A six-year-old girl named Med changed the course of history when she left her home in Louisiana on May 1, 1836. She was a slave, the daughter of another slave. Both were owned by Samuel Slater of New Orleans. Her mistress, Mary Aves Slater, took Med from her mother to visit her own father, Thomas Aves, in Boston.
Mary Slater intended to return within a few months, but fell ill and asked her father to take care of Med.
In August of 1836, the ladies of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society learned Med was in town.
Abolitionists were wildly unpopular then and female abolitionists were especially vulnerable. The year before Med arrived, an angry mob had surrounded a building where the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was holding a meeting. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society included Maria Chapman, her sisters Anne and Caroline Weston, Henrietta and Catherine Sargent and African-American members such as Susan Paul.
Undercover To Find Med
The ladies of the Society decided to see Med for themselves. Posing as recruiters for a Sunday school, they were invited into the Aves home on Beacon Hill for tea and conversation. They confirmed that Med was indeed being held as a slave in the free state of Massachusetts.
The women hired lawyers — Ellis Gray Loring, Rufus Choate and Levin Harris — to petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Med. Choate was viewed as a rival to Aves’ defense lawyer, Benjamin Curtis, later a Supreme Court justice.
The case was the first time anyone had legally questioned the status of a slave who temporarily left a slave state for a free state.
Curtis argued for the defense that Med wanted to go home to her mother and that abolitionists were ripping her family apart.
Loring argued for the plaintiffs that slavery already tore apart Med’s family and Med’s owners should free her mother so she could come north to be reunited with her daughter. Rufus Choate argued that if one planter could bring a slave to Massachusetts, they all could.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judge Lemuel Shaw sided with the plaintiffs. He ruled Med was free under the constitution of Massachusetts and ordered her to be made a ward of the court.
The trial was national news, followed especially closely by newspapers in Louisiana and Massachusetts and the African-American press.
Shaw’s decision angered the South, not least because it was adopted by almost every free state. Hundreds of freedom suits followed.
The women of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society were jubilant.
Not A Happy Ending
The women of the Society renamed Med Maria Somersett and she became a celebrity. At their annual anti-slavery fair they sold workbags to commemorate Little Med’s case, with an image of a slave kneeling before Justice.
Within two years of obtaining her freedom, the lawyer Ellis Gray Loring asked about Med’s health, which was deteriorating. He offered to pay for a full-time nurse and offered to send his own doctor as a consulting physician.
Within two years of obtaining her freedom, Med died of unknown causes in the Samaritan Asylum for Colored Orphans.