Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Do You Think You Are?: Cynthia Nixon

So season 5 of the U.S.  version of Who Do You Think You Are? premiered last night (I don't have cable, but I do have Apple TV, and downloaded the episode from iTunes) with actress Cynthia Nixon.

Cynthia's quest focused on her 3x-great grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, and her tragic story. 

Okay, spoiler alert-- stop reading now if you haven't seen the episode yet....


I said STOP!...

Okay, fine, keep reading. Just don't blame me for ruining it for you.

If this episode had a subtitle, it would have been "So I'm Descended From An Axe Murderer."

Cynthia finds out that, in 1843, her 3x-great-grandmother Martha had killed her husband Noah Casto with an axe (move over, Lizzie Borden) after he had told her he would kill her later that night. She had claimed that she was acting in self-defense, sure that he would make good on his promise unless she got him first.

Back then, murderers were usually executed by hanging, but Martha's charge got reduced to manslaughter. She still had to spend 5 years in prison-- the only female prisoner in the jail-- and at some point she got pregnant and had her baby in jail. Though it was winter, she and the baby were not allowed any heat, and the baby was actually naked for the first several days after birth. Can you say, "hideous cruelty"?

Cynthia came away with a feeling of awe and admiration for her ancestor, musing that if her great-great-great grandma had not embedded an axe blade into her husband's face, she might not be here. 

A couple of things that I came away with after viewing this episode:

Firstly, Civil War veteran pension records often contain a lot of information about the person in question-- both biographical and military service-related. You can order copies of said records from the National Archives-- I believe the cost is $30 per request. Cynthia found out about pension records when looking into one of Martha's relatives who had served and died in the Civil War.

Secondly, the episode made aware the fact that prisons in the 19th century were truly horrific places-- and the concepts of prison and punishment were very different from today. There were no women's prisons, because so few violent criminals back then were female (though they did exist, some every bit as diabolically evil as the worst male). Therefore Cynthia's ancestor had to be housed in the same jail as men; she was the only woman in the place during her sentence, and only the second female ever to have been incarcerated there.

There is much that I disparage about the modern world, but it can't be denied that there are a lot of things that are better today than they were in the past: the existence of laws protecting people from abuse is one of them.

Altogether, an interesting, if disturbing, episode.