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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

“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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“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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“Southold is a pleasant country village.”

“Southold is a pleasant country village.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 1, 1863

Other than her sister, Maria Frost, and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, Sarah Case was one of Lavinia Goodell’s closest friends. Sarah Case held such a special place in Lavinia’s heart that Lavinia’s 1879 will bequeathed her $1500 and a gold locket.

It is unknown when and where Lavinia and Sarah met, but it seems likely they became acquainted in Brooklyn in the early 1860s. Lavinia first mentioned Sarah in an 1863 letter to her sister, saying, “I wish you knew her. She is a very fine girl. She is learning to be a telegraph operator.”

Like Lavinia, Sarah Case was born in 1839. She grew up in the village of Southold, on the North Fork of Long Island. Her father was a farmer. Many historians consider Southold to be the first English settlement on Long Island, dating back to 1640.

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“Has Willie enlisted yet?”

“Has Willie enlisted yet?”

Lavinia Goodell, August 12, 1862

Lavinia Goodell did not have children, but she clearly doted on her four nephews and had a special relationship with the eldest, William Goodell Frost. Named after his maternal grandfather, the family affectionately called him Willie.

Willie was born in 1854, when Lavinia was fifteen. When he was four years old, his mother wrote to Lavinia, “Willie says, ‘I wonder if Aunt Vinny curls her hair yet. How pretty it must look. I do want to see her.’”

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

“Wasn’t Gerrit Smith a dashing good creature?”

“Wasn’t Gerrit Smith a dashing good creature?”

Lavinia Goodell, November 7, 1861

Gerrit Smith was a prominent abolitionist and social reformer who was a longtime acquaintance of Lavinia’s father, William Goodell. The Goodell family remained friends with Smith for the rest of his life, and Smith was one of Lavinia’s mentors.

Gerrit Smith

Smith was born in Utica, New York in 1797. (Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica in 1839.) Smith’s father was an early partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade. Shortly after Smith’s father died in 1837, a financial crisis led to a depression that lasted into the 1840s. Banks would not provide Smith with the loans he needed to meet his business obligations, so he turned to his father’s old partner for help. Astor loaned Smith $250,000 in return for a mortgage on property for which Smith had paid $14,000 ten years earlier. Due to a mixup, there was a delay in sending the mortgage to Astor, so for several weeks Astor had nothing but Smith’s word to secure the $250,000 loan.

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“I know Lavinia can never earn a steady living.”

“I know Lavinia can never earn a steady living.”

Maria Frost, April 10, 1865

It is doubtful that Lavinia Goodell ever enjoyed extended periods of good health. She was a sickly infant and youngster, and as an adult she was often ill. (During the years she practiced law, in addition to physical ailments, she suffered from frequent bouts of severe depression. That topic will be covered in a future post.) In spite of her many maladies,  Lavinia rarely complained, and she never let her poor health stand in the way of accomplishing whatever she set out to do.

Lavinia Goodell as a teenager

Although Lavinia did not waste time worrying about herself and maintained a hectic schedule until the final months of her life, her mother and sister spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about her and trying to dissuade her from being so active.

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