WDYTYA – How DNA Might Have Been Used – Cynthia Nixon

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.)

ancestry third cousins

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.



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17 thoughts on “WDYTYA – How DNA Might Have Been Used – Cynthia Nixon

  1. Hi Roberta. Interestingly, I see that Ancestry.com is having a promotion connected to WDYTYA where they’re giving away a free AncestryDNA kit with a six-month membership. (Which is awesome. The more people who take tests the better!) I don’t understand why they’re connecting AncestryDNA with Who Do You Think You Are, but maybe it’s promising.

  2. As the story points out, Martha could have been raped by multiple men. It seems pretty likely to me that Warden Brown was one of the rapists, but that doesn’t mean he’s Sarah’s father. Ruling him out as Sarah’s father doesn’t rule him out as Martha’s rapist.

  3. Dear Roberta,
    I too thought the warden was a good suspect for the father, especially since no other explanation for Mrs. Brown’s ill treatment of Martha. I was surprised when neither the researcher or Ms. Nixon mentioned the possibility.
    It would indeed have been very interesting to see if the use of autosomal testing could have been introduced in this episode. I keep waiting for the show to have an episode which features the benefits of using autosomal DNA testing but the very points you mention about the “shaky leaf” matches may point out the necessity to Ancestrry.com’s customers the need for a chromosome browser, at least to the ones who read your blog and/or research the best way to confirm common ancestors.

  4. Great minds think alike dear cousin. That Sarah was the wardens child was my take from mistreatment Martha received. It would have caused a right proper uproar had their affair or worse had gotten out. I can’t wait until next week, I love this show.

  5. I agree with your speculations about who the father of the child might be, and of the motivation of the warden’s wife for maltreating Martha. The same thoughts occurred to me.
    I also wondered how all those politicians became aware of her plight and the need to avoid a scandal. It must have been someone on the inside.

  6. Probably just as well they didn’t include autosomal DNA – there is enough misinformation being slung around by Ancestry as it is.

    More people testing with FTDNA or 23andMe – YES!!! More people testing with Ancestry – big who cares? Most of my new matches have no family tree or a tree under 50 people so without chromosome matching, they are useless. Too many of the shaky leaves have bogus trees and are of no use either.

    Your are absolutely correct that Sarah’s father might have been discovered using DNA, but NOT using Ancestry DNA.

  7. Thank you for the link!

    I, too, felt that AncestryDNA missed an opportunity. I suppose that they’d prefer to popularize DNA testing with happy stories.

    I think my jaw nearly dropped when the genealogist on the show seemed to suggest that identifying the father of the baby would be nearly impossible — without even mentioning the possibility of genetic genealogy. That bit seemed out of place in 2014.

    I haven’t watched most of these genealogy shows, but I hope they make a point of using DNA more in the future.

  8. I wish I was famous so I could just travel around and all the leg work would be done for me! I have hit a wall in my search. Gggrandfather born in Ireland, died in Iowa but cannot find anything about him or his family in Ireland. Driving me nuts!

    • ME TOO! The side I am absoutly obsessed with is all in the US! My brick wall is John Moore, 1796 , Chester County Pennsylvania. This is an area LOADED with Moore(s). Connections to Virginia and the prerevolution political scene. In fact the first shots of the Revoultion were fired either on or just outside Moore property. Early Governers were named Moore. BUT WERE THEY MINE???? 30 years of frustration. If I was a lottery winner the first thing I would do is go to PA, Ohio, and Virginia and hire profesional help for my Mysterious John Moore!

  9. It is curious to me that DNA testing was not used at all in any episodes of last season’s US version of WDYTYA. As is pointed out above, that trend continued with episode 1 this season. Ancestry, as one of the big 3 US genetic genealogy testing companies, and the major corporate sponsor of WDYTYA is missing some marketing opportunities. I know the shooting schedules are often incompatible with the length of time it takes to get DNA tested, but…

    • As Roberta has said, to use the Ancestry autosomal DNA test alone, as it is right now, could lead to some very incorrect conclusions. Without chromosome matches and triangulation, you honestly don’t know if you have a match. I am slightly encouraged that the folks at Ancestry are ethical enough to see that.

  10. I thought the same thing about Warden Brown because of our mean Mrs. Brown was to Martha. I couldn’t think of another reason for her to be so beastly. And I was surprised there was no use or talk of dna testing. Even if Sarah wasn’t her ‘dna line’ she is still related and part of the story about her 3rd great-grandmother. I did want to know more about Sarah after the show was over.

  11. On watching WDYTYA for many years ( the American, English , Australian and Canadian programs ), I only find the American ones to heavily ‘advertise” ancestryDNA by using it on every program.
    I find AncestryDNA lazy in updating information that I supplied. and even after amending my data , the old erred data is still there

  12. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – General Information Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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