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Ocey Snead: 1907

Ocey Snead: 1907

"Mrs. Ocey Snead, in bed, baby in arms," December 1907 or January 1908. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. View full size. Ocey, who was found dead in an East Orange, New Jersey, bathtub in November 1909, drugged and emaciated, was at the center of scandalous murder case involving her mentally unbalanced mother and a spinster aunt who starved herself to death while awaiting trial. Along with a third sister they were thought to have conspired to drug and starve Ocey to collect $32,000 in insurance money. Ocey had two children, one of whom died in infancy. (Coverage in the New York Times noted the discovery of small bones in the furnace at a building where Ocey lived -- a Brooklyn tenement dubbed "house of mystery" and "baby farm" by the neighbors.) One part of the mystery is how two photographs of Ocey, very much alive, ended up in Bain News Service collection of glass negatives at the Library of Congress. (The other photo is dated 12-21-07). Are they are family photos obtained in the course of covering the trial of the sisters? Or is there some reason GGB would have photographed Ocey well before she died? (Cue organ music.)


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Remembering Ocey

I first read about Ocey in our local library, in 1976, Pittsfield, Mass. The book was called "The Bathtub Murder." All during the reading all I smelled was blood. She has never really left my mind, though I couldn't remember her name. Finally did search for her on Google, something like "bathtub murder NYC 1910" to hopefully find her and sure enough, there were sites devoted to her. I reread the book.

I cannot state loud enough that she needs to be remembered, memorialized, and so I tell her story to all who would listen, as well as sending out links to her story. Yes, a movie in black and white, with actress who looked like her would be excellent, as long as it doesn't go the way of all fact-based movies, and hire actors who cannot fully express the times, the life, and the horror of her tragedy.

Ocey's hair

The length of her hair is actually pretty typical for the times, and has nothing to do with how long her family had been keeping her close. Just think about the classic Gibson Girl upsweep for a moment; it takes a lot of hair to create the styles that were in vogue even after famed ballroom dancer Irene Castle started a trend by bobbing her hair short.

Since the length and thickness of a woman's hair was directly linked to perception of her beauty (and was about the only vanity that women were allowed to indulge), most women wore their hair as long as they could grow it. Hair that couldn't be coaxed past one's waist -- or worse, thin hair -- meant resorting to 'rats' and other padding devices to add volume. There was a booming cosmetic trade in thickening solutions and hair growth tonics; many manufacturers sponsored contests for "longest hair" (and often used the photos in their ads).

Women would also keep a "hair receiver" on the vanity, and yes, it's exactly what it sounds like -- when you cleaned out your brush or comb, you put the hair in the receiver so that you could later make false curls, the aforementioned rats, falls, braids, or other things to supplement your 'do. Remember also that jewelry either incorporating or made from a person's hair was exchanged as a personal memento; mourning jewelry of the period often features a lock from the deceased.

Ocey's hair looks to be about knee-length, and quite thick; in other words, a bit longer than average, but hardly extraordinary. Famous beauties of the time had hair that was calf-length, or even longer; some were photographed with their hair loose and dragging the floor behind them. The photos here were probably taken before her mother began really starving her, as that would have caused a great deal of thinning. It says something about how the standards have changed, as my hair is considered quite long, but it's only hip-length. And I'd love for mine to still be as thick as the unfortunate Ocey's, but a bad perm when I was 11 (not my idea, I might add) changed that for good.

The "Black Sisters" also are a legend in Virginia

I grew up in Christiansburg, where the "Black Sisters" are said to haunt the middle school. There were mysterious deaths when they ran a woman's college there at the turn of the century. There were always strange occurences at the school. I have seen Virginia Wardlaw's tombstone. Broken in half and lying on the ground, it's inscribed SHE IS NOT DEAD. That always gave me chills. It is local tradition to visit the grave on Halloween.

That picture

Can anyone identify the photo/print on the wall behind her?

For some reason my wife and I are heartached over this story and photos. It would make a good movie from the perspective that her family was indeed evil. Was her long hair an indication of her long isolation?

Ocey, RIP

As noted above, you can follow the entire story in news articles at the New York Times archive. I just discovered that amazing site. This is really a very interesting story, too bad for Ocey though. I grew up in Bricktown, New Jersey, so this little story really hits home for me. Thank you.


Having read the New York Times articles as well as the East Orange link, I still don't understand why her photo would have been taken by a news service two years prior to her death! Does anyone have any ideas? This story, and the story of the "Black Sisters" (any photos of them??) are ripe for further investigations.

[Just because the photo is in the Bain archive doesn't mean the news service took the picture; it could be a family photo. - Dave]


Very interesting story. Very strange family. Beautiful girl ... just look at that hair!


Ocey's husband was her first cousin, Fletcher Snead, the son of Mrs. Mary Snead, who was both her aunt and mother-in-law.

The existence of these photos is indeed puzzling. Could it be that Mrs. Snead and her sisters hired a photographer in order to send photos of Ocey and the new baby to Fletcher, then living in Canada? Fletcher insisted his mother and her sisters loved Ocey, but their behavior indicated just the opposite.

More details of this strange case can be found here:

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