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The Hanging of Celia

This photo dates from about 1875, around 10 years after America freed its slaves. The setting is Clifton Plantation near Jacksonville. Crouching on the ground is a young African American woman who had probably been born into slavery. Most likely, the woman had heard whispers about the sad Celia affair of 1848, which involved the execution of a slave in Jacksonville. The young lady in the picture is holding a toddler. He was born after the Civil War and no doubt first saw the light of day as a free person. Standing nearby may be the top-hatted owner or manager of the plantation.

CONDEMNED — On October 9, 2002, a female serial killer named Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection. The 46-year-old became only the third woman executed in Florida. The second had occurred in 1998. The “Black Widow” Judy Buenoano, age 54, died in the electric chair for the poisoning death of her husband.

The first known execution of a woman in Florida came 150 years before, and Jacksonville served as the scene.* The body of a slave dangled for an hour after she was hung on September 22, 1848. The condemned had been known only as Celia. She was a mulatto, a person of white & black parentage.

A jury had convicted Celia of killing her owner, Jacob Bryan, an elderly white farmer who may’ve hailed from Georgia. The crime took place one winter morning, December 7, 1847. While working in a field, Celia slashed Bryan in the head, causing immediate death. Her weapon was a very heavy knife used to make hoe handles. About the size & weight of a rolling pin, the tool looked like a blade attached to a hoe handle.

And now we have something of a mystery wrapped in a enigma. Many details about the case are unclear, for numerous records have been sucked into the black hole of time. According to at least one modern description, Celia helped two male slaves stab Bryan to death. Most accounts, though, don’t mention any accomplices. In any event, what was the motive for the murder? What set Celia off that day?

A TANGLED WEB — The flashpoint came when Jacob Bryan tried to discipline Celia. She first fought him with a hoe handle, and then struck with the knife. There may have been many complications, though, that helped generate the fatal consequences. Celia was probably Bryan’s daughter, as well as his slave. She was likely to have been the oldest of six illegitimate children he fathered. And to further weave a tangled web, Bryan could very well have been the father of Celia’s own four children. Several accounts indicate that there that is evidence of this.

During the time period, some masters either raped or maintained sexual relationships with their female slaves. In 1855, for instance, another slave named Celia was executed in Missouri for slaying her master. The man had repeatedly raped Celia over the years, impregnating her at least three times. The assaults had begun when she was only fourteen. It was Celia, though, who eventually ended up on the gallows.

Nowadays, these kinds of mitigating factors could easily spare someone the death penalty. And to some degree, these sorts of circumstances may’ve come into play in the case of Celia, the Florida slave. The 6-member jury, composed of white males, convicted Celia of manslaughter, not murder. It also recommended clemency or mercy. However, the judge declared that Celia would pay the ultimate price. This so shocked Celia’s attorney and the jury members that they appealed to Florida’s governor. Among other citizens who took up Celia’s cause was the slave owner Isaiah D. Hart, the “Father of Jacksonville.”

CELIA’S WORLD — Other people, however, signed a petition urging that the verdict be carried out. Many whites felt that Celia must be made an example. Here’s the world as they knew it: In 1850, slaves made up almost half of Duval County’s 4,539 inhabitants, with free blacks numbering only 95. To some extent, the old cliché about everyone knowing everyone else proved true, for the population of the county only equaled the total of two or three large high schools today. In this more closely knit society, most slaves showed their frustration with slavery in relatively small ways: They might work slowly, break tools, temporarily run away, and so on. Very few African Americans killed whites, torched houses, or participated in mass rebellions.

Nevertheless, white Southerners often proved uneasy about both slaves and free blacks. Some Southern whites were also quite afraid that their society might someday be gone with the wind. The rest of the world was already passing them by. When the Civil War emancipated American slaves during the 1860s, the United States proved to be one of last places to make slavery illegal. During the 1840s & 1850s, moreover, the northern states tried to restrict slavery to the South, attempting to keep it from new states & territories in the West & Midwest. At the same time, many Southerners believed that Northern abolitionists would incite rebellion among their slaves.

THE HANGMAN’S NOOSE — These types of concerns often worried Southerners. Those who promoted Celia’s execution could not have been pleased with a decision made by Florida’s governor in 1848: He put off Celia’s death sentence for three months. Local African Americans were overjoyed when they heard the news. The Duval County woman might still escape the hangman’s noose. A slave did not necessarily have to be punished by a court. A good example cropped up in Leon County (Tallahassee) just a year later. A slave named Martha was not convicted after killing her owner. Her skilled attorney convinced the jury that the incident had been an accident. While being whipped in a field, Martha had inadvertently hit her master with a hoe when she tried to ward off his blows.

In regard to temporarily suspending Celia’s execution, though, the governor indicated that he was not favoring Celia. He merely wanted to give an “unfortunate fellow-being” the chance to explain her actions or to “make peace with her God.” According to a recent article in the Miami Herald by Lori Rozsa, the governor appeared indecisive. Florida’s chief executive didn’t want to offend either the backers or the detractors of Celia.

It turned out that those who opposed Celia had their day. As noted, Celia’s execution came on September 22, 1848. Up until the final minutes, Celia blamed her mother as the cause of her death. A short while later, she was no more.

Celia’s body hung for an hour before being taken down and buried. This long execution probably served as a warning to other potential killers, particularly those who were African American. After Jacob had been killed, a Jacksonville newspaper claimed that local African Americans felt euphoric about the bloodletting. No doubt, many local whites hoped that Celia’s demise would help keep slaves in their place.

* NOTE: In his book A Rogue’s Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida 1821-1861 (page 139), James M. Denham states that another female slave in Florida was executed for infanticide (killing a baby). If this is the case, then many newspaper articles and other accounts  that reported that Judy Buenoano and Aileen Wuornos were the second and third women in Florida to be executed may be inaccurate.

written by Glenn Emery

















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