“Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!”

“Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!”

Lavinia Goodell, August 30, 1874

Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most famous men of the nineteenth century. Born in Connecticut in 1813, he was a Congregationalist preacher, a staunch abolitionist, and a supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance. In the early days of the Civil War, Beecher preached anti-slavery sermons from his Brooklyn pulpit. On one occasion a rumor spread that a mob would attack his church, and 200 Metropolitan police officers were dispatched to quell any disturbance that might arise. Fortunately their services were not needed.

Photo of Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher

Lavinia Goodell’s family held similar political and social views, so it is not surprising that they became acquainted with Beecher when the Goodells were living in New York. Lavinia’s diaries and letters contain many references to Beecher, and reading Beecher’s sermons was a weekly tradition for the Goodells.

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“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.”

“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875

Emma Bascom

Throughout her life, Lavinia Goodell cultivated a network of prominent people who championed her efforts to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar and supported, at least to some degree, her other varied causes, such as temperance and suffrage. While Lavinia welcomed their patronage, she sometimes thought that other women, particularly those married to distinguished and prosperous men, could have done much more to advance the cause of women’s rights but hung back due to concern of appearing “unwomanly.” At times this led to Lavinia feeling enormous frustration with her benefactors. Lavinia shared one such complicated relationship with Emma Bascom, the wife of the University of Wisconsin’s president.

Emma Curtiss Bascom was born in Massachusetts in 1828. She married her husband John, a professor at Williams College, in 1856. The Bascoms moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1874 when John assumed the leadership of the University.

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“Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.”

“Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.”

Janesville Gazette, March 25, 1878

Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1870s not only had three women lawyers (Lavinia Goodell, Kate Kane,  and Angie King), it also had a woman physician. According to the 1880 census, Dr. Clara Normington was born in England in 1845. (After her 1882 marriage she may have later shaved a few years off her actual age since the 1900 census says she was born in 1854, and her gravestone has that same notation.)  She graduated from the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago in 1878 and set up practice in Tallman’s block in Janesville, where Lavinia had her law office. The Janesville Gazette took note of her arrival and predicted,  “being thoroughly educated, she will doubtless find here a successful field of labor.”

1878 advertisement for Dr. Clara Normington's practice
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“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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“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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“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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