One award-winning actress’ look at her family history has offered Missourians a look at their state’s history.
Cynthia Nixon, best known as one of the stars of Sex and the City, has been featured on the TLC show Who Do You Think You Are. She asked the show to look into her father’s family history. The search quickly focused on Martha Curnutt, Nixon’s great-great-great grandmother whose married name became Casto.
Nixon wondered what became of Martha’s husband, Noah Casto. Ancestry.com research manager and family historian Jennifer Utley says the answer was surprising.
“We found that she had actually killed her own husband with an axe,” says Utley.
Nixon found an 1843 newspaper entry that suggested Martha had been abused by her husband.
As Nixon reads, the article says the husband, “had been in the habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and too shocking to think of. On the morning of the day mentioned he told his wife to get up and get breakfast for himself and her two children, and then to commence saying her prayers, for she should die, he swore, before sunset.”
The account continues, “She got up and made a fire and returned to the room where her unnatural husband slept. He was lying on his back in a sound sleep. She took the axe with which she had been chopping wood and with one blow sunk it deep into his head, just through the eyes.”
“It is awful to think of what Martha endured,” says Nixon. “I certainly wouldn’t call [the murder] a happy ending, by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly I think a better ending than if Noah had killed Martha and maybe killed her children, too.”
Casto is found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and is sentenced to five years in the historic Missouri State Penitentiary. The prison, then only seven years old, has no dedicated facilities for women. Casto spends part of her time working in the homes of businessmen who leased the prison, and part of her time isolated in a prison cell.
While at the prison she becomes pregnant and with the help of an inmate, delivers a daughter, Sarah. Who fathered the child is not known.
Utley says many prominent Missourians then petitioned then-governor John Edwards to pardon her, for her sake and the sake of the infant.
“She was there for a week with that baby with no medical aid, she was not able to build a fire, she didn’t have any kind of clothing or any kind of blankets to wrap the infant in,” says Utley.
That petition included the signatures of prominent people in Missouri political history, including a future governor and congressman, Willard Preble Hall, and a former governor, Lilburn Boggs.
The petition was successful and in December, 1844, Casto was pardoned after serving less than two years of her sentence. She returned to using her maiden name, Curnutt.
Nixon is able to hold that pardon and the petition at the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City.
Nixon went on to visit Curnutt’s grave in Leasburg, Missouri. She says Curnutt must have been a strong woman to overcome abuse, and the way women were treated in the 1800s.
“I admire how she must have wanted to give up so many times, and how she kept going and how she didn’t accept things,” says Nixon of her great-great-great grandmother. “I’m sure we’ll make many jokes about it in the years to come, about the axe murderess in our family, but I think we will remain in awe of her.”