Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Cynthia Nixon

This past Wednesday the new season of Who Do You Think You Are? began.  I had been planning on posting my predictions before the first episode, but I ran into a couple of problems.  First of all, I hadn’t even heard of four of the celebrities!  Three of them I seem to be a little too old for, and I’ve never watched Sex and the City so had no idea who Cynthia Nixon was.  The other problem is that younger celebrities tend to have less information available online on which to base educated guesses.  The only prediction I could come up with was that most of the travel would probably be in the United States, because TLC doesn’t have the budget NBC does.  I say “most” because Kelsey Grammer wasn’t born in the U.S., so I suspect his episode will take us overseas somewhere.  Other than that, I’m at a loss.  We no longer appear to have our basic formula of one Jewish and one black celebrity — everyone this year seems to be white and WASPy.  But who knows what revelations await us?

So the first episode was about Cynthia Nixon, who is best known for her work as Miranda Hobbs in Sex and the City in its different incarnations.  She is an Emmy and Tony award winner, so some good stage work must be in there also.  She tends to play strong female characters and supports various causes, with GLAAD and marriage equality being specifically mentioned.  She lives with her wife Christine Marinoni and their children in New York City.

Nixon’s parents, Ann Elizabeth Knoll and Walter E. Nixon, Jr., separated when she was 6.  She knows quite a bit about her mother’s side of the family but little about her father’s side, as she saw him rarely when she was growing up.  She knows his father’s name was Walter Elmer Nixon (Sr.?), and that the elder Walter’s father was Samuel F. Nixon.  (Maybe she'll find out she's related to Richard Nixon??)

Nixon’s first step is to visit the New York Historical Society (logical, since she lives in New York City), where she meets with professional genealogist Joseph Shumway.  (We’ve seen him before assisting Christina Applegate, Steve Buscemi, and Blair Underwood. acquired him and his services when it bought, now its in-house research team.)  Shumway starts their meeting by unrolling an already-prepared calligraphed scroll with Nixon’s ancestors listed (shades of D. Joshua Taylor again).  Nixon learns that her grandmother was Margaret J. Eaton and that Samuel Nixon was married to Mary M. (with no maiden name).  She wonders if she’ll be able to learn Mary’s maiden name and maybe her parents’ names, and Shumway assures her that this was just the initial information and that he had continued to look for more.  He then shows her Mary’s death certificate, which states she was born in Missouri:  father unknown, mother Martha Curnutt.  What?  Why didn’t they know her father’s name?

Shumway suggests they look on (one of the earliest appearances in an episode, I believe) for a marriage for Martha.  Nixon enters Martha Curnutt (why don’t they teach the celebrities that capitalization isn’t necessary?), and she finds a marriage to Noah Casto on August 15, 1839.  Shumway then has Nixon search for Martha Casto in the 1850 census (why not look for Noah in 1840 instead of jumping ahead more than 10 years?), but she doesn’t find anyone.  He then “suggests” she look for Martha Curnutt, and amazingly enough, we find Martha in Cole, Missouri.  The household includes John Curnutt, who is of an age to be appropriate as Martha’s father, and three Curnutt children (Mary, 10; Noah, 7; and Sarah, 6), who could be Martha’s.  Nixon assumes the children are Casto's and wants to know why they don’t have Casto as a last name and where Noah the husband is.  Shumway says that divorce was not common in that period but did happen, and that some records still exist that could be checked.

Something that should have been explicitly discussed while they were looking at this census is that family relationships are not stated (they don’t appear in the federal census until 1880).  The children need not have been Martha’s.  They could have been children of a brother, foundlings whom the family had taken in, or even John’s children.  It’s perfectly fine to make the hypothesis that they’re Martha’s children and that John is Martha’s father, but make it clear that it’s a working hypothesis!  Then look for records to see if the hypothesis is correct.

Then Shumway comes up with something that’s totally out of left field, at least based on my logic.  He tells Nixon that he always looks for information related to the Civil War.  But why does he bring it up now?  We’ve only looked at a marriage in 1839 and the 1850 census.  We haven’t even found the family in 1860, just prior to the beginning of the Civil War.  Ok, we know why — because the Ancestry research team found a record.  But this was an incredibly heavy-handed way to introduce the information.  I felt like I was riding in a car that had just veered off the highway.

That said, Shumway starts talking about pensions and how they can help prove family history.  My first thought was that Noah Sr. had served and maybe Martha had filed for pension benefits based on his service.  But no, Shumway talks about Noah Jr. and how Nixon might want to check to see if he had served, as he would have been 18 years old when the war began in 1861, and there probably would be a lot of detail about the family.  (In a court case, this would probably be classified as a leading question.)

Nixon asks if she should try it now.  Shumway tells her to go to Ancestry under military and look for Noah Curnutt.  She finds an image of an index card for a pension application under Martha's name, filed on July 22, 1881.  Shumway explains that the fact it’s a mother’s pension suggests Noah had been the financial support of the family and that he had died.  He tells Nixon that the pension file is available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and that should be her next stop.

In the interlude segment, Nixon says she is intrigued by what she has learned so far.  Martha using her maiden name and the children also using it make her wonder what happened to Noah Casto.

Nixon's first trip is indeed to Washington.  Nixon meets with historical researcher Vonnie Zullo in the main building of the National Archives.  (We've seen Zullo previously also; she worked with Kelly Clarkson.)  Zullo has the pension application file for Martha Curnutt, filed July 22, 1881.  Martha was 61 years old and living in Calhoun, Missouri.  She had stated she was the mother of Noah S. Curnutt, who had died while serving in the Civil War.  The file also contains the information that Noah Casto had died in 1842.  This made me immediately think again about the ages of those children in the 1850 census and how accurate they might have been.  Whether Nixon had thought of this herself we will never know, but at least on air she commented that Noah had been born about 1843 and Sarah about 1844.  While it is possible that Martha could have been pregnant with Noah the younger when Noah the elder died, the numbers just don’t add up for Sarah, who doesn’t seem to have been Noah Casto’s daughter.  Zullo tells Nixon that she can find local records about individuals at the Missouri state archives.

As she leaves the National Archives building, Nixon says how awful it must have been for Martha with her husband dying early and then her son dying.  She wonders what happened to Casto and just who Sarah is. (Wondering about Sarah's identity is a very legitimate question at this point, given what we've seen.)

Nixon now travels to the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Waiting to see her there is Donna Schuele (credited as a historian, not a professor, at the University of California at Irvine, because even though she has a Ph.D. she is a lecturer, not a regular faculty member).  She has documents ready for Nixon to view.  They are court documents for the case of the State of Missouri versus Martha Casto/Curnutt with a charge of murder in July 1843.  The court found the defendant guilty of manslaughter in the 1st degree.  The court documents, however, do not give specifics of the killing itself.

A history of Barry County, Missouri, does discuss the “Castoe” murder (remember, spelling is inconsistent until well into the 20th century).  Apparently Martha used an axe to kill her husband in 1843 while he was sleeping.  Schuele and Nixon agree that sounds like murder, not manslaughter.  Schuele offers that reducing the charge to manslaughter could have been a way of avoiding a sentence of execution, which would have been extremely rare for a woman in that period, and which a jury would probably have been reluctant to give.

The conversation turns back to Sarah for a moment.  Since it appeared that Noah Casto had actually died in 1843, not 1842, Sarah could have been his daughter, depending on the timing.  The article in the Barry County book also mentions that Martha was only the second female inmate in the state penitentiary (not a great way to make a name for yourself in history).

Nixon wonders why Martha would have killed her husband and asks if the story might have been in the newspaper.  (Duh!  If it bleeds, it leads!  The story about Noah Casto's murder was actually carried as far away as the Bridgeport, Connecticut Republican Farmer of August 1, 1843.)  Schuele tells her that newspapers and personal records might be available at the state historical society and suggests she go there next.  Before Nixon leaves, the two women return to the subject of Sarah.  If Noah Casto was murdered in 1843, did Martha give birth to Sarah while she was in the penitentiary?  Did she kill Casto while she was pregnant?

Nixon seems a little disconcerted by this round of information.  She talks about how it’s hard to reconcile the idea of killing someone close to you.  (I guess she doesn’t know that the vast majority of people are killed by someone close to them?)

Our next location is the State Historical Society of Missouri, in Columbia.  Wendy Gamber, a professor of history at Indiana University (isn't there anyone in Missouri who specializes in Missouri history?), has found an index card that mentions Martha’s name as appearing in the Jefferson Inquirer in July 1843.  She helps Nixon maneuver microfilm of the newspaper (which does not appear to be available online, or at least not on Newspaper Archive, GenealogyBank, Chronicling America,, or any link from the Wikipedia newspaper archives page).  The murder occurred on July 10, so Nixon scrolls forward from there a couple of issues (it was the weekly paper) and in the July 20 issue finds a story with a lead-in of "Horrible!" right before they cut to a commercial.  When we return to the episode, Nixon begins reading the article.  Particularly pertinent are the information that Casto was in the “habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and too shocking to think of” and a description of him as an “unnatural husband.”  Gamber says that these descriptions might be somewhat coded ways to say that Casto could have been a sexual deviant or tortured his wife, as these types of things were not openly discussed in the mid-19th century.  (On the other hand, they might not be coded; we'll probably never know.)  Whatever he was doing, Casto does not seem to have been a very nice guy.  After she had killed Casto, Martha told a neighbor what she had done and said that he had threatened to kill her, which she was certain he would have.  The article also mentions that Martha had two children.

The narrator then gave us a short piece about couverture.  Married women in the United States were essentially stripped of their rights and became extensions of their husbands.  Anything a woman owned when she married became her husband's; he had the legal right to punish his wife physically.

Nixon now wants to know if there are prison records that could tell her more about Martha and Sarah.  Gamber tells her she should visit the Missouri State Penitentiary, which closed in 2004, and that somebody there might be able to help her.

As she departs the historical society, Nixon talks about how awful it was for Martha to endure everything that happened to her and that this story did not have a happy ending.  Martha must have felt that it was better to kill Casto and that his behavior was unforgivable.  Personally, I think they indicted Casto a little too quickly based on the information they shared with the viewing audience, but as I always say, I have to hope that all the research that wasn’t “sexy” enough to make it on air justified the way they described him.

Back in Jefferson City, Nixon now goes to the Missouri State Penitentiary.  It definitely looks closed and disused.  Unlike Alcatraz, which is open as a national park for visitors, the penitentiary looks like no one goes there, but it apparently does offer regular tours.  On site to speak with Nixon is Patricia Cohen, a 19th-century women’s history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Nixon asks first what daily life would have been like for Martha as the only woman in the penitentiary and how she would have been dealt with.  Cohen tells her Martha would have been in the same cell block as the men but would have been segregated and spent most of her time alone in her cell.  She also mentions that the penitentiary was a contract prison and was run as a business.

Nixon (oh so disingenuously) asks if there is any way to learn more about Martha’s time in the penitentiary.  (Of course there is; haven't they found answers for all of her previous inquiries?  Otherwise that question wouldn’t have been scripted, now, would it?)  Gamber tells her about a book called Prison Life and Reflections:  Or, a Narrative of the Arrest, Trial, Conviction, Imprisonment, Treatment, Observations, Reflections, and Deliverance of Work, Burr, and Thompson, by George Thompson, published in 1848.  (What Gamber didn’t mention was the rest of the title:  Who Suffered an Unjust and Cruel Imprisonment in Missouri Penitentiary, for Attempting to Aid Some Slaves to Liberty, which actually makes the book sound much more interesting.  She also didn't mention the book is available for free on Google Books.  But the program did find a hard copy, which is very cool.)  Thompson mentioned Martha, though not by name, in a short passage in the book:

“M., a woman, killed her husband with an axe—was sent here for five years—staid about half of it and was pardoned by Governor Edwards.” (page 347)

Nixon also reads that Martha became the mother of a daughter born in the fall of 1844 (page 287).  Since Noah Casto died in July 1843, it was impossible for Sarah to have been his child.  The primary candidates for Sarah’s father would have been the wardens, overseer, and guards.  (This looks like a great situation to try DNA testing, but nothing was discussed about any descendants Sarah had.)  Mrs. Brown, the wife of Judge Brown, wouldn’t allow anyone to help Martha with the baby (which to me suggests she might have thought her husband was the father).  Martha was not allowed to have a fire in her cell to keep her warm; it certainly seems the idea was to make it difficult for the baby to survive.  But Martha and Sarah were very strong, and they made it.  Martha was pardoned almost two years after her arrival.  Gamber suggests that if Nixon can find the pardon, things might become clearer.  (Might?  Get real.  We all know that you guys have already found the pardon.)

In this interlude, Nixon talks about how Martha must have felt that nothing could be worse than life with her husband.  Maybe her baby daughter gave her something to fight for while she was in prison.  She wonders if Martha was raped in prison or how she became pregnant.

And back Nixon goes to the Missouri State Archives.  This time she meets with Gary R. Kremer, a historian and the executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.  Nixon is “hoping” the pardon will shed more light on what happened to Martha.  Kremer has Nixon take out a folder with a yellowed parchment.  It is a petition dated November 28, 1844, when Martha was about 32 years old.   She apparently was pardoned primarily due to this petition, which was signed by many people, including some prominent political figures (e.g., W. P. Hall, a U.S. Congressman and later Missouri governor, and Lilburn W. Boggs, a former Missouri governor).  The petition mentions her suffering, that she had a child, and the chance of her freezing in the cold winter months.  So the word had gotten out about Martha’s daughter, and there was definitely possible embarrassment for the authorities if the child died.  Governor John Edwards signed Martha’s pardon on December 17,  1844.

Kremer says that Martha's time in prison became a turning point in penal practice and was the beginning of a change for the better.  Women could no longer be incarcerated with men.  He did not give any specific references to later government actions or even articles that referenced Martha’s case as being a reason for new procedures being established, though.

Nixon then asks Kremer if he knows when Martha died.  Kremer directs her to (conveniently owned by and has her search for Martha Curnutt.  Martha is listed (are you surprised?).  She died in 1877 and is buried in Avery Cemetery.  (Martha's entry has much more information now than it did when the episode was filmed.)

Before she visits the cemetery, Nixon talks about how glad she is that someone came to Martha’s rescue.  Martha “endured so much” and went through all that “tumult” and “horror.”

The last segment is Nixon’s visit to Martha’s grave.  It is in a remote cemetery that looks to be in somewhat poor condition.  It is fenced in, and scattered tombstones are in small groups.  Nixon wonders whether any other relatives might be buried there also (of course there are).  There don’t appear to be any marked rows or plots, yet Nixon unerringly goes straight to Martha’s grave:  Martha Curnutt, no birth date, died April 4, 1877.  Buried near her are Mary M. Nixon and Samuel J. Nixon, Cynthia Nixon’s great-great-grandparents.  Nixon lays flowers at Martha’s grave.  She looks around at the “pretty, pretty setting” and tells Martha, “I’m glad I found you.”

In the outro, Nixon talks about how Martha encountered a lot of tragedy, death, and violence in her life and that she must have wanted to give up many times, but that she didn’t accept things and that sometimes people can defy the odds.  This seems a little (just a little) melodramatic to me, but Martha definitely was not the “average” woman for the time.  Nixon thinks of herself as a strong person, but I’m not sure she thinks she could have done what Martha did.  She says that Martha made history, but something good came out of it, because she started a change regarding laws about incarcerating women with men.  She also figures that her family members will think it interesting that they have an axe murderer in the family, so I guess that’s kind of putting a good spin on things.

I found it intriguing that the teaser for the next episode, which will focus on Jesse Tyler Ferguson, also mentioned a murder.  Maybe that will be a unifying them for this season’s celebrities?


  1. Hooray! WDYTYA is back - and I do so enjoy your post-episode commentary. Thank you for doing these posts. When I watch an episode, I'm always thinking in the back of my head, "hmmmm....what will Janice have to say about that?"

    1. Thank you, and I am happy to oblige! I have to admit, I am glad the new season has started also.

  2. Really only one family line? Nothing about which Nixon line? : \

    1. Most of the time WDYTYA focuses on only one family line of the celebrity. They decide what has the best or most interesting story. They already don't show all the research they do, and there's only so much they can fit in an hour.


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