Local Filmmaker brings misdeeds of the Three Black Sisters to the Silver Screen
Photo by ANGLEA CALDWELL
Cast of I, Miss Virginia: The Original Black Sisters Movie: Front row from left: Mary Snead (Makala Vest Witten), Ocey Martin (Abigail Baldwin), Virginia Wardlaw (Suzanne Jennings), Caroline Martin (Laura Holt) and Sgt William O’Neill (Brian Lee). Back Row: Doctor Herbert Simmons (Dan Leary)
By WILLIAM PAINE
For The Patriot
Last Saturday, The Maple Lodge, that historic and much dilapidated structure on the corner of 5th Street and Madison Avenue in Pulaski, became the scene of a movie production entitled, “I Miss Virginia: The Original Black Sisters Movie.”
Rick Maitri, the writer/director of this movie, lives in Pulaski but grew up in Montgomery County, where the story of these infamous sisters is well known.
“We all knew the story because the old middle school was built at the same site as Montgomery Female College,” said Maitri. “So, everybody knew It was haunted and everyone knew the stories.”
The tale involves three sisters who were involved in collecting large insurance settlements from policies taken out on their own family members, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. There were also rumors of occult activity and “Baby Farming,” a gruesome practice involving infanticide.
The three sisters, Caroline, Mary and Virginia came from a prominent southern family and were all involved in teaching and running institutions of higher education. Virginia was President of Soule College in Murfreesboro, Tennessee before leaving to head up the Montgomery Female College in Christiansburg.
Virginia ran both institutions with the help of her sister Mary, but in each instance, after their sister Caroline (who Maitri refers to as a sociopath) comes to join them, the three were forced to leave town in disgrace.
The three sisters became notorious when they were charged with the murder of Caroline’s daughter, Oceana (Ocey), which occurred after they moved to New Jersey in November 1909. Ocey was found drugged and drowned in a bathtub but had somehow managed to write a suicide note before doing so. Her mother, Caroline was suspected of doing the deed, as she had several copies of suicide notes, but all three sisters were indicted for murder.
The three sisters were well known for their attire and were always seen wearing black dresses with heavy veils over their faces.
Maitri’s movie focuses most heavily on Virginia, which is where the production derives its name: “I, Miss Virginia.”
Though Maitri has shot some scenes in Lynchburg to represent the streets of East Orange New Jersey, the bulk of this production, including the bathtub murder scene, was shot at the Maple Lodge.
On a side note, owing to some unexplained creaking and thumping, Maitri claims that the Maple Lodge is indeed haunted.
“You don’t get a real creepy feeling, though,” he said of the ghosts in residence. “I think they like having people here.”
Maitri is currently attending the Akira Kurosawa School of Film at Anaheim University and is doing this movie as his thesis project. This version of “I Miss Virginia: ‘the Original Black Sisters Movie’” will only be 20 minutes long, but after the film is completed, Maitri hopes to attain funding to produce a full-length feature.
Still, shooting even a short film can cost a lot of money.
“I will just say that I begged, borrowed and my wife did some fundraising as well,” Rick admitted. “I just took out another loan to pay off a credit card. This whole thing probably cost me $14,000. All but $2000 out of pocket … and it hurts (laughs). That’s why I’ve got to get funding for this next one.”
Maitri also cuts costs by using some of the tripods, stands and lights, from New River Community College, where he works in the Media Department.
Another big cost-saver is that Sylvester Stanley, owner of the Maple Lodge, has agreed to let Maitri use the location in exchange for some photography work that Maitri has agreed to perform.
Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet also gave the production a break by allowing Maitri to shoot a scene at the old county jail on East Main Street for no cost.
With all of the filming now completed, Maitri and his team are currently adjusting their focus to the task of editing.
This crime thriller based on a true story and set more than a century in the past should make for an interesting viewing experience.
The premier of “I, Miss Virginia: The Original Black Sisters Movie” is scheduled to occur at 5 p.m. on June 25 at the Richardson Auditorium inside of Rooker Hall at New River Community College.