37 pages 1 hour read

Melton Alonza McLaurin

Celia, A Slave

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1991

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Celia, A Slave is Melton A. McLaurin’s book-length analysis of the trial and execution of Celia, a slave in Callaway County, Missouri who kills her master and burns his body in her fireplace.  McLaurin, a historian, argues that Celia’s case offers us important insights into how together, gender and racial oppression render enslaved women completely powerless to protect themselves from sexual exploitation, and how the moral ambiguity caused by slavery is often reconciled in the courts, whose rulings alleviate white Southerners’ crises of conscience when confronted with the “hard daily realities of slavery” (ix).

In his “Introduction,” McLaurin makes the case for focusing on “the lives of lesser figures” to “better illustrate certain aspects of the major issues of a particular period” (ix).  He argues that Celia’s story in particular offers us a “detailed case study of what historian Charles Sellers referred to as ‘the fundamental moral anxiety’ that slavery produced” (x), and reminds us that “the personal and the political are never totally separate entities” (xi).

Chapter One, “Beginnings,” provides an introduction to the two white men most important to Celia’s story—her master, Robert Newsom, and her lawyer, John Jameson.  The chapter details the early history of the state of Missouri—Callaway County in particular—as well as the prosperity and status that came with owning slaves.  This first chapter also sets up Newsom and Jameson as foils, with Newsom as Celia’s oppressor and Jameson as her champion.

Chapter Two, “The Crime,” continues pairs the early history of the state of Missouri with a discussion of the Missouri Compromise and its significance to slavery in Missouri and the country overall.  It includes an account of Newsom’s purchase of Celia in 1850 and the overall political climate of the time.  The second half of the chapter provides a detailed account the first half of 1855, when Celia, who had already had two children by Newsom, became pregnant with a third, tries to break off relations with Newsom.  When Newsom continues to demand sex, she hits him with a large stick, accidentally killing him.  Trying to avoid being found out, she burns his body in her fireplace.

Chapter Three, “Inquisition,” describes the search for Newsom and the discovery of his remains after Celia confesses to killing him.  This chapter also includes the press response to Newsom’s death and Celia’s indictment and provides information about previous slave revolts still on the minds of Missourians.  Though many are convinced that Celia did not act alone, she refuses to implicate anyone else in Newsom’s murder.

Chapter Four, “Backdrop,” provides context regarding Missouri politics during the time of Celia’s incarceration, focusing in particular on David Atchinson run for Senate and his proslavery rhetoric.  Atchinson’s efforts extend to the nearby Kansas territory, sending his supporters in to threaten violence to those Kansas residents who oppose having Kansas become a slave state.  The trouble in Kansas eventually results in two distinct governments—a proslavery government engineered by Atchinson’s efforts and recognized by President Pierce, and a “Free Soil” government elected by Kansas voters, many of whom have settled in Kansas at the behest of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, an antislavery organization that subsidized the moves of New England abolitionists to Kansas.

Chapter Five, “The Trial,” describes the judge for Celia’s trial, her team of lawyers, and the jury.  It also describes the trial itself, noting that the prosecution called six witnesses, including William Powell, Celia’s first interrogator, Jefferson Jones, Celia’s second interrogator, Virginia and Coffee Waynescot, Newsom’s daughter and grandson, and two unnamed doctors who testified that the remains found were those of an adult male. The defense called a Dr. James Martin to testify to how difficult it would have been for Celia to have burned Newsom’s body on her own and Thomas Shoatman, Jefferson Jones partner in the second interrogation, to testify that Celia feared for her life at the time of the killing.  In this chapter, McLaurin concludes that Celia’s lawyers sought to provide her with the best defense possible.

Chapter Six, “The Verdict,” opens with a discussion of jury instructions—the lists of instructions that attorneys for both sides write to guide the jury in its deliberations.  The judge has to approve and deliver the instructions, and in Celia’s case, Judge Hall rejects the majority of the jury instructions written in her defense, thus ensuring a guilty verdict.  In response, her lawyers file a motion for a retrial, citing the judge’s mishandling of the case.  Instead, Judge Hall hands down the sentence of death.  In this chapter, McLaurin compares Celia’s case to that of Dred Scott, and concludes that her “defense was a much more radical concept” (94), since it “posed an immediate threat, one of enormous magnitude to slaveholders” (95), which can help to account for Judge Hall’s refusal to allow the defense to make its case.

In Chapter Seven, “Final Disposition,” Celia is illegally removed from jail before her scheduled execution in order to give the Missouri Supreme Court more time to review her appeal.  The chapter also chronicles a showdown between pro- and antislavery advocates in Kansas and describes a similarly heated political climate in Missouri as the backdrop for the Missouri Supreme Court’s consideration of Celia’s case.  The Court rules that Celia’s conviction and execution will stand, and Celia is executed on December 21, 1855.

Chapter Eight, “Conclusions,” addresses the three themes of the analysis: the moral ambiguity that slavery causes, the function and limitations of the law in dealing with these moral ambiguities, and the role of gender oppression and sexual exploitation in perpetuating slavery, placing McLaurin’s analysis in the context of other recent scholarship on enslaved women.