The death of Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

The death of Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell (May 2, 1839-March 31, 1880)

In the early morning hours of March 31, 1880, Lavinia Goodell died in Milwaukee. She was just a month shy of her 41st birthday. Lavinia had left Janesville in November of 1879 and moved to Madison, setting up her law practice there. She went to Milwaukee in January 1880 to seek treatment for her rapidly declining health at a Turkish bath establishment. When that treatment failed, she was taken to a private residence where she spent her final days. Her cousin Sarah Thomas was with her when she died of ovarian cancer. The Janesville Gazette wrote:

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Posted by admin in Death/estate, Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Illness, 1 comment

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

The Chief Justice “was mad as a bull when he sees a red rag”

The Chief Justice “was mad as a bull when he sees a red rag”

Tyler v. Burrington, where a male jury defied a statute to find for a pretty young plaintiff, is the case that made Lavinia Goodell famous. After that painful loss, she vowed to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. But first she had to gain admission to that court’s bar. Lavinia’s petition to argue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court led to a showdown with the fiery chauvinist, Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan.

Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan, Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin's first woman lawyer
Chief Chauvinist Edward Ryan v. Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer.

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“Finished Leavenworth case and lost it. Am too mad to say anymore.”

“Finished Leavenworth case and lost it. Am too mad to say anymore.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 29, 1876

Closing arguments in the Leavenworth divorce were heard on January 25, 1876. Lavinia had spent a great deal of time preparing and was satisfied with her efforts. Her diary entry for that day noted:

At Court House all day arguing Leavenworth case. I “spouted” about two hours in morning and Bennett all afternoon…. Am immensely relieved that it is over. Quite an audience out.

Rock County Courthouse
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An epic divorce battle: Wife said husband tried to poison her; husband accused wife of throwing swill on him

An epic divorce battle: Wife said husband tried to poison her; husband accused wife of throwing swill on him

In late June of 1875, Lavinia Goodell was visited by a prospective new client. Elizabeth Leavenworth had started a divorce action against her husband, Ira, but was unhappy with her present lawyer and wanted Lavinia to take over the case. This was probably Lavinia’s most hard fought legal battle. The Rock County circuit court’s file in the Leavenworth divorce is one of the handful of Lavinia’s cases to have survived, so we not only have Lavinia’s diary entries and letters recounting her work on the case; we have the entire official court record.  

Illustration of husband threatening a wife

Divorces were hard to come by in the 1800s. The petitioning party had to convince the court that grounds existed to dissolve the matrimonial bonds. The Rock County circuit court judge, Harmon Conger, looked for reasons not to grant a divorce, so Lavinia knew Mrs. Leavenworth faced an uphill battle. Still, Lavinia found Mrs. L’s case compelling.

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Legal practice, 2 comments

“The superior physical attractiveness of the girl won her the verdict”

“The superior physical attractiveness of the girl won her the verdict”

Dr. and Mrs. Lydia Burrington, a childless couple, took Sarah Tyler, a destitute orphan, into their home and treated her like a daughter.  When Dr. Burrington died 10 years later, Sarah sued his estate for $1,100 in “wages.” Mrs. Burrington, executrix of the estate, hired Lavinia Goodell as defense counsel for the trial to an all-male jury.  For Lavinia, this case proved why it was important to have women on juries.

Editorial cartoon: Women are too sentimental for jury duty. - Anti-suffrage argument
“Women are too sentimental for jury duty.” – Anti-suffrage argument

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Lavinia Goodell put her faith into practice in her daily life

Lavinia Goodell put her faith into practice in her daily life

Congratulations to the First Congregational United Church of Christ and Rev. Tanya Sadagopan on the church’s 175th anniversary. The Congregational Church played a robust role in Lavinia Goodell’s life in Janesville. She would be thrilled to know that her church is still serving the Janesville community and would be even more pleased to know that its pastor is a woman. 

Janesville Congregational Church, c. 1870s
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