As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, October 25, 2009
This is Part Three of Three
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
Two sisters, Virginia Wardlaw and Mary Wardlaw Snead, raised in a prominent and wealthy southern family, earned wide respect and distinction in the 1890s as instructors and “brilliant … women of fine character and gentle demeanor” at the Soule Female College on Maples Street in Murfreesboro.
They purchased the college in 1903 and by 1905, with the participation of their sister Caroline, the destroyed both the reputation and finances of the venerable, 54-year-old institution. In 1907 they left Rutherford County in disgrace and in debt, amid rumors of occult and sinister activity.
In 1910 the ‘big city media’ flooded Rutherford County with reporters and cameramen in search of ‘facts, rumors and palpable fiction’ about the sisters and their kin. This media interest was occasioned by the death of Caroline’s daughter Ocey and the New Jersey murder indictments against Virginia, Mary and Caroline.
A torrent of stories of strange behavior by the always heavily veiled, aging sisters in black mourning dress and living in near poverty after years of affluence and distinction and their lovely 23-year-old victim were breathlessly reported by newspapers across the country. The stories came from Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, New York New Jersey and Canada.
The sensational case and media coverage lasted two years, which finally concluded after the starvation suicide of Virginia, the dismissal of charges against Mary and the manslaughter guilty plea by Caroline, who died of natural causes soon after beginning her prison sentence.
Was the death of the daughter simply an “overdose suicide” as interpreted by C.C. Henderson, local historian and journalist, in his 1929 book “History of Murfreesboro”, or was it merely a ‘tragic accident’ as alleged by sister Mary when she emerged from seclusion in 1930, vainly attempting to recover a valuable cache of family jewelry?
The New Jersey coroner determined that Ocey died from drowning. She was found nude in a four-foot bathtub in a kneeling position with only her face submerged in two-to-three inches of water. Preliminary testimony explained that it would be extremely difficult to drown in this manner without being sedated and held in position with restraints. It was also determined that death had occurred at least 24 hours before the death was report to authorities by Virginia, who alleged that she called police immediately upon finding her niece’s body. Finally, the autopsy determined that Ocey had morphine in her system at the time of her death, but not a level sufficient to cause death.
As for motive, the investigation established that the sisters had life insurance on Ocey in the amount of $32,000, and that they had often gone without food and other necessities in order to pay the insurance premiums. Moreover, it was found that Ocey owned several parcels of valuable property in her name alone through her father’s will. Testimony showed that on several occasions the sisters had tried unsuccessfully to get Ocey to make a will leaving them or their elderly mother the property.
It was indisputable that Virginia lied to authorities when she claimed that she and Ocey were alone in the residence on the day of the death and the following day when it was reported. Testimony from neighbors and hack drivers established that at least two older women were present at the time of death, and at least one woman had traveled to and from the residence from New York during the pertinent time period.
When warrants were issued, Mary surrendered without comment when found in a shabby New York apartment shared with Caroline. Sister Caroline, however, had gone into hiding, moving from hotel to hotel under fictitious names, evading capture for several weeks.
Virginia’s initial defense relied on a neat, suicide note pinned to Ocey’s clothing folded beside the tub. When Caroline was finally apprehended , several reports on the scene opened a box that she had with her and found three handwritten ‘practical copies’ of the suicide note. Handwriting experts did not believe that any of the copies, including the one found by the bathtub, were written by the victim.
At a pretrial hearing, the New Jersey prosecutor anticipated that the evidence would establish either Caroline or Virginia had forcibly submerge the face of the victim, and that premeditation was evidenced by the multiple suicide notes in Caroline’s possession. The motive was financial gain and the emaciated condition of the victim further evidenced a long period of abuse.
Failing with an insanity plea, counsel for Caroline negotiated a manslaughter plea that probably appealed to the court in part due to the ‘media circus’ that would have covered a sensational jury trial. Virginia’s suicide while in custody pending trial encouraged the sensational reporting, but avoided her being tried for murder or at least as an accessory.
It was established that Mary was in New York when the crime was committed but evidence strongly suggested that she had prior knowledge of her sisters’ intent. The plea and conviction of Caroline for manslaughter however, barred ‘on a technicality’ any accessory charges. (Mary moved to Colorado and lived in seclusion and lived with her son until her attempt to claim the jewelry found in Murfreesboro in 1930.)
The investigative record included some lurid and sensational details that were not addressed in the judicial proceedings. Statements from neighbors and medical personnel familiar with the death of Caroline’s husband, a wealthy businessman and war veteran many years her elder, also suggested a pattern of physical abuse and possible death by poisoning. The death of her own son and a nephew were also found to be suspicious, and all three deaths involved substantial insurance payments.
Even more titillating were the stories of Caroline’s futile attempts to get custody of a foster child in Virginia, and the discovery of human infant bones when her New York apartment was searched. The circumstances surrounding the death of Ocey’s first child and the institutionalization and eventual death of her second child, also raised suspicions.
Perhaps Caroline Wardlaw Martin, who died in an insane asylum shortly after being sentenced for manslaughter, was (as some in the media speculated) a ‘serial killer’ with at least the acquiescence and concealment of her two sisters, if not their complicity. Perhaps, some 100 years ago, Rutherford County hosted the real world equivalent of “three wicked witches”.
“Last year my little daughter died. Other near and dear kindred too have gone to Heaven. I long to go there too. I have been ill and weak a very long time now. Death will be a blessed relief to me in my sufferings. When you read this I will have committed suicide. My sorrow and pain in this word are greater than I can endure. Ocey W.M. Snead”
Greg Tucker can be reached at [email protected].