I do love these Who Do You Think Your Are (WDYTYA) and similar shows, because like most everyone, I love a good mystery, especially a true story – and a good genealogy mystery tops them all.
And, of course, you never know what tidbit might be lurking for your own situation.
We had a hiatus of several months since last season, so I remembered what I liked and forgot what I didn’t. As a long-time genealogist, I find myself talking to the TV – saying things like, “You can’t assume that,” and other similar comments to rather gargantuan leaps of faith.
I have to remind myself that it IS, after all, a TV show, and a lot of research (I hope and pray) is done behind the scenes but not shown to the audience. After all, Ancestry.com, marketing king of easy-peasy “just enter your ancestor’s name” and it will all just be here waiting for you is sponsoring this series….so it has to look quite simple and doable for the viewing audience. I mean, who wants to know that there could be two people in the census with the same name, in the same county….yes…really.
But my real frustration last season came with the knowledge that in many cases, DNA could have been reasonably and successfully used, and wasn’t. So, this season, I’d like to talk about how DNA might have been used.
Ancestry provides a recap of the Cynthia Nixon episode as does TLC, and it really was a good one with lots of cliffhangers, of course. For future episodes, GeneaBloggers published a WDYTYA bingo card. What fun!
This episode begins as a professional genealogist puts together Cynthia’s first several generations via the census and presents her with a scroll of that information. If you’re playing WDYTYA Bingo, I think you get two points for this. The rest of the show focuses on Cynthia’s 3X great grandmother, Martha Curnutt.
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.
That pension record shows that Noah, the father, died in 1842, and further research shows that in 1843, Martha was indicted for murder and then found guilty of manslaughter for killing her husband, Noah Casto, with an ax “between the eyes” while he slept, after he threatened her life. If you’d like to read a discussion about murder vs. manslaughter, Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, who watched the show with a group of genealogists, wrote a wonderful article about manslaughter and murder and this case. Be sure to read the comments too.
Cynthia discovered that Martha had apparently been severely abused, based on a newspaper article. At that time, there was no protection nor recourse for abused women.
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.
An article written by a former inmate details Martha’s treatment, including the fact that she was originally allowed to work for the warden at his home, but his wife, Mrs. Brown, abused her so terribly that she ran away, was returned to prison and kept in her cell being given nothing for days, which I presume means no food or water. That was followed by the fact that “in the fall” she delivered a child. Knowing the dates of the trial in 1843 and that the child was born in the fall of 1844, it became evident that the child was not her deceased husband’s child, and was conceived in prison.
When Martha was in labor, Mrs. Brown would not help her, nor allow anyone else to do so. Finally, one (male) inmate was allowed to “attend her,” but nothing, not even clothing or heat in her cell was provided for the baby. Obviously, the warden’s wife was hoping the child would die, but Sarah didn’t, nor did Martha. The next month, Martha was pardoned by the governor over the signatures of a long list of politicians and very influential men. Obviously, since the mother and child didn’t die, there was a scandal brewing.
So, the question is, and certainly the scandal revolves around the identity of the Sarah’s father, the child born in prison in the fall of 1844.
We know Sarah lived at least until the 1850 census, and assuming she lived to marry and have children of her own, let’s talk about DNA options.
If Sarah were a male and had male descendants to the current generation, this would be a relatively easy case to solve….but she is a female and carries no Y chromosome, which would have been passed from the father to a male child, so we can’t test that.
Therefore, our other testing alternative would be to test the autosomal DNA of a descendant of Sarah and see if any portion of the her autosomal DNA matches with descendants of the warden’s family. This assumes, of course, that Martha was not otherwise related to Warden Brown.
If in fact, Sarah’s descendants do match the DNA of the warden’s descendants, that would be highly suggestive that Warden Brown was Sarah’s father, especially if the amount of shared DNA would be the right percentage to be about 4 generations removed, or roughly third cousins who could be expected to share about 1% of the DNA of their common ancestor.
Not all third cousins will share DNA, or not in large enough segments to be above the matching threshold of the DNA testing companies, but many will, and all we would need would be enough and proof that the DNA in question is indeed descended from the same Brown family.
Here’s my own third cousin match at Ancestry. He and I tested intentionally, knowing we are cousins, to map our DNA to specific ancestors (at Family Tree DNA) and to see if we match other cousins (at Ancestry.)
Of course, Sarah is not Cynthia’s direct ancestor, the older daughter, Mary is – so finding out who Sarah’s father was does not further Cynthia’s own genealogy. Plus, testing Cynthia’s DNA would not have been beneficial other than to have a basis for comparison on Martha’s side. But testing a descendant of Sarah would certainly have answered a burning question about Martha’s time spent in prison – and might very likely have answered the question about why Mrs. Brown obviously hated Martha enough to try to kill her in various inhumane ways; by withholding assistance while Martha was in childbirth, not to mention essentials like food and heat.
Had Sarah’s descendants taken the Ancestry.com DNA test, especially if they had entered the warden’s name as a potential ancestor in their tree, they might well have discovered that they had “shakey leaf” hints that connected them with other people who descend from Warden Brown’s family. If they were lucky, an actual descendant of Warden Brown himself would have tested and they would match. In fact, maybe the producers could have found a direct descendant of Warden Brown who was interested in revealing the truth, whatever it was.
However, without a chromosome browser or any other type of comparison tools, they would be unable to prove that the match to that individual was indeed Brown family DNA – and they would have simply have to infer, allow you to believe, that the genetic match was the same as the shakey leaf match. You can see, above, that Ancestry skates on this issue by saying “it looks like you have a shared ancestor.” Indeed it does, but that doesn’t mean the shaky leaf ancestor is the one that you share genetically. However, given the other leaps of faith in the series, I doubt that this “little detail” would have deterred the storyline much. And indeed, it would have been very interesting.
In order to prove the genetic connection, one could have the people who tested, and matched on the Brown line, download their results to www.GedMatch.com and compare their actual DNA segments there. They could also transfer their DNA to Family Tree DNA who does have comparison tools. Of course, that opens the door to DISPROVING the shakey leaf “tree” match as well as proving it, and it’s certainly not in the same spirit or as easy as just accepting, on faith, the “shakey leaf” hint as fact. DNA Genealogy wrote a nice summary of Ancestry.com vs GedMatch here and why those “shakey leaf” first impressions are sometimes not correct.
Am I the only one who thinks Warden Brown is the most likely candidate to be Sarah’s father????? Whoever the father was, he was certainly important enough to warrant a pardon for Martha. That is the one good thing in the landslide of evil that haunted Martha Curnutt. I hope the rest of her life was much easier.