“In the Matter of William and Sylvanus Lyon, Bankrupts.”

New York Times, April 25, 1870

We launched this website two years ago with a post titled “A case of mistaken identity,” which explained how we had discovered that a photograph that people had believed to be Lavinia Goodell was not her at all. We commented that historical research is a lot like detective work. You must follow the facts wherever they lead, and if you find errors in the historical record, you must try to correct them. This post corrects and enhances the story we previously recounted about the two years Lavinia spent teaching in Brooklyn. (Read those accounts here and here.)

We believed that Lavinia’s employer was a prosperous merchant named Lynn who lived on South 10th Street in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn. But it is not always easy to decipher nineteenth century spelling, particularly of proper names, and after reviewing a box of recently discovered Goodell family letters, we now know that Lavinia’s employer’s name was Sylvanus Lyon.

Sylvanus and his brother William had a store on Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan called Lyon Brothers. They carried a variety of merchandise, including seasonal items such as fireworks.

New York Times June 20, 1868

Lavinia’s employment with the Lyons ended abruptly in 1867 when Lyon reneged on the amount he had promised to pay her. Lavinia wrote Lyon a strongly worded letter demanding her money. The letter was so strident that Lavinia’s father warned that she should not be surprised if Lyon sued for defamation, and Lavinia’s sister said she was sad that Lavinia had sent it.

Maria Frost’s letter to Lavinia Goodell October 10, 1867

The letter prompted Lyon to settle his account with Lavinia, and although he did not pay the full amount he had bargained for, she recovered a larger sum than he had originally offered.

Knowing Lyon’s real name and the name of his business allowed us to do some additional research, and it turns out that in 1870 Lyon Brothers not only went out of business, they went bankrupt.

New York Times May 25, 1870

This leads us to wonder if perhaps the reason Sylvanus Lyon refused to pay Lavinia her full salary in 1867 was that he did not have the money. We will never know for sure, but the small detail of learning that our supposed spelling of Lyon’s name was off by one letter has allowed us to discover some interesting details about him, his business, and his finances that provide additional context to his dispute with Lavinia. The lesson to take away from this experience is that when conducting any sort of research you must always keep an open mind; don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong; and correct any factual errors you might have made.

Sources consulted: Maria Frost’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (May 1, 1866; October 10, 1867); New York Times (June 20, 1868; May 25, 1870).



I think Sylvanus Lyons was my ancestor through my father. I have a portrait of him looking very distressed. I read your article and the dates would match. I don’t know very much about him and I googled him and came up with your article.

Thanks so much for the comment. It’s a small world!

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