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

Like all new sole practitioners, Lavinia worried about making rain. “If only I had plenty of clients,” she told her diary, “I should need nothing to complete my happiness.” She quickly got her wish.

Shortly thereafter, Smith & Co. hired her to collect on bad debts. She was glad, but nervous, about the debt collection work. If she could not negotiate a settlement, she would have to file a lawsuit in Justice Court, a sort of municipal court presided over by a justice of the peace. But she had never seen a case in Justice Court. She told her sister:

[I]t would be rather rough on me to have to “run” the first suit I ever saw! Father piloted the first time he sailed up the Potomac, but I fear I am not so smart!

Turns out she was. Then as now, networking generated clients. Lavinia was a well-known temperance leader. (Read more here). And for that very reason, a Mrs. Joseph Powers and Mrs. M.J. Manning, temperance advocates in Fort Atkinson, chose her for two important cases in Justice Court, prosecuting saloonkeepers for selling liquor on Sundays. Lavinia explained:

The district attorney for that county is a liquor man and they can’t trust him to prosecute liquor cases; and find it difficult to get any lawyer who has courage enough, but thought the lady lawyer might have! (Emphasis in original).

19th century saloon
A random 19th century saloon from Google, not one at issue in Lavinia’s cases.

For days leading up to the trials Lavinia recorded how tired and nervous she felt working up her cases. She feared speaking in court. Just days before her courtroom debut, she finally had a chance to observe Justice Court in Janesville.

Saturday August 1, 1874, found her working all day and well into the evening preparing her first legal briefs, which she said “don’t quite suit me. I wish I had more time.” The next day she went to church and Sunday School as usual, but told her diary:

I am beginning to fear and dread my coming case. Dread the speaking most of anything. Think I shall be more scared than the men I prosecute!

Monday she was off to Fort Atkinson to meet her clients, file complaints, and issue warrants. She spent the night at Mrs. Powers’ home, headed to court the next day, and waited all morning for her witnesses to arrive. Her Tuesday August 4, 1874 diary entry reports:

[The witnesses] however came early in the afternoon and we arrested our saloonkeepers, tried them and got a verdict against them. They were about the maddest Dutchmen I ever saw. It was real fun. Came home on the freight train in the evening.

Lavinia recorded nothing about being the first woman to “run” a court case in Wisconsin. Instead, the thrill of litigating (and winning) her first two trials leaps from the pages of her diary and letters. Prosecuting saloonkeepers was icing on the cake.  She told her sister:

I have had a “case” or rather two of them, which I can’t wait any longer to tell you about. What do you guess they were? You will never imagine so I will tell you. Prosecuting liquor dealers! And the fun of it is I beat in both cases, and got the fellows convicted! “How is that for high?” as the boys say.

Lavinia wrote that she knew just what to do and “wasn’t a bit frightened” and would not be afraid to run any case through court if she had enough time beforehand to prepare. She continued:

The whole thing was managed so quickly that the saloon men never dreamed there was anything afoot til they were arrested. We had the witnesses brot up and I interviewed them and found they were going to testify all right before the arrests were made. The defendants were Dutchmen, and made a great deal of sport for us. They have appealed from the verdict, so I suppose I shall have a case in Jefferson in Sept, unless they think better of it, which would be wise for them and not so nice for me.

Lavinia returned to Janesville on the evening freight train “covered with glory.” She received $20 plus “car fare” for her work. She enjoyed the experience so much she told Maria: “I’m already beginning to thirst for more liquor cases.” She told her diary:

Feel quite happy in view of my recent triumphs. The [Janesville] Gazette has a new notice of me and I fear I am getting puffed up.

Here is what the August 6, 1874 Gazette reported:

Miss Lavinia Goodell has successfully prosecuted two cases of breach of the liquor license laws at Fort Atkinson. The lady mentioned displays great skill in her profession.

            To find out what happened next in the liquor cases, subscribe to this blog. CB

Note to readers: Lemma Barkaloo (or Barkeloo) of Missouri is reported to be the first woman lawyer to try a case in the United States. Click here. We would like to know the date of Lemma’s trial, whether she tried it to a court or a jury, and whether she “ran” the case herself or handled only parts of it. If you have any information on this point, please contact us or post a comment below.

Sources Consulted: Diaries of Lavinia Goodell, July 15-August 6, 1874; Lavinia’s letter to Maria, August 6, 1874; Maria Goodell Frost, Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished manuscript); Janesville Gazette, August 6, 1874.

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