Journal of American Studies



Dislocations of the self: Eliza Farnham at Sing Sing Prison


JANET FLOYD a1
a1 King's College London.

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Early in 1844 Eliza Farnham (1815–64) was appointed to the post of matron at the first purpose-built women's prison, the women's section of Mount Pleasant Prison in New York, the institution popularly known as Sing Sing. Her appointment, which she won through her connection with Horace Greeley and the reforming circles of New York, brought her, at first, a burst of favourable attention and subsequently considerable notoriety. The precise reasons for this reversal are a matter of varying interpretations, but the defining impulse of Farnham's tenure at Sing Sing is not: Farnham's particular interest was in campaigning for phrenology, perhaps the most popular of the new psychologies of the period, as a means to diagnose and cure female prisoners. This psychological science was based on the premise that there was a match between character and the outer shape and protuberances of the head; character could be read by studying the head's surface. During this period, phrenology was often linked with the figure of the criminal, indeed phrenology first evolved in the work of Franz-Joseph Gall and was subsequently frequently explained through descriptions of prisoners and the inhabitants of asylums. Farnham was a pivotal figure in the argument for phrenology's efficacy in treating prisoners in New York in the mid-1840s.

(Published Online July 27 2006)



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