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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.

  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.

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