“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 19, 1878

In early July 1877, Lavinia Goodell committed her mother to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. The institution, now known as Mendota Mental Health Institute, is located on Lake Mendota, on the north side of Madison.

Lavinia’s July 3, 1877 diary entry read, “Went up to asylum and after various tribulations took leave of mother and started homeward.”

An 1880 reference book described the institution as follows:

The officials aim to render pleasant home life predominant; as little force or restraint is used as is possible and still maintain the discipline of the institution. There are 566 patients; many of the insane voluntarily partake in the varied labors of the farm and hospital; in suitable weather, during the summer, patients are expected to spend 6 to 8 hours daily out of doors, and in winter, all who are able, to walk one and a half miles each day.

Lavinia visited her mother in mid-August, after Clarissa had been at the asylum for about six weeks. She was relieved with what she saw and wrote to her sister Maria:

I found [Mother] doing well, and better off, I think, than at home. She is more cheerful and sleeps better. They say she is less trouble than was anticipated. Sleeps well nights, and takes a nap every day. Her attendant takes her out in the garden every pleasant afternoon. She seemed cheerful and contented. She talks a good deal about her family and friends, but seems to think they are all right there. She knew me but did not seem surprised to see me. Her attendant is a very pleasant young lady, and I think takes good care of her, and they seem fond of each other. It is a beautiful place and fine air and scenery, and everything very neat. The Dr. sees her every day. On the whole, I think she is probably better off there than at home. But it will be expensive to keep her there. After the first three months we shall have to pay $18.00 per month. We pay $12.00 now.

In late August Lavinia filed a petition in Rock County court asking that she and her father be appointed Clarissa’s guardians. Dr. D.F. Boughton, the superintendent of the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane, furnished an affidavit attesting that Clarissa was not competent to take care of her own affairs. Judge Amos Pritchard signed a guardianship order on September 14, 1877. He also appointed W.H. Tallman, A.A. Jackson, and John H. Wingate, three Janesville businessmen, to appraise Clarissa’s estate. The appraisers filed a detailed inventory showing assets of over $6,000. (The inventory was so meticulous that it listed every piece of crockery in the Goodell household.)

A page from the inventory of Clarissa Goodell’s estate

Lavinia visited Clarissa a few more times. When Clarissa died on April 21, 1878, two months after her husband’s death, Lavinia was in the east, about to undergo a very risky operation to remove a cancerous ovarian tumor. Her condition was so dire that she was not told of her mother’s death until after the surgery. According to the obituary that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal Clarissa had suffered a stroke a short time before her death. Maria hastened to her mother’s death bed and was present during the last few days.

While still convalescing in the east, Lavinia wrote to Maria:

I am glad you have seen how well she was situated & how excellent a person her attendant was. Had I not been satisfied that she was better off than we could make her at home we should not have kept her there. As it proved my only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; History of Dane County, Wisconsin (Western Historical Company, 1880); Letters from Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost (August 18, 1877; June 19, 1878); Guardianship of Clarissa Goodell (Rock County Circuit Court); Wisconsin State Journal (April 23, 1878).

1 comment

Andrea Cornwall

Thank you for posting this fascinating material about the life of such an interesting female trailblazer of our state.

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