A Television Series or Mini Series
© Copyright 2000 Brady Barrows
Registered Writers Guild of America, West
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it– just to stand one minute on god’ airth a free woman–I would.”
as told by Catharine Maria Sedgwick
As printed in Bentley’s Miscellany XXXIV (1853)
“Slavery in New England” p. 420
Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman was the first black woman to gain her freedom in court in the newly formed United States. Her story is a remarkable one that needs to be told. This television series is based on the accuracy and drama that historians have unearthed. It will make Mumbet famous, a folk hero that is inspirational. Her character is equal to Daniel Boone (1734 – 1820), Davy Crockett (1786 – 1836) and John Henry (1840 – 1875). This television or mini-series will inspire the ballad of Mumbet.
The story of Mumbet is a mixture of folk history and fact which historians love to study and makes a recipe for creative minds to embellish in a television series. The primary source of information on this attractive character is one of the children that Mumbet raised, Catharine Sedgwick, because Mumbet was her substitute mother. Another child she raised wrote Mumbet’s epitaph on her gravestone that exists today in the Sedgwick family plot and reads:
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, farewell.”
[Epitaph Written by Charles Sedgwick]
Since it was unusual for families during this period to write about the character of one of their servants we can paint a picture today of Mumbet’s unusual personality that reveals a superior understanding and wit that transcends time making her a superior woman. This television series allows others to appreciate Mumbet’s eminence. While she was a slave she was known as Bett or Betty. Later after her freedom she became known as Mumbet. The setting of this television series centers in the Theodore Sedgwick home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which home still exists. Mumbet lives in the household as a free servant and substitute mother for Theodore’s children who named Elizabeth Freeman affectionately ‘Mumbet.’ The first episode takes place in 1811. Mumbet is 70 years old and will tell her story, narrating each episode in flashbacks. Mumbet is sitting for her portrait being painted by Susan Sedgwick, one of the characters in the series, which miniature portrait exists in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Susan is painting while her sister-in-law, Catharine Sedgwick, is sitting taking some notes.
THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS…..
A flashback in Mumbet’s life, some of which are mentioned later.
Mumbet died in 1829 so there may be episodes of Mumbet’s life from 1811 to her death. While Stockbridge sets the center stage, the series will flash back to Claverack [New York] , Ashley Falls [Massachusetts], Washington, D.C. and Boston. The characters in this series are many and come from all walks of life and will be rich with the history of this period. There will be names we are familiar with and some we have never heard.
According to folklore, Mumbet was born a slave and was acquired with her sister Lizzy by a Dutchman, Pietre Hoogeboom from Claverack, New York at the slave market in Albany. Sometime after 1758, after Pietre’s death, Mumbet and her sister were acquired by Colonel John Ashley and his wife Hannah, who was Pietre’s daughter, as a result of the execution of Pietre’s will. Mumbet would have been around the age of 14. Some suggest she came to the Ashley home when she was six months old. Mumbet served as a slave in the Ashley home with her sister till the age of 37. The home where she served still exists and is the oldest home in Berkshire County.
Mumbet had a common law husband, Brom. Brom will be a rich character to develop and will allow for a romantic episode, a flashback called ‘Brom & Bett,’ which is set in Ashley Falls. Brom would be an essential character in the series.
Catharine Sedgwick claims that the deciding factor that motivated Mumbet to freedom was that Mumbet had been listening in on conversations between Colonel Ashley, Theodore Sedgwick, Ethan Allen, Tapping Reeve and others who had met in the Ashley home where she served these men food and drink, listening to conversations that formed a part of the basis for American Independence.
In 1773 these men wrote what has become known as the
‘Sheffield Resolves’ which declared that “Mankind in a State of Nature are equal, free and independent of each other.” Mumbet was attending these men when these words were spoken in her presence. Colonel Ashley before this was loyal to the British, but this was a statement of grievances against England and has been noted as one of the early protests of the kind in the colonies. Later it became known as the Sheffield Declaration of Independence. One of the ‘Resolves’ which Mumbet heard spoken was:
“Resolved that the great end of political society is to secure in a more effectual manner those rights and privileges wherewith God and Nature have made us free.”
—Sheffield: Frontier Town, Priess, p.172
Later Colonel Ashley took a leading part in the Revolutionary War in the Berkshires which certainly Mumbet was effected by the call to freedom which she no doubt felt applied to her just as much as anyone else.
Catharine gives a picture of Mumbet as a Negro woman of high intelligence who was influenced by discussions of freedom and equality and was moved to seek escape from her slavery. Catharine relates that sometime after the close of the War of Independence, Mumbet happened by the meeting house in Sheffield and heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The next day after the blow meant for Lizzy [another flashback mentioned later] she walked with her young child, little Bet, the four miles from the Ashley home to young Theodore Sedgwick’s law office on a cold, wet day, trudging through the mud and entered into the room and said,
“Sir…I heard that paper read yesterday that says all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom… I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me any freedom?”
— Bentley’s Miscellany 34 (1853)
“Slavery in New England” p. 418
History confirms that Mumbet won her freedom. Sedgwick was assisted by Tapping Reeve from Litchfield, Connecticut who formed the first law school in America. She was one of the first slaves to be set free in Massachusetts and the newly formed United States of America, at the very least, the first black woman to be set free.
This episode of the courtroom trial by a jury has drama, while based upon the court record which still exists in Boston, allows for certain artistic license. Brom would be involved since the record indicates his name on the record along with Bet. Some very important lawyers of the period were brought into the case, not only Tapping Reeve with Theodore Sedgwick for Mumbet, but also David Noble, and Jonathan Canfield for the defense of Colonel Ashley.
After Mumbet is declared free, Colonel Ashley offers to employ Mumbet in the home, but she decides instead, as a free woman to work in the home of the lawyer that helped her gain her freedom. At this point she takes on the name Elizabeth Freeman. The Sedgwick home is filled with children whom Mumbet raises as a substitute mother since Theodore Sedgwick’s wife, Pamela is sickly. Catharine Sedgwick relates some episodes in the home where Mumbet’s character is revealed.
Once episode worthy of a flashback involved the youngest child, Charles Sedgwick, who wrote Mumbet’s epitaph. When Charles was born, his mother was confined to her bed. Theodore Sedgwick, upon looking at his son remarked,
He is not worth raising
We shall see….
Mumbet raised and nurtured the child and after four months the Judge returned from one of his trips and upon seeing the child, according to Catharine, ‘tears came in the Judge’s eyes,’ and he took a silver crown out of his pocket and gave it to Mumbet who kept the crown until she died.
While in the Ashley home, there is an event in the kitchen that makes for an interesting flashback episode, revealing her marvelous personality. Colonel John Ashley was a rich gentleman, and a justice of the common pleas, holding a high status in the community, a warm, understanding human being who held compassion for all men. His wife Hannah, in contrast with her husband is a different sort.
There is evidence that Colonel Ashley and his wife, Hannah, may have had differing views on slavery. Hannah, of Dutch descent may have been influenced by the slavery that was more firmly rooted in New York where attitudes and slave laws were harsher and more discriminatory than in Massachusetts, where slavery was not firmly established and laws were less severe. Colonel Ashley was born in Massachusetts and may have been influenced by the English view of slavery which regarded Negroes, not as property, but along the same lines as white indentured servants. So there is evidence that the two had differing views on the treatment of slaves. Mumbet always referred to Colonel Ashley as ‘master’ or her ‘old master’ while referring to Hannah as ‘madam.’ Catharine Maria Sedgwick who was raised by Mumbet expressed her view about John and Hannah in a series of comparisons:
“The plan of Providence to prevent monstrous discrepancies, by mating the tall with the short, the fat with the lean, the sour with the sweet… was illustrated by… [Colonel] Ashley with his help-meet. He was the gentlest, most benign men; she a shrew untameable…He had pity, tolerance and forgiveness for every human error…There was no such word in her vocabulary… Her justice was without scales, as well as blind,…He was the kindest of masters, she the most despotic of mistresses.”
— Bentley’s Miscellany 34 (1853)
“Slavery in New England” p. 419
This episode in the kitchen which Mumbet reveals in a flashback concerns a young girl who was in trouble who came to the Ashley house for help. Mumbet is a deeply caring persona who brings the girl into the home and asks her to wait in the kitchen with her till Colonel Ashley returns. Mrs. Ashley finds the girl in the kitchen and is offended, but Mumbet determines to defend the girl. As Catharine Sedgwick wrote, this is what Mumbet said happened:
“When Madam had got half across the kitchen, in full sight of the child, she turned to me, and her eyes flashing like a cat’s in the dark, she asked me ‘what that baggage wanted?’
‘To speak to master.’ ‘
What does she want to say to your master?’ ‘I don’t know, ma’m.’
‘I know, she added – and there was no foul thing she didn’t call the child.”
—-Bentley’s Miscellany XXXIV (1853)
“Slavery in New England”
Mrs. Ashley ordered the girl from the house, but Mumbet stood her ground.
Sit still, child
Hannah Ashley turns red with anger, her neck muscles tense
CUT TO CLOSE SHOT OF CHILD WHO IS SCARRED OUT OF HER WITS
CUT TO MUMBET WHO LOOKS CONCERNED FOR THE CHILD
CHILD, I ORDERED YOU OUT OF MY HOUSE!!!
Child, I told you to sit and wait for the Judge ,
who will hear you. Don’t you worry…
[TURNING TO MRS ASHLEY]
If the gal has a complaint to make, she has a right
to see the judge; that’s lawful, and stands to reason besides
“Madam knew when I set my foot down, I kept it down,”
Even though Mrs. Ashley ‘rose as a thunder storm’ and left the kitchen in a frenzy, the troubled girl got to see Colonel Ashley. The story goes that the girl reveals to the Judge that she had been raped by her father. But Mumbet’s inner quality of justice and honor are evident from this episode in her life. Even though Mumbet could neither read nor write, her inner sense of what was legal and right was firmer than her mistress.
This leads us to the event which prompted Mumbet to sue for freedom creating another flashback episode in the kitchen in the Ashley house. There were a number of reasons why Mumbet was motivated to be set free, but folklore has it that it was this incident in the kitchen involving her younger sister Lizzy. Stories about Lizzy indicate that she was not the servant Mumbet was and that her sister usually finished what Lizzy had started. Bett watched over her sickly sister as a ‘lioness does over her cubs.’ Hannah was in the kitchen one day where she discovered a wheat cake Lizzy made for herself out of the family dough. Angry at the ‘thief,’ Hannah picked up a large iron shovel, hot from cleaning the oven, and attempted to strike Lizzy but Mumbet placed her arm between them and received the blow which resulted in a permanent scar on her forearm that Mumbet liked to show people to indicate the brutality of her mistress. Mumbet relates about this event:
“Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam got the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, ‘Why Betty! what ails your arm?’ I only answered
– ‘Ask missis!’ ” —
Bentley’s Miscellany (1853) “Slavery in New England”
It was supposedly after this event that Mumbet carried her child, Little Bet to Sedgwick’s law office to ask him to defend her claim of freedom.
Mumbet’s sense of caring and nurturing came across clearly into the hearts of the children she raised as evidenced by their written remarks concerning her. At least three of the children have written about her character. Another episode is worthy of a flashback involving Shay’s Rebellion.
Daniel Shay and his men were not happy with the newly formed government and the taxes such a government levied against its citizens and basically this rowdy bunch of men used it as an excuse for looting and pillaging the wealthy. Daniel Shay’s men were on a looting spree heading toward Stockbridge and the town was a stir with the news. Mumbet was home with the children and Mrs. Sedgwick was sick in bed while Judge Sedgwick was away on a trip. Mumbet prepared to defend the home from these insurgents. She proved to be just as courageous and determined in resisting these rebels as she did in defending her sister Lizzy from Mrs. Ashley’s wrath.
According the folklore, Mumbet first hid the good wine in the cellar and hid the silver and valuables in her personal trunk in her room. She put the children with their mother in her bedroom. She replaced the wine with some sour port and the silver cups with pewter. One story is related that she bolted the door and threatened to pour a kettle of boiling beer on the first of the rebels to enter the home. Another story is that she welcomed them into the home with graciousness and hospitality, offering these dirty scoundrels to have a seat and drink some of the Judge’s ‘best wine.’ The men spit out the sour port claiming that this was the worst wine they had ever drank and that the Judge had poor taste in drinking. Upon looting the home the rebels took the pewter and whatever they wanted, but upon heading into Mrs. Sedgwick’s room, Mumbet stood her ground and said they could not bother the sick woman nor the children and would have to get past her first. The men checked the room to see if it was true what she said and Mumbet allowed a look, but they did not bother the children or Mrs. Sedgwick. The men were about to search Mumbet’s room and she immediately had entered the room before them and sat on the trunk which contained the family valuables, and since she was sitting on it, one of the men demanded the key to the trunk. It is said that Mumbet ‘laughed in scorn’ and said:
Ah, Sam Cooper, you and your fellows are no better than I thought you. You call me ‘wench’ and ‘nigger,’ and you are not above rummaging in my chest….
At this point, Mumbet relates that the leader of the insurgents ‘turned and slunk away like a whipped cur as he was!’ After this the rebels were about to take the Judge’s favorite horse that was in the barn. Mumbet told the men that she was ‘skittish’ and that she was the only one that could put a rein and saddle on the mare. The men agreed to this and when Mumbet put a rein and saddle on the horse and led them to the men she had in her hand a pin hidden.
She then said:
Here’s your horse. Now, careful, you’ll scare her
THE MEN MOVE CLOSE TO TAKE THE HORSE MUMBET JABS THE HORSE WITH THE HIDDEN PIN IN HER HAND THE HORSE RAISES UP AND WHINES AND KICKS AT THE MEN AND RUNS AWAY FREE
Now, look what you done! I told you not to scare her. What’d you do that for? I had her all tame and nice and you had to do that. Why you’ll be to sundown looking for that horse. Who knows where she lit to….
THE MEN LEAVE IN DISGUST
Later the last stand of the rebels was in a field in Sheffield and were put down by the new American Army led by Colonel Ashley’s son, General John Ashley, who took the rebels to Springfield for incarceration. Thus the end of Shay’s Rebellion.
However, the incident with Mumbet illustrates her unsurpassed fidelity to her employers and that she was not naturally rebellious herself in a properly regulated household and shows a wonderful balance in her nature.
One other flashback episode to embellish could also be used to the end of the series is the gold bead necklace worn by Mumbet in the miniature painting that exists in the Masschusetts Historical Society in Boston. An episode could be told about how she was given the necklace. We do know that at her death the necklace was given to Catharine Maria Sedgwick who later made the remaining gold beads into a bracelet with the inscription ‘Mumbet’ engraved in the inside clasp that is the property now of the MHS.
Mumbet needs to tell her story. This television series allows her to tell this story which has been overlooked far too long. It begins with her sitting for a miniature portrait telling in a series of flashbacks what happened. It also allows for the folklore to have some artistic license. While she raised the Sedgwick children as their substitute mother in Stockbridge since Theodore’s wife Pamela was sickly, she could have accompanied the children to Washington when Sedgwick served there and met notable Americans in Washington such as Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Knox creating some episodes in that setting allowing for some of her wit and charm to influence others. Sedgwick also spent time in Boston which allows some trips for Mumbet with the children as they grow for episodes in that historic setting. And of course, episodes in Mumbet’s life could be set in Stockbridge in the Sedgwick home with many flashbacks of her life as a slave in the Ashley home. Catharine would be listening to the accounts of Mumbet’s past as well as an integral part of the television series. The cast are as follows, all of whom are historical persons:
Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman (1744 – 1829), the central figure in the television series
Brom – black male, Mumbet’s common law husband, this character allows for some artistic license since not much is known about him (could be just a friend of Mumbet since Mumbet is aka ‘a spinster’)
Little Bet – black female, Mumbet’s daughter, this character allows for some artistic license since not much is known about her .
Lizzy – black female, Mumbet’s younger sister, this character allows for some artistic license since only a little is known about her. After Mumbet left the Ashley home to serve freely in the Sedgwick home, Lizzy remained at the Ashley home and would not accompany her sister which may create possible episodes involving this character
Theodore Sedgwick (1746 – 1813) Member of Massachusetts state legislature; Delegate to Continental Congress from Massachusetts; U.S. Representative from Massachusetts 1789-96, 1799-1801; Speaker of the U.S. House, 1799-1801; U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, 1796-99; state supreme court judge, wealthy property owner. His portrait is painted by Gilbert Stuart and hangs in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. He attended Yale, was admitted to the Massachusett’s bar at the age of nineteen. Sedgwick was one of the lawyers who won Mumbet’s freedom in 1781 in Great Barrington at the age of 35. After the trial, Mumbet served in the Sedgwick household after leaving the Ashley House and became a central figure in the home. Sedgwick’s children named ‘Mumbet,’ who became their substitute mother. This character is a central figure in the series.
Catharine Sedgwick (1789 – 1867) daughter of Theodore Sedgwick, a prolific writer who is the principle source of information about Mumbet historically. She wrote numerous novels and stories. This character is a principle figure in the series.
Tapping Reeve – the other lawyer to assist Theodore Sedgwick in winning Mumbet’s freedom. He formed the first law school in America in Litchfield, Connecticut and made his mark as the foremost legal scholar in the nation
Pamela Sedgwick (1753 -1807) first wife of Theodore, described as, ‘suffering from extreme loneliness and depression and melancholy’ Mumbet is described by Pamela’s daughter as the only person who could calm her mother down when she became ‘disordered’
Theodore Sedgwick, Jr. (1780 – 1839) eldest son of Theodore
Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick (1788 -1867) wife of Theodore Sedgwick, Jr. who painted Mumbet’s miniature portrait in 1811
Elizabeth Sedgwick (1775 – 1825) eldest daughter of Theodore
Frances Sedgwick (1778 – 1842) child of Theodore
Robert Sedgwick (1787 – 1841) child of Theodore
Charles Sedgwick (1791 – 1856) youngest son of Theodore Sedgwick who wrote Mumbet’s epitaph on her grave
Colonel John Ashley (1709 – 1802) a wealthy property owner who owned extensive lands, part of an iron ore mine that supplied iron for the Revolutionary Army, owned a general store, became a lawyer and judge, graduated from Yale, admitted to the Hampshire County Bar in 1732, served in the Massachusetts Militia during the French and Indian War when he was promoted to colonel. This character is rich with history and an essential character in the television series. He was Mumbet’s owner when she was set free as a slave, so would be in many flashback episodes.
Hanna (Annatie) Ashley (1712 – 1790) wife of Colonel Ashley according to folklore is the one instrumental in Mumbet’s desire to be set free from the Ashley household and is an essential character in the flashback episodes with her husband.
Agrippa Hull (1759 – 1848), wealthiest black land owner in Stockbridge who worked for Theodore Sedgwick and neighbor of Mumbet when she purchased land and a house from Aggripa.
Pieter Hoogeboom (b. ? – d. 1758), father of Hannah Ashley, a wealthy property owner from Claverack, New York who first acquired Mumbet which allows for a flashback to Mumbet’s birth with a story for an episode
Maj Gen. John Ashley (1738 – 1799) eldest son of Colonel John Ashley
Mary Ashley (b. 1740 – d.?) daughter of Colonel Ashley
Hannah Ashley (b. 1744 – d. ?) daughter of Colonel Ashley
David Noble, a lawyer who defended Colonel Ashley in Mumbet’s plea of replevin in the court case winning her freedom who became a trustee of Williams College
Jonathan Canfield, another lawyer who defended Colonel Ashley in Mumbet’s plea of replevin in the court case winning her freedom
John – black male slave of Colonel Ashley
Zack Mullen- black male slave of Colonel Ashley, who also brought a suit against Colonel Ashley in October, 1781, the same year that Mumbet gained her freedom. This will allow for a flashback since Mumbet new this man and worked with him. His trial kept getting postponed and there is speculation what happened to him.
Harry – black male slave of Colonel Ashley
Ethan Allen, friend of Theodore Sedgwick and Col. John Ashley and was a partner in Ashley’s iron ore mine
George Washington, friend of Theodore Sedgwick
John Adams (1735 – 1826) friend of Theodore Sedgwick
John Jay, friend of Theodore Sedgwick
Alexander Hamilton, friend of Theodore Sedgwick
Henry Knox, friend of Theodore Sedgwick
Thomas Jefferson, friend of Theodore Sedgwick
Many other characters may be introduced into the series, the possibilities are substantial since history supplies many names…
The music for the series should be written by someone who can appreciate Mumbet’s heroic qualities and should be entitled: Mumbet’s Theme
The series can cover the life of Mumbet from her birth till her death with a lot of artistic license to give her the folk hero status she deserves.
For more information on Mumbet: