Eliza Farnham

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Eliza Farnham
Born Eliza Woodson Burhans
(1815-11-17)November 17, 1815
Rensselaerville, New York
Died December 15, 1864(1864-12-15) (aged 49)
New York City, New York
Occupation Novelist, feminist, abolitionist, and activist for prison reform
Genre non-fiction
Notable works Woman and Her Era (1864)

Eliza Farnham (November 17, 1815 – December 15, 1864) was a 19th-century American novelist, feminist, abolitionist, and activist for prison reform.


Her maiden name was in Rensselaerville, New York. She moved to Illinois in 1835, and there married Thomas J. Farnham in 1836, but returned to New York in 1841.[1] In 1844, through the influence of Horace Greeley and other reformers, she was appointed matron of the women's ward at Sing Sing Prison. She strongly believed in the use of phrenology to treat prisoners.[2] Farnham was influential in changing the types of reading materials available to women prisoners. The purpose of her choices was not entertainment but improving behavior. Controversy over her choices and beliefs Farnham resigned in 1848.[3] She also advocated using music and kindness in the rehabilitation of female prisoners. She retained the office of matron until 1848, when she moved to Boston, and was for several months connected with the management of the Institution for the Blind.[1]

In 1849 she visited California, and remained there until 1856, when she returned to New York. For the two years following, she devoted herself to the study of medicine, and in 1859 organized a society to assist destitute women in finding homes in the west, taking charge in person of several companies of this class of emigrants. She subsequently returned to California.[1]

She died from consumption in New York City at the age of 49.[4]


  • Life in the Prairie Land, 1846 - An account of life on the Illinois prairie near Pekin between 1836 and 1840.
  • California, In-doors and Out, 1856 - A chronicle of her experiences and observations on California.
  • My Early Days, 1859 - An autobiographical novel.
  • Woman and Her Era, 1864 - "Organic, religious, esthetic, and historical" arguments for woman's inherent superiority.
  • The Ideal Attained, 1865 - The heroine molds the hero into a worthy mate.


  1. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Farnham, Thomas Jefferson". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  2. ^ Floyd, Janet (2006). "Dislocations of the self: Eliza Farnham at Sing Sing Prison". Journal of American Studies. Cambridge University Press. 40: 311–325. doi:10.1017/S0021875806001393. 
  3. ^ Vogel,Brenda. (2009) The Prison Library Primer. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  4. ^ Lewis, W. David (1974). "Farnham, Eliza Wood Burhans". In Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer. Notable american women: 1607-1950: a biographical dictionary. Harvard University Press. pp. 598–600. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bakken, G., & Farrington, B. (2003). Encyclopedia of Women in the American West, p. 124. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Link to Google Book Search excerpt
  • Levy, Joann. Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California. Santa Clara University: California Legacy Series, 2004.
  • Stern, Madeleine (1971). Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.

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