Thanksgiving in jail

 Lavinia Goodell’s Thanksgiving celebrations in the 1860s and 1870s bear at least some resemblance to today’s holiday festivities. The day often began with a religious service. Although Lavinia had a lifelong affiliation with the Congregational church,  she liked to explore other houses of worship as well.

In 1862, when while living in New York, she told her sister Maria that she and two friends had gone to a Jewish Synagogue on Thanksgiving (and reported that the service was “not so very peculiar as we had imagined”) before enjoying a feast of turkey and trimmings. (1)  The Thanksgiving menu of Lavinia’s era would be recognizable today. In 1870, while still in New York, Lavinia reported feasting on “turkey, chicken pie & all the accompaniments; three kinds of pie, pudding & apples, nuts & raisins for dessert.” (2)

By the time Lavinia moved to Janesville, Wisconsin and opened her law office, Thanksgiving days were likely to encompass a mixture of liturgical services, family celebrations, and professional duties. On Thanksgiving day in 1875, Lavinia was clearly more concerned about the fate of one of her criminal defendant clients than eating turkey. She wrote in her diary:

Went to office & jail. Talked to prisoners & had long talk with the sheriff & wife, whom I like very much. Feel discouraged about my boy. Am afraid he is going back 11-26-75. Received several letters re him. Went to jail to show them to him. (3)

According to the Janesville Gazette, the weather on Thanksgiving day 1876 was cloudy with a cold, raw wind, with snow threatened all day. Maintaining the fire in her office was a continual worry for Lavinia, and she would frequently have to walk the seven blocks from her home to her office on weekends to make sure the fire had not gone out. Her diary for November 30, 1876 reported:

Did odd jobs and went to church. A good sermon by Mr. Sawin in Court St. Church. Had dinner at 1 o’clock. No one but our folks. In afternoon went to office to fix fire and got mail. Letter from Sarah. In evening read papers. (3)

Thanksgiving of 1877 found Lavinia hearing “an excellent sermon” from Rev. J. L. Jones, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church. Kate Kane, another early Wisconsin woman lawyer who had not yet been admitted to the bar, joined the Goodells for a dinner of turkey, apples and confectionary. (3) As for the remainder of the day, Lavinia said:

It snowed. We went over to jail at 5 p.m. I had a long talk alone with Sutton and Sullivan. A real good satisfactory talk. Took them some apples, candy, etc…. Spent evening answering a letter for Father and writing Sarah. A cold, winter’s day. (3)

Lavinia’s final Thanksgiving, in 1879, was a lonely one spent in Madison, where she had moved earlier in the month. In a palpably pensive mood, she wrote to Sarah Thomas:

Wish I could get business enough here to keep house & hire you. Feel a sight lonesome than I did in Janesville but not more so than I did when I first went there. Think I shall like it after I get acquainted. I invited Sullivan here to Thanksgiving, but presume he can’t come. Well, I hope he will be happy & good. If I am not otherwise engaged shall go to the jail. Love to all. Aff. Lavinia (4)

Maria Frost did not like her sister’s habit of spending time with known criminals and feared for Lavinia’s safety. When Maria expressed her concern, Lavinia shot back a blunt retort: “Am no more afraid of those boys than I am of you.”

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Sources Consulted: (1) Lavinia Goodell letter to Maria Frost (November 22, 1862); (2) Lavinia Goodell letter to William and Clarissa Goodell (November 27, 1870); (3) Lavinia Goodell diary (November 25, 1875; November 30, 176; November 29, 1877); (4) Lavinia Goodell letter to Sarah Thomas (November 20, 1879).

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