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We are delighted to illuminate the important work of Lavinia Goodell. This blog shares significant moments in Lavinia’s life and excerpts from her personal papers. You may browse the posts or use the Table of Contents to find posts that interest you. Please subscribe and help spread the word about Wisconsin's first woman lawyer.

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, 2 comments

“In the Matter of William and Sylvanus Lyon, Bankrupts.”

“In the Matter of William and Sylvanus Lyon, Bankrupts.”

New York Times, April 25, 1870

We launched this website two years ago with a post titled “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how we had discovered that a photograph that people had believed to be Lavinia Goodell was not her at all. We commented that historical research is a lot like detective work. You must follow the facts wherever they lead, and if you find errors in the historical record, you must try to correct them. This post corrects and enhances the story we previously recounted about the two years Lavinia spent teaching in Brooklyn. (Read those accounts here and here.)

We believed that Lavinia’s employer was a prosperous merchant named Lynn who lived on South 10th Street in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn. But it is not always easy to decipher nineteenth century spelling, particularly of proper names, and after reviewing a box of recently discovered Goodell family letters, we now know that Lavinia’s employer’s name was Sylvanus Lyon.

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Posted by admin in Teaching years, 0 comments

“The news of the great battle is very sad.”

“The news of the great battle is very sad.”

Clarissa Goodell, July 22, 1861

Lavinia Goodell and her family lived through the Civil War, and their correspondence gives us a bird’s eye view of those turbulent times.

The first major land battle of the war occurred on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia. It is now commonly referred to as the Battle of Bull’s Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the Confederates rallied and were able to break the Union right flank. The Confederate victory gave the South a surge of confidence and made the Northerners realize that the war would not be easily won.

New York Times, July 22, 1861

Lavinia’s father published and/or edited numerous newspapers throughout his life, and the Goodells were avid followers of the news and read multiple papers. After reading the first accounts of the battle, Lavinia’s mother wrote:

The news that came today of the great battle is very sad and I don’t feel like doing or saying anything. O, the poor mothers and sisters that are now in suspense as to the fate of their dear ones.

Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, July 22, 1861
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Posted by admin in Principia years, Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 2 comments

“I am afraid you will be disappointed about the book.”

“I am afraid you will be disappointed about the book.”

Maria Frost, January 21, 1856.

Lavinia Goodell published numerous articles and stories in her lifetime, but she was not the only family member with literary tendencies. Her father, William Goodell, was a prolific writer who authored many books and countless articles, poems, and letters to the editor. It is not as well known that Lavinia’s sister, Maria Goodell Frost,  was also a published author and was the only Goodell sister to publish a book.

Maria Goodell Frost

In 1855, the American Reform Tract and Book Society offered a $100 premium for the best manuscript for a religious anti-slavery Sunday school book. Out of the forty-six manuscripts received, the Society chose Maria’s work, which was titled Gospel Fruits, or Christianity Illustrated. In addition to the prestige of seeing her book in print, the prize money was a welcome bonus for Maria’s young family. (For perspective, Maria’s pastor husband’s salary was approximately $500 a year, so $100 was a significant boost to the family’s income.) Maria received the good news that she had won the competition in late December 1855.

Letter to Maria Goodell Frost from American Tract & Book Society, December 20, 1855
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Posted by admin in Growing Up: 1839-1859, 0 comments

“We are in possession of our share of the Estate of your late uncle, Isaac H. Cady”

“We are in possession of our share of the Estate of your late uncle, Isaac H. Cady”

William Goodell, August 7, 1869

Lavinia Goodell’s mother’s only brother, Isaac Cady, was a prosperous bookseller and publisher in Providence, Rhode Island.

Isaac H. Cady

In 1840, Lavinia’s mother, Clarissa, reported to her father, Josiah Cady, that the family had seen Isaac’s advertisement in the newspaper and that Lavinia’s fourteen-year-old sister Maria said she should like to step into his bookstore. Lavinia’s mother said, “I told her Uncle would not like to have her handle his books.”

Isaac Cady calendar from 1840

For a number of years, beginning in 1847, Isaac Cady had a business in New York City, in partnership with Daniel Burgess. Cady & Burgess published a number of textbooks written by Roswell C. Smith, another of Lavinia’s uncles and the father of Carrie Ellsworth, Lavinia’s cousin who died unexpectedly in 1866.

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Posted by admin in Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 0 comments

“I am glad Aunt Mira is so kind as to board you.”

“I am glad Aunt Mira is so kind as to board you.”

Clarissa Goodell to Lavinia Goodell, September 21, 1867

Mira Hill was one of the many women who played an important role in Lavinia Goodell’s life.

Mira Hill, Lavinia Goodell’s great aunt

Mira was Lavinia’s great aunt, the half sister of her maternal grandfather, Josiah Cady. Mira married John Wheeler Hill, a policeman, and for many years the couple lived in the Green Point section of Brooklyn. In the 1860s, after Lavinia’s parents moved to Lebanon, Connecticut, Lavinia lived with the Hills for long stretches on two occasions and wrote and received many letters there.

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Posted by admin in Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 0 comments

“Mr. Norcross called with a quantity of legal writing he wanted me to do at once.”

“Mr. Norcross called with a quantity of legal writing he wanted me to do at once.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 18, 1873

Lavinia Goodell’s relationship with Janesville, Wisconsin attorney Pliny Norcross was complicated. He assisted her in her legal studies and moved her application to be admitted to the Rock County bar, but when hiring law clerks and associates for his law firm, he chose young men who lacked Lavinia’s intellect and work ethic. He declined to act as Lavinia’s co-counsel on an important case, and when serving as opposing counsel on a small suit, he attempted to win the case by taking advantage of her inexperience. But 1870s Janesville was not a large city. Lavinia crossed paths with Norcross frequently, both personally and professionally, and by all accounts they remained on reasonably good terms until she left Janesville in late 1879.

Captain Pliny Norcross
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Posted by admin in Colleagues, Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, 0 comments

“Aunt Lois feels Carrie’s death more and more every day.”

“Aunt Lois feels Carrie’s death more and more every day.”

Clarissa Goodell, September 6, 1866

Like most families in the nineteenth century, the Goodells experienced the premature deaths of family members, including Lavinia’s two year old niece Harriet Frost, an unnamed infant nephew,  and her twenty-three year old cousin Amanda Goodell. In 1866, Lavinia lost another cousin, thirty-seven year old Caroline Smith Ellsworth.

Caroline Smith Ellsworth

Carrie was born in 1829, the only child of Lavinia’s mother’s sister, Lois Cady, and her husband, Roswell Smith, the author of textbooks on grammar, geography, and arithmetic. In 1854, Carrie married Oliver Chaffee Ellsworth, a Boston publisher whose paternal grandfather was Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and whose maternal grandfather was Noah Webster. The couple had one son, William Webster Ellsworth, born in 1855. Willie Ellsworth was the same age as, and a frequent correspondent of, Lavinia’s eldest nephew, William Goodell Frost.

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Posted by admin in Family, 0 comments

“Poor Cleaveland is in deep affliction.”

“Poor Cleaveland is in deep affliction.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 22, 1869

In her 1879 will, Lavinia Goodell named her uncle, Josiah Cleaveland Cady as trustee.

Cleaveland, (sometimes spelled Cleveland) as he was called, was born in 1837, the son of Lavinia’s mother’s father, Deacon Josiah Cady, and his second wife, Lydia. Cleaveland was more than thirty years Clarissa Goodell’s junior and was only two years older than Lavinia. The Cadys lived in Providence, Rhode Island, but there was always concern about disease in cities, so after the birth Lydia and the baby spent some time in the country. They returned to Providence when Cleaveland was seven months old. Josiah reported, “We are as well now as we have been perhaps for a year past but we have no promise of tomorrow.”

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Posted by admin in Family, 0 comments
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