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.
Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson is part of a quirky family on TV, but his own family was fairly stable and he sometimes longed for drama. He finds plenty in the life of his great-grandfather.
Jesse was named for his paternal grandmother, Jessie Uppercue Ferguson, and it’s her family he wants to learn more about. He feels that when his beloved grandmother died six years ago, “history shut down” because he had no one to learn family stories from.
Jesse’s search starts with a photograph of his great-grandfather, Jesse Wheat Uppercue (whom he calls “JW”), a lawyer. A Google search brings up a shock: an 1872 newspaper article that names JW as the suspect in the murder of his aunt in Baltimore.
JW blames the murder on a burglar, but between old issues of the Baltimore Sun and court records, Jesse learns that the case included two conflicting wills—one drawn up at JW’s insistence that left everything to him—and two trials. The first ended in a hung jury. In the second, he was found not guilty.
An 1880 census search finds JW on the move and turns up another surprise: a wife and three children in Illinois that Jesse had never known about. And here, a pattern begins.
In early 1884, JW is in Fargo, Dakota Territory, charged with embezzling $1,800. Once again, he is acquitted. By May, he has moved on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he sues his wife for divorce and is arrested for embezzlement in 1886. He manages to repay the money, and the charges are dropped. But Jesse is beginning to suspect his great-grandfather is something of a con man.
By 1893, JW has gone east again and married again, to Sadie Canta in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s the second family Jesse never knew about. Soon, JW’s wanderlust strikes again, and he becomes the promoter of an ambitious expedition to the Klondike gold fields, with 90 tons of machinery and more than 60 participants. When the venture turns out to be a bust, the participants decide that all who want to pull out can do so. JW, the expedition’s organizer, is among the 24 who leave. Jesse feels let down by his great-grandfather’s failings.
Despite his troubles, nothing seems to stick to JW, and he becomes a prominent Republican speaker. Then, after a second divorce, 64-year-old JW marries 27-year-old Elizabeth Quigg, Jesse’s great-grandmother.
And here, JW finally seems to “step up.” He adopts Elizabeth’s two daughters, and even though JW and Elizabeth divorce, the 1930 census shows JW living with five daughters, including Jessie.
Despite JW’s shortcomings, Jesse feels that he redeemed himself and became an honorable man, even wondering if he may have inherited JW’s drive, creativity, and acting skills.
As Jesse reflects on his journey he feels that knowing his great-grandfather has helped him know his grandmother a little better and wishes he could share what he’s found with her.