“The well known Janesville lady lawyer read an interesting paper.”

“The well known Janesville lady lawyer read an interesting paper.”

Wisconsin State Journal, October 9, 1879

The American Women’s Association Congress was held in the state capitol building in Madison in October 1879. Seventy-five women from around the country attended.

Image of Wisconsin's capitol in the 1870s
Wisconsin capitol c. 1870s

The 1880 Annual Report of the Association for the Advancement of Women said:

Through the action of the local committee, the fine and spacious assembly room of the capitol was placed at our disposal, and the ladies of Madison decorated it with flowers and smilax, a rare innovation in a state capital.

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Lavinia’s jail school

Lavinia’s jail school

“I had no idea that criminals were so interesting,” Lavinia Goodell told her sister, Maria. “I believe I could run [the Rock County] jail, so as to turn out every man better than he came in. Jails and prisons could just as well be made schools of virtue as vice if people chose to have it so, and would give a very little thought to the subject.” For the last four years of her life, while her elderly parents were failing and she was suffering a fatal illness, Lavinia poured herself into reforming criminals.

This is a December 5, 1877 Janesville Gazette article about the Row Boat, a paper written by prisoners who attended Lavinia’s jail school.

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Reclaiming criminals: “My remedies will either kill or cure!”

Reclaiming criminals: “My remedies will either kill or cure!”

Lavinia was quite taken with James Tolan, her client accused of stealing a $23 watch. “I never had the confidence of a criminal before,” she told her sister.  “It was a very interesting experience.” Poor Tolan, an inmate of the Rock County jail, was literally a captive audience. Lavinia visited him often and, in her words, “persecuted him nearly to death” with lectures, tracts and sermons. She declared: “my remedies on him will either kill or cure!” Lucky for Tolan, Lavinia’s courtroom zeal matched her determination as a reformer.

November 16, 1875 Janesville Gazette article about Lavinia’s defense of James Tolan

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“What shall we do with our criminals?”

“What shall we do with our criminals?”

In the fall of 1875, Judge Harmon Conger—the same judge who admitted Lavinia to the Rock County bar—changed the course of her legal career. She was sitting in her office drafting a client’s will when a sheriff popped in to announce that the judge had just appointed her to defend two criminals. One, James Tolan, was charged with stealing a watch from someone. The other, Harrison Cramer, had allegedly stolen spoons, jackknives, and a black silk belt from a store. The appointments surprised Lavinia.

A drunk tramp with a pocket watch.

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Thanksgiving in jail

Thanksgiving in jail

 Lavinia Goodell’s Thanksgiving celebrations in the 1860s and 1870s bear at least some resemblance to today’s holiday festivities. The day often began with a religious service. Although Lavinia had a lifelong affiliation with the Congregational church,  she liked to explore other houses of worship as well.

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