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.
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.
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.