Emma Frances Dawson

Emma Frances Dawson (c. 1839 – February 6th, 1926) was an American writer.

Dawson was born in Bangor, Maine, and very little is known about her life. Her parents divorced in 1861, and she grew up in Massachusetts. Around 1873, Dawson moved with her invalid mother to Sacramento, and then to San Francisco, where she worked as a music teacher, translator from French and German, and short-story writer.

In 1883, Dawson won a national poetry contest for her poem “Old Glory”. Her stories were published by local periodicals, such as Overland Monthly, The Argonaut, The Californian, and The Wasp, and she enjoyed local celebrity and critical praise, but struggled to make ends meet and live by her pen. In 1896, she published her first book, the short-story collection An Itinerant House, and Other Stories (1897).

Ambrose Bierce is reputed to have been her literary mentor. In the preface to Dawson’s novella A Gracious Visitation (1897), Bierce wrote: “In nearly all of Miss Dawson s work that I have seen is an elusive something defying analysis, even description, something that is not in the words. I do not know how she gets it where it is; I never could either surprise her secret by swift strokes of attention, come upon it by patient still-hunting, nor in any way get at the trick of it. I can name it only in metaphor as a light behind the words; a light like that of Poe’s “red litten eves”; a light such as falls at sunset up on desolate marshes, tingeing the plumage of the tall heron and prophesying the joyless laugh of the loon.

Following her mother’s death and the 1906 earthquake and fire, Dawson moved from San Francisco to Palo Alto, where she is said to have lived a reclusive life, alone with two parrots. She had a stroke and laid unconscious on the floor of her bungalow, and, after two or three days, she was finally found by neighbours. She was taken to the hospital and died a week later, on February 6th, 1926, at eighty-six years old.

In an obituary published in the California Historical Society Quarterly, in March 1926, Helen Throop Purdy wrote: “She possessed an imagination and a style that were rare, her tales often rivalling Poe’s in eeriness.”


  • An Itinerant House and Other Stories (1897)
    • Reissued as An Itinerant House, and Other Ghost Stories, ed. John Pinkney and Robert Eldridge (2007)
    • An Itinerant House (1878, short story)
  • A Gracious Visitation (1897, novella)
  • Ballade of Liberty: And Other Patriotic Verses (1917)
  • The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Emma Frances Dawson (2009)


About her

  • “Emma Frances Dawson”, by Helen Throop Purdy, in California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar., 1926), p. 87.
  • Making California American: poetry and culture, by Muriel Rosen Blatt (1977, PhD dissertation)
  • “Introduction”, by Robert Eldridge, in An Itinerant House and Other Ghosts Stories, edited by John Pinkney and Robert Eldridge (2007)
  • Scare tactics: supernatural fiction by American women, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (2008)
  • Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927, by Nina Baym (2011)

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