The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

The real Lavinia Goodell now welcomes Rock County Courthouse visitors

When we launched this website in 2019, we shared a post called “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how, back in 1959, an image of an unknown woman was erroneously sent to a New York author who had requested a photo of Lavinia Goodell. For sixty years, the unknown woman’s face graced books and articles about Lavinia Goodell and was also displayed on a large mural on the outside of the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville, Wisconsin and on a plaque inside. The error was called to our attention by Sarah Stamps and Beverly Wright, descendants of Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost. The mural was updated with Lavinia’s real likeness some time ago, and as of December 14, 2021, the plaque has also been refurbished and rededicated and is now displayed inside the lobby of the courthouse so everyone entering will be able to see it and learn a bit about one of Janesville’s remarkable residents.

Plaque honoring Lavinia Goodell in the lobby of the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville, Wisconsin
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A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

Historical research is a lot like detective work. You follow the facts wherever they might lead. Sometimes they lead down dark alleys; many times they lead to dead ends. But once in a while they lead to a never before seen vista that is so breathtaking that you have to pinch yourself. Case in point: the moment you discover that the widely disseminated photo of Lavinia Goodell isn’t her at all. How could that be possible? Here’s how:

The faux Lavinia and the real Lavinia
The Faux Lavinia (left) and the Real Lavinia (right).

When Lavinia died in 1880, she left her personal belongings to her sister, Maria Frost. On Maria’s death in 1899, her son, William Goodell Frost, whom Lavinia affectionately called Willie, was the president of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Willie placed the Goodell family papers, which included Lavinia’s diaries and correspondence, in the Berea College library. The papers apparently did not include a photograph of Lavinia, although her letters recount that she had her picture taken on several occasions. Lavinia may well never have had a public face were it not for the fact that in 1959 two writers were simultaneously doing research for dueling biographies, neither of which was ever published.

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