This manuscript story of the life of Mumbet was written by author Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and published as "Slavery in New England" in Bentley's Miscellany in 1853. The youngest daughter of Judge Theodore Sedgwick and Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, Catharine was born and educated in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As a young adult, she divided her time between Stockbridge, Albany, where she lived with her brother Theodore, and New York with her sister. After the death of their father in 1813, she returned to Stockbridge to preside over the family home.
As an author, Sedgwick is considered responsible for the beginnings of the American domestic novel and by 1835, she was the most famous female author in the country. In 1822, she anonymously published her first novel, A New England Tale, and in 1824 she published Redwood. In addition to her novels, many of which were set in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, she also published biographical sketches and books designed to help less fortunate individuals. She was active in the work of the Unitarian church and spent some years helping the Women's Prison Association.
Sedgwick's novels portray the American domestic scene and are often laced with a moral purpose. Her other works include Hope Leslie0 (1827), The Linwoods: or "Sixty Years Since" in America (1835), The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man (1835), Married or Single? (1857), and Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841) written after a fifteen-month trip abroad in 1839-1840. (Footnote 1)
Sedgwick was very close to her nurse, Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, and this manuscript reflects her love and respect for the former slave. In it, Sedgwick describes Mumbet helping a poor black child - her sister Lizzie - who appealed to Mumbet's master, John Ashley, for assistance; her request to Judge Sedgwick and her fight for freedom; and her subsequent lifelong service to the Sedgwick family, including her loyal defense of the Sedgwick home during Shays's Rebellion in 1787.
Mumbet was the first slave to be freed in Massachusetts as a result of the Bill of Rights to the 1780 state constitution. Following the decision that granted her freedom, Mumbet became the paid domestic servant of Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick and their children. She was greatly loved and respected by the Sedgwick family, and through her work in the household she was also able to achieve a certain level of financial independence. Before her death on December 28, 1829, she managed to purchase a small home of her own.
Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman is buried next to Catharine Maria Sedgwick in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the family moved from Sheffield in 1785. She is the only non-Sedgwick to be buried in the "Sedgwick Pie," a series of concentric circles of family headstones with Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick in the center. Her epitaph, written by Charles Sedgwick, son of Theodore, 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 domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother fare well.
In addition to three collections of Catharine Maria Sedgwick papers, the Society also holds several collections of Sedgwick family papers, including those of Judge Theodore Sedgwick, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, and other Sedgwick children. The Society also holds a gold bead bracelet worn by Mumbet and a miniature portrait of Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet") was painted by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick in 1811.
1. Dictionary of American Biography. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds. 20 vols. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1936.