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It was a slow afternoon on November 29, 1909 at the East Orange Police Department when Sergeant Timothy Caniff answered the telephone. On the other end of the line was the voice of an elderly woman with a strange request, a coroner. She explained there had been an "accident", and gave her address as 89 North 14th Street. Since Essex County did not have a coroner, the Sergeant called Dr. Herbert M. Simmons, the Assistant County Physician, located nearby close to the Ampere Train Station. He walked across the Lackawanna Railroad Overpass and continued along three blocks until he reached the designated destination. Before he could knock at the door it opened and he was greeted by an elderly woman dressed in black with heavy veils obscuring her face. Taken aback, the doctor felt reassured when she introduced herself in a courtly southern accent as Virginia Wardlaw.

The woman in black led the Simmons up the stairs to the second floor. On the way he noticed the lack of furniture and the chill in the air, as if the house had been unoccupied for a long period of time. When they reached the bathroom, he found what he had come for, the nude, dead body of a young and attractive woman. After a preliminary inspection of the body, the doctor noticed a pile of clothing in the corner with a note attached. It read:

"Last year my little daughter died; others near and dear have gone before. I have been prostrated with illness for a long time. When you read this I will have committed suicide. Do not grieve over me. Rejoice with me that death brings a blessed relief from pain and suffering greater than I can bear - O.W.M. Snead"

The veiled woman identified the body as her niece, Ocey Snead (see picture above). She confirmed all the information contained in the note, and added that the dead woman also had a four month old son who was hospitalized in Brooklyn, and a had become a widow just seven months earlier. They had both recently moved into and shared the house.

Simmons was immediately suspicious. Ocey Snead had been dead for at least twenty-four hours, and the woman had no reasonable explanation why she had never checked on her sick and despondent niece for the past day. This, along with the unoccupied appearance of the house caused him to stop at the nearest phone, and contact the police department to request a detective. Thus began the one of the most famous and bizarre cases in the history of New Jersey justice.


East Orange veteran detective, Sergeant William O'Neill, arrived at the dimly lit house on 14th Street at around 6:00pm. Reluctantly, Virginia Wardlaw allowed him to enter and inspect the premises. He confirmed Dr. Simmon's earlier observations and noted only one bedroom in the house showed any trace of occupancy. The small room on the second floor contained a simple cot and a few personal effects. The detective interrogated the elderly woman, and found that although her age may be sixty or so, her mind was still sharp and sound. She avoided giving the officer any additional details, only reiterating what she had told Dr. Simmons. When Detective O'Neill became more insistent, she refused to answer any additional questions claiming he had no right to ask them of her.

Miss Wardlaw was taken into custody as a material witness and brought to Police Headquarters. There Police Chief James Bell, began to question her further, but she would provide just one additional clue. She and her niece had arrived in East Orange ten days before from Brooklyn. She remained silent about all else, including Ocey Snead's maiden name, her background, the names of any relatives, etc. The Chief was puzzled by the woman's reluctance to provide them with any real facts, but one fact he knew puzzled him even more. How could a young woman, especially one so weakened, write a suicide note so clearly and intelligently, and then summon the inner strength to hold her head under water until she drowned? Would not a person instinctively jerk their head up to save himself or herself? With too many questions and too few answers he ordered the woman in black held as a material witness at the nearby Essex County Jail on Wilsey Street in Newark.

The next day, the police were busy questioning the neighbors of the bleak house on 14th Street and following up on other leads. The neighbors shared many stories about the strange, dark house, and the many comings and goings of people at it. Some told of a second elderly woman dressed in black that had visited there. A nearby doctor stated that six nights earlier he had been summoned to the house by Virginia Wardlaw to provide a health certificate for Ocey Snead. Finding her in good general health, though weak, he did so. Detective O'Neill also found out the address of the women's previous lodging in Brooklyn, and traveled there to see what information he could uncover. Neighbors in Brooklyn referred to the address in question as the "House of Mystery," because of the strange and unusual behavior of the occupants. As in East Orange, the house was always dark and shuttered with no heat. They also reported of not one or two elderly women dressed in black, but three. Investigating further, Detective O'Neill found a copy of Ocey Snead's last will and testament written two months earlier. In it she had left everything to her grandmother, Martha Eliza Wardlaw, in trust for her infant son.

Back in East Orange, detectives completed a more thorough search of 89 North 14th Street and turned up a bundle of life insurance policies drawn on the life of Ocey Snead. What they did not find, however, was just as incriminating. Nowhere in the home could they locate any writing instrument or ink. The coroner also completed his examination of the dead body and found the official cause of death was drowning, but that starvation had been a contributing factor. Chief Bell weighed the motive of financial gain, the signs of neglect, and the lack of anything found in the house that could have been used to write the suicide note. He determined he had a murder on his hands.


When Virginia Wardlaw was brought before a judge at the Essex County Courthouse in Newark the next day, dozens of newspaper reporters and photographers were waiting. The bathtub tragedy had become the lead story in both the local Newark newspapers and the many of the New York City tabloids. Some reporters trailed the investigating detectives, some discovered their own leads, and a few just made the facts up.

The police continued their investigation and confirmed the existence of the two additional women dressed in black the neighbors had spoken of, who they believed were the sisters of the accused. They also kept turning up more and more life insurance policies, although they determined that the vast majority of these policies were worthless, having been borrowed against to their maximum value. When the police found another bundle of documents stored in Manhattan, some questions were finally answered. The papers revealed that they were dealing with one of great families of the old South, a family that produced judges, politicians, reverends, surgeons, college presidents and all the best of society in the ante-bellum days. Rent receipts from the same bundle led them to another suspect in the case, one of the missing sisters of Virginia Wardlaw, Mary Snead.

Mary Snead was found living in a basement apartment in New York with her aged mother. Wearing the same veiled, black garb her sister was never seen without, and she confirmed Virginia's story and added a few details. Ocey Snead was both her niece and daughter-in-law, having married Mary's son Fletcher Snead. Fletcher and Ocey were first cousins, but marriage between first cousins was legal in many Southern states. The sisters, she said, had never mistreated Ocey. If she did without food or heat, they did so also due to a lack of money. They had refused to ask friends for financial help in deference to their family's position and their "Southern Pride," preferring death to dishonor. Mary refused to provide any details about the location of the third sister, the mother of Ocey Snead, and refused to leave her apartment. Lacking a warrant, the detectives were forced to leave her there under surveillance by the New York City police.

On December 7, Ocey Snead was laid to rest at the Mount Hope Cemetery in New York City. Mary Snead attended the short service at the graveside. Prison authorities refused Virginia Wardlaw's request to attend, or to even view the body before shipment to New York. Ocey's mother, if she was in the area, chose not to visit her daughter for the last time.


With one sister, Virginia Wardlaw, in jail, and another, Mary Snead, under observation in New York, police continued the search for the third, the elusive Caroline Martin. Additional details about the lives of the three women continued to come in. All three had been involved in education, and had even run a women's college in the South. Mrs. Martin had also worked as a New York City schoolteacher for many years, and had been forced to retire seven years earlier because of her increasingly strange behavior. She received a pension of $1,000 per year.

On December 14, New York City police received a call from the manager of the Bayard Hotel to report the bizarre actions of a guest who had checked in earlier that day. She was an elderly woman in dressed in veiled, black clothing and was acting in a suspicious manner. Sure that they had located the long sought for Caroline Martin, the police immediately contacted East Orange authorities. Detective O'Neill arrived at the hotel later that day with a swarm of reporters trailing him. Mrs. Martin refused to answer the door, and the Detective could not force her since again there was no warrant. To try and throw the press off track it was decided to move her to another room and tell the reporters that she had left the hotel. Mrs. Martin, seeking only privacy, agreed to the ruse. The reporters were not fooled, however, and they sought her out. Finding the location of her previous room and searching it, they discovered a small black tin box she had inadvertently left behind. In it the reporters were shocked to find three suicide notes, all written in the same hand and manner as the one found at the death scene of Ocey Snead. The embarrassed detective took possession of the box and immediately sent word back to East Orange where a warrant was issued for the arrest of Ocey's mother.

Caroline Martin was taken into custody by New York City police and held for extradition to New Jersey. When she was interviewed in her jail cell she gave the same story as her sisters. Ocey Snead, she said, was sickly and despondent and had been so for months. She had often threatened suicide, and the incriminating notes found by the police were just earlier versions of her final suicide note. These notes had been confiscated by Mrs. Martin in an effort to dissuade her from continuing the behavior. She explained, "It is the custom of educated and refined people to leave notes upon committing suicide. The illiterate and unrefined rarely do. It was perfectly natural then for her to make the note she left as nearly perfect as she could. It seems to a most natural thing to do." It seemed most unnatural to the police.

From correspondences they had seized, and from information gleaned from local acquaintances and former friends, the police were convinced that Caroline Martin was the guiding power of the family group. They were also convinced that Mary Snead had played a part in the death of Ocey. Two days after the arrest of Mrs. Martin, a warrant was issued in the name of Mary Snead, and she joined her sister in a New York prison cell. While searching through Mary's possessions at her basement apartment, the police found another batch of suicide notes. They now had a suicide note for every occasion, "An all purpose series," as the police referred to them.

On the same day, the "dead" son of Mary Snead was discovered in much improved health by reporters. Fletcher Snead was found working in Canada. At first he denied his identity, but after a few days he relented and granted the press an interview. He claimed he had left New York City to avoid testifying in court against a childhood friend and former employer in a bank fraud case. "Southern Pride was at the heart of the manner," he insisted. His aunts and mother had said he was dead to protect him. It was a matter of honor to them. He had loved his wife, Ocey Snead, with all his heart, and could never believe his family had anything to do with her death. They loved her as much as he did. Fletcher refused to return to New Jersey and authorities in New Jersey could not compel him. He refused to comment any further on the case.

On December 22, the Grand Jury indicted all three sisters in black for murder and for aiding, abetting and counseling Ocey Snead in self-murder. This allowed the prosecutor, Wilbur Mott, to try any one of the sisters as the principal in the murder, and the others as accessories, or try any or all for murder for helping Ocey Snead commit suicide. Caroline Martin and Mary Snead were brought to the Essex County Jail and allowed a short reunion with their sister, Virginia Wardlaw They were then assigned adjoining cells. On January 29, 1910, they made there first joint appearance in court. Dressed in black, and heavily veiled as always, it was difficult for onlookers to tell them apart. After listening to the charges against them, they pled not guilty. The trial date was set for April 11.