Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Who Do You Think You Are

Last week, I discussed at length my disbelief about how the celebrity-of-the-day’s often extremely emotional response to the hardships of distant relatives the celebrity had never known about until a day or two before.  I am glad to see that today’s celebrity, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, has also expressed a similar sentiment.  Ferguson, like Cynthia Nixon, had an alleged murderer ancestor, and like Nixon, his reaction was visceral.  Nevertheless, Ferguson said that had it not been such a recent ancestor, the father of his beloved grandmother, he may not have experienced such strong feelings.

The series began at Ferguson’s home with a domestic scene of Ferguson and his husband Justin, who both advocates for marriage equality, and almost as much so for bow ties.  Ferguson gave a little background about his parents Anne Doyle and Bob Ferguson, and about his happy and stable childhood.  He said he was fortunate to know his maternal grandparents and was especially close to his paternal grandmother Jessie Uppercu Ferguson, whom he was named after.  It was because of his closeness to Jessie that he wanted to explore her side of the family.  Ferguson flew off to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico to discuss the search with his father.

After looking through photos (Ferguson is correct, he was a cute kid), he finds a very classy photo of a young Jessie and another photo of her father Jesse Wheat Uppercu (whom from hereon in will be JW).  JW, who was from Maryland, bears a very strong resemblance to Bob Ferguson.  In the photo, he is a very dapper gentleman.  The back of a photo had a message to his wife Elizabeth (née Quigg).

Starting not on Ancestry, but on Google, they searched for JW, who appeared as Jesse “Uppercue”.  And here I am going to register my first quibble.  Clearly starting on Google was not their idea–a search had already been done for Jesse Uppercue on that computer.  To which I say, if you want the suspension of disbelief, at least have the decency to create a good verisimilitude.

On Google, the Fergusons find that JW, who was 22, a law student, and an “unexceptional individual,” was arrested and tried for the murder of his aunt Amelia Wheat, with whom he lived.*  The newspaper article related that JW’s alibi was a crazy story about a robber.  From my limited perspective it seemed rather shady, but I guess he was more convincing on the stand and from his (many) character witnesses because, as we learn at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, he was acquitted.

The story, which Ferguson referred to as “the situation,” was that on July 26th, 1872, Amelia Wheat executed two wills, both written by the same attorney.  The first of those wills, made some charitable donations, but the bulk of the estate was left to nephew JW.  That estate totaled $22,000, or about $400,000 in today’s money.  JW was unhappy with the allotment, so, as the attorney was still there, a second will was drawn up to supersede the first.  The entirety of the estate was then left to JW.  A month later, Amelia was killed.

The first trial, from the September 1872 term, resulted in a hung jury.  The prosecution, believing they could win, retried the case in the January 1873 term, and this time JW was acquitted.  The record did not show whether he actually inherited.

Ferguson next found JW in the 1880 Census, the first census taken after the trials (Ancestry plug 19 minutes in).  To Ferguson’s shock, JW was married to an L.I. (Laura) Uppercu–who was not Ferguson’s great-grandmother.  Not only was he married, he had three children, the eldest of whom must have been born shortly after the trial.  JW and his family also lived in Evanston, Illinois, Ferguson’s next stop.

In Evanston, Ferguson received a timeline of JW’s life through 1897.  After Evanston, JW went to Fargo, then in the Dakota Territory, where, he was put on trial for embezzling $1800 (today’s value $50,000-$60,000) from First National Bank.  JW said he dropped the money and lost it, and apparently was again acquitted.  In 1886, he moved to St. Louis, where he divorced Laura because she complained too much about how horrible St. Louis was (make your own jokes here).  Later that year, he was again charged with embezzlement by the firm where he worked.  This time it was for $200, and he paid it back, so the charges were dropped.

In 1893, he was in Hoboken, New Jersey, and married his second wife Sadie Canta.  In 1897, he was a lawyer in Philadelphia.  Ferguson said he though JW was a bit of a con man; I think that is being polite.  He is every bit the stereotypical, vile, bloodsucker who profanes my profession (a reputation unfortunately often deserved).

After 1897, the timeline ended.  From a newspaper article Ferguson found out JW went to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush, the other Gold Rush in American history.  (I think Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestor and Helen Hunt’s went to California for the earlier one.)  And thus, Ferguson went out to Wrangell, Alaska in the southeast part of the state.

Before Ferguson left, the historian in Evanston promised to do more research on the rest of JW’s life and send it to him in Alaska, and again, this is where the suspension of disbelief is really tested.  Months and months of research is done on the celebrity’s ancestry before the show films.  The deliberate misdirection that (1) they haven’t already done the research; and (2) that they can do all that research in about 3 days is just aggravating.

Ferguson thinks Alaska is beautiful, which having been there, I heartily concur.  He also cops to being “more of an indoor kid” which I also agree with.  Ferguson says he is allergic to clean air, and that line just made me laugh.  I think I may have said the same thing.

From the record, it turned out that JW put the Klondike expedition together.  He was the fundraiser and financial manager, and you could just see the color drain from Ferguson’s face when he heard that, although he said it was inspiring that his 48-year-old great-grandfather would put together an expedition like that.  As it happened, the secretary of the expedition sent reports back to his hometown paper, which were compiled in a book.  JW’s expedition was very large for the time, apparently almost uniquely so–60 men, 40 horses, and 90 tons of gold digging machinery.  The expedition began at Fort Wrangell and was to end in Dawson, which appeared to be in Canada, although the geography went by very quickly, and it was hard to follow especially while taking notes.

The expedition turned out to be a disaster, so much so that any members who desired to leave could do so and keep their interest in the expedition so long as they left their food and supplies.  24 men took that option, one of whom being JW.  His decision to leave was reported rather scathingly by the secretary, who basically called JW out as a terrible leader.  (The expedition was a complete bust for everyone involved.)  Ferguson tried to rationalize his own disappointment away, and the historian with him said that he should feel proud of his murdering, embezzling, family abandoning, expedition fleeing ancestor for getting as far as he did.  You convinced?  Me neither.  I hate, hate, hate when WDYTYA does something like that.  Learning how to live with the disappointments we find is all part of the genealogical experience.  Stop trying to sugarcoat it.

Back at the hotel, Ferguson got his package from the historian in Evanston.  In 1900, JW lived in Brooklyn with Sadie and their daughter Muriel.  He divorced Sadie seven years later.  Beginning in 1900, JW became a speaker for the Republican party for New York City municipal politics.  He also appeared to be a supporter of Teddy Roosevelt, which I guess made him a progressive, although that is never delved into.  In 1914 (aged 64) he married Elizabeth Quigg (a 24-year-old widow) and adopted her two children Grace and Dorothy.  He divorced Elizabeth in 1925.  In 1930, he was living in Rockland County with Grace, Dorothy, and his two new daughters Jessie (Ferguson’s grandmother) and Elizabeth.

This episode ends on a sadder note than most.  Ferguson tried to move past JW’s shady past and was grateful that he raised such a good person in his daughter Jessie.  Ferguson wished he could have shared his discoveries with her.  This is one of the most tragic parts of genealogy–when our loved ones are no longer around, and we can neither ask them questions nor share with them our discoveries.

Next week: Rachel McAdams and her sister Kayleen.

 

Footnotes:

* This past week, I heard an interview with Dan Bucatinsky, the writer/actor/best buddy of Lisa Kudrow/Executive Produce of Who Do You Think You Are.  It’s a fascinating interview from Lisa Louise Cooke who created and runs the Genealogy Gems podcast.  What struck me most from the interview was that Bucatinsky said that if he could do anything with the show, he would not limit it to 42 minutes but take as much time as it needs.  I wish that too because there are so many unanswered questions.  For example, why would JW live with his aunt, and did that help to create the person he would become?  I also think that more time would reveal to an even larger extent the person that JW truly was, including what happened to the children of his first two marriages, something that was completely dropped in the show.

 

Cynthia Nixon , Who Do You Think You Are?

Bear with me for a minute.  My brother is a fan of American Ninja Warrior, an imported Japanese game show in which extremely fit people sate their masochistic impulses by attempting (and failing) to conquer a ridiculously difficult obstacle course.  My brother complained that he preferred the Japanese version because the American version spends too much time on story and pathos of the competitors.  This is an opinion I share, but I have voiced similar complaints about the Olympics.  The focus on back story seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, and I often wonder who determines it, the audiences or the networks.  Do they show us the human interest story because we want it, or are we subjected to it because they determine that is what we want to see?

I often feel this way about Who Do You Think You Are.  In order to ensure pathos, authenticity is often needlessly sacrificed.  At its best, WDYTYA follows where the evidence leads.  Take, for example, the episodes in which Christina Applegate and Rita Wilson researched their grandmother and father respectively.  They had no preset agenda other than to learn.  Those are examples of how finely crafted WDYTYA can be.  Each climaxed in terrifically, aching moving resolutions without rewriting the historical record.

The flip side of this is that more often than not, WDYTYA does not let the evidence lead, but rather makes it subservient to a prefabricated story.   Celebrity of the Week knows nothing about his or her family but hopes to find something in particular–usually someone who shares a trait that Celebrity sees in him/herself.  Celebrity is then led to a particular ancestor and does his/her damnedest to find that trait in said ancestor.   Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not.  At its worst, WDYTYA becomes a show about personal vindication of the present rather than an exploration of history.

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Cynthia Nixon is now the third of the four Sex and City stars to have appeared on the show.  Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode and especially Kim Cattrall’s, it was a worthwhile watch (your story better be good, Kristin Davis).  Also like her costars, Nixon learns about an ancestor with a less than stellar reputation.  Whereas Parker’s ancestress was an accused witch in colonial Massachusetts and Cattrall’s maternal grandfather was a bigamist reprobate, Nixon’s 3rd great-grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, was a convicted killer.

(Side note: Cynthia Nixon is a fantastic actress, and I admire her desire to be outspoken on issues like marriage equality.  I think Nixon may even be the first LGBT celebrity whose activism and same-sex spouse have actually been mentioned on the show.  Who knew that the “gay agenda” spread to genealogy?)

Nixon’s parents (both deceased) divorced when she was young, and as she was much closer to her mother, she chose to research her father’s family.  This is one of those moments where I wondered if “chose” is WDYTYA code for “the producers could not find an interesting story in her mother’s family.”

Even from the beginning, this episode showed signs of the producers’ heavy hand.  The family tree she received at the New York Historical Society has a big question mark next for the maiden name of Nixon’s 2nd great-grandmother Mary M. Nixon.  It’s like a flashing neon sign that screams, “This is where we are headed.”  As it turned out, Joseph Shumway, the genealogist who presented Nixon her family tree, also got Mary Nixon’s death certificate where we discover her birthplace (Missouri), and mother’s maiden name–Martha Curnutt.  Notably, Mary’s father’s name, and, thus presumably her own maiden name, was unknown.  Using a certain genealogical website that sponsors the show (first plug 5 minutes in), Nixon discovered that Martha Curnutt married Noah Casto in Missouri.

(Speaking of that certain genealogy website, my dear reader, do you use it?  And if so, are you aware of the outrage that Ancestry.com has produced by closing down its services like MyCanvas and the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sites?  There is some real (and in my opinion, deserved) fury over the clumsy and unthinking way Ancestry botched the DNA closings.  Given that I have never used any of these services though, I am curious what other people think, especially those who have.  Does this also make you hesitate to try Ancestry’s autosomal test?)

Back to Martha.  Shumway shows Nixon the 1850 Census, the first to list family members instead of just heads of household.  Although there is no Martha Casto, there is a Martha Curnutt who has three children, Sarah (age 6), Noah (age 7), and Mary (age 10), Nixon’s ancestor.  All the children have the surname Curnutt, and Noah Casto is not in the picture.  Seven minutes in, we get our first commercial break and the promise of a shocking secret.

Noah Curnutt served and died in the Civil War.  Nixon went to Washington DC and found his pension record, which Martha, as his mother and therefore survivor, filled out.  The pension file stated that Noah the father died in 1842, when his daughter Mary was only two and his son Noah was not even born.  Which inevitably led to the question of who was Sarah’s father.

Long story short, Noah Casto’s death was not natural, and we find this out, first in a prosecution against Martha and then in a fantastically gossipy newspaper account which contained this description of Noah, “A man whose name our informant had forgotten.”  Martha killed him with an ax to the head while he slept and was found guilty only of manslaughter.  A perusal of a contemporary newspaper showed that Noah was a vile man who abused and possibly raped his wife and threatened to kill her the night she killed him.  This probably explains why she was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.  At the time, women were stripped of their rights and privileges once they were married, so even a divorce would not have protected Martha.   Murder, according to WDYTYA, was Martha’s only option, and the jury was sympathetic to an extent.  As it happened, she became only the second female prisoner in the history of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and was the lone female in a prison full of men.

As one would expect of any prison run by private corporations for profit, the prisoners were treated abominably, which was described in a book by a former inmate whose sentence was concurrent with Martha’s.  He wrote about Martha and described the abusive treatment the prison authorities dealt to her and to the child (Sarah) who was born while she was in prison.  Given the timing of Sarah’s birth, it appears that she was indeed not Noah’s daughter, but possibly that of a warden or guard who may have raped Martha.  In fact, Martha’s treatment was so horrible that the petition for her pardon was signed by many people, including prominent politicians.  Indeed, she was pardoned not even two years into her five-year sentence.  It was a pretty awful story, and I have no desire to trigger readers any more than I already may have by recapping it in full.  It certainly hit Nixon pretty hard, although I do wonder from time to time, given that many of these celebrities are actors, are these emotions genuine?  And if so, is it because of story of because of how draining the journey is?  It is one thing to react when a parent or grandparent is involved, but to get so emotional about a distant ancestor who you never knew existed until a few days before–that seems a little different.  Of course, this could also be a natural empathic reaction, and I could be a horrible cynic.

Regardless, the story was pretty powerful, so I will not fault Nixon for her emotion.  Where I believe she is on less solid footing is this supposition, typical of WDYTYA, that Martha helped usher in prison reform (specifically a separate prison for women and the recognition that they too commit crimes).  Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have been opposed to such reforms.  Additionally, it is hard to see Martha as anything more than a passive figure in whatever prison reform movement may have occurred.  More likely, given the sparseness of the historical record, Martha wanted to move on with her life and get as far removed from that time as possible.

Using FindaGrave.com, a site Ancestry now owns but WDYTYA left unnamed, Nixon discovered Martha’s grave where she was buried with daughter Mary and son-in-law Samuel Nixon.  Nixon visited the graves and left flowers for Martha.  Then she spoke at length about Martha’s strength and she ran up against history and changed it.  Which, honestly seems quite a bit of a stretch, but these are definitely qualities that Cynthia Nixon has in spades.

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Next week, WDYTYA continues its foray into the “gay agenda” with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons.