Lavinia Goodell

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

Latest from Lavinia Goodell

Lavinia Goodell, October 18, 1873

Lavinia Goodell’s relationship with Janesville, Wisconsin attorney Pliny Norcross was complicated. He assisted her in her legal studies and moved her application to be admitted to the Rock County bar, but when hiring law clerks and associates for his law firm, he chose young men who lacked Lavinia’s intellect and work ethic. He declined to act as Lavinia’s co-counsel on an important case, and when serving as opposing counsel on a small suit, he
Continue Reading “Mr. Norcross Called with a Quantity of Legal Writing He Wanted Me to Do at Once.”

Clarissa Goodell, September 6, 1866

Like most families in the nineteenth century, the Goodells experienced the premature deaths of family members, including Lavinia’s two year old niece Harriet Frost, an unnamed infant nephew,  and her twenty-three year old cousin Amanda Goodell. In 1866, Lavinia lost another cousin, thirty-seven year old Caroline Smith Ellsworth.

Caroline Smith Ellsworth

Carrie was born in 1829, the only child of Lavinia’s mother’s sister, Lois Cady, and her husband,
Continue Reading “Aunt Lois feels Carrie’s death more and more every day.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 22, 1869

In her 1879 will, Lavinia Goodell named her uncle, Josiah Cleaveland Cady as trustee.

Cleaveland, (sometimes spelled Cleveland) as he was called, was born in 1837, the son of Lavinia’s mother’s father, Deacon Josiah Cady, and his second wife, Lydia. Cleaveland was more than thirty years Clarissa Goodell’s junior and was only two years older than Lavinia. The Cadys lived in Providence, Rhode Island, but there was always concern about disease in cities,
Continue Reading “Poor Cleaveland is in deep affliction.”

“Southold is a pleasant country village.”
Lavinia Goodell, July 1, 1863

Other than her sister, Maria Frost, and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, Sarah Case was one of Lavinia Goodell’s closest friends. Sarah Case held such a special place in Lavinia’s heart that Lavinia’s 1879 will bequeathed her $1500 and a gold locket.

It is unknown when and where Lavinia and Sarah met, but it seems likely they became acquainted in Brooklyn in the early 1860s. Lavinia first mentioned Sarah
Continue Reading “Southold is a pleasant country village.”

“Has Willie enlisted yet?”

Lavinia Goodell, August 12, 1862

Lavinia Goodell did not have children, but she clearly doted on her four nephews and had a special relationship with the eldest, William Goodell Frost. Named after his maternal grandfather, the family affectionately called him Willie.

Willie was born in 1854, when Lavinia was fifteen. When he was four years old, his mother wrote to Lavinia, “Willie says, ‘I wonder if Aunt Vinny curls her hair yet. How pretty it
Continue Reading “Has Willie enlisted yet?”

“Wasn’t Gerrit Smith a dashing good creature?”
Lavinia Goodell, November 7, 1861

Gerrit Smith was a prominent abolitionist and social reformer who was a longtime acquaintance of Lavinia’s father, William Goodell. The Goodell family remained friends with Smith for the rest of his life, and Smith was one of Lavinia’s mentors.

Gerrit Smith

Smith was born in Utica, New York in 1797. (Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica in 1839.) Smith’s father was an early partner of John Jacob
Continue Reading “Wasn’t Gerrit Smith a dashing good creature?”

“I know Lavinia can never earn a steady living.”
Maria Frost, April 10, 1865

It is doubtful that Lavinia Goodell ever enjoyed extended periods of good health. She was a sickly infant and youngster, and as an adult she was often ill. (During the years she practiced law, in addition to physical ailments, she suffered from frequent bouts of severe depression. That topic will be covered in a future post.) In spite of her many maladies,  Lavinia rarely complained,
Continue Reading “I know Lavinia can never earn a steady living.”

“Health is more important than writing.”

Clarissa Goodell to Lavinia Goodell, August 5, 1861

Lavinia Goodell grew up in a family that believed in healthy living practices. Good nutrition, scrupulous sanitary customs, and regular exercise were part of their daily program. Here is how Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost, described the household routine at the time of Lavinia’s birth in 1839:

The habits of the household [included] regularly stated hours of rising and retiring, the table regimen was according to
Continue Reading “Health is more important than writing.”

“There has been a great excitement here about a murder lately committed.”
Maria Frost, July 18, 1855

In the course of researching Lavinia Goodell’s life and times, we have come across accounts of many little known, but interesting, historical events that impacted her or her family. For example, did you know that there was a public lynching in Janesville, Wisconsin in the summer of 1855? Here is the story that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Wisconsin State Journal,
Continue Reading “There has been a great excitement here about a murder lately committed.”

“Hattie grows lovelier every day.”

Maria Frost, December 1, 1862.

The child mortality rate was high in the mid-1800s, with 34% of children born in 1860 not living to see their fifth birthday. The Goodell family was not spared.  Lavinia Goodell’s sister and brother-in-law lost two young children.

Maria and Lewis Frost already had one son when, on January 20, 1858, Lewis Frost wrote to his in-laws reporting that Maria had just given birth to a fine, healthy eight
Continue Reading “Hattie grows lovelier every day.”

“Necessity compels many women to go into the world of business”
Lavinia Goodell, November 1867

Lavinia Goodell was a voracious reader and subscribed to many publications, particularly those with a connection to the Congregational Church and those advancing the cause of women’s rights. One of the periodicals she read regularly was the Advance, a weekly publication of the Congregational Church that was headquartered in Chicago and put out its first issue in September 1867.

It was not long before
Continue Reading “Necessity compels many women to go into the world of business”

“What do you think about a change of business?”
Maria Frost, August 30, 1865

Lavinia Goodell held a number of different jobs. She was rarely out of work for long and, like many young people who are trying to move up in the world, she was always on the lookout for fresh opportunities. Her family and friends also sometimes suggested positions that they thought might suit her.

Lavinia Goodell, c. 1870

In 1865, Lavinia’s father retired from his
Continue Reading “What do you think about a change of business?”

“Don’t try to be a man.”
Maria Frost to Lavinia Goodell, April 13, 1858

In the spring of 1858, shortly before she graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, Lavinia Goodell was unsure what the next chapter of her life should hold, so she asked her sister for advice, saying:
I must have some life plan.  I don’t believe in living to get married, if that comes along in the natural course of events—very well, but to make it
Continue Reading “Dont try to be a man.”

“My trunk has got stuck somewhere on the road.”

Lavinia Goodell, September 15, 1871

If you thought that lost and damaged luggage was a problem unique to air travel, you would be mistaken. In the 1800s, rail passengers encountered the same  difficulties. Lavinia Goodell had the misfortune of suffering both lost and damaged bags during her move to Wisconsin.

Stock photo of 1800s luggage

 In the fall of 1871, Lavinia left her New York City job at Harper’s Bazar
Continue Reading “My trunk has got stuck somewhere on the road.”

We are proud to debut two brand new, self-guided walking tours of downtown Janesville, Wisconsin which allow fans to follow in the footsteps of Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. The walking tours pass by sites that Lavinia saw every day when she “went down street” (West Milwaukee Street) to go to her law office or pick up the mail at the post office; made the trek up the hill to the Rock County Courthouse; visited clients and taught
Continue Reading The Lavinia Goodell Walking Tour

“I am now a large capitalist!”
Lavinia Goodell, August 15, 1870

Lavinia Goodell made history as one of the country’s first women lawyers, but what if she had pursued a different career, such as millinery store owner? Although that might sound far-fetched, it’s not. Thanks to recently discovered family letters, we have learned that before Lavinia decided to study law, she gave serious consideration to going into the millinery business.

Stock photo of 1870s hat

In the summer
Continue Reading “I am now a large capitalist!”