Hepsibeth Hemenway was a mixed-race laundress and cook who never ventured far from Worcester, Mass., but she fascinates people more than 150 years after her death.
How and why a woman of such limited means had her portrait painted is a mystery to this day.
Hepsibeth was born March 25, 1763, the daughter of a Nipmuc Indian, Lydia Bowman, and a white man named Crosman. It was illegal for a white man to marry an Indian then, and town records show her simply as the daughter of Lydia Bowman.
During the first Fourth of July celebration in 1777, Hepsibeth Hemenway was said to have roasted a pig on Worcester Common. A year later, she watched approvingly as Bathsheba Spooner was hanged for the murder of her husband.
She left the Paine household when she married Jeffrey Hemenway at the age of 26. He was 53.
Jeffrey Hemenway had led an adventurous life before marrying Hepsibeth. He was a widower believed to be half American-Indian and half African-American.
He had been brought in infancy from Boston to Framingham, Mass., and given to Ebenezer Hemenway and his wife Mary Eve. Mary Eve was captured by Indians as a baby and redeemed as a girl. His foster parents adopted Jeffrey and he learned the carpenter’s trade. He worked on the Old South Church after fighting in the French and Indian War.
Hemenway was adopted by his foster father and learned to be a carpenter. He fought in the French and Indian War. Afterward he worked on the Old South Meeting House.
In the Revolution he fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill. He served in the Continental Army for seven years without a scratch. One of his daughters kept a nutmeg grater he had carried through the war to grate roots.
Jeffrey and Hepsibeth Hemenway had 10 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. To help support the family, she took care of indigent women at town expense and did laundry – the worst, lowest paying job available.
She was an excellent cook and never wanted for customers for her celebrated wedding cakes. They weren’t the white cakes we know today, but large, dark, and filled with fruit and nuts.
Perhaps her exposure to Worcester’s elite families – the ones who could afford wedding cakes – has something to do with the portrait of her. The clothes she wore in the painting were probably hand-me-downs from a well-to-do woman.
Jeffrey died when Hepsibeth was 56. She rented out her small house at 79 May St. and moved to a smaller one near the cemetery on Mechanic Street, the heart of Worcester’s commercial district. Until the last year of her life, 1847, she took in laundry and hung it outside.
In the 1840s a local dispute arose over the burying ground. Some wanted to move the bodies and develop the land. They complained children played among the headstones, men gossiped along the perimeter and laundry fluttered over the graves.
An artist named Henry Woodward painted a picture of the laundry over the cemetery, and some speculate he found Hepsibeth intriguing and decided to paint her, too.
Her youngest son, Ebenezer, worked for many years as the janitor at Worcester City Hall. When Hepsibeth Hemenway died on Feb. 17, 1847, he wrote a poem to her that tells us more about her than a parade of facts and anecdotes.
One stanza reads:
O I thought of my boyhood–thy kindness to me,
When youngest and dearest I sat on thy knee;
Of thy love to me ever so fondly expressed,
As I grew up to manhood unconscious how blest.
Gone; gone; oh! thou art gone;
The Lord ever bless thee–oh! bless thee, my son.
Read the whole thing here.
Images: Photo of Timothy Paine House By Pvmoutside – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15798054. This story was updated in 2022.