“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.”

Continue reading →
Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Jail school/prison reform, 0 comments

“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.

Continue reading →
Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, Women's rights, 1 comment

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.

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, 1 comment

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

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, Legal practice, 0 comments

“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.

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, Legal practice, 3 comments

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.

Continue reading →
Posted by admin in Family, Jail school/prison reform, 0 comments