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Lowell Stories : Black History

Betsey Cornwell and her daughter Caroline - Freedom Seekers


Image: Headline from an article in the Boston Liberator about the case of Betsey and Caroline Cornwell. Headline reads "A Dred Scott Case in Lowell! --Two Servants held in bondage claiming liberty! A smart mulatto girl, whose father was her mother’s white owner, sues for her rights!"1


In October of 1858, two women, Betsey Cornwell and her daughter Caroline, presented themselves at the office of Isaac S. Morse, Esquire, attorney general for Lowell. What they told him that day was, according to the American Citizen, a "strange story."2

Betsey was a 45 year old black woman who had been enslaved in Mississippi by a rich planter named Jesse Cornwell. She was the housekeeper on Mr. Cornwell's plantation. Caroline, the daughter of Cornwell and Betsey, was 24 years old in 1858, and according to the Boston Liberator was "active and intelligent."3

Six years prior, in 1852, Jesse Cornwell had died. According to Betsey and Caroline, Cornwell left instructions upon his death that his friend Dr. Lewis Keese (sometimes referred to as Dr. Lewis Keyes in newspapers) take the women to a free state and assist them in settling into a new life.  Included with these instructions was a sum of $5,000 dollars. Keese was to give each woman $2,000 and keep the remaining $1,000 as compensation for his efforts.

It was alleged that instead of following Cornwell's instructions, Keese kept the women enslaved and spent the money left to them. Additionally, he was accused of mistreating both women by flogging them so much they had permanent scars.4

Caroline Cornwell was known for her talent as a seamstress. (There is no known image of Caroline or her mother Betsey.  In their lifetime only people of substantial means and power were commonly afforded the opportunity to have their likeness preserved). 


Dr. Keese eventually moved to Lowell with the women in May 1858. While he kept a close eye on them and their movements, they were eventually able make their way to Mr. Morse's office, where they pleaded with him to take up a legal case against Keese. The women were seeking their freedom, repayment of the funds left by Jesse Cornwell for their care, and compensation for their years of enslavement at the hands of Keese after being freed by Cornwell.

Keese responded to the suit that he had "been given absolute possession" of the women and the $5,000, and that he followed "both the letter and spirit of the will."5

According to reports, the case was resolved without being fully adjudicated in the courts.  Instead, "A compromise was made between the parties, the women consenting to it, on account of the difficulty of getting evidence from Mississippi, and because of their own want of means to prosecute the case. Keyes obligated himself to provide an annuity for them, and gave them a small tenement in Lowell."6


Caroline Cornwell and her husband Jefferson Williams were married by Reverend George F. Warren, pastor of the Worthen Street Baptist Church in Lowell.7,8


After the resolution of the case, Betsey and Caroline remained in Lowell for many years.  According to Lowell City Directories and census data, they lived among other free black families, primarily in what is now known as the Hale-Howard neighborhood.9 Betsey was first a washerwoman and then a homemaker, while Caroline was known as a talented seamstress and dress maker.10 On January 4th, 1864, Caroline married Jefferson Williams, a barber.11 The official record loses track of both Betsey and Caroline after 1870, but the story of these brave women and their fight for their rights will not be forgotten. 

Contemporary News Coverage

Many local papers wrote about the case, comparing it to other cases where the formerly enslaved fought for their rights in court. One paper which carried the story was the Boston Liberator, which was the most widely circulated anti-slavery newspaper at the time.12

Transcription of the text:  

A Dred Scott Case in Lowell! --Two Servants held in bondage claiming liberty! A smart mulatto girl, whose father was her mother’s white owner, sues for her rights!  

A case of extraordinary interest, involving as it does some nice points, some new and some rendered famous in the Dred Scott case, has been pending in this city for several days, but has been kept so still that no daily paper has got hold of it.  

The case, as stated with apparent truthfulness, and at their own unbiased instance, is briefly this:--  

Jesse Cornwell, a rich planter in Mississippi, had a smart favorite slave named Betsey, who was employed in the confidential labor of housekeeper, and with whom he cohabited. The result of this cohabitation was a daughter, who is now 24 years old, smart, capable, intelligent and good-looking. Her name is Caroline. Cornwell, on his death-bed, six years since, requested his friend, Dr. Lewis Keyes, to take charge of his effects, including a considerable sum of money, and especially charged him, as soon as he could arrange so to do, to take the woman Betsey and his and her child Caroline to a free State, and there see them comfortably located. For this special service Keyes was directed to take $5,000 cash, $4,000 of which was to be equally divided between mother and daughter, and $1,000 to be retained for his own services.  

Instead of performing faithfully this last dying request, it is alleged, Keyes immediately on the death of Cornwell, took the mother and daughter, and hired them out at $100 a year each, for a period of six years, when he finally brought them with him North, arriving in Lowell in the latter part of May last. They have been here with Keyes’ family, under strict surveillance, since that time. 

On Saturday last the mother and daughter appeared before Isaac S. Morse, Esq., to whom they made a complaint, and told their story. Mr. Morse in their behalf instituted a suit against Keyes for the recovery of the money given by Cornwell, and also for their six years’ labor. 

Keyes was arrested by Deputy Sheriff E. L. Shedd, and held to bail in the sum of $6000. It is unnatural to suppose a father, who, according to the testimony of both mother and daughter, never struck or caused to be struck a blow upon either of them, would consign his own child to the ownership of a man who has since, according to the same authority, flogged them both unmercifully, the marks of which the mother still bears. 

We have seen and conversed with both mother and daughter at the house of the private family with whom they are now stopping, and we were impressed with the truthfulness of their story. The mother is a smart, intelligent woman, of about 45 years. The daughter, as before stated, is of prepossessing appearance, intelligent and modest, and among other acquirements, is a good dress-maker. 

They will not suffer, though they are here without money in a strange land, for in addition to District Attorney Morse, we are happy to learn that General Butler has signified a willingness to lend a helping hand to protect them in their rights. Hon. J. G. Abbott has been retained by the defendant. 

There are several nice legal points involved in this case, all of which will be in due time elaborated, to say nothing of the political and moral elements—exciting side issues—that will be forced upon it. Especially will the moral aspect of the case be interesting, as bringing directly before us a living witness and a practical demonstration of the worst feature of the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South.  

The Dred Scott drama, with variations, is to be enacted again. The writ is returnable at the December term in Cambridge.-- Lowell Vox Populi, Oct. 16.13 


Written and researched by Carisa Kolias, March 2024.


1,12. Yerrinton, James Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison. "The Liberator." Newspaper. Boston, Mass.: William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp, November 19, 1858. Digital Commonwealth, (accessed March 05, 2024). 
2,4,5.  "The Slave Case," American Citizen, October 22, 1858, [news clipping]. Box 30, Folder 14, Center for Lowell History Research Collection, Center for Lowell History, University Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
3. Lowell Vox Populi, "A Dred Scott Case in Lowell!", The Liberator, November 19, 1858, page 187, column 2. Microfilm Collection, Center for Lowell History, University Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
6. Anti-Slavery Tracts. Second Series, nos. 1-25 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860-62). 
8.  The Lowell Directory, 1855, (Lowell: Oliver, March, and Merrill & Straw, 1855),
9. Lowell City Directories, 1858-1870.
10.  United States Federal Census, 1860, Lowell Ward 5, page 457, nos. 1-7. Center for Lowell History Digital Research Files, Center for Lowell History, University Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell. 
11. Marriages, 1864, Lowell, MA, Page 114, No. 82. Center for Lowell History Digital Research Files, Center for Lowell History, University Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell. 
13. Lowell Vox Populi, "A Dred Scott Case in Lowell!", Boston Liberator, November 19, 1858, [transcription]. Microfilm Collection, Center for Lowell History, University Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell.