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 ? To which a reporter replied, “Perhaps they mourn for loved ones gone–or 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.