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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Reformer Eliza Farnham

In her own lifetime Eliza Farnham was nationally known as an author, and as an exceptional woman on the leading edge of several social and political movements of the nineteenth century: abolition, women’s rights, and prison reform. Exigency brought her to California in the heady days of the Gold Rush, first as a pioneer settler—and later as a committed community activist.

Born in New York’s Hudson Valley in 1815, Eliza Wood Burhans was living with a sister in Illinois when she met and married Thomas Jefferson Farnham in 1836, a lawyer and noted travel writer ten years her senior, with expansionist ambitions. They had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. In 1839 Thomas left home as the captain of a group who intended to colonize the Oregon Territory on behalf of the United States, and Eliza returned to New York, where she became involved in various reform-movement circles, while struggling to support herself and her child. In 1848 she won an appointment, through her connections with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and other reformers, as the Women’s Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison. Eliza was just twenty-eight at the time. Meanwhile, her husband had returned from his adventures, to write and publish one of his works on the American West.

During her tenure as Sing Sing’s female warden she was delivered of another son, Eddie. This child, born with a deformed spine, required constant care. And—following her husband’s example—Eliza published her first book. Entitled Life in Prairie Land, it was a nonfiction account of her years in Illinois. As one of the first female-authored accounts of American settlers on the frontier, it became very popular. However, the prison reform measures Eliza implemented were viewed as untenable by the prison’s trustees, and she was forced to resign in 1848. She still needed a job; Thomas Farnham had departed for the West Coast again, and wasn’t yet sending money home. Eliza was teaching at the New England Asylum for the Blind in Boston when she learned that her husband had died suddenly in September 1848, in San Francisco. Further, he had left her some property in Santa Cruz, and the estate needed to be settled.

The news came at a time when the stunning gold discovery was drawing hordes of would-be prospectors aboard every ship leaving east coast harbors for a trip around The Horn, so the plans Eliza made to head west included her much publicized intent to bring up to 200 “good women” to civilize the California frontier. This plan failed completely, and the voyage, when she finally set out in May 1849, was hardly a lesser fiasco, for along the way outspoken Eliza offended the ship’s captain. When the vessel reached Valparaiso and Eddie’s nursemaid ran off with a crewman, he exacted his petty revenge. Sending her offshore to get the appropriate documents for the nursemaid’s replacement, the captain abruptly departed without her—taking all her clothes except what she was wearing, and her children. A frantic Eliza waited in Chile almost two months for the next ship, at last arriving in San Francisco in February 1850. (She filed charges against the sea captain—and won.)

For most of the 1850s she lived on the 2,000 acre Santa Cruz ranch her husband had purchased. She built a house with her own hands and farmed the land (to her neighbors’ amusement, wearing bloomers for greater freedom of movement); taught elementary school, continued writing, and became a leading abolitionist, author and feminist. She published California, In-doors and Out in 1856, the first book about California written by a woman, and the second of Eliza’s five nonfiction works. She re-married, and had two more children with an abusive husband whom she later divorced. In mid-decade, Eliza embarked on a series of well-attended lectures throughout Northern California, promoting her views on Spiritualism, women’s health issues, and other social concerns.

In 1856, following the death of her disabled son, she returned to New York where she addressed the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1858. However, Mrs. Farnham angered many of her fellow feminists with her famous statement that “women didn’t need to fight for equality because they were already superior to men.” The following year she moved back to California to serve as matron of the state’s first mental hospital, the Stockton Insane Asylum, from 1859 through 1862.

In July 1863 she went to the Gettysburg battlefield, arriving a few days after the fighting ended there, to help nurse the thousands of wounded and dying Civil War soldiers who needed care, and may have contracted her illness at that time. Eliza Farnham died of consumption (tuberculosis) in New York City on December 15, 1864, aged 49. March is National Women’s History Month

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