“Baby’s rights was the watchword.”

Maria Goodell Frost, speaking of her sister Lavinia as an infant

On May 2, 1839, Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica, New York.

 A previous post recounted her father’s letter informing his father-in-law about the birth. Lavinia’s sister, Maria, who was twelve years old at the time, reminisced about the event in her unpublished biography of Lavinia:

Thursday, the 2nd day of May 1839 was ushered into the household a being who seemed to have pre-existed, to have experience, to have formed views on various subjects of physiology, law, government, ethics, policy, language, evolution, in short all of the varied elements that simply or combined go to make up the different phases of theory and practice in human life.  She was destined at the outset to overthrow existing institutions. 

Lavinia was apparently a fussy baby, and when the family’s hired girl could not quiet the infant, Maria exclaimed, “She is calling for me” and hastened to the rescue.  This sisterly intervention did the trick. “Instantly the sound ceased, the blue eyes twinkled with a knowing scintillation that seemed to say, ‘Youhave done well to come.  Here is business for you at last.’” Lavinia was soon ruling the household. Maria wrote:

From this hour “Baby’s Rights” was the watchword, the Alpha and Omega.  Religious exercises were immediately shortened.  The Bible she would endure but it must be read without note or comment.  God’s word she tolerated but not man’s exposition of it. …Prayers should be short and directly to the point. …

She next changed the house by rising and retiring to suit her own personal convenience, ordering that no person should sleep until she did, that when she awakened all the family should arise, and make a suitable effort to ascertain and satisfy her wants.  She gave notice very soon that it was really useless to anticipate her wishes, as they rested on entirely new and original theories of physiology and hygiene.

The infant abhorred her cradle:

She assailed it at once with the most terrible denunciations, and as if lungs were insufficient, for a cause so eminent, she assailed it with her feet, and then combining all the forces of her body, she fought it as if her life depended upon its overthrow….  If placed in it asleep, she would instantly awake, and writhe and toss her diminutive body into contortions grievous to witness until her father convinced by a logic from which there was no appeal remarked meekly “Perhaps after all so much rocking isn’t good for babies.”  She had carried the point.  The cradle was remanded to the garret, where it remained for months, when wheels were substituted for rockers, and she received it with very good grace.

Maria continued:

There had been such a thing as family government but it was of the past, republican institutions were brought to a new test.

The good ancestral name Rhoda, conferred upon this singularly endowed child by her father fitted her much better than the more poetic and euphonious one of Lavinia given as an offset by her sister, and both combined described her as well probably as any appellation could, the individual who bore them.  The poetic thought of Thompson in his tender lines, “The lovely young Lavinia once had friends, And fortune smiled deceitful at her birth” is not at all suggested by her qualities.

Lavinia was evidently a force of nature from the day she arrived. Little did she know the lasting impact she would make. She would no doubt be amazed (and amused but hopefully gratified) that 184 years after her birth she is still relevant, still being discussed and discovered by new generations. Happy birthday, Lavinia! We are proud to tell your story.

Sources consulted: “Life of Lavinia Goodell,” unpublished manuscript by Maria Goodell Frost, part of William Goodell family papers, housed in the Special Collections & Archives at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

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