History St Landry History

James Goodwin – Photographer, Teacher, Entertainer and More

by Carola Lillie Hartley

Photography arrived in Opelousas just a few years before the Civil War when traveling photographers came into the area from time to time. Following the war, a few of these photographers remained in the area, opening galleries and producing pictures of the Opelousas people of that century. One of those was Professor Rudolph A. Mayer, who opened his permanent photography business in Opelousas in 1872.  His complete story is told in the Opelousas Tales series book The Opelousas Music Man. Another photographer was Professor James Goodwin who opened his gallery in April of 1870 in front of David Roos’ store on Main Street in Opelousas.

Who was James Goodwin?

The son of Enoch Goodwin and Obadiah Staggs, James A. Goodwin was born on April 22, 1836, in Indiana. One of eight children, he and three of his siblings were born deaf.

When James Goodwin was twelve years old, he was sent to a special school for the deaf in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he studied for five years. In 1856 he went to a school for the deaf in Walnut Grove, Illinois for three years. He later taught at the school for the deaf in Mississippi, the school in Baton Rouge, and in other areas of Louisiana.

Goodwin married Elvira Caroline Clark (1843-1898), the daughter of Benjamin F. Clark and Francis S. Rayollio, on December 20, 1866, in Livonia, Louisiana.  The couple had three children, Benjamin F. Goodwin, born on March 2, 1869; John Henry Goodwin born on March 6, 1861; and James Arthur Goodwin, born on May 21, 1876. Both James and Elvira are listed in census reports as deaf and mute, while their children were listed as “hearing.”

Goodwin traveled around a lot in his lifetime, working as a teacher while taking photographs and presenting programs. In 1860 he was living in Hines, Mississippi, near Jackson and listed in that year’s census as a Teacherinst ( not sure what that is). In 1866, the year he was married in Livonia, he was living in Baton Rouge where he taught at the school for the deaf in that city.  In 1870 he was living in Opelousas with his wife and son Benjamin in the home of Louis Demarais. At that time, he was listed as a photographer. In 1880 he was living with his family in Pointe Coupee Parish and listed as an Artist Halograph. In the 1890s he was again in Baton Rouge, where he taught at the school for the deaf. He later lived in Monroe, where he taught at the school there.

Although James Goodwin was deaf, he could understand what people were saying, and communicated with them in his own way. He opened his gallery on Main Street in 1870, operated for a few months and left town. He returned and reopened in April of 1871 in his old stand on Main Street.

Kate Ashe c.1870-1873 - James Goodwin Photography Opelousas

James Goodwin was known as Professor Goodwin in newspaper accounts of picture shows he presented at the social halls in Opelousas and the area. The St. Landry Democrat newspaper of March 3, 1877, ran a front-page notice about one of his shows they called a “Steroptical Exhibition of over one hundred scenes.” The exhibition was held at the Varieties Hall in Opelousas on Thursday, March 8, 1877, at 7:00 pm. It included scenes from the Old and New Testaments; the celebrated paintings of Raphael, Rubens, and others; and many comical views including a dancing skeleton. Admission for the event was 25 cents for adults and older children, and 15 cents for children under 12 years.

Although he taught school and presented entertaining programs, photography was one of Goodwin’s true loves. The two photographs featured with this article were produced by James Goodwin during the early 1870s in Opelousas. The tintype pictures are of two sisters, Mary Ashe and her younger sister Kate Ashe. They were the daughters of S. Douglas (S. D.) Ashe (1816-c.1875) and Frances Catherine Hearst (F. C.) Ashe (1821-1901), natives of Alabama who moved to Mississippi where they lived during some of the 1850s decade. Mary Ashe was born in about 1848 in Alabama. Her sister Kate was born about 1855-1856 in either Alabama or Mississippi. By 1860 the Ashe family was living in Grand Coteau in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Following the death of their father sometime during the mid to late 1870s, the family returned to Alabama. In the 1880 US Census, Frances Catherine (F. C.) Ashe is listed as a widow, head of the household living in Richmond Dallas County, Alabama.

James Goodwin had his photography gallery in Opelousas off and on for a total of about 10 years. Following its closing, he continued to teach and continued to make presentations in the social halls around the Louisiana area. Even with a disability, he led a full life as a teacher, photographer, entertainer, and involved himself in several southern communities. He eventually ended up in Monroe where he taught at the school for the deaf. He died in Monroe on February 9, 1924, and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Baton Rouge, LA.

Although James Goodwin no longer lives among us, the beautiful photography he created, like these two of the Ashe sisters he took over 150 years ago, lives on. 

©2021