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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, 2 comments

“Dont try to be a man.”

“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 virtually my end and aim, to square all my plans to it, and study and learn for no other purpose, does not suit my ideas. … I would be dependent on my own exertions, be firmly established on my own basis.  I would study, investigate, try to do good.  I would aim at the highest. I think the study of law would be pleasant, but the practice attendant with many embarrassments. Indeed I fear it would be utterly impractical. Our folks would not hear of my going to college; I should not dare to mention it…. In all probability I must teach, that is all a woman can do.

On April 12, 1858, Maria Frost penned a lengthy response which made it clear she did not look kindly on Lavinia’s aspirations to enter any male dominated profession.

Maria Goodell Frost
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Posted by admin in Growing Up: 1839-1859, 0 comments

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

“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  and moved to Janesville to help care for her aging parents. William and Clarissa Goodell had been living with their elder daughter, Maria Frost’s, family but when a change of employment required the Frosts to move out of Janesville, Lavinia made the decision to go to Wisconsin to live with her parents.

lavinia
Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, 0 comments

The Lavinia Goodell Walking Tour

The Lavinia Goodell Walking Tour

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 classes at the jail on the bank of the Rock River; or stopped by the Janesville Gazette office to drop off an article she had written. We hope that people visiting southern Wisconsin take the time to look up these sites and see life as Lavinia lived it in the 1870s. Those who cannot take the tour in person can take a virtual tour. We encourage you to scroll through the images below, or click to enlarge them. You may also view the full walking tour as a PDF here. A printed brochure version of the tour is coming soon and will be available at select Rock County locations.

Posted by admin in Walking Tour, Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, 1 comment

“I am now a large capitalist!”

“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
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Posted by admin in Harper's Bazar years, 0 comments

“I received my commission as notary public.”

“I received my commission as notary public.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 10, 1875

Since Lavinia Goodell was the first woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin, it is likely that she was also the first woman in Wisconsin to receive a commission as a notary public. Lavinia’s first mention of serving as a notary appears in a February 10, 1875 letter that she wrote to her sister, Maria Frost:

I received, yesterday, my commission as notary public, from the Gov. So now I can administer the oath, acknowledge deeds, etc. The certificate expresses the Gov’s confidence in my “integrity & ability,” etc. & I had besides a note from his secretary, Mr. Bird (my opposing counsel on the Burrington suit) – read more about the Burrington case here – saying he was very happy to do it for me.

Maria must have inquired what was entailed in being a notary public because on March 24, 1875 Lavinia sent her a lengthy explanation and affixed an imprint of her notary seal to the letter.

Lavinia Goodell’s notary seal
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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

“The most approved means of accomplishing result [is] the use of electricity.”

“The most approved means of accomplishing result [is] the use of electricity.”

A.P. Peck, M.D. to Lavinia Goodell, June 7, 1877

In the spring of 1877, Lavinia Goodell could no longer ignore her growing ovarian tumor, and she sought medical advice from a variety of sources. She corresponded with a physician in Chicago. She considered travelling to Michigan, where her sister was living, to consult with a mysterious German woman who claimed to have healing powers. And she had a rather extensive correspondence with Racine physician A.P. Peck, who treated tumors through the use of electricity.

Racine Journal, November 26, 1873
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Posted by admin in Illness, 1 comment

“Lavinia Goodell was insane & not of sound mind or memory.”

“Lavinia Goodell was insane & not of sound mind or memory.”

Maria Frost’s challenge to Lavinia Goodell’s will, 1880

On April 9, 1880, just nine days after Lavinia Goodell died, one of her executors, Janesville attorney Sanford Hudson, filed an application in Dane County court (although Lavinia had lived in Rock County since 1871 and practiced law there for over five years, she had moved to Madison in November of 1879, making her a Dane County resident at the time of her death) to have her will admitted to probate.

The reason for drafting a will, of course, is to make sure that a person’s estate is distributed in the manner they want, rather than having the property automatically pass to the deceased’s next of kin, which is what generally happens when a person dies intestate. An earlier post discussed Kate Kane’s unsuccessful attempt to collect $50 from Lavinia’s estate. This post will discuss attempts by Lavinia’s sister and eldest nephew to invalidate the entire will.

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Posted by admin in Death/estate, 0 comments

“At the time of her death, Miss Goodell was in debt to me in the sum of $50.”

“At the time of her death, Miss Goodell was in debt to me in the sum of $50.”

Kate Kane, January 1881

When Lavinia Goodell drafted her will in July of 1879, she no doubt believed that her estate would be divided exactly as she specified, and she probably did not expect anyone to file spurious claims. Unfortunately, her will was challenged and her friend and fellow Janesville attorney, Kate Kane, filed a claim against the estate.

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Posted by admin in Death/estate, 0 comments
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