A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

Historical research is a lot like detective work. You follow the facts wherever they might lead. Sometimes they lead down dark alleys; many times they lead to dead ends. But once in a while they lead to a never before seen vista that is so breathtaking that you have to pinch yourself. Case in point: the moment you discover that the widely disseminated photo of Lavinia Goodell isn’t her at all. How could that be possible? Here’s how:

The faux Lavinia and the real Lavinia
The Faux Lavinia (left) and the Real Lavinia (right).

When Lavinia died in 1880, she left her personal belongings to her sister, Maria Frost. On Maria’s death in 1899, her son, William Goodell Frost, whom Lavinia affectionately called Willie, was the president of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Willie placed the Goodell family papers, which included Lavinia’s diaries and correspondence, in the Berea College library. The papers apparently did not include a photograph of Lavinia, although her letters recount that she had her picture taken on several occasions. Lavinia may well never have had a public face were it not for the fact that in 1959 two writers were simultaneously doing research for dueling biographies, neither of which was ever published.

In New York, Dorothy Thomas was working on a large scale project about early United States women lawyers. She wrote to Dr. Norman Frost, Lavinia’s great-nephew, asking if he could supply a picture to accompany the chapter on Lavinia. Dr. Frost sent off a photo. Ms. Thomas made a copy and returned the original. At the same time, Elisabeth Peck, a retired Berea College professor, was writing a book devoted solely to Lavinia. Peck learned about the picture Ms. Thomas had obtained and got a copy from her. The photo was added to the Goodell family papers, and for sixty years, whenever someone asked Berea for Lavinia’s picture, that photo was dispatched.

There was just one little problem. Dr. Frost had sent Ms. Thomas the wrong picture. His daughter, Sarah Stamps of Nashville, recalls seeing on her father’s desk the package in which Ms. Thomas returned the photo. Ms. Stamps recognized the mix-up immediately. Dr. Frost had never known Lavinia; she had died seven years before he was born. Ms. Stamps remembered how, as a child, she enjoyed perusing a box of family photos with her grandmother. She recalled seeing the picture that her father sent to Ms. Thomas, and she recalled her grandmother saying she did not know that woman’s identity. Ms. Stamps also remembered seeing a daguerreotype of Lavinia and her father, William Goodell. When Ms. Stamps showed Dr. Frost the daguerreotype, which clearly did not depict the woman in the photo sent to Ms. Thomas, his response was, “Well, the daguerreotype would have been harder to send, and the one I sent is much better looking.” (Ms. Stamps’s full statement on the mix-up may be found here.)  Ms. Stamps was troubled by the error, but she let the matter drop, never thinking it might turn out to be important.

A few years ago Ms. Stamps was browsing the web for material on the Goodell family. To her horror she discovered that multiple websites mentioning Lavinia included the photo of the unidentified woman. Since that time, Ms. Stamps has attempted to correct the record, as has Beverly Wright, another of Lavinia’s relatives, who has the family album containing multiple labelled images of the “real” Lavinia. (See Ms. Wright’s letter in the Autumn 2014 Wisconsin Magazine of History here.) Unfortunately, once erroneous information is on the internet, it is usually there to stay.

So let the first order of business on Laviniagoodell.com be to introduce the world to the real Lavinia Goodell. After sixty years of being represented by an imposter, we are thrilled to be able to set the record straight and show Lavinia’s true visage. It’s not every day you can correct a historical mistake, but this is the kind of moment good detectives live for.  We hope you subscribe to our blog, Twitter or Facebook feed to learn more about Lavinia’s remarkable life. (The subscription icons are in the footer). Lots more information  – and some more surprises – are in store. And if anyone has information about the unidentified woman, please let us know. We are thrilled to be able to give Lavinia her real face back, but we’d also love to give the other woman her due.  NK

Sources consulted: Elisabeth Peck, So Life is Learning (unpublished) located at Berea College archive.

Photo credits: Left (Berea College, special collections and archives ); right (Wisconsin Historical Society. Original in private collection of Beverly Wright)

2 comments

As a lawyer from a small town in Wisconsin, 13 miles from Richland Center, whose life’s work has been for women’s rights, I am thrilled to read about Lavinia. I live in Arizona but have worked around the world on women’s rights. We all stand on the shoulders of our forebears. We build the future – as one can see from the testimonies last week of Maria Yavonovich and Fiona Hill – some truly admirable women. Wisconsin has produced some of the best in the nation and I’m proud to be raised and educated there.

Mary Jo Koranda

Thank you. We have a digital slide display for Women’s History Month and indeed have the wrong photo on the display.

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