Eliza Farnham: Matron of Phrenology


MacLean, Maggie, and Lana. “Home.” Civil War Women. 2012.

Eliza Farnham entered Mt. Pleasant women’s prison at Sing Sing in 1848 as a prison matron, on the pretense of reforming the women’s discipline policies and furthering the movement of criminal reform that was popularized at the time. “Farnham’s particular interest was in campaigning for phrenology… as a means to diagnose and cure female prisoners.” (i) The study of phrenology, first proposed and extensively studied by Franz Joseph Gall, was particularly popular in bolstering an effort to explain behavior and treat individuals suffering from mental imbalance. Marmaduke Sampson, another starch supporter and pivotal figure in the history of psychological study, proposed that crime rates could easily be attributed to separate dominance of different areas of the brain; these areas could be dampened or enhanced through the “stimulation of weaker faculties.” (ii)

In the realm of women’s reform, Dorothea Dix further legitimized the movement through her denouncement of corporal punishment, in favor of a movement towards more humane treatment for those incarcerated individuals; Dix’s work placed Farnham in a favorable position to pledge her platform (iii). Farnham played a significant role in proposing these reforming techniques as Sing Sing, vocalizing the efficacy of treatment rather than punishment of female prisoners at a time of significant revolt and little progress.


“Prison_reform_19th_century.” ReformProject – Prison_reform_19th_century.

Farnham’s influence on Sing Sing prison, while short lived in her term from 1844 until 1849, remained in her push for phrenological studies coupled with the humane treatment of prisoners. Her phrenological sketches contributed greatly to the theories and publications of Marmaduke Sampson and various other players in the intellectual community of budding psychology.

-Elisabeth A. Boniface

Works Cited

i. Floyd, Eliza Farnham at Sing Sing. 311

ii. ibid. 313

iii. ibid. 316-17