Slavery and the Making of AmericaDramatic re-enactment of a slave in uniform
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Legal Rights & Gov't
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight You be the Judge Personal Narratives Original Docs
You be the Judge Legal Rights & Gov't
Missouri v. Celia (1855) return to introduction

The Laws
  • Missouri "Slave Code" of 1804 made no distinction between slaves and other personal property.
  • Missouri law holding that slaves who lifted their hands against whites, except in self-defense, were to be punished according to the decision of the justice of the peace, with no more than 39 lashes
  • Missouri statute of 1845, article 2, section 29 declared it a crime "to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled."

    The Judge's Instructions to the Jury
    After contemplating the wishes of the defense and the prosecution, the Judge's instructions favor the prosecution. He instructs the jury that no evidence or testimony was presented to prove that Celia had been acting in self-defense when she killed Newsom. Holding that he Missouri rape law did not apply to slaves, who were considered the property of their masters, the judge concludes that Celia had no right to kill Newsom even to prevent sexual advances. He instructs the jury that if evidence and testimony prove Celia to have killed Newsom, she should be found guilty.

    The Jury's Verdict
    Celia is found guilty. Judge Hall later sentences her to hang for her crime.

    With heated debates over slavery taking place in Missouri and other parts of the country at the time of Celia's trial, many understood that the court's decision in this case held significant implications for the economic and social foundations of slavery. The state's argument was strengthened by legal edicts that defined rape of a slave as trespass on the property of the owner. Since Newsom was Celia's owner, the state insisted, she could not claim rape. In contrast, the defense's case rested on the idea that general laws were applicable to slaves. Had the jury decided in Celia's favor, the legal division of whites and blacks by slave codes would be thrown into question. The case also challenged the idea that a master had unmitigated access to and control over the bodies of his female slaves, an idea that was taken for granted in slaving-holding states dependent on the reproduction of female slaves. Celia's trial challenged a system in which the law held little power over the actions of the paternalistic slave master.

    For more on Celia's case:
    McLaurin, Melton A. CELIA, A SLAVE: A TRUE STORY (University of Georgia Press, 1991).
    Gordon-Reed, Annette, ed. RACE ON TRIAL: LAW AND JUSTICE IN AMERICAN HISTORY (Oxford University Press, 2002).

    Next Case
  • Photo of Missouri slave cabin
    The Laws

    Missouri "Slave Code" of 1804
    Missouri statute of 1845, article 2, section 29
    email this page to a friend
    About the Series K-12 Learning Feedback [an error occurred while processing this directive]Support PBS