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The Black Sisters

 

 

CHAPTER X

The Black Sisters, Veiled In Gloom

 

There was a door to which I found no key

There was a veil through which I might not see.

Edward Fitzgerald’s translation

-Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam

 

Because  of  age  and   failing  health, Mrs.  O.S.  Pollock  be­ queathed  the   Montgomery  Female  College  property to her sister,  Mrs. Martha  Wardlaw,  and  Mrs. Wardlaw’s  daughters. 

 It was an institution of learning and good repute.

First  Miss Virginia Wardlaw came from Tennessee. Christians­burg residents noticed  no change at the college, until other family members  came.

1.     The   Wardlaw   family  consisted   of  Mrs. Martha  Goodall   Wardlaw, her children  and grandchildren;

Mrs. Mary  W. Snead  and  her sons, John Snead,  28-year  old teacher   at   the   college;   Fletcher,  later   to   become  husband  of Ocey Martin.

2.     Mrs.  Caroline   W.  Martin   and   her   daughter  Ocey   Martin first  cousin   and  wife  of  Fletcher  Snead.  Because  of  her  beauty and   striking

 resemblance   to   Virginia  Wardlaw,  gossips  hinted that  she might  be the  daughter and not  the  niece of the beautiful unmarried  Virginia Wardlaw.

3.     Miss Virginia Wardlaw, beautiful, cultured  educator.

4.      Mrs. Bessie Wardlaw Spindle, already living in Christiansburg, married  to  a successful  member  of  a  prestigous  family.

She  was not   at  anytime connected with  the  college  or  the  questionable events that  occurred there.

John  and  Fletcher  Snead  were married and living in Lynville, Tennessee.  Mrs.  Martin  was away  from  the  college for awhile.

It later  developed  that  she had visited John  and his wife and insisted that   John return  with  her  to  Christiansburg to  teach.

 His wife pleaded   with  him  not  to  go. John   told  neighbors  his aunt  was trying   to  ruin  his  marriage  and  called  the  police  to  evict  her from his house.

What  strange  hypnotic   power  had  Caroline  Martin?

 On  a second  trip  to  see John  he  weakened  and  returned  with her  to teach at the Montgomery Female Academy.

Misfortunes  befell John.  Traveling with  Mrs. Martin he had fallen  off  a  train  near  Roanoke,  accidentally   he  said,  but  the brakeman  said it looked  like a suicide attempt.

Later, John  half­ drowned   had   been   pulled  from   a  cistern   by  Sonny  Correll, caretaker  at the college.

Weeks later, the screams of Virginia Wardlaw brought others to John’s  room in the college. He was on fire in his nightclothes, the  bedclothes  were saturated   with  kerosene.

Several hours later John  died. Was it suicide or murder? It was an accident the sisters said.

John’s  life had  been sizeably insured by  his aunts.  He had recently  changed  the  beneficiary  from  his  wife  to  Virginia Wardlaw.

Virginia Wardlaw went among the residents of Christiansburg  soliciting  affidavits  to  the accidental  death  of John  Snead. With little success for the townspeople suspected foul play.

Crime   was   not  uncommon  in Christiansburg.  Violence committed  in  the  heat  of  anger with  knife  or  gun, they  understood.

 But   John’s death   had   the  look   of  a  planned   killing. Premeditated   and  committed  for greed:                                  

Young  were  sometimes  killed  by  animal  parents.  But  the  sisters  were human  or were they?

Eventually  the  insurance  company  made a satisfactory settlement with  Virginia Wardlaw. Again Mrs. Martin was absent from  the  college.

 After  a period  of  time  Fletcher  came  to  the college divorced  from  his wife, so the  sisters said. However, the students   at  the  college  and  the  

town  residents  were  surprised when  he and Ocey Martin were married since at no time had the couple  shown  the warmth  of lovers.

As time went on, the sisters owed debts to tradespeople which they could or would not pay. Lawyers had claims against them.

Sinister  events  had  created  fear among the residents of this old  Southern town.  People hesitated  to answer a knock on their door.

 Too frequently, on one pretext  or another,  the sisters were there  … veiled in  black, somber  and  austere.

 One lady  whose parents  lived here  at  the  time  said people  were afraid to  go on the streets  at night. The sisters were known  to visit the cemetery often.  

One  hack  driver: said  they  frequently  hired  him  to  drive them  to  the  cemetery. They   always  had  him  stop   at  its  edge while they walked farther into the grounds.

One night after  several such  occurrences, he followed  them  unseen. In the dim moonlight, he  saw  them  gather  about a grave.

They  made  gestures  skyward and  murmured  garbled  incantations which  he  could  not  understand. He later  told  that  his whole body shook  with fear, so strong was his feeling that  Evil was near.

Legend  says  girls would  awaken  at  night  to  find  the  black­ robed  sisters  standing on  each  side  of  the  bed  . . . withdrawing without explanation of  their  presence.

 Like experiences spread through the  dormitories of  the  college,  No wonder girls packed, got  their   luggage  to  the  depot, and  took the  first  train  home.

Girls  living in  the  town  dropped out  of  school. Memory  of  the tragic  death  of young  John  Snead  could  not  be forgotten by  the parents or girls. What might not  happen  next?

Prior  to  1908 the  Black  Sisters  had  left  Christiansburg, one by one. So had Ocey and Fletcher Snead.

 

 Mary  Snead, Caroline M artin, and  Virginia  Wardlaw, the  three black  sisters.

Why  are  they garbed  in  black ? Twhich a  reporter replied,  Perhaps they  mourn  for  loved   ones  goneor   for  those about to go.

(Photos used with  permission o f Little, Brown and Co., Toronto, Canada)

 

A  year  later, the  death   of  Ocey  Snead  hit the  papers.  i n East  Orange,  New Jersey,  the  police  had  been  called  to  a shabby house.

The  door   had   been  opened   by  a  woman  thickly  veiled  in black,  who  identified herself  as Virginia  Wardlaw.

She  guided  the investigating  officer  upstairs  to  a  bathroom where  he found  the nude  body  of  Ocey  Snead  squatted in a half-filled  tub  of water, her head tilted  under  the faucet.

The officer  noticed  the  beauty  of the  dead  girl. Her features were delicate  and  classic, her eyes staring  in death  were large  and brown,  her  auburn hair  spread  like  a fan  on  the  water.  

She had been  dead  over  24 hours.

“Lovely, lovable  Ocey,” Bessie  Wardlaw  Spindle  had  once described  her niece. A suicide  note  in which the girl expressed  her despondency over  loved ones lost, was pinned  to a garment  beside the  tub.  

Miss Wardlaw had  quickly  identified the girl as her niece, Ocey  Snead,  but  her answer  to  other  questions were so unsatis­factory that  she was held for further questioning.

Continued investigation by the police led to macabre  findings, life in cold,  dark, dirty  houses  in shabby  neighborhoods; with  no heat,   no  hot   water,   

with  eggshells  and  empty  condensed milk cans  scattered about but  no  food. At  the  same  time,  the  aunts were dining at prestigious restaurants.

A  janitor said  that a year earlier Ocey and  Fletcher  had moved  into  a house  in which they seemed happy. Several  months later,   two   older   women  dressed   in  black  came,  

followed   by  a third  in  black.  In  March,  Fletcher had  left.  In August,  Ocey  had given birth   to  a  baby  boy.  Later  the  baby  had  been  taken  from her  and  put  in a hospital.

At  that  time, Ocey had told the doctor that  she was being starved to death  and begged for help.

The  doctor said the  Black Sisters  would  not allow  the  niece to talk with him, would not give her the medicines he had prescrib­ed nor would they  allow him to remove stitches from an operation he had performed on Ocey.

Later  in  this  house,  from  which  Ocey  and  the  Black Sisters had  been  evicted, two  policemen  and  a reporter had found in the kitchen  range,  a  mass  of  yellow  hair  wrapped  about the  femur bone and the eye socket  of an infant.

A will dated  August  7, 1909, was brought forward  in which Ocey  had  left  everything to  her  84-year-old   grandmother. The trial  of  the  sisters  began, January 9, 1911. The case had  dragged

through the  courts  for several years  in which time no satisfactory explanation could be given for incriminating events  brought to light.

Eventually, Mary Snead,  implicated with  Virginia  Wardlaw,

pleaded  guilty  to  manslaughter and was released in the custody of her son  Albert  who  took  her  to  Colorado to live out  her  days on a ranch  he owned.

During  the  trial,  Fletcher Snead,  husband of Ocey, had been investigated  as a suspect. He was traced  to a sparsely settled region of Canada.  There  under  the  assumed  name  of John Lucas,

he was found  cooking  in a lumber  camp.  No incriminating evidence  was found against him.

Caroline  W. Martin  was sentenced to jail and sent to the New Jersey State  prison.  Her  emotional behavior  became  so unstable that  she  was  transferred  to  the  State   Hospital   for  the   Insane where she died shortly.

While awaiting  trial,  Virginia  O. Wardlaw starved  herself  by refusing to eat.

Relatives   had   her  body  sent  to Christiansburg to  the Methodist Church. After a simple funeral service, she was buried in the Sunset Cemetery not  far from  the Montgomery Female College.

At that place, clothed  in the prestige of an important southern name   and   welcomed  by  Mrs. Bessie  Wardlaw  Spindle   and  her friends, Virginia  O. Wardlaw   had  known  for  a  time  respect  and happiness.