March 18, 1844 | Eliza Farnham, head matron at Sing Sing

 Mount Pleasant Prison, better known as Sing Sing

“The rules of the prison…were readily and cheerfully obeyed—the look of rage and passion gave place to the smile of cheerfulness and hope.”

-New-York Daily Tribune, 27 July 1844

When Eliza Farnham was first appointed as head matron at the Mount Pleasant Prison, better known as Sing Sing, she got rave reviews in the press. As soon as she walked through the doors, on March 18, 1844, she began making reforms to the women’s section of the prison. Farnham encouraged prisoners to read, and she often read aloud to them from religious texts and popular fiction. She invited in lecturers—including women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller—to speak on many topics. She put up curtains on the windows and gave candy and flowers to inmates on the 4th of July. Eventually Farnham abolished the rule of silence—a convention of the time that enforced complete quiet for better contemplation of one’s sins. In effect, she created a domestic space within the confines of the prison.

While riots had troubled earlier matrons, they were not a problem under Farnham’s watch. However, she did not entirely avoid difficulty from inmates or scrutiny from the higher-ups. During Farnham’s time as matron, three prisoners escaped. Additionally, her domestic reforms were not well received by the state prison inspectors. In the end, inspectors most vehemently objected to Farnham’s keen interest in phrenology. This pseudoscience hypothesized that the physical characteristics of the head could be used to gauge an individual’s moral attributes. A ridiculous concept now, but at the time it was a cutting-edge subject for prison reformers. 

Farnham only stayed at Sing Sing for four years. Few of her reforms lasted beyond her tenure. While her legacy is uneven, she was an important early practitioner in the prison matron movement and a pioneer for the idea that women could play an important and equal role in the corrections profession.