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We are delighted to illuminate the important work of Lavinia Goodell. This blog shares significant moments in Lavinia’s life and excerpts from her personal papers. You may browse the posts or use the Table of Contents to find posts that interest you. Please subscribe and help spread the word about Wisconsin's first woman lawyer.

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

Former Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson

“In the 1870’s Lavinia Goodell became the first woman admitted to the Wisconsin state bar and then fought an epic battle for the right to practice before that state’s highest court. One century later I was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman Supreme Court Justice. Throughout my career in the law I worked hard to open doors for others, just as Lavinia opened the doors to the courtroom where I proudly sat for more than four decades, and presided as Chief Justice for more than 18 years. Lavinia resides in the pantheon of Wisconsin heroes. This website is a wonderful and loving tribute to this remarkable person. I urge everyone to scroll through these pages and find inspiration. Forward!”Former Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, March 2, 2020

Posted by admin in Press about Lavinia's biography, Wisconsin Supreme Court battles, 1 comment

“I have seen Niagara!”

“I have seen Niagara!”

Lavinia Goodell, September 20, 1861

Although people tend to think of Lavinia Goodell as a very serious woman who devoted her life to working to advance causes such as women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform, she also had a much lighter side that is not well known. Lavinia had a delightful sense of humor, and she also had a sense of adventure. She loved to experience new things. She read the popular books of the time. She kept up on current fashion trends. And she enjoyed travelling and seeing new places. She particularly relished seeing the country’s natural wonders. In the autumn of 1861 she had the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s most spectacular attractions: Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, c. 1860. (Stock photo. Does not depict Lavinia)
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Posted by admin in Principia years, 1 comment

“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.”

“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 19, 1878

In early July 1877, Lavinia Goodell committed her mother to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. The institution, now known as Mendota Mental Health Institute, is located on Lake Mendota, on the north side of Madison.

Lavinia’s July 3, 1877 diary entry read, “Went up to asylum and after various tribulations took leave of mother and started homeward.”

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Posted by admin in Family, 1 comment

“The boys tried to break out last night!”

“The boys tried to break out last night!”

Lavinia Goodell, November 6, 1877

In the late 1870s, Lavinia Goodell was a frequent visitor to the Rock County jail, which was located on the Rock River, down the hill from the courthouse.

Rock County jail, c. 1880

After Judge Conger appointed her to represent a number of criminal defendants, Lavinia came to the conclusion that with proper education and spiritual direction, many of the men could be reformed. Since no one else seemed interested in such a project, she undertook it herself.  She took a personal interest in the prisoners and called them her “boys.” (Read more about her jail school here.)

In late 1877 Lavinia visited the jail several times a week. On November 5 she trekked there through deep snow and then couldn’t get in because John Albright, the turnkey, was not there. She spent two hours waiting for him to come back but he did not return, so after speaking to her boys through a hole in the wall, she left in disgust.

That evening some of the prisoners attempted a jail break. Lavinia’s diary entry for the following day reported: “Went to jail where found great excitement. Boys tried to break out the night before and had attacked Albright. Sutton and Sullivan not among them. I went in and taught as usual.”

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Jail school/prison reform, 0 comments

“A dreadful time with Mother”

“A dreadful time with Mother”

Lavinia Goodell, January 18, 1877

Lavinia Goodell’s mother’s mental health steadily declined during 1876. Lavinia’s cousin, Sarah Thomas, travelled to Janesville in late December to help Lavinia care for Clarissa.

Clarissa Goodell
Clarissa Goodell

Sarah had no sooner arrived than Clarissa’s condition worsened. Lavinia’s diary entries for January 1877 were a litany of depressing news: “A terrible time with mother.” “A bad time with mother again.” “Sarah reported on hard day with mother. I am in despair about her. Father nervous. Trouble all around.”

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“Mother gets worse and worse”

“Mother gets worse and worse”

Lavinia Goodell, November 4, 1876

Lavinia Goodell was away from Janesville for much of the summer of 1876. She left on June 3 and didn’t return until August 4. She was a delegate and speaker at the International Temperance Conference in Philadelphia and she and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, attended the Centennial International Exhibition in that city. Lavinia’s certificate of admission to the Rock County bar and her briefs arguing for her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court were on display. (Learn more about Lavinia’s experiences here.) It was also during this summer that Lavinia learned she was seriously ill.

By late September 1876, in addition to coping with her law practice and her own illness Lavinia was faced with the harsh reality that her mother’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. (Read more about Clarissa Goodell here.)

Photp of Clarissa Goodell, mother of Lavinia Goodell, wisconsin's 1st woman lawyer.
Clarissa Goodell
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“Behold the beautiful city of Madison, welcoming a body of women who come to deliberate on great questions.”

“Behold the beautiful city of Madison, welcoming a body of women who come to deliberate on great questions.”

Lucy Stone, Woman’;s Journal, October 25, 1879

The Woman’s Journal, the women’s rights weekly paper founded by prominent suffragist Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, devoted significant space in three consecutive issues to cover the October 1879 Women’s Congress held in Madison. Lucy Stone wrote:

The existence of the Women’s Congress and the treatment it receives makes an epoch in the history of women…. Today behold the beautiful city of Madison, the capital of the great State of Wisconsin, welcoming to its legislative hall a body of women who come to deliberate on great questions. They sit with crowded sessions; their right to do so recognized; fair and appreciative reports of what they do are given to the real public which does not raise a question of propriety even, and their words are heeded. So much is settled. Who shall grow weary or doubt the final result for women, when so great changes are wrought in so short a time.

After reading her paper on penal legislation on Wednesday, October 8, Lavinia Goodell could relax a bit and enjoy the rest of the Congress. On Thursday, October 9, she wrote in her diary, “A grand day full of good things.” The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Lavinia gave comments at a session titled Women, in Business. Lavinia “wised to assure young ladies who had ambition to enter the legal profession, that there was no danger that there will be any lack of cases in court. It is a mistake to think that the chief work of a lawyer is in making speeches in court. The best paying work is of a different character. Don’t be discouraged, but come on.” In the evening Lavinia attended a reception hosted by Governor William Smith and his wife.

On Friday, October 10, after “a busy, pleasant day at the Congress, Lavinia attended a reception at the home of Senator and Mrs. Joseph Thorp. (The house still stands, at 130 East Gilman Street, Madison. From 1885 until 1950 the home served as Wisconsin’s governor’s mansion. Today it is a boutique hotel.

Photo of Wisconsin's Governor's Mansion in 1879
Senator Thorp’s home, now Governor’s Mansion Inn & Cafe

Senator Thorp was a wealthy lumber baron. His daughter, Sara, was married to the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.

Photo of Ole Bull
Ole Bull

Mr. Bull treated his in-laws’ guests to a violin performance. The Wisconsin State Journal reported:

Here in the spacious and noble drawing room, recently refitted in exquisite taste, the ladies were hospitably welcomed by Mrs. Thorp and her son. Not far away the Apollo-like form of Mr. Ole Bull lifted his massive head and noble face above the crowd, where he and his accomplished wife gave their hearty welcome to the guests…. Ole Bull held them spellbound with his “Sicilian, Tarantelle,” his wife admirably accompanying him at the piano….

Before the company dispersed, Mrs. President Doggett, on behalf of the Congress, … thanked the kind host and hostess for this delightful reception in their charming home. She thanked Mr. and Mrs. Ole Bull for the music that had thrilled their hearts with holy memories of the past, and high aspirations for the future, and she declared that they had had such a good time in Madison they were almost ready to say they wanted to come again next year.

After a little farther exchange of friendly salutations, the large company slowly dispersed, while on every lip was the word, “What a delightful evening!”

On Saturday, October 11, Lavinia joined other delegates and friends on an excursion train that took them to Kilbourn City (now known as Wisconsin Dells). On arrival, the party boarded a steamer and visited the Dells’ attractions. Lavinia reported, “Splendid scenery, and a pleasant but fatiguing time.”

On Monday, October 13, Lavinia took the train back to Janesville.  Her diary entry read, Home again. Seems real good and wish I hadn’t got to go off. Came back with a lot of Congress women and had splendid journey. “

A month later, her health failing, Lavinia abruptly moved to Madison. Although we have no definitive record of when or why she made the move, it is possible that the week she spent at the Women’s Congress played a part in her decision. Her diary entries mention that during her October visit she spent time with “the Misses Bright,” who lived on Carroll Street. (She first reported meeting a Miss Bright during an August visit to Madison.) When she relocated to Madison in November, the first people she spent time with were the Misses Bright. Perhaps while attending the Women’s Congress Lavinia heeded Lucy Stone’s advice to “deliberate on great questions” and decided to make a significant life change. NK

Sources consulted: Annual Report of the Association for the Advancement of Women (1880); Woman’s Journal, October 25, 1879; Wisconsin State Journal; Lavinia Goodell’s diaries.

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“The well known Janesville lady lawyer read an interesting paper.”

“The well known Janesville lady lawyer read an interesting paper.”

Wisconsin State Journal, October 9, 1879

The American Women’s Association Congress was held in the state capitol building in Madison in October 1879. Seventy-five women from around the country attended.

Image of Wisconsin's capitol in the 1870s
Wisconsin capitol c. 1870s

The 1880 Annual Report of the Association for the Advancement of Women said:

Through the action of the local committee, the fine and spacious assembly room of the capitol was placed at our disposal, and the ladies of Madison decorated it with flowers and smilax, a rare innovation in a state capital.

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Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, Women's rights, 1 comment

“This congress ought to be attended by every intelligent woman in the state.”

“This congress ought to be attended by every intelligent woman in the state.”

Janesville Gazette, October 3, 1879

In October of 1879, less than six months before her death, Lavinia Goodell attended the American Women’s Association congress in Madison.

Image of announcement of 7th Annual Women's Congress in Madison, Wisconsin
Wisconsin State Journal, October 7, 1879

According to the Wisconsin State Journal:

The aim of the congress is to render women more helpful to each other, and more useful to society. It desires to bring together, in friendly counsel, women of diverse experience – the educator, the philanthropist, the house-keeper, the scientist – that from the little candle each has lighted at the daily altar, where her daily service has been offered, a flame may be kindled which shall send light into the dark corners, where, in spite of our boasted civilization, sin, misery and ignorance still lurk.

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