Many of us who have studied African American history in New England are familiar with Mum Bet, later to be known as Elizabeth Freeman.
While enslaved to a family in Sheffield, Massachusetts in 1781, she was the first to challenge the new state constitution, which proclaimed that “all men are born free and equal.” If that were so, as it was written, then so was she. She fought. And she won!
But what most of us don’t know, is that, over the years, some claimed she was buried in Eastern Cemetery in Portland, Maine.
Assuredly, she is not. But how did this strange tale even occur?
It is still a mystery that some of us are trying to sort out.
Ron Romano was the first to bring it to my attention. Both of us are volunteers for Spirits Alive, a group that oversees the educational programs and stone conservation at Eastern Cemetery. This landmark was formally established as a public burial ground in 1668. There are two sections designated for African Americans.
So, yes, Elizabeth, who died in 1829, could very well have been buried there… if she had lived in Maine. But she did not. In fact, Ron and I have not been able to determine whether she ever even set foot in our state.
Originally enslaved by Pieter Hogeboom of Claverack, New York, Elizabeth was part of his daughter’s dowry when she married Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield. According to the story, the last straw came when Mrs. Ashley hit Elizabeth’s sister (also part of the dowry) with a hot kitchen shovel. Elizabeth blocked the blow but it permanently injured her arm.
Elizabeth turned to Thomas Sedgwick and his group of local attorneys. When the case was decided in her favor she was suddenly freed. She changed her name from Mumbet to Elizabeth Freeman and joined the Sedgwick family as their servant until her death in 1829. They moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts and this is where Elizabeth spent the rest of her life.
She is actually buried for sure in the “Sedgwick Pie” in a local burial ground.
The epitaph, believed to have been written written by Thomas’ son, on her gravestone reads,
Now the plot thickens.
In 1835, Portland’s local paper, the Eastern Argus, published an article by “the author of ‘Redwood’” entitled “Our Burial Ground.” Because it was a local publication, it was apparently supposed to be a piece about Eastern Cemetery. Although the graves are listed only with initials, Ron and I have been able to determine from the descriptions of the interred who they probably were. Yes, it fits. The reference is to Eastern Cemetery.
Or at least the White people fit. One grave of a person of color the author mentions is “J—-,the fiddler.” A second one is that of “old Jo.” I have all the known records of the African Americans buried in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery and none fit her descriptions.
Then author then goes on to describe Elizabeth’s grave and epitaph.
“And here lies one, whose worth is truly recorded on this stone, by one of those who sat it here to express the honor and gratitude they owed her. No praise could express her due, who filled a long life with usefulness, and met her death with dignity and submission, saying, as she bowed her head, ‘this is the last stroke and the best.’”
The author proceeds to cite the epitaph exactly as it appears above.
Ron has recently learned that the “author” of this piece is none other than Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the daughter of Thomas himself. When she was born in 1789, Elizabeth had already been with the family for several years. Catharine literally grew up with Elizabeth in the household. She was an educated woman who became a fairly well-known writer. One of her early works was A New England Tale, which was followed in 1824 by Redwood, the work mentioned in the Argus.
To add more intrigue, Ron recently discovered that the Sedgwicks were cousins of our Longfellows here in Portland. One theory is that Catharine came to visit Portland and toured Eastern Cemetery during her stay. Perhaps she “blended” our burial ground with her family’s back in Stockbridge and came up with her Eastern Argus piece. Perhaps it was not a case of typical “just the facts, ma’am,” journalism, but employed poetic license as a semi-fictional piece? After all, she was known for her fiction.
Whatever Catharine’s intentions, her article was picked up 150 years later by William Jordan. Back in the 1980s, Jordan did a phenomenal amount of research on Eastern Cemetery. He gathered all available burial records and compiled them into an invaluable resource entitled, “Burial Records, 1717-1962 of the Eastern Cemetery, Portland, Maine.” We use it today at the burial ground as a major reference. However, in Jordan’s introduction, he refers to the two African American sections and writes, “One fascinating inscription from a stone destroyed long ago survives as follows…” and he goes on to quote the epitaph from Elizabeth’s stone!
Oddly, in the alphabetical roster of everyone named Freeman, Jordan does NOT list her. Why is that? Questions remain.
But the saga continues. Because Jordan mentioned it at all, Elizabeth ended up on findagrave.com as being interred in Eastern Cemetery! That listing has since been corrected.
In conclusion, for the records, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman is NOT buried in Eastern Cemetery in Portland, Maine. She is a three-hour, 42-minute drive away, according to Google Maps. I personally plan to visit her on my next journey to western Massachusetts and personally apologize for the mess that’s been made. Rest in peace, Elizabeth.