Archives Default :: Martha Casto's Story

Martha Casto’s Story

As Featured on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

Martha Casto
Cynthia Nixon, back middle, spends time with the staff of
the Missouri State Archives and the production crew of
Who Do You Think You Are? after a successful day of filming

In 2014, award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon, best known for her role in Sex and the City, visited the Missouri State Archives to learn about her ancestor Martha Casto for an episode of the TLC television series Who Do You Think You Are? The Archives was instrumental to the episode’s production, helping gather historic records and providing a venue for the episode’s filming.

Initially, all that was known about Martha Casto was that she served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1843 after being sentenced in Barry County in southwest Missouri. Researchers at the Archives, though, soon found out that Martha Casto was found guilty of manslaughter after killing her abusive husband with an axe as he slept. While serving her sentence in the awful conditions of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Martha gave birth and eventually was pardoned. The Archives' background research was extensive, and the steps below detail the Archives' work.

The episode aired as Who Do You Think You Are?’s  season premiere on July 23, 2014.

Martha Casto
Missouri State Penitentiary Register
Click to enlarge
Source: Vol. A p. 61

The first record uncovered for Martha Casto was the Missouri State Penitentiary register book. The register book is always the first place to start when researching a prisoner. This book includes the date Martha entered the penitentiary, why she was there, when she was released, and a brief physical description.

Are you looking for a Missouri State Penitentiary register book entry for your ancestor? If so, submit a research request. There are registers dating from 1836 to 1986.

Martha’s discharge date on the register reads: “Pardoned by the Gov. January 1845.” This information leads to the next document, a petition written largely by legislators then serving in the General Assembly asking Governor John C. Edwards to free Martha because of the cruel conditions of her confinement. The file also includes her official pardon certificate, signed by the Governor nine days after the petition was written.

Pardon Papers
Click to enlarge
Source: Pardons Box 2 Folder 19

Click to read transcription of the pardon petition

Jefferson City, Mo.
Nov. 28th 1844

To His Excellency John C. Edwards,

The undersigned would respectfully represent to your Excellency that Martha Casto was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the Penitentiary of this state, by the Circuit Court of Barry County – the said term of imprisonment to commence on August 10th 1843 – since which time the said Martha has been confined in the State Prison at this plan.

Your petitioners would further represent that the said convict has recently had a child in said prison & that her infant is still well, but that should the said convict be confined in the cells of the prison during the cold winter weather, there is strong probability of its suffering & perhaps freezing with the cold – it not being considered safe to allow fire to be kept in the cells.  There being no separate apartment for female convicts in our state prison & this being the only one in it – she has to be confined in a cell all the time, and from all the circumstances & facts connected with said conviction & imprisonment, your petitioners would respectfully recommend the said Martha as a proper subject for the exercise of the pardoning power & would therefore recommend that she be immediately discharged from prison by your Excellency & your petitioners will pray &c.

[Signatures follow]


Transcribed by Missouri State Archives Staff
Office of Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft

Are you looking for a pardon record? If so, the Archives has a name index available online here. Submit aresearch request if you find a record you are interested in.

Published county history books are also usually a good source of information on early major crimes. A search of a Barry County history yields a brief description of the murder. “Mrs. Castoe1, the second female inmate of the State penitentiary, murdered her husband in 1843, by striking him with an ax, while sleeping. She was sentenced to two years2 in the penitentiary, but was pardoned in January, 1845, by Gov. Edwards. Henry McCamp and Levi H. Arnold accompanied Sheriff Peevey, who brought her to the prison.” (History of Newton, Lawrence, Barry, and McDonald Counties, Missouri by Goodspeed, 1888, p. 629)

1 When searching for names, be sure to use all variant spellings. Misspellings are common.
2 The county history misstates the sentence, which actually was five years.

Many of Missouri's public domain county history books are keyword searchable on
Missouri Digital Heritage.

TIP: When doing historic research of any kind, always fact check.

Why did Martha Casto kill her husband? What other details are available to researchers? The best resources are most often court records and newspapers. The Missouri State Penitentiary register shows that her case was heard in the Barry County Circuit Court in April 1843. Since the Archives does not have Barry County Circuit Court records from that time frame, Archives staff turned to newspapers.

Chronicling America provides access to free digitized newspapers from Missouri and other states. Thousands of newspapers are keyword searchable at The first keyword searches performed looking by the names of those involved yielded no results. Finally, a search of 1843 newspapers simply using the keywords “axe” and “Barry” uncovered the following article:

An Appalling Story. – The Osage Mobile Yeoman of the 12th inst., narrates a shocking tragedy as having recently occurred at Springfield, Barry county1. A man whose name is not given, had been in the habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and 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. She got up, 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. She immediately went to the house of a neighbor, and related the circumstances as they occurred, giving a reason that she was certain he would kill her that day, and she concluded that it was his life for her’s [sic]. He was her second husband, and not the father of her children2. A special term of the circuit court is to be held in Bates county3, to try the woman for the crime.” (quoted here from the North-Carolina Standard, 08/09/1843, p. 2)

This lone newspaper article is the only known record that gives us any idea of the motivation behind the killing. It must be taken with a grain of salt, though, because there are factual errors in the article.

1 Springfield is in Greene County, not Barry County. The crime occurred in Barry County.
2 Other research provides evidence that the man was, in fact, the children’s father.
3 The account misstates the location again. The circuit court trial took place in Barry County, not Bates County.

Martha Casto
Sentence and Judgment
Click to enlarge
Source: Box 3 folder 68

Early sentence and judgment papers are also a good resource. The Archives has copies of these papers available from local circuit courts around the state from 1836–1897. Martha’s sentencing paper states that she was tried for 1st degree murder and she pled not guilty. The jury found her guilty of the lesser crime of 1st degree manslaughter, meaning that the crime was not premeditated. They sentenced her to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary, which matches the length of time reported in the Missouri State Penitentiary register.

Click to read transcription of sentence and judgment

State of Missouri In Barry Circuit Court July Special Term 3d day
  A.D. 1843. Indictment for murder.
Martha Casto    


Now at this day came the State of Missouri by her attorney as well as the Defendant Martha Casto in her own proper person, who being arraigned, pled Not Guilty of the charge set forth in the Indictment, and for her trial puts herself upon the County, and the circuit attorney doth the like, and thereupon came a Jury, to wit, Philip Morbit 1 Green B. Suiter 2 Cowan Mitchell 3 Henry S. Zinn 4 Hardin Evans 5 James Miller 6 Milo B. Russell 7 Wm. W. Lee 8 Price McMurtry 9 Richard Jackman 10 Josiah Dougherty 11 & Daniel K. McClure 12 all good and lawful men who being Elected tried and sworn well and truly to try the issue Joined upon their oaths do say “We the Jury find the Defendant guilty on the within Indictment of manslaughter in the first degree and do assess her punishment to confinement in the State Penitentiary for the Term of five years, and the Defendant Martha Casto being present in court and demanded of whether she had any thing to say why the Judgment of the Court should not be pronounced against her, answered not. It is therefore considered and adjudged by the court that the Defendant Martha Casto be remanded back to the jail from whence she came and from there she be transported by the Sheriff of Barry County without delay to the State Penitentiary at the City of Jefferson, and delivered to the keeper thereof, there to remain for the term of five years, and it is further considered by the court that the State of Missouri do have & recover of  & from the Defendant her costs & charges in this prosecution laid out and expended & that she have Execution therefor.

State of Missouri
County of Barry

I Saml. M. Phariss Clerk of the circuit court within and for the County of Barry and State of Missouri do herby certify that the foregoing is a true and correct copy of the record of said court in as full and complete manner as the same now remains of record in my office.

In Testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed the official seal of said court at office in McDonald this 4th day of August A.D. 1843.

Saml. M. Phariss Clerk



Transcribed by Missouri State Archives Staff
Office of Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft


To help illuminate the cruel conditions at the Missouri State Penitentiary that the petitioners for Martha’s pardon were alluding to, the Archives expanded the search beyond typical penitentiary records. In the 1840s, the Missouri State Penitentiary was inspected by an independent Board of Inspectors appointed by the Governor. One of the members of the Board was the State Auditor. Therefore, State Auditors’ records from 1843-1845 could be revealing.

Prisoners' Complaints
Click to enlarge
Source: Box 112 Folder 38
Inspector's Notes
Click to enlarge
Source: Box 112 Folder 29
List of Prisoners As They Sit at the Table
Click to enlarge
Source: Box 112 Folder 38

In an Auditor’s document dated July 22, 1844 that lists complaints made by each prisoner at the Missouri State Penitentiary, Martha’s complaint on line 166 is, “Kept out in the day, but used badly – has to work very hard. No cover but a Buffalo robe which is too heavy for summer.” A second undated document has the notes of the inspector himself, also on line 166: “What should be done in her case? Something I think, but what? I don’t know, except to pardon her.”


The third document from the Auditor's papers is a list of prisoners as they sit at the table. The Missouri State Penitentiary had just gotten a new dining hall and a seating chart was made, presumably to avoid conflicts among the inmates. Martha is seated between Edward Williams and James Crawford. Upon further research, the Archives determined that her neighbors were more than just inmates; Edward Williams doubled as the foreman in one of the prison factories. In the previous document listing inmates' complaints, Williams' name is listed 24 times. Most of the complainants allege that Williams whipped his fellow inmates for no reason. They also complain that he required inmates to work when sick.

Thompson book
Thompson Book
Click to enlarge

It’s also a good idea to check contemporary publications to see if anyone has written about the subject in question. The Archives found a book written by George Thompson, an abolitionist incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary at the same time as Martha. He writes briefly about her, explaining how she was treated poorly, especially during the birth of her daughter in the fall of 1844.

Click to read transcription of
Prison Life and Reflections excerpt


In the early part of our time, a woman of vile character was sent here – staid two or three days and was pardoned.  About a year afterwards another came, for killing her husband.  [Martha Casto]  Her sentence was five years – she staid nearly two, and was pardoned.

She worked outside, at Capt. R.’s and Judge B.’s house.  Mrs. B. abused her so shamefully, she ran away, but was brought back the next day and locked up in her cell, where she had but little to eat or drink, for some days.  The horrid cruelty towards her, while thus locked up, so aroused the indignation of certain wicked prisoners, that there was strong talk of a “mutiny,” unless Judge B. altered his course.  After about three weeks she was again taken outside, where she worked about four months – coming to her cell every night.  In the fall she became the mother of a daughter.  The doctor refused to be present at the time of her delivery.  Mrs. Brown would neither come nor let any one else attend – the overseer told one of the prisoners to assist her – who did so, and he was the only one to wait upon her for some time.  Mrs. B. refused to come near her, or to furnish any materials for the child’s clothing – so that she remained in her cold cell, with her child, for nearly a week before anything was done.  Nor was she allowed to have any fire during the cold winter weather – but suffered in her damp and chilly cell, till she was pardoned out!  The whole is a horrid, disgraceful affair, on all sides.  But can anything better be expected from slavery?


Quoted from Prison Life and Reflections; or a Narrative of the Arrest, Trial, Conviction, Imprisonment, Treatment, Observations, Reflections, and Deliverance of Work, Burr, and Thompson, Who Suffered an Unjust and Cruel Imprisonment in Missouri Penitentiary, for Attempting to Aid Some Slaves to Liberty by George Thompson.  Hartford:  Published by A. Work, 1850.  P. 287


Transcribed by Missouri State Archives Staff
Office of Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft

Further research on the Missouri State Penitentiary might yield what other conditions were present in the system at the time. Annual reports to the Missouri General Assembly are a good place to start. The warden, chaplain, physician and inspectors all wrote annual reports explaining the finances and goings-on at the prison. Most of these reports are reprinted in the appendices to the House and Senate Journals. The Archives has these Journals available online from 1820 through 1899. Later Journals are available at the Archives in Jefferson City.


The Missouri State Archives’ Missouri State Penitentiary records collection includes many more records available to researchers. Few of these were relevant to Martha’s case, but they could be relevant to other research.

  • Annual Reports (1839–2004)
  • Bertillion Measurements (1908–1931)
  • Bureau of Criminal Identification Registers (1931–1969)
  • Cell Block Register (1903–1944)
  • Commutations, Pardons, Restorations of Citizenship and Extraditions (1836–2008)
  • Escape Papers & Registers (1903–1992)
  • Military Prisoners’ Register (1864–1875)
  • Mugshots (1909–1926; 1928–1983)
  • Numerical Registers (1836–1986)
  • Photographs
  • Punishment Registers (1871–1896)


To make your own discoveries, look for primary source documents on your Missouri ancestors at the Missouri State Archives Research Room.

If you would like the staff of the Missouri State Archives to assist you with your research, please feel free to send us an email at [email protected] with your question and follow the guidelines.

To stay connected with the Archives, like the Missouri State Archives and the Office of Missouri Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft on Facebook.