“Don’t you wish you were an editor?”

“Don’t you wish you were an editor?”

Lavinia Goodell, June 1862

From 1859 until 1865, Lavinia  Goodell’s father was the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, and Lavinia worked alongside him in the paper’s offices in lower Manhattan. She started out writing short pieces, then graduated to longer stories, and eventually served as a co-editor. None of her pieces bear her full name. Many are signed with her initials and some with pseudonyms. We have been able to identify approximately fifty of Lavinia’s Principia pieces, and there are no doubt more – perhaps many more – since a letter written by Lavinia’s sister Maria recently came to light in which Maria said, “I don’t feel at all ashamed to have your articles attributed to me.” Lavinia sometimes wrote articles from a male point of view and relished the anonymity. She told her sister, “But then people generally won’t know it’s me, you know, and I think it is a fruitful theme. Young ladies are lectured to quite enough, and it is time the ‘opposition’ got a little.”

In a lengthy piece titled “A Day in the Life of an Editor” that appeared in the June 5, 1862 Principia, Lavinia adopted the persona of  a male editor. Introducing her protagonist as “William Henry Hartley, a man of thirty-five years, and tolerably good looks,” she took her readers along on a frenzied, roller coaster ride of a day at the helm of a busy newsroom. (Read the full story here).

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“The news of the great battle is very sad.”

“The news of the great battle is very sad.”

Clarissa Goodell, July 22, 1861

Lavinia Goodell and her family lived through the Civil War, and their correspondence gives us a bird’s eye view of those turbulent times.

The first major land battle of the war occurred on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia. It is now commonly referred to as the Battle of Bull’s Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the Confederates rallied and were able to break the Union right flank. The Confederate victory gave the South a surge of confidence and made the Northerners realize that the war would not be easily won.

New York Times, July 22, 1861

Lavinia’s father published and/or edited numerous newspapers throughout his life, and the Goodells were avid followers of the news and read multiple papers. After reading the first accounts of the battle, Lavinia’s mother wrote:

The news that came today of the great battle is very sad and I don’t feel like doing or saying anything. O, the poor mothers and sisters that are now in suspense as to the fate of their dear ones.

Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, July 22, 1861
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“Hattie grows lovelier every day.”

“Hattie grows lovelier every day.”

Maria Frost, December 1, 1862.

The child mortality rate was high in the mid-1800s, with 34% of children born in 1860 not living to see their fifth birthday. The Goodell family was not spared.  Lavinia Goodell’s sister and brother-in-law lost two young children.

Maria and Lewis Frost already had one son when, on January 20, 1858, Lewis Frost wrote to his in-laws reporting that Maria had just given birth to a fine, healthy eight pound boy in Arcade, New York, which is near Buffalo. Lewis said, “I am very glad the child is a boy though I did not expect it. The name is not ready yet. If he lives a few weeks, we shall try to find a name.” Sadly, the infant remained unnamed. On February 19, 1858, Lewis wrote, “Our baby is just leaving us. We all feel sure that it cannot survive the day out…. The babe we shall take to Riga for burial…. Maria says she is not sorry she had the child. Neither am I.”

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“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.”

“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 30, 1863

When warm sunny days arrive, people enjoy visiting their local parks. Lavinia Goodell was no different. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lavinia, who was living in Brooklyn, visited New York’s Central Park for the first time with her parents and was thoroughly enchanted with it.

She wrote to her sister, Maria:

I have been up to the Central Park twice since I wrote you. Last week, Wednesday, Father and mother and I went – just us three. We started in the morning, carried a lunch, and staid all day.

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“I have seen Niagara!”

“I have seen Niagara!”

Lavinia Goodell, September 20, 1861

Although people tend to think of Lavinia Goodell as a very serious woman who devoted her life to working to advance causes such as women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform, she also had a much lighter side that is not well known. Lavinia had a delightful sense of humor, and she also had a sense of adventure. She loved to experience new things. She read the popular books of the time. She kept up on current fashion trends. And she enjoyed travelling and seeing new places. She particularly relished seeing the country’s natural wonders. In the autumn of 1861 she had the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s most spectacular attractions: Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, c. 1860. (Stock photo. Does not depict Lavinia)
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“From a Land of Slavery to One of Freedom”

“From a Land of Slavery to One of Freedom”

Lavinia Goodell grew up in a household imbued with the notion of equal rights for all, and throughout her life she was at ease with people who were different from herself. One of her classmates at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary in the 1850s was a girl from the south.

Here is how the schoolmate recalled Lavinia:

Soon I learned that Miss Goodell was considered the orator of the class, and one of the best scholars in the school. I was told that she was a great abolitionist and as I was from the south and the daughter of a slave holder, I did not expect her friendship. To my surprise, she took me at once under her wing, and was one of my best friends.

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“What a good father we have!”

“What a good father we have!”

–Lavinia Goodell, March 10, 1864

Lavinia Goodell and her father, William, shared a close relationship founded on mutual respect. William was 47 years old when Lavinia was born in 1839. His wife was 42. (Read about Lavinia’s birth here.) Their only other living child, Maria, was 12 and soon went off to school and then married, so for much of her youth Lavinia was the only child in the home.

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“Do not be alarmed when you hear of the great riots. Your trio are safe, and we trust the worst is over.”

“Do not be alarmed when you hear of the great riots. Your trio are safe, and we trust the worst is over.”

Lavina Goodell, July 17, 1863

At a time when many cities have seen protests, with some erupting into violence and clashes with police, the chaotic scenes displayed in our modern media might look somewhat familiar to Lavinia Goodell, since in the summer of 1863 she and her parents experienced New York City’s deadly draft riots firsthand.

By early 1863, as the Civil War dragged on, Union forces faced a serious manpower shortage, so President Lincoln’s government passed a strict new conscription law making all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 subject to military service. All eligible men were entered into a lottery. Men could buy their way out of service by either hiring a substitute or paying $300 to the government, but since that was a year’s salary it was an option available only to the wealthy. Because African Americans were not considered citizens, they were exempt from the draft. Anti-war newspapers published inflammatory attacks on the new draft law, aimed at inciting the white working class.

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