudged the character of his slaves. Events would show, he writes, that Gorsuch was also “a stubborn, foolhardy, and hot-tempered man.” He could not comprehend why, in 1849, after he had learned that some of his slaves had been stealing and selling his wheat, four of the young men should have fled his farm and headed north to the free state of Pennsylvania. All four had been promised their freedom when they turned twenty-eight, and Gorsuch saw himself as an exemplary Christian master who could be counted on for fair and just treatment. He blamed Abe Johnson, the free black who had tried to market the stolen wheat, for deluding his “boys” and luring them away from the warmth and security of the farm. Because the issue involved his sense of honor and his own self-image as a master who was respected and even loved by his servants, Gorsuch could not simply write off the escape as a tolerable financial loss or a premature manumission. He became obsessed with finding some way to communicate with the fugitives, confident that he could persuade his “boys” to return.

Gorsuch’s slaves were among the 279 fugitives who escaped from Maryland in the year preceding July 1850. This mostly northward trickle of slaves from Maryland and other states hardly threatened to undermine the South’s system of labor, but it infuriated southerners who increasingly feared a loss of national acceptance of an institution that northerners clearly wished to exclude from the western territories and that had already been abolished in the British, French, and Danish colonies, to say nothing of the Hispanic-American republics. As part of the momentous Compromise of 1850 the South demanded and won a rigorous new fugitive slave law which allowed a master like Gorsuch to seek the aid of a federal commissioner who could issue warrants, gather posses, and force bystanders or other northern citizens to help catch any black who was alleged to be a runaway slave.

The law denied African Americans a jury trial and the right to testify in their own defense, accepted an affidavit by the claimant as sufficient proof of ownership, and awarded commissioners ten dollars for returning a fugitive to the claimant and only five dollars for freeing a captive wrongfully held. The federal government therefore in effect sanctioned not only southern slavery but the kidnapping of free blacks in the North. Despite white acquiescence in many parts of the North, this act provoked a decade of civil disobedience, legal challenge, and active resistance.6

Indignant over his own slaves’ lack of gratitude, Edward Gorsuch soon became one of the first white victims of that resistance. For two years he responded to every lead and rumor that might enable him to locate and communicate with his errant “boys.” Then in late August 1851 he received a letter from an informant in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It reported that Gorsuch’s slaves had found a refuge within the rural African American community in southeastern Pennsylvania and provided detailed instructions on how to reclaim them. Against the advice of his son Dickinson, Gorsuch boarded an express train for Philadelphia on September 8, expecting to be joined by a small party of relatives and neighbors. The fugitiveslave commissioner appointed Henry H. Kline, known among blacks as “a professional kidnapper of the basest stamp,” as the marshal to lead the Gorsuch posse. Gorsuch never suspected that he was blundering toward the headquarters of a black mutual-protection organization—a group of fugitives and their supporters who, as Slaughter puts it, “had practiced the arts of guerrilla warfare and had gained confidence in their ability to fight.”

After several mishaps, the armed posse of six marched before dawn on the morning of September 11 toward the stone house of William Parker, a tall mulatto fugitive known as “the preacher,” who had emerged as the brave leader of black resistance against kidnappers and the racist assaults of the nearby “Gap Gang.” The seven blacks in Parker’s house, including two of Gorsuch’s fugitives, had received news of the expedition and were armed to resist. They were not impressed by Marshal Kline’s warrants, though Parker’s brother-in-law feared that the blacks’ cause was hopeless. After an exchange of shots, the blacks requested time to consider Gorsuch’s appeal to surrender, perhaps because they were “just stalling for time,” as Slaughter suggests, “until friends could respond to the summons of the horn” that Parker’s wife Eliza had blown from the attic.

Slaughter barely mentions one of the most remarkable incidents of this initial standoff, as later recalled by Parker; a debate between the black “preacher” and the Methodist “class leader” on the biblical justifications for slavery.7 At a moment when the fortified blacks might have killed or wounded members of the posse, the leaders exchanged citations from Scripture that echoed the arguments that were then raging in theological schools, colleges, and learned journals. The blacks at Parker’s house then broke into a popular spiritual about Judgment Day and dying on the field of battle with glory in the soul.

The arrival of neighbors soon complicated matters. Castner Hanway, a white miller and Parker’s nearest neighbor, rode up on a work horse, soon followed by Elijah Lewis, the local postmaster and shopkeeper. In response to Eliza Parker’s horn blasts, scores of blacks, many of them armed with guns, began to converge on the house. The intentions of Hanway and Lewis are unclear, but they refused to assist Marshal Kline and sensibly advised him and the posse to leave in order to avoid bloodshed. This infuriated Kline, who saw the need to flee but who warned Hanway that he would be subject to the stiff penalties provided by the Fugitive Slave Act for refusing to aid a marshal. If Gorsuch could not at that moment recover his slaves, Kline argued, he could at least be assured that the courts would find the miller financially liable for the value of his property. Like others in his party, Gorsuch was convinced that only a white like Hanway could be the leader of such organized resistance. Yet as Kline and other members of the posse began to withdraw, only Gorsuch refused to be intimidated by the immense crowd of African Americans who kept brandishing their weapons in mock battle.

The climax came when Gorsuch went back to Parker’s house and finally confronted one of his slaves, who in freedom had taken the name Samuel Thompson. “Old man, you had better go home to Maryland,” Thompson said. “You had better give up,” Gorsuch answered, “and come home with me.” Like Celia, Thompson then struck his master on the head, but with a pistol instead of a club. He hit Gorsuch again when the white man tried to rise from his knees, and then shot the patriarch who claimed to own and even care for him. Others fired bullets into Gorsuch’s body or gouged his head with corn cutters. According to one legend, widely believed in the South according to Slaughter, the African American women mutilated Gorsuch’s body and cut off his penis. Other whites were wounded in the accompanying melee but managed somehow to escape. Gorsuch became a southern martyr.

There is something elemental in the confrontations between Gorsuch and Thompson and between Newsom and Celia. The master, backed by legal authority, asserts a claim that flows from his sense of omnipotence and need of recognition, as Hegel put it, by a “slavish consciousness” “which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself.”8 Yet both Thompson and Celia no longer see themselves as slaves. As the master persists, they issue warnings and then strike out in protest, not with a lethal blow but with one that brings the master to his knees. Once the barrier of authority has been broken, the slaves lose all restraint. Once unleashed, rage leads to the mutilation or consumption of the master’s body—to the total negation of honor, respect, and lordship.

The “Christiana Tragedy” resulted in what Slaughter calls “the largest mass indictment for treason in the history of our nation.” Partly because the law of treason was so confused, thirtyeight men were charged on 117 separate counts of “levying war” against the government. Yet William Parker and many other black suspects, including Gorsuch’s four fugitives, escaped to Canada. National attention therefore shifted to the trial of Castner Hanway, an alleged abolitionist and leader of the blacks and the defendant against whom the government believed it had the strongest case. Opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law, including the powerful abolitionist establishment, flocked to Hanway’s defense and helped to secure his acquittal. To the outrage of Maryland and other southern states, charges were then dropped against other white and black defendants.

Slaughter’s admirably researched book describes Hanway’s trial and devotes much attention to the general history of race relations and violence in southeastern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the story of Gorsuch trails off into an account of other unrelated riots, crimes, and trials. This material is often fascinating, but the reader never learns what happened to Parker and the other black fugitives in Canada, or how the acquittal of Hanway influenced abolitionist resistance and impinged on other fugitive-slave cases. Slaughter’s conception of social history is both informative and limited. His prose conveys his loathing of all varieties of “social control”; he even links the use of animals in medical research with “our violent past,” including the violent past of slaveholders. Yet like so many social historians of his generation, he is warmly sympathetic to the “working-class culture of drunken recreational violence.” Whatever one thinks of such bias, Slaughter, along with McLaurin, has reconstructed a sequence of events that goes to the heart of American slavery.


Wounds April 23, 1992

  1. 1

    Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (Norton, 1989), pp. 44, 179.

  2. 2

    Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, p. 179.

  3. 3

    There is a growing literature, especially by feminist legal scholars, on the “battered woman syndrome” and on abused women who kill men in self-defense.

  4. 4

    Ironically, the abolitionists remained ignorant of Celia’s treatment and her motives for killing Newsom, which would have provided ideal material for sensational moralizing. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a brief account of Newsom’s death in a feature called “Catalogue of Southern Crimes and Horrors.”

  5. 5

    In 1850 slaves constituted 97.1 percent of the black population of Missouri, but only 54.7 percent of the black population of Maryland. Only 17 percent of Baltimore County’s population was black, and only 3.2 percent were slaves (Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 2, 11–13).

  6. 6

    After the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, the US Supreme Court, in Ableman v. Booth (1859), upheld the law’s constitutionality and asserted the supremacy of federal law and federal courts over the states.

  7. 7

    Jonathan Katz gives a fuller account in Resistance at Christiana: The Fugitive Slave Rebellion, Christiana, Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851, A Documentary Account (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974), pp. 88–90. Slaughter seems uninterested in the religious side of the fugitive slave question, which was absolutely central for many abolitionists and other Americans, and he fails to discuss any sermons on the Christiana trial.

  8. 8

    My use of Hegel draws on my own book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 559–562.