“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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Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, Legal practice, 2 comments

A young, lady lawyer wins with her looks; an old one needs a strong case.

A young, lady lawyer wins with her looks; an old one needs a strong case.

The young and lovely Elle Woods from Legal Blonde

Pretty, young, female lawyers are fascinating to watch in court, and “they might occasionally get away with a verdict from a susceptible jury.” But they cannot achieve the same level of success as a young male lawyer. By the time a female lawyer gains sufficient experience to compete with her male counterpart she will  be old and ugly. Her powers of persuasion lie in the strength of her case. That’s the thesis of an article called “Female Lawyers,” which appeared along with closeups about Lavinia Goodell and Kate Kane (Wisconsin’s first two women lawyers) in the March 16, 1879 Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph. The article is reprinted below in full.

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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 1 comment

A Close Up of Lavinia’s Law Practice

A Close Up of Lavinia’s Law Practice

Today’s post plus two new tabs on the navigation menu provide a rare glimpse of what it was like to be Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. The “Court Cases” page features 5 of Lavinia Goodell’s clients and cases along with recently unearthed pleadings from her court files.  The “Supreme Court Battle” page chronicles the dramatic series of events from her first failed motion for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, to her legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in the practice of law, to her deathbed victory in Ingalls v. State, proving that women could argue in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and win there too.  But first, a little about Lavinia’s law practice.

Notice of deposition for Leavneworth v. Leavenworth
Notice of Deposition for Leavenworth v. Leavenworth, Lavinia’s big divorce case

For most of her legal career, Lavinia was a sole practitioner. She drafted deeds and wills, filed collection actions, and litigated contract, divorce and criminal cases. In November 1877, she wrote about her practice in “A Day in the Life of a Woman Lawyer,” a description that may sound comically familiar to lawyers today. For example, she began her illustrative workday short  on sleep due to tossing and turning over a case that she expected to lose because her opposing counsel was the judge’s friend and valuable political ally.

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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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“People told him he was going to be beaten by a woman, and he got his blood up, and that raised my grit.”

“People told him he was going to be beaten by a woman, and he got his blood up, and that raised my grit.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 15, 1874

In August of 1874, just two months after being admitted to practice law, Lavinia Goodell was hired by a Chicago firm to sue a Janesville storekeeper who had refused to pay for a sack of peanuts.

The Janesville Gazette took note of the case:

Miss Lavinia Goodell appeared in justice court this morning as attorney for Messrs. Smith & Lord, of Chicago, in an action against John Davies, of this city. The suit was brought to recover the value of a sack of peanuts, which the plaintiff sent to Davies among other goods. He claims the nuts were worthless and refuses to pay for them.

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Legal practice, 0 comments

Lavinia Goodell’s Bid to Become Janesville City Attorney

Lavinia Goodell’s Bid to Become Janesville City Attorney

Long before anyone asked whether women are “electable,” Lavinia Goodell threw her hat in the ring. This week CUNY professor Jill Norgren, and Swarthmore College Professor Wendy Chmielewski guest post on one of Lavinia’s little known, impressive firsts–1st American woman to run for city attorney. Professors Norgren and Chmielewski co-founded HerHatWasinthe ring.org, a timely digital project about women who ran for office before 1920. Norgren wrote Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President, a fascinating biography about one of Lavinia’s “sisters in law.

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Posted by admin in Legal practice, Temperance, Women's rights, 0 comments