As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, October 18, 2009
This is Part Two of Three
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
Two distinguished educators — sisters Virginia Wardlaw and Mary W. Snead — brought Soule Female College to national prominence by the beginning of the 20th Century. The school’s enrollment included the daughters of some of the most prominent southern families and was a source of pride for Murfreesboro and Rutherford County.
In 1903, the two widely respected sisters bought the Maple Street school from church-affiliated trustees. Three years later, with the involvement of Caroline Martin, the eldest of the Wardlaw sisters, the school’s reputation and finances were in shambles. Although the Wardlaw clan gave up the school and left the county in 1907, the worst of their imposition on the community was yet to come.
In 1910, when the three sisters were indicted in New Jersey in connection with the death of Ocey, Caroline Martin’s daughter, the tragic and sensational crime, trial and mystery prompted a stampede of journalists to Rutherford County. According to C. C. Henderson in his 1929 “History of Murfreesboro,” the reporters came “to secure facts, rumors or palpable fiction relating to the most private family affairs of the dead girl and her relatives. Every act of theirs was enlarged upon, and fictional statements accepted as evidence as strong as proofs of Holy Writ. Efforts were even made to implicate some of the best citizens of Murfreesboro in the tragedy…”
Virginia’s suicide and the sentencing of Caroline brought an end to the sensational reporting, and national media interest in Murfreesboro quickly waned. Thereafter, those with official or self-appointed responsibility for the civic image and conscience began to “spin” the story of the school, the strange behavior of the sisters while in Murfreesboro, and the death of daughter Ocey.
For example, Henderson, president of the News-Banner Publishing Co. in Murfreesboro, in his “History…” alleges that no one outside the Wardlaw family knew that during her time as a Soule student, Ocey “was afflicted with the narcotic habit.” He continues: “Many of the queer acts of her mother and aunts (attempting to cope with this problem) were not then understood, and consequently their ‘mysterious’ actions in connection with Ocey were misunderstood and attributed by some persons to innate depravity.”
Ignoring the actual trial record, Henderson states that sisters Virginia and Caroline were simply “found guilty of having aided and abetted the young girl in producing her own death” by failing to prevent her from taking an overdose of morphine. But neither this “spinning” nor the passage of seventeen years could prevent the crime and the Murfreesboro connection from again hitting the headlines in 1930 when the bank lock box was opened.
Why personnel at the First National Bank of Murfreesboro had not investigated the lock box at some time during the preceding 20 plus years, or why it was opened in 1930, is unknown. The bank’s connection with the Wardlaw family had drawn media attention while the murder trial was pending. (Contemporary with the murder investigation and trial, the bank president, W. B. Earthman, was charged with looting the bank and testimony was sought from one of the Wardlaw nephews, but that’s another story.)
When the lock box was opened, bank personnel found three loose “gem quality” diamonds, two diamond-studded gold brooches, a small black pouch, and one fingerless black “mitt.” Pinned to the mitt was a tag with the name “Virginia Wardlaw.”
National attention was once again focused on Murfreesboro as the search for the lock box heirs expanded. The strange behavior of the Wardlaw sisters and the details of the murder were revisited by the media. Eventually, Mary Wardlaw Snead came out of seclusion to claim the valuables, saying: “I was so happy when I learned that the diamonds were found, but I had rather never see them than to have their discovery reopen that chapter of my life.”
In an interview with the Murfreesboro News Banner Mary lamely explained that the jewels had been stolen by a student she claimed to know but refused to identify. Supposedly, the thief was moved by conscience to deposit the stolen items in a lock box so that they would eventually be returned. This unlikely explanation was mockingly reported in the media as another attempt to cast a favorable and sympathetic light on the family’s “good name.” A more plausible explanation suggested that the lock box was a desperate attempt by Virginia Wardlaw to prevent sister Caroline from squandering the last of the family’s wealth.
Although Mary and two other Wardlaw siblings claimed the jewels, valued by the bank’s cashier C. B. Bell at $2000, creditors from days long past devoured the proceeds from sale of the items. The bag and black mitt, the last remnants of the three sisters’ time in Rutherford County, were reportedly burned with other bank trash.
Mary also used the News Banner interview to promote her own “spin” on the death of Ocey. It was simply a tragic “accident,” said Mary. Sister Virginia, like Mary herself, was said to be wholly innocent and uninvolved. Sister Caroline, according to Mary’s 1930 account, was guilty only of neglect and irresponsibility in permitting the ailing Ocey to bathe without supervision.
Was Ocey’s death an “overdose suicide,” as Henderson alleged, or simply a “drowning accident,” as Mary claimed? The evidence presented at the murder pre-trial and before the grand jury painted a very different picture.
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.