A woman once lived in Massachusetts whose name
ought to be preserveed in all histories of the state.
-Harriet Martineau on Elizabeth Freeman, 1838
Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts purchased Elizabeth Freeman (c.1742?1829) known as Mum Bett, and her sister, young children of native Africans.
When Ashleys wife struck at her sister with a hot kitchen shovel, Mum Bett successfully blocked the blow with her arm, but remained scarred for life. When she left the Ashley household and refused to return, John Ashley went to court to claim his property.
Having heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence and discussions of the new Massachusetts Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Mum Bett went to attorney Theodore Sedgwick to obtain the equality promised in those documents and to claim her liberty under the law. At the conclusion of the 1781 trial of Brom & Bett v. J. Ashley Esq., the jury in the Great Barrington Court of Common Pleas set Elizabeth Freeman free and ordered Ashley to pay her thirty shillings and court costs.
Mum Betts Trial Challenges Slavery
The jury in Mum Bett's trial accepted attorney Theodore Sedgwicks argument that the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which proclaimed that all individuals were born free and equal, nullified the slave system. Although a lower court decision with limited influence, the case was nevertheless a serious blow to slavery in Massachusetts.
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Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, 1811
Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society
View of the Ashley House and kitchen where Elizabeth Freeman and her sister were slaves. Built in Sheffield in 1735, this house is the oldest in western Massachusetts.
Courtesy The Trustees of