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  • “The Shadow of Law”:Sentimental Interiority, Gothic Terror, and the Legal Subject
  • Jeanne Elders Dewaard (bio)

In 1855, celia, a nineteen-year-old slave, was prosecuted in a Missouri court for the murder of her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom's remains had been found in the fireplace in Celia's cabin, and after a lengthy questioning (including threats to both her and her children), Celia confessed to fatally striking Newsom, but insisted it was unintentional and only in an effort to resist his sexual advances. Celia's trial for murder exemplifies the paradoxical legal status of the slave in the South: in civil terms, that status was what one court described as "a complete annihilation of the will": a slave could not own property, enter into contracts, bring lawsuits, or enjoy any other privileges of the average citizen.1 But in criminal terms, a slave was held as fully responsible as any free white person. With that responsibility did come some rights—slaves were granted the right to a trial by jury and even, in some states, a court-appointed attorney—but "procedurally," as Lawrence Friedman remarks, "the scales were tilted against the slave" (91). During Celia's trial, for example, the initial self-defense argument presented by her attorneys was cut short by the judge's rulings on her testimony. Although most southern states allowed slaves the right to use force to protect themselves against a life-threatening attack, slaves were prohibited from testifying against a white person in court. Thus not only was Celia's direct testimony barred from the court, but so also were any references to supposed threats upon her life, because they were ultimately based on statements made by her. While Celia's testimony regarding her motives was inadmissible, her signed confession, obtained [End Page 1] by Newsom's white relatives and neighbors at the scene of the crime, was used as evidence against her. The only statements of Celia's the court allowed, then, were those that incriminated her. Celia's case demonstrates that insofar as she was considered a legal subject, the slave could only be criminal.2

Additional details concerning Celia's case suggest that this criminality imputed to slaves was gendered as well. When the self-defense plea failed, Celia's attorneys argued in their jury instructions that she had the right to protect herself from an "imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse." After enduring five years of sexual exploitation by her master, Celia acted in desperation, they claimed, "without deliberation and premeditation," when Newsom forced himself upon her once again. With this argument Celia's attorneys attempted to gain her protection under the existing rape law, which made it a crime "to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled." Missouri law made first-degree murder justifiable if it occurred in resisting an attempted felony upon oneself, as Melton McLaurin notes (90). Not surprisingly, the judge denied the defense's jury instructions, asserting implicitly that the words "any woman" in the rape law did not include enslaved women, and Celia was convicted of murder. Presumably lacking the will to resist or consent to sex and yet willful enough to be liable for murder, Celia demonstrates the circumscribed conditions under which a female slave could be represented in law, as well as the contingency of the concept of will itself.3

The criminalization of black womanhood was a cultural practice that spread wider than the courts. The law's production of the enslaved woman as willing victim illustrates the extent to which the values of sentimental literary and cultural convention were present in legal as well as popular discourse. By asserting the complicity of the enslaved woman in the case of rape, according to Saidiya Hartman, the law deploys the sentimental rhetoric of seduction, which assumes "reciprocal and collusive relations" between a woman and her seducer, to project white violence onto the black woman. Sentimental discourse effaced sexual violence and displaced the source of crime by implying the slave woman's willing submission and lack of virtue (81).

This use of sentiment to condemn a black woman runs counter to the...


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