“A dreadful time with Mother”

Lavinia Goodell, January 18, 1877

Lavinia Goodell’s mother’s mental health steadily declined during 1876. Lavinia’s cousin, Sarah Thomas, travelled to Janesville in late December to help Lavinia care for Clarissa.

Clarissa Goodell
Clarissa Goodell

Sarah had no sooner arrived than Clarissa’s condition worsened. Lavinia’s diary entries for January 1877 were a litany of depressing news: “A terrible time with mother.” “A bad time with mother again.” “Sarah reported on hard day with mother. I am in despair about her. Father nervous. Trouble all around.”

Lavinia turned to medical treatises in an effort to understand her mother’s condition and how best to treat it. “Called on Dr. Barrows and borrowed some books of him on insanity.” “Tried to read some on insanity in a medical book but didn’t get much chance, and was nearly distracted trying to keep mother in order. Wish I had more patience.”  There were some quiet days that provided Lavinia with a respite, but Clarissa’s steady decline continued. “Mother not so violent today as sometimes, but threatens to be restless tonight. Sarah’s turn down stairs. It is very hard for father and I don’t know what to do.” “Father went to bed upstairs and mother circulating around in her nightclothes and talking.”

Lavinia and Sarah continued taking turns sleeping with Clarissa, but as time went on Clarissa’s needs grew and the cousins became so exhausted that some of the Goodells’ neighbors began to take evening shifts to give them a break. Lavinia’s first mention of a neighbor spending the night came on February 10, 1877 when she wrote, “Mrs. Stafford going to stay here tonight. Is nervous and heaven only knows how she will get on.” Miss Meyers, Mrs. Durkee, and Mrs. Wells also helped out. 

When Clarissa became especially agitated, Lavinia would administer Chloral, a sedative. The medication seemed to have little effect. In a desperate effort to help her mother, Lavinia tried the blue glass health craze that was sweeping the nation in 1877.

 (Learn more about blue glass here.) On February 27, 1877, Lavinia wrote in her diary, “I got blue glass today, and tried it on mother and myself.” While Lavinia mentioned that she personally underwent a second blue glass treatment the following week, she apparently abandoned attempts to treat Clarissa with it after the first session.

By March 1877 Lavinia reported that her mother “has a mania for undressing herself lately.” A week later, “mother undressed and tore around generally.” And “Mother has been very restless this afternoon and evening and I am nearly distracted.”  In April Lavinia noted in her diary, “We are trying to read this evening but mother is ‘on the rampage’ and we are not likely to make out much.”  By April, Clarissa was having “raving spells” and “howling day and night.” Lavinia and Sarah read about insanity in Redfield on Wills. In late April Lavinia and Sarah took Clarissa on an outing but it was short lived. “Mother was very uneasy till we took her home.” Another outing in early May fared no better. “Sarah had to take mother home, she was so uneasy.”

In May 1877 Sarah took over full responsibilities for the Goodell household when Lavinia went to a temperance convention in Chicago. She returned on May 17 and the following day three Janesville physicians “tapped” her ovarian tumor, “letting out 16 ½ pounds of villainous dark stuff.” Sarah faithfully nursed Lavinia in addition to caring for her aunt and uncle.

By early June Lavinia was feeling well enough to resume helping with her mother’s care, but the situation was becoming increasingly untenable. On June 15 Lavinia wrote in her diary, “conversed as well as we could for mother’s incessant babble, which nearly drove me frantic.” June 24:  “Am melancholy about what to do with mother and everything.”  By the end of June Lavinia faced the harsh reality that her mother could no longer be safely cared for at home, and she made the decision to commit Clarissa to the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane (now Mendota Mental Health Institute) at Madison. Her July 2, 1877 diary entry read:

A fitful day, but came off clear. After dinner Sarah, mother and I took carriage. A trying time. Came to asylum, and left her there in bed, and came to hotel to stay over night. Feel tired and blue.

The remaining months of Clarissa Goodell’s life will be explored in a future post. NK

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries

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