"Mumbett" (manuscript draft), by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1853
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]
This manuscript story of the life of Elizabeth Freeman was written by author Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and published as "Slavery in New England" in Bentley's Miscellany in 1853. Sedgwick refers to Freeman by her nickname, "Mumbet." The youngest daughter of Judge Theodore Sedgwick and Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, Catharine was born and educated in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Freeman was employed as her nurse. 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 Leslie (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)
This manuscript reflects Sedgwick’s affection and respect for her former nurse. In it, Sedgwick describes Freeman’s years of enslavement in the household of Col. John and Hannah Ashley; her request to Judge Theodore Sedgwick and her fight for freedom; and her subsequent employment with the Sedgwick family, including her defense of the Sedgwick home during Shays's Rebellion in 1787.
Freeman was the first enslaved person to be emancipated in Massachusetts as a result of the Bill of Rights to the 1780 state constitution. Following the decision that granted her freedom, she 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 able to achieve financial independence and purchased a home of her own in Stockbridge. At the time of her death, she was the second largest Black landowner in Stockbridge. (Footnote 2)
Elizabeth 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-family member 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 Freeman and a miniature portrait of Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet") was painted by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick in 1811.
This description was revised by MHS staff in 2023.
- Dictionary of American Biography. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds. 20 vols. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1936.
- Edelstein, Sari. ”’Good Mother, Farewell’: Elizabeth Freeman’s Silence and the Stories of Mumbet,” New England Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 4, p. 584-14.