A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

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.

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