The 1781 Berkshire county case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley, often referred to as the Mum Bett or Elizabeth Freeman case , was unique because it occurred less than one year after the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution and because, in contrast to prior freedom suits, there was no claim that John Ashley, the slave owner, had violated a specific law. This case was a direct challenge to the very existence of slavery in Massachusetts.
During the 1770's, Mum Bett was a slave in the household of Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, a prominent citizen who at that time also served as a judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas.
In early January, 1773, Ashley became moderator of a committee of eleven local citizens, including attorney Theodore Sedgwick, that wrote a document known as the Sheffield Declaration.
This document, approved by the Committee on January 12, 1773, expressed anger at how Great Britain was treating her subjects in the colony of Massachusetts, and resolved "[t]hat mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property." The Sheffield Declaration requested its local representative to the General Court in Boston to consider the Declaration and to use "every constitutional means in his power that the grievances complained of may be redressed. . . ."
According to later stories often told about Mum Bett, her freedom suit was prompted by her overhearing dinner table conversations in the Ashley home about the new promises of liberty made in the Sheffield Declaration (1773), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Massachusetts Constitution (1780). Other reports suggest that her suit was prompted when Bett's mistress, Mrs. Hannah Ashley, attempted to strike Bett's sister with a hot shovel, but struck and burned Bett when she intervened. Bett fled. When Ashley sought to reclaim his "property," Bett reportedly sought help from prominent local attorney Theodore Sedgwick, who had often visited the Ashley home and was clerk of the committee that had drafted the Sheffield Declaration. As historian Zilmersmit notes "[i]t is also possible that a group of prominent residents of Berkshire County selected Elizabeth and a Negro man, Brom, who was associated with her in the suit, in order to determine whether or not slavery was constitutional in Massachusetts after the adoption of the new constitution."
Procedurally, the case began in May 1781 when the attorneys for Bett and Brom obtained a writ of replevin, an action for the recovery of property, from the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas. The write ordered Ashley to release Bett and Brom to the Sheriff because they were not Ashley's legitimate property. Ashley refused.
Writ of Replevin ordering Ashley to release Brett and Brom.
When the case was tried in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Sedgwick argued that the Massachusetts Constitution had outlawed slavery. The jury determined that Brom and Bett were not Ashley's property. The court set Bett and Brom free and awarded them 30 shillings damages.
Verdict in Brom and Bett v. Ashley (dated August 22, 1792; Suffolk files 159966)
Ashley appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court but abandoned his appeal several months later. The timing of his decision suggests that Ashley may have determined that an appeal was futile following the first ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court in the Quock Walker case (see below).
Though little is known of Brom's later years, the remainder of Mum Bett's life is well known. Mum Bett worked for many years as a beloved domestic servant in the household of Theodore Sedgwick.
Upon her death in 1829, Mum Bett was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. Her gravestone includes the words: "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 or equal." Her tombstone stands in the innermost circle of what is known as the "Sedgwick Pie."
Theodore Sedgwick had an illustrious legal career, and served an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1802 - 1813.
Gravestone of Mum Bett in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the Sedgwick family Plot.
Sedgwick "Pie" in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The graves of Theodore Sedgwick and his wife, Pamela Sedgwick, are in the center.