“Clear and cold. Got up late.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 1, 1879

With the exception of 1878,  Lavinia Goodell made daily entries in a diary from 1873 until shortly before she died in 1880. The small leather bound volumes are part of the William Goodell family papers housed in the special collections and archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. (Lavinia’s beloved eldest nephew, William Goodell Frost, was the long time president of Berea College.)

One of Lavinia Goodell’s diaries

The diaries and vast cache of family correspondence provide a firsthand view of Lavinia’s life. The amount of primary source material written by Lavinia herself is truly astounding and allows us to know what she was doing and thinking on an almost daily basis.

1878 had been a difficult year for Lavinia. Both of her parents died, and she spent months in the east undergoing and then recovering from major surgery to remove an ovarian tumor. No diary survives from this annus horribilis, but Lavinia took up her pen again in 1879.

Although Lavinia’s diary entry for December 31, 1871 lamented, “Wish I didn’t feel so horribly blue,” it appears that she began 1879 in an optimistic mood.

 Her diary entry for New Year’s Day reports that she prepared little gift bags for her jail school students and then delivered them to the jail. She had an oyster dinner, read Christian Union newspapers, and capped off the evening at an 80th birthday party for Josiah Wright, one of the Congregational Church deacons. The following day’s Janesville Gazette reported that 50 people had attended the gathering. Lavinia’s close friend Mrs. D. A. Beale read a poem. Bountiful refreshments were served; all joined in singing a number of the old familiar songs; and charades and more music closed out the evening. Lavinia wrote that she had a “fine visit with her old friend Dea. Eldred.

1879 would be the last full year of Lavinia’s life, and it would be eventful and, sadly, replete with disappointments. In late January, she and Angie King formed Wisconsin’s first female law partnership. Although Lavinia had high expectations for the business venture, by July the partnership had dissolved, largely due to of disagreements over money. By fall, Lavinia’s cancer had returned. She was often unwell and suffered from bouts of severe depression. In November she sold most of her possessions and moved to Madison. She set up a law office on the capitol square but was only able to work for a few weeks before her ill health prevented her from continuing. In early 1880 she went to Milwaukee to seek treatment at a Turkish bath establishment. Ten weeks later she was dead.

But fortunately on that clear and cold New Year’s Day Lavinia could not foresee what lay ahead, and as a new year dawned she seemed to be in good spirits and was busy doing things she enjoyed and spending time with the people who were important to her.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; Janesville Gazette (January 2, 1879).

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