“Mr. Norcross called with a quantity of legal writing he wanted me to do at once.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 18, 1873

Lavinia Goodell’s relationship with Janesville, Wisconsin attorney Pliny Norcross was complicated. He assisted her in her legal studies and moved her application to be admitted to the Rock County bar, but when hiring law clerks and associates for his law firm, he chose young men who lacked Lavinia’s intellect and work ethic. He declined to act as Lavinia’s co-counsel on an important case, and when serving as opposing counsel on a small suit, he attempted to win the case by taking advantage of her inexperience. But 1870s Janesville was not a large city. Lavinia crossed paths with Norcross frequently, both personally and professionally, and by all accounts they remained on reasonably good terms until she left Janesville in late 1879.

Captain Pliny Norcross

Pliny Norcross was just a year older than Lavinia and was born in Massachusetts in 1838. His father was a farmer and lumberman. The family came to Walworth County, Wisconsin in 1852. Young Pliny attended Milton Academy for two years and then entered the State University. In April 1861 he enlisted in the First Wisconsin Infantry, the first University student to respond to the call for volunteers. He served as captain of Company K of the Thirteenth Wisconsin Infantry for three years.

After the Civil War ended, Norcross began to practice law in Janesville. In the early 1870s he was a partner of both John Bennett and A.A. Jackson. By early 1873 Lavinia was studying law in earnest and made frequent trips to Norcross’s office in the Tallman block on West Milwaukee Street. When Norcross went out of town for a week in February 1873, he left Lavinia in charge and she reported having two interesting female clients and making use of her down time to study. On March 1, 1873, Lavinia’s diary entry noted that “Mr. N. explained some things which had puzzled me,” but the following month she lamented that when she called at Norcross’s office she found “the male students there finely accommodated with desk and work” while she was given only piecemeal assignments and no permanent work station.

In spite of declining to formally hire her, Norcross frequently had Lavinia copy legal documents, and by late spring of 1874 Norcross (after some prodding from Lavinia) began to inquire of Judge Harmon Conger when she would be able to take the bar examination. On June 10, Lavinia wrote to her father, who was attending a temperance convention in Chicago, “Mr. N. saw the judge today, and said he spoke more encouragingly about my admission.”

On June 18, 1874, the day after her admission to the bar, Lavinia went to see about getting an office and found, “Norcross was willing I should have a place in their rooms, but Jackson wasn’t, so I shall have to give up that little scheme.” However, Lavinia was able to rent an office on the same floor of the Tallman block. After starting her own practice, Norcross continued to give Lavinia some copying jobs. Lavinia wrote to her young nephews that Norcross’s little boys sometimes accompanied him to work and one day Johnny Norcross “gave me some peanuts and I gave him a little wooden box full of candy and showed him some pictures, which seemed to please him very much.”

In August 1874, Lavinia was hired by a Chicago firm to sue a Janesville shopkeeper who refused to pay for a sack of peanuts. The shopkeeper hired Norcross to defend him, and Lavinia quickly became exasperated at Norcross’s conduct. She told her sister, “I feel dreadfully cut up that he should be so mean as to try to take advantage of my inexperience.” Lavinia won the case and recovered $15.01 for her client.

In January 1875, Norcross declined to serve as her co-counsel on the case that led to her first attempt to be admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In 1876, Lavinia reported to her cousin Sarah that she had two suits in justice court in which Norcross was her opposing counsel and said she hoped “I will have the grace to be more civil than he was on the peanuts.” That same year, Lavinia tried unsuccessfully to unseat Norcross as Janesville city attorney, running on the Anti-license (temperance) ticket.

Outside of work, Lavinia also encountered Norcross and his wife at the Round Table literary society and at the Congregational church.

Norcross was civic minded. In addition to serving as Janesville city attorney, he was also the Rock County district attorney for a time. He was a member of the state legislature and twice served as mayor of Janesville. In the 1880s, ill health compelled him to retire from his legal practice, and he turned his energies to various commercial pursuits, including erecting the first electric light plant in Janesville and investing in a flour and feed mill and a shoe factory. He was also a part owner of the Janesville water power company.

By the early 1900s, Norcross had sold his principal interests in Janesville and spent the winters in Florida. On a visit to Janesville in July of 1915, he met an unfortunate end when, while walking along the Rock River, his hat blew off. When he tried to reach for it, he lost his balance, fell in the water, struck his head, and drowned. His body was found the next day.

July 13, 1915 Janesville Daily Gazette

An “In Memoriam” statement printed in the 1916 Wisconsin Reporter, which printed decisions issued by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, said:

A vast concourse of citizens attended his funeral. The casket was draped in the flag of the Union. Rev. David Beaton spoke of him as a man of large and varied interests through his entire life. In his youth he left his studies to be a soldier in the army of the republic. He was an efficient commanding officer. He was an industrious and useful lawyer. He held public office, both local and state, always with distinction. He was a successful manufacturer. In all these useful activities he merited and received the esteem and commendation of the people.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (October 18, 1873; August 21, 1874); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to William Goodell (June 10, 1874); Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Sarah Thomas (September 27, 1874; February 14, 1876); Janesville Gazette, July 13, 1915; In Memoriam: Pliny Norcross, 161 Wis. xxix (1916).  

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