Sinister Soule Sisters Leave Lock Box

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is Part One of Three

Part Two, Part Three

By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society

Virginia Wardlaw

Virginia Wardlaw

Were the valuables found in the First National Bank of Murfreesboro lock box in 1930 related to the bathtub drowning of the beautiful young woman at the hands of her mother in 1909? It was a sensational crime, trial and mystery that made national headlines and focused media attention and curiosity on Rutherford County a hundred years ago.

Oceanna (“Ocey”) Wardlaw Martin Snead was part of what had been a wealthy and prominent Georgia family. She was the daughter of Caroline Wardlaw, eldest of the Wardlaw sisters, and Colonel R.M. Martin, a wealthy businessman and highly regarded officer of the Confederacy.

On Nov. 27, 1909, the emaciated body of the once beautiful Ocey, 23 years old, was found nude, kneeling in the bathtub in a sparsely furnished residence in East Orange, N.J. For Ocey, this was the end of a family odyssey that began in Murfreesboro in 1907 at the venerable Soule College.

Founded in 1851, Soule College offered “a traditional southern education for women in cultural studies and social graces” on Maple Street in Murfreesboro. The school grew and prospered after the Civil War, and reached its zenith at the turn of the century when Virginia O. Wardlaw and her sister, Mary Snead, were in charge. At the time these two names were “synonymous with distinction in education,” and the two educators were described as “brilliant … women of fine character and gentle demeanor.”

In 1903 the two sisters bought the school from the church-affiliated trustees. Soon thereafter their older sister, Caroline Martin, recently widowed, arrived from New York and took over management of the school’s finances. Her lovely and talented daughter, 16-year-old Ocey, arrived with her and enrolled as a student. Two sons of Mary Snead, John and Fletcher, also joined the faculty.

Soon there were rumors among students and staff of occult and other strange activity. Ocey was no longer seen and was alleged to be suffering from some debilitating malady. Bills were unpaid and enrollment plunged. Rumors spread throughout the community about strange activity of the three sisters who were always veiled and dressed in black.

Concerns about Ocey were heightened by her apparently forced seclusion.

In 1907 the Wardlaw sisters and family left the area, leaving the school to new owners. Virginia Wardlaw turned up in Christiansburg, Va., where she was employed at Montgomery College. Sister Mary returned to her former home in Oglethorpe, Ga. Her sons, John and Fletcher, went first to Christiansburg and then to Lynnville, Tenn., where they ran a sawmill business. Caroline and Ocey returned to New York, but within a few months joined Virginia at Montgomery College. Soon the college was in financial distress and the community was hearing tales of strange behavior. The Murfreesboro experience was repeated, only this time not everyone survived.

Caroline Wardlaw Martin

Caroline Wardlaw Martin

Soon after joining her sister in Virginia, Caroline persuaded first her nephew John, and then his brother Fletcher, to return to the Virginia college. John was killed in a suspicious fire accident, for which the veiled sisters received a substantial life insurance settlement. Fletcher married Ocey.

By 1910, however, Fletcher had disappeared and Ocey was living with the once-again unemployed aunt, Virginia Wardlaw, in East Orange, N.J. Mary had joined sister Caroline in New York. All were living in near poverty.

The initial investigation of Ocey’s death, which Virginia Wardlaw had initially reported as an accident, determined that the death had occurred at least 24 hours before it was reported, and that the cause of death was drowning with just the face in the water. It was also determined that at the time of her death Ocey was severely malnourished and debilitated from drug abuse. The handwriting in a suicide note found next to the body was questionable. Wardlaw was charged with homicide. Unable to make bond, she was put in pretrial detention.

Further investigation obtained witness testimony that more than one female figure in black garb was seen about the premises in the 24 hours after the death. The trail soon led to the sisters in nearby New York. Mary was quickly located; Caroline evaded the authorities for over two weeks. Extradition and pre-trial proceedings were extended and disrupted, to the delight of the news media, by the often insane, and sometimes clever, outbursts and antics of Caroline, always in black veils and garments. Delays caused by the accused, plus several delays occasioned by the unavailability of witnesses and other prosecution issues, stretched the time to judgment over many months.

Journalists made the most of every development in the case, and even added to the sensational details through their own investigation. It was a newspaper reporter who found Fletcher, Ocey’s supposedly dead husband, in Canada working in a menial job under an assumed name. It was further discovered that Caroline Martin had met with Fletcher shortly before Ocey’s death. The media also confirmed rumors in Murfreesboro and elsewhere that there were substantial life insurance policies on Ocey.

Murfreesboro sources also fueled speculation that Ocey was actually the daughter of Virginia and that she had been placed with the married sister to protect the “good name” of the educator. This rumor had developed locally based on Ocey’s “striking resemblance” to her “aunt,” and Virginia’s perceived deference to her sister Caroline’s demands on both personal and financial matters.

Before the criminal charges could be finally presented to a jury, attorneys for Mary successfully presented witnesses establishing that Mary was in New York at the time of Ocey’s death. With no other direct or circumstantial evidence of Mary’s involvement, she was dismissed. In the meantime, Virginia committed suicide in detention by self-starvation. Despite objections from Caroline, her lawyers attempted an insanity defense, but the court found her competent for trial.

The trial was a sensational event lavishly reported by the media. The jury found Caroline guilty of manslaughter and she was sentenced to prison. Within a year after her lockup, prison authorities determined that she was insane and transferred her to the state insane asylum where within a few months she died of apparently natural causes.

Seventeen years later, prompted by the search for heirs with possible rights to the lock box valuables, sister Mary came forward and gave to a Murfreesboro newspaper her “story” of the sad and mysterious death of Ocey.

Greg Tucker can be reached at [email protected].

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