From the Back of the Shelf: Three Sisters in Black

Sometimes you stumble upon an old, unknown book through circumstances totally unrelated to its subject. I discovered Three Sisters in Black, by Norman Zierold, while perusing missing persons cases (Zierold having written a book about the 1874 disappearance of little Charley Ross, the victim of the first kidnap-for-ransom in America). Subtitled “The Bizarre True Case of ‘The Bathtub Tragedy'” there was no way I could pass it up. A week later, my copy arrived in the form of a long-retired library book, crinkly plastic cover still intact.

Published in 1968, the book tells the story of the three Wardlaw sisters – spinster Virginia, meek Mary Snead and the domineering oldest, Caroline Martin – their strange existence and the suspicious death in 1909 of Martin’s daughter Ocey.

There’s no shortage of insanity in either the Wardlaw family or this story. The sisters were born into a well-to-do Southern family in the mid-1800s, and spent much of their adult lives operating private schools for the children of their society peers. But by the time of Ocey Snead’s murder (she was married to her first cousin, Mary Snead’s son Fletcher) they had been living in various hotels, boarding houses and apartments in New York City and New Jersey, coming and going only late at night and wearing black dresses and veils, as if  in permanent mourning.

Ocey’s death occurred in a house practically bare of furniture in East Orange, New Jersey. The sisters were adamant her death was a suicide, but police were suspicious and eventually arrested all three for her murder.

Eventually a muddy backstory emerges involving the sisters’ financial troubles, numerous insurance policies on Ocey and a volume of suicide notes that may or may not have been written by her. The possible mistreatment of other family members by the sisters also emerges and it quickly becomes clear that these aren’t the kind of relatives you’d ask to look after your cat while you were on vacation.

The sheer oddity of the sisters, the tragedy of the woman’s death possibly at the hands of her own mother, and the way the police put together the pieces of this bizarre puzzle can’t help but make for a good story. But there is a major frustration.

Zierold never quite gets behind the sisters’ heavy black veils to find out what made Mrs. Martin – who emerges as the clear leader of the three – so mentally unbalanced and so successful in compelling her two younger sisters to go along with her murderous plot. The book is drawn from court records and newspapers accounts, none of which provide Zierold with any real first-person accounts of the sisters and their journey from Southern money to Northern murder. The lack of this type of primary source leaves the story’s participants feeling one dimensional and impossible to understand. At the time the book was published, it’s possible there were still relatives alive that had known the sisters, or at least heard the family stories about them, and I wish Zierold had sought them out.

That said, I wouldn’t pass this book up for that reason. It’s still a story unlike any I’ve read and the sisters – with their mysterious secrets and late night wanderings, draped in black – lend it a Gothic eeriness that quickly draws a reader in, even if it leaves her wanting more at the end.

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