Oceana Wardlaw Martin Snead (September 1885 – November 29, 1909) also known as Ocey Snead, was drugged and drowned in East Orange, New Jersey, by her own family to collect $32,000 (equivalent to $850,000 in 2016) in insurance money.
Birth and family
Oceana was born in September 1885, probably in Manhattan, New York, New York, to Caroline B. Wardlaw (c. 1850–1913), and Colonel Robert Maxwell Martin, who had fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Her mother had a career in education, at one point being removed from a position due to unstable behavior. She got her nickname, Ocey, because she frequently garbled her real name in her baby talk.
Caroline Wardlaw had three sisters, who were Ocey's aunts. The elder sister was Mary E. Long Wardlaw (1849–1937), who married Fletcher Tillman Snead (1829–1891). Together they produced a son, Fletcher Wardlaw Snead (1875–1955), who was Ocey's first cousin and would become her husband. The second sister was Virginia Oceana Wardlaw (1852–1910) who never married. Both sisters were also involved in education. Both of Ocey's aunts were also implicated in her murder. The third sister, who was not implicated in her murder, was Bessie Gertrude Wardlaw (1867–1954) who married Richard Spindle (1855–1928).
The three siblings were the daughters of Martha Elizabeth Wardlaw, née Goodall (1828–1910), and John Baptist Wardlaw (1817–1896), a minister and South Carolina Supreme Court justice. The sisters were known for dressing in black at almost all times and for their secretive behavior. One report indicated the sisters performed strange rituals at night in the Sunset Cemetery at Christiansburg, Virginia. Several strange deaths followed the women in their later lives.
Ocey secretly married Fletcher Wardlaw Snead, her first cousin, in 1906 in Louisville, Kentucky. The wedding took place in secret because the family was originally opposed to the union. A second ceremony was held on January 13, 1908, at Jersey City, New Jersey, after the sisters had been "won over", shortly before the birth of their first child.:97 Together they had two children: Mary Alberta Snead (1908); and David Pollock Snead (1909–1910). Fletcher was the son of Mary E. Long Wardlaw and Fletcher Tillman Snead and he had two siblings: John Wardlaw Snead (1878 – February 1906) and Albert Charles Snead (1880–1978). In 1880 Fletcher was living in Oglethorpe, Georgia, with his parents. Fletcher was previously married to Vashti Gordon McLaurin (1872–1953) who was born in Old Lynnville, Tennessee. Fletcher and Vashti had one child together: Robert Tillman Snead (1900–?). Vashti moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma, by 1920; by 1930 she was living in West Palm Beach, Florida, with her son. She returned to Tennessee and died there, while her son remained in Florida and raised a family.
After they received word that Ocey was pregnant, the three sisters chased him to Canada and virtually kidnapped Ocey to Brooklyn. Subsequent to this, Ocey's mother told her that Fletcher Snead had died. In fact, Fletcher was alive and well and in contact with his mother and aunts.
Montgomery College, originally established in 1850 as the Montgomery Female Academy, located in Christiansburg, Virginia, was owned and directed by Oceana Seaborn Goodall Pollock, Martha Eliza Wardlaw's sister. Around 1905, Oceana Pollock put Virginia Wardlaw, newly arrived in Christiansburg, in charge of the school. Virginia's younger sister, Bessie Spindle, was already living in the area with her husband, Richard, a prominent businessman in the area. All was well for a time; the school's dormitories were refurbished, the curriculum updated, and Virginia had returned to her love of teaching. Soon, however, Mary Snead arrived, followed by two of her sons, Fletcher and John. The trio's arrival created no problems, but when Caroline Martin arrived, accompanied by her daughter Ocey, things swiftly went awry, as Caroline took over administration of the school. She made sudden changes to the curriculum, moving students from one classroom to another for no apparent reason, and instilled suspicion and secrecy by installing up to three padlocks on some doors, also for no apparent reason. All three sisters took to roaming the halls, surprising the residents with their sudden appearances.
Mary Snead's sons, Fletcher and John, moved to Lynnville, Tennessee, opening a sawmill together and courting the women who would become their wives in a double wedding, the two daughters of a prominent lawyer in the area, J. R. McLaurin. John married Anna Laird McLaurin and Fletcher married her sister, Vashti.
Around 1906, Caroline Wardlaw visited John in Lynnville. While there, she insisted that John return with her to Christiansburg to teach at the school. His wife pleaded with him to stay, and he refused his aunt's demands, even having police remove her from his house. He told his neighbors he wouldn't allow Caroline to wreck his home. She returned in a few weeks, however, and John accompanied her back to the school in Christiansburg, leaving his wife, Anna, behind. She wrote letters, but John was now under the thumbs of his aunts; Anna's health soon declined and she was placed in a sanitarium.
John's spirits also declined. On two occasions it was suspected that he attempted suicide—one when he fell off a train as it was picking up speed traveling near Roanoke, Virginia, in the company of his aunt, Caroline Martin. They insisted it was an accident, but the brakeman felt he had witnessed a suicide attempt. A few weeks later, he was pulled from an open cistern just in time to save his life. This time, his aunt, Virginia Wardlaw, raised the alarm and subsequently explained the accident—John had been taking measurements to provide a water supply for the school. A week later, Virginia again raised an alarm, at eight o'clock in the morning. John was found thrashing about on the floor of his room at the college, his nightclothes on fire. Three hours later, he was dead of first-degree burns. The three sisters insisted it was an accident, not a suicide, and eventually received an insurance settlement in the amount of $12,000 (equivalent to $319,867 in 2016). It later emerged they had doused him with kerosene and burned him alive while he slept to collect the insurance.
While John's last months were playing out, Caroline Martin traveled to Lynnville and insisted that Fletcher accompany her to Louisville, Kentucky, concerning some family property. The next his wife, Vashti, heard, he was very sick and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Vashti traveled there but Caroline refused to let her see Fletcher, claiming that he was too ill. She told Vashti to go home and that Fletcher would join her there shortly. A week later, he still had not returned, and Vashti made a second trip to Chattanooga, where she discovered that Fletcher had been "moved from one boardinghouse to another by a woman answering to the description of Mrs. Martin".:89–90 She returned home, and, after a period of time, Vashti obtained a divorce. Fletcher then came to the college and married Ocey Martin.
The three sisters entered into several fraudulent business deals in Christiansburg and the surrounding communities, eroding any trust the residents of that area had in them and sparking much speculation about their habits. Attendance at the school dropped, and chaos reigned in the classrooms. Vandals wreaked extensive damage on the school and, by 1908, all three sisters and Fletcher and Ocey Snead left Christiansburg for New York, New York.
Treatment and death
For reasons that remain unknown, Ocey was the object of scorn from her mother and aunts, who deliberately tried to starve her to death virtually from the day she was born.
Subsequent to the departure of her husband, Ocey’s health began to fail. Dr. William Pettit was called in to look at the sickly pregnant woman. He found her suffering from depression, “general weakness”, and malnutrition. “She seemed depressed and indeed afraid of those about her,” he told police later.
Dr. Pettit visited the Wardlaw household several times and each time found that his instructions for Ocey’s care were not being followed. Because the sisters were not cooperating, nor were they paying him, he stopped visiting. The sisters called another doctor, who smuggled her food when he saw her condition. Not long after Ocey's baby was born, he sneaked through a window to check on her, but Virginia threw him out. A lawyer subsequently told him there was nothing that could be done.
Several months after Dr. Pettit ceased treating Ocey, he was once again summoned. There he found Ocey depressed, even weaker, and no longer pregnant. The baby, named David, had been taken to a hospital, where he was in poor health. He was later placed in an orphanage by the sisters; however, he died when just a year old and is buried next to his mother.
Virginia told the doctor that he should break the news to Ocey that she was dying and that the time had come for her to make a will. Instead, Dr. Pettit ordered that a nurse be brought in to care for Ocey. The nurse stayed just one day before being put out by the Wardlaw sisters. Rather than pay the $100 bill presented by the doctor, the Wardlaw sisters offered to make him a $1,000 beneficiary in Ocey’s will. He declined and decided to take steps against the family, believing that Ocey was “under some hypnotic influence.” What he did not know was that Ocey was being given regular but unnecessary doses of morphine for her post-partum pain by her mother and aunts. At the same time, her two-year-old daughter had been removed from the home to foster care. Ocey was later told she had died. Her fate remains a mystery.
When Dr. Pettit returned to check on Ocey before he reported the strange case to police, he found the place abandoned and the sisters gone.
They next surfaced in another Brooklyn neighborhood in September 1909, when Virginia Wardlaw, wearing a thick layer of black veils, visited Julius Carabba, a New York attorney, and asked him to help a dying woman prepare a will. Carabba came to Ocey’s bedside while her mother and aunts chanted prayers over her. After the prayers, Virginia asked Ocey if she wanted to make a new will. Ocey agreed. Carabba told the women that Ocey needed a doctor and some food. The Wardlaw sisters said they could afford neither. He offered to write them a check and while the sisters left the room in search of a pen, Carabba talked to Ocey. She told him that she was dying, reached under her pillow and gave him her will, in which she left everything to her grandmother and asked him to make himself executor. The Wardlaw sisters offered Carabba $7,000 (equivalent to $186,589 in 2016) to make them the beneficiaries—Mother Wardlaw was too old, they said. Carabba refused and the sisters dropped him as their attorney.
In October 1909, Virginia Wardlaw was served as defendant in a lawsuit for nonpayment of the price of a new piano. Her response to the plaintiff was “wait until we bury our dead.”
At this time, Ocey was near death from lack of food and medical care and was moved to an apartment at 89 East 14th Street, East Orange, New Jersey. There was no heat or gas for cooking and the place was furnished with just two cots, a rug, a chair, and a barrel for a table.
The police were called by the family on November 29, 1909, and told there was an "accident". The police then sent a physician to their home. Virginia Wardlaw led Dr. Herbert M. Simmons, the Assistant County Physician, upstairs to a bathroom where he found the naked body of Ocey Snead, sitting in a tub of water with her head tilted under the faucet.
There was a suicide note pinned to her clothes beside the bathtub. The note read as follows:
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 world are greater than I can endure.
- Ocey W.M. Snead
Ocey was buried on December 7, 1909, at Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York.
Investigation and trial
Virginia Wardlaw's answers to the doctor were suspicious and the police were called to investigate.
The cause of death was identified as drowning, with starvation as a contributing cause. Suspicion for the death quickly focused on her family, particularly her mother and two aunts. The investigator who originally arrived at the home noted that it was cold and appeared unoccupied, and that the victim had been dead for at least 24 hours, prompting investigators to consider the death suspicious, specifically wondering about the delay in finding Ocey deceased.
The evidence against the women consisted of several life insurance policies that had been taken out on the young woman, suicide notes found in the possession of Ocey's mother that were written in the same hand and similar style as the note alleged to have been Ocey's suicide note, and the family's treatment of Ocey prior to her death. All three were arrested and charged with murder.
- Fletcher Wardlaw Snead (1875–1955), Ocey's husband, was located under the name "John Lucas" cooking at the New Murray hotel in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada and questioned. No incriminating evidence was found against him and he was never charged in connection with his wife's murder. He died in Los Angeles, California, on January 12, 1955, under his own name.
- Virginia Oceana Wardlaw (1852–1910), Ocey's unmarried maternal aunt, had attended Wellesley College and had never married. She taught at the Price School in Nashville, Tennessee, then, in 1892, she became the head of the Soule Female College in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Around 1902 she moved to the Montgomery Female Academy in Christiansburg, Virginia. She died of self-induced starvation on August 12, 1910, while waiting for the trial to begin. Her body was sent to Christiansburg, Virginia, for burial in Sunset Cemetery.
- Caroline Belle Wardlaw Martin (1845–1913), Ocey's mother, had a career in education, at one point being removed from a position due to unstable behavior. She was considered to have been the instigator of her daughter's murder. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter as part of a plea bargain. She was sentenced to seven years in prison and sent to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey. She was declared mentally unstable on May 18, 1912, and was then transferred to the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton, New Jersey, where she died on June 20, 1913. Years later, evidence emerged that suggested she poisoned her husband to collect on a $10,000 (equivalent to $287,880 in 2016) life insurance policy.
- Mary E. Long Wardlaw Snead (1849–1937), Ocey's maternal aunt and mother-in-law, was cleared of all charges on a technicality. Her younger sister had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, she could not be charged as an accessory. She moved to her son's ranch in Colorado and was never heard from again.
- "Fletcher Snead Missing". Urbana Daily Courier. January 11, 1910. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
- "Miss Wardlaw Dies. Starved Herself. Ocey Snead's Aunt, Soon to Have Been Tried for Niece's Murder, Had Refused to Eat". The New York Times. August 12, 1910. p. 1. Retrieved August 4, 2014.
Miss Virginia O. Wardlaw, aunt of Mrs. Ocey W. M. Snead, whose body was found in the bathtub of an East Orange, N. J., house on Nov. 29, died yesterday in the House of Detention in Newark, N. J., where she was awaiting trial for the murder of her niece. Her sisters, Mrs. Mary Snead and Mrs. Caroline B. Martin, mother of the bathtub victim, are in jail in Newark, also awaiting trial on the same charge.
- "Caroline B. Martin Dies. Had Been Committed as Insane After Confessing to Killing Her Daughter". The New York Times. June 21, 1913. p. 2. Retrieved August 4, 2014.
Trenton, N. J., June 20.—Mrs. Caroline B. Martin, 67 years old, mother of Ocey Snead, found dead in a bathtub in her home in East Orange under circumstances that led to the mother's trial and conviction of manslaughter, died late to-night [sic] in the State Hospital for the Insane here, to which institution she had been committed after having been sentenced to seven years in State Prison. Her death is regarded as mysterious by hospital authorities.
Other potential victims
- Hugh Martin (1881–1888), Ocey's brother. He may have been pushed down a flight of stairs and died a few days later.
- "Mrs. Snead's Family Full Of Fatalities. Family Apparently Pursued by a Strange Fatality for Many Years". The New York Times. December 9, 1909. Retrieved 2014-08-27.
There was a boy, the first child of Col. Martin ... When he had reached the age of about 7 the boy had a fall down a long flight of steps, receiving severe injuries. Before many days brain fever set in, terminating in his death in two or three days.
Family of Ocey Snead
- University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey Libraries, "Scrapbook of Photographic Evidence Regarding the Death of Ocey Snead," Harrison S. Martland, MD Papers