Martin was a survivor and was fearless in life as he had been during combat serving with Gen. John Hunt Morgan during the Civil War.
He was severely wounded saving Morgan’s life at McMinnville, but survived and went on to lead the Confederate plot to burn New York City to the ground. He eluded capture after that mission failed and attempted to abduct Vice President Andrew Johnson.
Eventually taken into custody, he revealed to fellow inmates knowledge of the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and admitted knowing assassin John Wilkes Booth.
After the war, he moved to Evansville, Ind., and then back to his native Kentucky, where he built a mansion that along with its stables and grounds took up an entire block in Wilder Park, a suburb of Louisville.
He earned the money in the tobacco industry with the house costing what was then an amazing $30,000 and the barns and stables $8,000.
In the turbulent economy of the post-Civil War days, Martin won and lost several fortunes and gained a bride, Caroline Wardlaw.
When the house burned mysteriously, Martin lived for a while in a small dwelling built on the property before returning to New York to make another go at financial recovery.
It was 1900, when the first of a long series of suspicious deaths began with the death of Martin’s son who was injured in long fall down steps at the family’s home in New York. “Brain fever” (encephalitis or meningitis) claimed his life a few days later.
It was said the Wardlaw/Martin family collected on a $22,000 life insurance policy on the boy.
Following his death, the family moved to a nicer home off 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
It didn’t take long for the dashing Confederate colonel to develop medical problems of his own.
Within two months of arriving back in New York, neighbors heard groans and a crash and rushed to the aid of the colonel, who had suffered a “paralytic stroke.” A stern looking Caroline was sitting above his unconscious body, and his daughter Ocey (Oceana) was weeping. The mother cautioned her daughter not to speak.
The colonel died at Dr. Miller’s sanitarium on 59th Street in NYC. He was 61 years old.
His death merited a brief article in the Jan. 12, 1901 New York Times recounting his exploits.
Following the colonel’s death, Caroline and her daughter Oceana moved back to Murfreesboro where they joined Caroline’s sisters Virginia and Mary at Soule College.
This is when the sisters started wearing their black mourning clothes with heavy, black veils.
The “sisters in black” grew even more eccentric, chanting as they roamed the halls of the college on Maple Street. Her classmates at the school also regarded Ocey as peculiar.
When Virginia was forced to resign, the sisters then moved to Christiansburg, Va. and Montgomery Female Academy.
After arriving, Caroline Martin headed south on an important mission, recruiting her nephew, John Snead, to teach at the academy. John and his brother Fletcher were living in Lynnville, Tenn. John’s wife begged him not to leave, but Caroline persisted.
You see, his mother and her sisters had insured John for a sizable amount. Virginia Wardlaw, not his wife, was his beneficiary.
Traveling to Christiansburg with his aunt Caroline, John was pushed or jumped from the train near Roanoke. He survived, only to nearly drown when he “accidentally” fell in a cistern at the academy. An alert caretaker saved him.
Third time proved the charm when students and faculty were awakened by John’s screams. He was ablaze. His bedclothes soaked by spilled lamp oil had caught fire. His aunt, Virginia, called it an accident, but townsfolk suspected foul play.
But after an investigation, the insurance company reached an agreement with the aunts.
Caroline, along with Ocey, disappeared again and returned to Christiansburg with John’s brother, Fletcher, who was freshly divorced and apparently married to his first cousin, Ocey.
Residents of the community found the marriage as bizarre as the sisters’ behavior, particularly since Fletcher and Ocey showed no warmth toward each other. They also suspected Oceana was actually the daughter of the unmarried Virginia Wardlaw due to their remarkable resemblance.
Rumors continued to swirl around the Wardlaw family who were said to visit the Christiansburg cemetery often at night where they chanted and may have performed incantations. Legend says girls would awaken at night to find the black-robed sisters standing on each side of the bed and walking silently away with no explanation.
By 1908, the sisters in black had left Christiansburg, slipping away separately. Eventually, the Female Academy was razed and replaced by a public school. Christiansburg Middle School now stands on the site.
The surviving members of the Wardlaw family were to next appear in East Orange, N.J. and there to become the focus of the “Crime of the Century.”