Award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon has made a career of playing strong women. But she never imagined the sheer will of a female relative she’d find in her own family story.
Cynthia grew up with her mother but wanted to learn more about her father, Walter Nixon’s, lineage. She gets help building a Nixon family tree and uses the U.S. Federal Census to travel back four generations to Samuel Nixon. But his wife, Mary M., is a mystery.
Searching for Mary’s maiden name turns up her mother, Martha Curnutt, but no father’s name.
Marriage records on Ancestry.com show a Martha Curnutt marrying Noah Casto on 15 August 1839 in Missouri. But no Martha and Noah Casto appear in the 1850 census. There’s only Martha, Mary (10), Noah (7), and Sarah (6)—all under the name Curnutt. A quick count shows Noah could have served in the Civil War. And a search of military records yields pay dirt: Noah’s mother Martha applied for a pension in 1881.
Cynthia has found a trail. So she heads off to the National Archives to see the full pension file, which reveals that Noah died in the war and Martha’s husband died in 1842. But again, there is no paternal name.
The clues lead Cynthia to Jefferson City to look for Martha and her husband. And that’s where she makes an appalling discovery in records and newspaper accounts: Martha Casto had been indicted for murdering her husband in 1843 by striking him with an ax while he slept.
More awful still is an unnamed informant’s account that the victim “had been in the habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and shocking to think of.” Cynthia is devastated to learn her 3x great-grandmother endured such horrible treatment.
But Martha fared little better in prison. Convicted of manslaughter, she was the only female inmate, was abused by people she was hired out to work for, was subjected to inhumane conditions, and in the fall of 1844 gave birth to a daughter (Sarah) fathered by someone associated with the prison. It was most likely the scandal that would accompany the story of her treatment in a state facility that led to her pardon in 1845.
Despite the tumult and turmoil, Cynthia was heartened to discover that Martha’s plight had a positive impact on history: her imprisonment forced the state of Missouri to deal with the needs of female prisoners.
Cynthia ends her journey with a visit to Martha’s gravesite where she has the chance to tell her, “I’m glad I found you” and realizes that people can defy the odds even when the odds seem insurmountable.