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Thursday, July 24, 2014
Contact: Kevin Flannery, (573) 526-0949
Actress Cynthia Nixon Learns of Her Missouri Ancestor's Painful Story on Who Do You Think You Are?
Missouri State Archives Helped Uncover Family History
Jefferson City, Mo. — On national television last night, award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon learned about a gruesome chapter of her family history that the Missouri State Archives, a division of Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office, helped uncover.
Appearing on the season premiere of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, Nixon traced her father’s lineage back to Martha Casto, a 19th century woman whose life took a fateful turn in southwest Missouri’s Barry County.
Casto woke up one morning in 1843 to her husband telling her to complete the morning chores while he slept. He added that she should say her prayers, too: She would be dead that night, he allegedly swore.
After chopping wood for the morning fire, Casto took the axe inside and used it to kill her sleeping husband. The act resulted in a five-year sentence for manslaughter, despite her claim of self-defense.
Documents show that Casto was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, infamous for its inhumane conditions. Casto was the prison’s sole female inmate at the time, and only the second-ever woman to serve time there.
Prisoners commonly complained of being whipped for no reason. And in the cold winter months, they had nothing to keep themselves warm, as state officials deemed it too dangerous to allow fires in cells.
But most horrific of all, for Casto and the women who would come after her, was the prevalence of rape. Documents from the time recount in detail the circumstances under which female inmates were repeatedly assaulted.
Eventually, it became clear Casto was pregnant, and in the late fall of 1844, she delivered a baby girl inside her cell. Testimony from the time reveals that although the baby was in good health, observers were concerned about the cell’s cold conditions. One account notes that the child was not given anything to wear.
Soon, outsiders intervened. An inspector from the state auditor’s office asked, "What should be done in her case? Something I think, but what? I don’t know, except to pardon her." Legislators in the General Assembly took it upon themselves to petition the governor for clemency on Casto’s behalf.
Pardoning Casto in December 1844, Gov. John C. Edwards brought the terrible saga to an early conclusion.
Casto lived out the remainder of her life in Missouri with her father. Now, five generations later, the family’s painful story has been told.
Following Nixon’s appearance on Who Do You Think You Are?, the Missouri State Archives launched a website (www.sos.mo.gov/WhoDoYouThinkYouAre) detailing its efforts to uncover Martha Casto’s story. It also provides advice for how Missourians can access similar types of historical records to conduct research of their own.
"Archival documents in my office offer a wealth of information that touches on nearly every aspect of state history, including family history. I encourage all Missourians interested in genealogy to take advantage of these resources," Kander said.
Record collections available on Kander’s website include the Missouri Supreme Court Historical Database, Missouri Land Records 1820–1969 and the Soldiers Database for information spanning the War of 1812 through World War I.
The mission of the Missouri State Archives is to foster an appreciation of Missouri history and illuminate contemporary public issues by preserving and making available the state’s permanent records to its citizens and their government.
Visit www.sos.mo.gov to learn more about the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State.
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