“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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“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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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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Lavinia’s 1st jury trial: “The Courthouse was full of men and women and great excitement prevailed.”

Lavinia’s 1st jury trial: “The Courthouse was full of men and women and great excitement prevailed.”

In the 19th century only men could be jurors. So when Lavinia Goodell strode into the Jefferson County Courthouse on September 17, 1874, to try her first jury case she faced a male judge, a male opposing counsel, an all-male jury and . . . a courtroom filled with gawkers. Again, we have her firsthand account of the day.

19th century courtroom
How the courtroom may have looked to Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

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Lavinia wins her 1st court trials! “‘How’s that for a high?’–as the boys say.”

Lavinia wins her 1st court trials! “‘How’s that for a high?’–as the boys say.”

August 4, 1874, marks an important day in Wisconsin, and arguably American, legal history. It’s the day Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer tried her first two court cases, back-to-back, in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Because Lavinia was a disciplined diarist and a prolific letter writer, and because her papers are preserved at Berea College, we have her first-hand account, and know her innermost thoughts, about this event.

Pages from Lavinia Goodell's Dairy, August 4th and 5th 1874
Lavinia’s actual diary entries for August 4-5, 1874

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Spittoon or no spittoon? Hanging out a shingle in 1874

Spittoon or no spittoon? Hanging out a shingle in 1874

If launching your own law firm seems daunting today, imagine what it was like for Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer in 1874. Lavinia’s letters and diaries describe how she established her practice and planned to get work. Some parts of the process are much the same as today; others are amusingly different. For example, when furnishing her office Lavinia pondered “spittoon or no spittoon?” If her prospective clients had “spitting propensities” they would expect one.

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