“Mother gets worse and worse”

Lavinia Goodell, November 4, 1876

Lavinia Goodell was away from Janesville for much of the summer of 1876. She left on June 3 and didn’t return until August 4. She was a delegate and speaker at the International Temperance Conference in Philadelphia and she and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, attended the Centennial International Exhibition in that city. Lavinia’s certificate of admission to the Rock County bar and her briefs arguing for her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court were on display. (Learn more about Lavinia’s experiences here.) It was also during this summer that Lavinia learned she was seriously ill.

By late September 1876, in addition to coping with her law practice and her own illness Lavinia was faced with the harsh reality that her mother’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. (Read more about Clarissa Goodell here.)

Photp of Clarissa Goodell, mother of Lavinia Goodell, wisconsin's 1st woman lawyer.
Clarissa Goodell

Clarissa Goodell was seventy-nine years old. Her husband was eight-four. Although William Goodell’s mind was as sharp as ever, he was physically frail and in no condition to deal with his wife’s decline so Clarissa’s care fell to Lavinia.

In what may have been an early indication that something was amiss with her mother, Lavinia’s September 13, 1876 diary entry noted that she had “read up on insanity in medical jurisprudence.” In late September, Lavinia wrote, “Mother fails terribly.” By late October, “Mother needs great care,” and in early November, “Mother gets worse and worse. It is horrible.”  In a November 16, 1876 letter to Sarah Thomas, Lavinia reported:

Mother don’t get any better, but rather worse. She wears upon father so I don’t know what to do. If Maria lived here I would try separating them & see how that would do. Sometimes I think I ought to give up my office, and stay at home… but I hate to give up and have people think I “fizzled out” & all because I am a woman.

Physicians had told Lavinia that she needed cancer surgery but because of her parents’ needs she was determined to put it off as long as she could. She told Sarah:

According to present appearances I need not go away till spring, and I think it better to defer as things are. It don’t seem as if mother could live very long in this way. I cannot tell how it will be with father, but in view of the possibility that I might not recover I feel I ought to be with them while I can.

As Clarissa’s illness progressed, she became agitated and volatile. Nights were especially difficult. Lavinia frequently slept with her mother in an effort to keep her calm, which meant she was rarely able to get a good night’s sleep. By the end of the year the situation had become so dire that Sarah Thomas came from Connecticut and moved in with the Goodells. Sarah stayed in Janesville until the following autumn.

Photo of Sarah Thomas, Lavinia Goodell's cousin
Sarah Thomas

 Lavinia’s December 30, 1876 diary entry read, “Sarah came and we were very glad to see her.” Sarah immediately pitched in to help her cousin. The women alternated spending nights with Lavinia’s mother. Clarissa’s bedroom was downstairs, and the person on nighttime duty slept on a cot bed in that room while the other slept upstairs in Lavinia’s bedroom.

Lavinia kept her sister, Maria Frost, who was living in Michigan, apprised of their mother’s condition. Maria had spent two weeks in Janesville in April of 1876 and had enjoyed her mother’s company during the visit. In an undated letter to Lavinia that was probably written in late 1876, Maria said:

Sudden as it seems it has I think after all been more gradual than we realize. The loss of memory I have noticed for years. When she lived with me [c. 1870] I ceased to contradict the misstatements of facts believing it to be from loss of memory…. From your account it appears to me like derangement more than loss of mind, such confusion of times and places. I feel that it is an admonition that she is leaving us, and will prepare Father’s mind for such an event, as I feared he could not support it if she should be taken first.

In addition to helping care for Clarissa, Sarah sometimes accompanied Lavinia to her law office, and the women would read to each other and converse in the evenings. In spite of Sarah’s assistance, Clarissa’s condition continued to worsen. Future posts will explore how Lavinia grappled with the situation. NK  

Sources consulted: Lavinia  Goodell’s diaries; Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Sarah Thomas (November 16, 1876); undated letter from Maria Frost to Lavinia Goodell.


My aunt and grandmother, both descendants of Clarissa suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Both healthy and active women who declined in their late 70s.

Beverly Wright

My mother, Clarissa’s scion, also suffered from dementia. Fortunately, she was always pleasant and cheerful. She did however get lost several times. Very scary for me. Her physical health was great, but memory lapses or feeling she was more capable than she was gave trouble. She was a sweet lady, formerly a smart M.D.

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