Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Mad" Enough to Kill: Enslaved Women, Murder, and Southern Courts

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Mad" Enough to Kill: Enslaved Women, Murder, and Southern Courts

Article excerpt

More than two hundred Missourians petitioned Governor John C. Edwards to pardon Nelly, an enslaved teenager indicted for an 1846 murder in Warren County, while twelve jurors voted to execute Celia, a young enslaved woman charged with an 1855 homicide in Callaway County. The reasons compelling white citizens to save one African American and to condemn another are as poignant as the motives that drove the young women to take another's life. By probing into the rationales for the defendants' actions and of the men who decided their fates, this essay illuminates similarities and differences in two capital cases linking the enslaved women together through age, legal status, and "madness." This examination reveals much about sexual exploitation, community standards, color, class, and the judicial process in antebellum Missouri. The study also raises questions about the extent to which the circumstances surrounding Nelly and Celia and their responses were or were not like those of their enslaved contemporaries in the antebellum era. (1)

When arrested and indicted in 1846, Nelly belonged to the Warren County estate of the recently deceased Henry Edwards. A vacuum exists about Edwards beginning with why he does not appear in the 1840 census of the United States. Census data would have provided statistics about the size of the Edwards household, along with the age and sex of family members, without regard for color. Information binding Nelly to Edwards is missing, thus making it virtually impossible to know if he purchased or inherited her. And, data about whether Nelly had siblings, vibrant parents, and a community of persons concerned about her welfare remain elusive. It is unlikely that scholars will ever know how she spent her days in bondage, how she interacted with members of the Edwards household, or if slavery made her restive and kindled dreams of a freedom. Nevertheless, Nelly first appears in the public records 16 September 1846, when Henry C. Wright, a Warren County, Missouri, resident and medical doctor, responded to the request to search for an infant said to have been "murdered by his mother." (2)

Evidence from the coroner's inquest confirmed that the 14-year-old mother had snuffed out the life of her child by an unnamed father. Following the indictment, a groundswell of support developed to save Nelly from the gallows as local residents signed petitions asking for an unconditional pardon. Included among the subscribers are Calvin Edwards, H. B. Edwards, James G. Edwards, Moses William Edwards, William W. Edwards, Brice Edwards, Jr., and Brice Edwards, Sr. Perhaps they were relatives of Henry Edwards; certainly, they were interested in the welfare of his heirs. (3)

The citizens of Callaway and surrounding mid-Missouri counties did not gather signatures to save the 19-year-old Celia when indicted for murdering her owner, Robert Newsom. Like Nelly, virtually nothing is known about Celia prior to the arrest. It is unlikely that scholars will ever learn anything about her parents or if she had siblings, labored under duress, or thirsted for freedom. (4)

Nelly and Celia's personal lives and daily activities were of little interest to the whites around them. Many whites believed it was necessary to own slaves, an indication of material well-being, to make households "white," while establishing the racial hierarchy suggesting that whites were above the drudgery black workers were expected to perform. Furthermore, slave ownership even made women into "ladies." Newsom, a widower who already owned five males, had other reasons for purchasing the 14-year-old girl at an 1850 auction in Audrain County, Missouri. Newsom, writes historian Melton A. McLaurin, was a healthy, middle-aged farmer who "needed more than a hostess and manager of household affairs, he required a sexual partner." (5)

Newsom lost no time in defining the boundaries of his relationship with Celia. Of their initial meeting, Newsom's neighbor, Jefferson Jones testified that he had interrogated Celia eight or ten days after her arrest. …

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