“Has Willie enlisted yet?”

Lavinia Goodell, August 12, 1862

Lavinia Goodell did not have children, but she clearly doted on her four nephews and had a special relationship with the eldest, William Goodell Frost. Named after his maternal grandfather, the family affectionately called him Willie.

Willie was born in 1854, when Lavinia was fifteen. When he was four years old, his mother wrote to Lavinia, “Willie says, “I wonder if Aunt Vinny curls her hair yet. How pretty it must look. I do want to see her.'”

William Goodell Frost

The Frosts visited Lavinia and her parents in 1860. In advance of that visit, Maria wrote to her mother, “[Willie] talks a great deal about the anticipated visit. I hope we shall all live to enjoy it. Willie will be old enough to remember all about it, as long as he lives. He says, ‘Ma I shall sleep with Vinnie, I wouldn’t sleep with any other girl.  Ma hasn’t she got a kind of a long face, and great long curls?’  I was surprised that he remembered her so well.”

Around the same time, Maria gave this report about her eldest son:

A gentleman has been here lecturing on the “Training of children.” He visited here, and heard Willie talk. He said that Willie was too mature, he did not like to see it, thought it was well he did not want to learn to read, for if he could read he would so injure his brain as to be only an ordinary man. Willie says he thinks it is right to do evil to our enemies because David prayed to God to have his enemies hurt, etc., quoting the passages, which I am unable to do. You will be greatly amused with him. 

A new cache of family letters has revealed the clearly affectionate and playful relationship between aunt and favorite nephew. Before Willie went to school, Maria would often enclose in her letters to Lavinia short notes purportedly dictated by Willie, telling his aunt about his daily life. When he was a bit older, Willie penned his own letters, sometimes marking them “private,” and during and immediately after the Civil War, frequently signing them “Lt. W.G. Frost.”

Hand drawn envelope and letter written by Willie Frost to Lavinia Goodell in 1866

 Lavinia wrote to her sister, “I suppose he is a famous man and would like to head an army to invade the Southern Confederacy.” And to her mother, “Has he enlisted yet?”

In one letter, Willie showed off his newly acquired Latin skills

Willie Frost’s April 2, 1869 letter to Lavinia

And after Lavinia had returned to New York after visiting the Frosts in Janesville, Wisconsin in the summer of 1869, Willie wrote:

Willie’s July 23, 1869 letter to Lavinia

William Goodell Frost went on to have a distinguished career.  He was an 1876 Oberlin graduate and was a professor of Greek at Oberlin from his graduation until 1892 when he became the president of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. He served in that role until 1920. It was he who donated the Goodell family papers to the Special Collections and Archives in Berea’s library. Although we have gone on to discover many more primary sources relevant to Lavinia’s life, that collection formed the core basis for our research and enabled us to develop this website.

Sources consulted: Maria Frost’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (April 13, 1858;) Maria Frost’s letters to Clarissa Goodell (March 3, 1860; March 31, 1860);  Lavinia Goodell’s letter to William and Clarissa Goodell (August 12, 1862); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (April 6, 1861); William Goodell Frost’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (January 31, 1866; May 1, 1866; April 2, 1869; July 23, 1869).

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