This is the story of a woman. In telling her story — from slave to free woman — we also tell the story of a place – from colony to country. Lewis Carroll said, “Begin at the beginning, go on until you reach the end, then stop.” Just this once, let us begin at the end.
Her tombstone reads: “Elizabeth Freeman, also known by the name of MumBet died December 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; she could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.” (Attributed to Catharine Sedgwick.)
In the end, Elizabeth Freeman was revered; in the beginning, MumBet was treated as less than human — a possession. In her article “Slavery in New England,” published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1853, Catharine Sedgwick fills in the middle. Sedgwick writes of the outstanding events in MumBet’s life — or the events in an outstanding life.
Suing for freedom
In 1780, at approximately 36 years old, MumBet was a slave in Colonel John Ashley’s house in Sheffield. Early in the Revolution, Massachusetts wrote John Adams and asked how the colony should be governed. They did not want to leave the British laws or the king’s appointees in place. Shall they write a state constitution? Adams at first said no, but upon reflection Adams said yes and drafted it. In 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution was done. As part of the ratification process, it was carried around and read in town squares and at town meetings.
MumBet likely heard a reading in Sheffield town square; it was less likely that a slave attended Sheffield town meeting. Wherever she heard it, it echoed sentiments in a document read in her household. The Sheffield Resolves were debated and approved in January 1773 by a committee in the home of the moderator: Col. John Ashley.
Written by committee member Theodore Sedgwick, the Sheffield Resolves begin, “Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” MumBet believed that Sedgwick’s words and those in the proposed Massachusetts Constitution meant she was entitled to be freed. She sought the help of attorney Sedgwick, a neighbor. She could walk to Sedgwick’s house. She knew him and approached him. She stated her case, and he accepted it. The case, captioned Brom and Bett v. John Ashley, was heard Aug. 21, 1781.
Sedgwick’s argument in court was essentially what he wrote in the Sheffield Resolves. It was an argument which Ashley literally endorsed. It is hard to believe that the legal action was brought without Ashley’s tacit approval, a conclusion reinforced by the fact that Ashley did not pursue an appeal when MumBet won.
Others say Ashley filed an appeal and only dropped it when a second slave, Quock Walker, was freed, and Supreme Judicial Court Justice Cushing found, “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our conduct and constitution.”
From 1781 to the end of her life, Freeman was a paid servant in the Sedgwick household. She moved to Stockbridge with the family in 1785. Catharine, writer and daughter of the house, told the story of “MumBet” (Mother Betty).
The following vignettes come from Sedgwick’s pen.
According to an early census, the Ashley household had five slaves. Among them was a woman Sedgwick describes as “a remarkable woman of pure unmixed African race.” About her name, she writes, “Her name was Elizabeth Freeman — transmuted to Betty. Later she was called Mammy or Mother Bet which was shortened to MumBet.”
In support of the hypothesis that Ashley was in accord with the lawsuit, Catharine writes, “Madam A [Hannah Hogeboom Ashley] who lived in Sheffield a border-town in the western part of Massachusetts … belonged to the provincial gentry. … Her husband [John Ashley] combined the duties of soldier and magistrate and honorably discharged both. … He was the gentlest, most benign of men, she a shrew untamable. … He was the kindest of masters to his slaves, she the most despotic of mistresses.”
Sedgwick also describes MumBet’s sister Lirry; others claim Lirry was her daughter and call her Lizzy or Libby. “Lirry was a sickly timid creature over whom she [MumBet] watched as the Lioness does over her cub.”
Lirry was accused by Madame A of the theft of food. In punishment, Madame A raised a hot poker prepared to strike the child. MumBet stepped between them. Catharine writes, “she imposed her brawny arm and took the blow.” MumBet protected the child, but her arm was permanently injured.
MumBet was not above a bit of clever revenge. She refused to cover the wound and when people asked her what happened she replied, “Ask Misses.”
Last November, state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli and the Sheffield Historical Society announced plans to “pay homage to a slave who sued for and won her freedom in 1781, more than 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation became law.”
This is the story of a woman and a place — appropriately the Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman monument will stand on Sheffield’s Village Green.