Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

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.

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“You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”
Emma Brown letter to Lavinia Goodell, July 11, 1879

Emma Brown, publisher of the Wisconsin Chief temperance newspaper, helped give Lavinia Goodell’s nascent legal career a boost in the summer of 1874.

Emma was born in Auburn, New York in 1827.

Emma Brown

In 1849, Emma and her brother, Thurlow W. Brown, became co-publishers and co-editors of the Cayuga Chief, a temperance newspaper. By 1857, the
Continue Reading “You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”

Lavinia Goodell’s work in the temperance movement is well known, but she also had a lifelong aversion to the use of tobacco products. Lavinia grew up in a household that followed the principles of Dr. Sylvester Graham. In the 1830s, Lavinia’s father had lived in one of Graham’s boarding houses in New York City. Residents who were caught using tobacco were asked to leave. (Drinking coffee, tea, chocolate or liquor were also evictable offenses.)

In the 1860s and
Continue Reading “The expectorations of tobacco juice in the Circuit Court sometimes become alarming.”

“A lady who was deaf had cured herself by wearing warm biscuit & butter on her ears.”

Maria Goodell Frost, July 11, 1853

Lavinia Goodell’s sister, Maria Frost, began losing her hearing as a young woman.

Maria Goodell Frost

Maria’s obituary, published soon after her death on December 31, 1899, said:

[T]he affliction of deafness … began soon after her marriage and gradually increased. For thirty years she heard no public speaking, for twenty years no music, and for
Continue Reading “A lady who was deaf had cured herself by wearing warm biscuit & butter on her ears.”

“I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.”
Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost, March 10, 1867

The Goodell family was very well read, and their letters frequently mentioned their current literary selections. When Lavinia’s sister Maria Frost and her family moved from New York state to Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1860s, Maria found herself missing many of the amenities of life in the east, especially the lack of a public library. Lavinia
Continue Reading “I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.”

“I suppose your mother has told you of our tip over going to the society.”
Sarah Thomas to Lavinia Goodell, February 9, 1866

Researching mid-nineteenth century history gives one an appreciation for the many modern conveniences we all take for granted. Reliable transportation for one. It is unlikely that Lavinia Goodell’s parents ever owned a horse. They walked to nearby destinations and took the train or a stagecoach when travelling farther afield.

From 1865 until 1870, Lavinia’s parents lived
Continue Reading “I suppose your mother has told you of our tip over going to the society.”

“I have bought a new dress for summer.”
Lavinia Goodell, April 24, 1871

Although Lavinia Goodell had no illusions that she was a beauty – in fact, she frequently commented that she was “plain” and many of her short stories feature ordinary looking women with uncommon intelligence – she enjoyed dressing well and kept up with current fashion trends. For most of her life money was in short supply and she sewed her own garments – after determining where
Continue Reading “I have bought a new dress for summer.”

“The Brooklyn sanitary fair was a magnificent affair.”
Lavinia Goodell, March 10, 1864

In 1864, Lavinia Goodell was living in Brooklyn with her parents and working with her father in editing the Principia anti-slavery newspaper. In her spare time, Lavinia enjoyed taking in cultural events and expositions. In March of 1864, along with thousands of other people, she visited the Brooklyn sanitary fair.

During the Civil War, sanitary fairs were held to raise money for the war effort in
Continue Reading “The Brooklyn sanitary fair was a magnificent affair.”

“Mind proudly asserts its superiority over matter.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 1859

Lavinia Goodell’s contributions to the Principia, her father’s anti-slavery newspaper, have been discussed in prior posts. (Click here and here to learn more.) None of Lavinia’s pieces bear her full name. We first learned that Lavinia wrote articles for the Principia when we reviewed an unpublished biography written by Elisabeth S. Peck, a long time history teacher at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where the William Goodell family
Continue Reading “Mind proudly asserts its superiority over matter.”

Josiah Cady to Lavinia Goodell, July 14, 1854

Deacon Josiah Cady, Lavinia Goodell’s maternal grandfather, was born in Killingly, Connecticut in 1774. He lived in Providence, Rhode Island much of his adult life. An 1830 census listed his occupation as shoemaker.

Josiah played a prominent role in the Goodell family. William Goodell, Lavinia’s father, was boarding with Josiah in Providence in 1812 when he met – and became smitten with – Josiah’s daughter Clarissa. William and Clarissa married in
Continue Reading “It s Very Proper for a Man of Fourscore to be so Honored.”

“I followed the custom of the City by calling on several acquaintances.”

William Goodell, January 5, 1827

During the nineteenth century, it was customary to make social calls on New Year’s Day. While ladies remained at home to receive guests, gentlemen made the rounds of households in their circle.

Lavinia Goodell’s family maintained this tradition throughout her lifetime. Her diary entry for January 1, 1873 reported, “Father made calls” while she and her mother “prepared for calls but
Continue Reading “I followed the custom of the City by calling on several acquaintances.”

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful to have a drunkard for a father?”
“Susy’s Christmas” by Lavinia Goodell, published in the Principia January 1, 1863

Lavinia Goodell was an active participant in the temperance movement. In 1873 she helped form Janesville’s Ladies Temperance Union. In 1875, she ran for Janesville city attorney on the temperance ticket. (Although she was unsuccessful, she got 60 votes at a time when only men could cast ballots.)

Lavinia’s temperance advocacy began in her youth,
Continue Reading “Wouldn’t it be dreadful to have a drunkard for a father?”

The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

When we launched this website in 2019, we shared a post called “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how, back in 1959, an image of an unknown woman was erroneously sent to a New York author who had requested a photo of Lavinia Goodell. For sixty years, the unknown woman’s face graced books and articles about Lavinia Goodell and was also displayed on a large mural on
Continue Reading The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

Lavinia Goodell, July 1861

Prior to moving to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1871, Lavinia Goodell had spent sixteen years living in Brooklyn and one year in Manhattan. Lavinia enjoyed the “society” of a big city. She liked to attend lectures, go to exhibitions, and visit friends. But she also enjoyed vacations out of the city, particularly when she had the opportunity to visit her sister, Maria Frost

Maria’s husband Lewis was a pastor. The Frosts tended to move every few
Continue Reading “Goodbye, City! Welcome, Country!”

Lavinia Goodell, June 1862

From 1859 until 1865, Lavinia  Goodell’s father was the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, and Lavinia worked alongside him in the paper’s offices in lower Manhattan. She started out writing short pieces, then graduated to longer stories, and eventually served as a co-editor. None of her pieces bear her full name. Many are signed with her initials and some with pseudonyms. We have been able to identify approximately fifty of Lavinia’s Principia
Continue Reading “Don’t You Wish you Were an Editor?”

New York Times, April 25, 1870

We launched this website two years ago with a post titled “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how we had discovered that a photograph that people had believed to be Lavinia Goodell was not her at all. We commented that historical research is a lot like detective work. You must follow the facts wherever they lead, and if you find errors in the historical record, you must try to correct them. This
Continue Reading “In the Matter of William and Sylvanus Lyon, Bankrupts.”

Clarissa Goodell, July 22, 1861

Lavinia Goodell and her family lived through the Civil War, and their correspondence gives us a bird’s eye view of those turbulent times.

The first major land battle of the war occurred on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia. It is now commonly referred to as the Battle of Bull’s Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the Confederates rallied and were able to break the Union right flank. The
Continue Reading “The News of the Great Battle is Very Sad.”