Elizabeth Freeman, also known as “Mum Bett” was born into slavery around 1742 in Claverack, Columbia County, New York.
Her owner, Pieter Hogeboom, gave her to Sheffield, Massachusetts, resident John Ashley when he married Hogeboom’s daughter Annetje. He was known to be one of the most prominent and respected men in western Massachusetts.
One day, Ashley’s wife Annetje tried to hit Mum Bett’s sister Lizzie with a red-hot kitchen shovel. Mum Bett blocked the blow, but she was seriously injured and bore a scar on her face for the rest of her life, and she never regained the full use of her arm.
(Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811)
Later she heard a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and she decided to seek freedom. So she decided to ask Theodore Sedgwick to help her.
He was a young lawyer in the nearby town of Stockbridge, and he supported the anti-slavery cause. Mum Bett told him that she thought she had a case based on the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution, which stated that:
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
(Abraham Lincoln presents the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter in 1864)
Legal action began in the spring of 1781 when Mum Bett (and another slave man known as Brom) brought a suit for freedom against John Ashley. Their case would turn out to be one of the most important legal cases in Massachusetts history.
The case was heard in August 1781 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The next day, the jury decided in favor of the two slaves. Mum Bett was awarded 30 shillings in damages and John Ashley had to pay almost six pounds in court costs. He appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, but later he changed his mind and accepted the lower court’s judgment. Mum Bett was finally free.
(Slaves on a South Carolina plantation -The Old Plantation, c. 1790-)
She went to Sedgwick’s house to be a servant and she spent all her life there. John Ashley asked “Mum Bett” several times to return to his home as a paid employee.
She declined, preferring to serve as the Sedgwicks’ housekeeper. She managed to save some money and she bought her own house before her death in 1829. She is the only non-Sedgwick buried in the “inner circle” of the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her epitaph reads:
“ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28, 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 nor equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of a domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother farewell.”