“Do not be surprised if you are sued for defamation.”

William Goodell, September 28, 1867

By all accounts, Lavinia Goodell had planned to continue teaching indefinitely at the Brooklyn home of Mr. Lyon, a wealthy merchant, but at the end of the school year in 1867 a bitter dispute arose between her and Lyon over her promised wages. As Lavinia tells it:

I did not ask him for anything for the time that I did not teach…. All I asked was that he should pay me what he agreed to for the time I did teach. He promised – and I had his written word for it – to pay me $300 a year, if we had 12 scholars, promising verbally that if we had over 12 I should have all the extra money, over and above what came in for 12.

We had 12 all the time, and much of the time 15. We had no settlement till I came to leave. Then I brought in my bill for $224 for 3/4 of a year; and $46 for the extra scholars; whereupon he positively refused to pay me excepting at the rate of $200 a year, or $150 for 3/4 of a year, saying that was all he promised. I showed him the letter in which he promised $300, and he was the angriest man you ever saw. He was rude, and insulting, and he said he should pay me no more than he pleased, and that I could prove nothing against him as the bargain was not a legal document with a seal. I never was as surprised in my life. At the final settlement, this fall – by holding out about it, and making him think I might do something – I brought him to a compromise, and he paid me at the rate of $275 a year, no allowance for extra scholars. A lawyer, who appears to be well posted, and is secretary to the mayor said I could have received the whole by going to law; and that I was foolish not to do it. Mary Booth thought it was outrageous, and it was with her advice that I wrote him that letter. I am not sorry I did it. I think such villainy ought to be exposed for the protection of innocent and unsuspecting people – not, of course, from motives of revenge. Everybody who knows it is even more indignant than I have been over it.

Sadly, no copy of “that letter” exists, but according to correspondence that Lavinia received from her father, it seems probable that Lavinia threatened to publicly expose the fact that Mr. Lyon had reneged on the bargained-for salary. William Goodell expressed concern about his daughter’s handling of the situation:

I am glad you have come to a settlement with Mr. Lyon but I am sorry that he should have treated you so meanly. You are in a fair way, I think, to become orthodox on the subject of human depravity…. I have a life long experience of this character. But I never threatened them with exposure, and I am not fond to do so…. Do not be surprised if [Lyon] sues for defamation.

Lavinia’s acrimonious parting with the Lyons may have been a blessing in disguise since it led to her editorial job with the fledgling publication Harper’s Bazar, a position which she greatly enjoyed and for which she was well suited.

Mr. Lyon did not sue Lavinia for defamation. Perhaps Lavinia’s willingness to confront him face to face and her strongly worded letter made the wealthy merchant realize that he was not dealing with a helpless damsel after all. It seems unlikely that many twenty-eight year old single women would have had the courage to stand up for themselves in the way Lavinia did. Even her father, with his lifetime of business experience, admitted that he had never done anything so bold. But Lavinia was never one to back down from fighting for what she felt was rightfully hers, whether it was her salary or her right to practice law. And she was not dissuaded by the fact that her adversary might outrank her in class, wealth, or position.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (October 20, 1867); William Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (September 28, 1867).

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