Once again, my dear friend Linda has come upon an amazing story – that I just had to share with the rest of you. Not only is the Greenbrier Ghost a story about a dastardly murder, an avenging spirit, and the only documented case of a murderer convicted by the testimony of a ghost, but it’s also the story of a mom who was right all along.
I love those kinds of stories.
Elva Zona Heaster (who went by her middle name Zona) was a 23-year-old young woman who lived in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. On a trip into town, she met a handsome young blacksmith, 37-year-old Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue, and fell in love. (I’m thinking strapping, muscular blacksmith – who can blame her, right?)
So, she went home to tell her mom, Mary Jane Heaster, about her newfound love. But her mom did not like and did not trust old Erasmus. Momma obviously was immune to his manly charms.
Unfortunately, Zona was a little headstrong and decided to marry the blacksmith only three weeks after meeting him. They settled into a house near the Blacksmith Shop.
According to Mentalfloss.com their marriage didn’t last very long.
“One January afternoon in 1897, Erasmus “Edward” Shue, a blacksmith, sent his neighbor’s young boy to see if Zona, Shue’s wife of three months, needed anything from the market. The boy walked through the front door of the Shues’ rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia, log house—and found Zona lying at the foot of the stairs.
He stood for a moment looking at the woman, not knowing what to make of the scene: Her body was stretched out straight with her legs together. One arm was at her side, and the other rested across her chest. Her head was tilted to one side.
At first, he thought that she was simply asleep on the floor. He stepped toward her, quietly calling, “Mrs. Shue?” When she didn’t respond, he panicked and bolted from the house. He told his mother what he had found, and she summoned the local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp.
Knapp didn’t get to the Shues’ house for almost an hour. By the time he arrived, Shue had already gotten home, carried his wife’s body up to the bedroom, washed and dressed her, and laid her out on the bed. He’d prepared her body for burial in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar and placed a veil over her face.”
Wasn’t that thoughtful of Erasmus? Carrying his wife’s body away from the death scene, dressing her in a high-necked gown, and even putting a large veil over her face.
When Dr. Knapp finally arrived to examine the body, Erasmus insisted on sitting beside his dear, departed wife, cradling her head and hysterically crying. As a result, Dr. Knapp couldn’t do a full examination, so he declared her cause of death to be “an everlasting faint” – or heart attack, but then changed it to “childbirth problems.”
The problem with that diagnosis was that Zona hadn’t told anyone that she was pregnant, not even her mother. And, even more puzzling, the custom in those times was for the local ladies to dress the body for burial, not the husband.
Erasmus acted similarly strange at the funeral. According to Mentalfloss.com, “Elva’s body was taken to her childhood home of Little Sewell Mountain and buried, but not before a bizarre funeral where her widower acted erratically. He paced by the casket, fiddling with Elva’s head and neck. In addition to the collar and the veil, he covered her head and neck with a scarf. It didn’t match her burial dress, but Shue insisted that it was her favorite and that she would have wanted to be buried in it. He also propped her head up, first with a pillow and then a rolled-up cloth. It was certainly strange, but most guests likely chalked it up to the grieving process. Shue was generally liked and regarded without suspicion by everyone in town.”
Meanwhile, rumors started to spread about the incident. According to allthatsinteresting.com , “There were rumors including local folks saying that Zona had given birth to an illegitimate child and that Trout had been married twice before. His first marriage produced a child, Girta, and ended in divorce in 1889. His second wife, Lucy, died under mysterious circumstances. Some said she was pregnant and fell through the ice, while others claimed it was a brick to the head, or poison, that did the unfortunate woman in.”
But now, Zona was dead and buried. If Erasmus had indeed killed her, there were none the wiser, and he was a free man.
Except Zona knew, and she was more than a little upset that her husband had killed her. So, she decided to do something about it. According to appalachianhistory.net, “Within a month of the burial, however, the dead girl’s mother was telling neighbors that Zona’s spirit had appeared four nights in a row to accuse the blacksmith of her violent death – to “tell on him” – to set the record straight about her dying. Shue had been abusive and cruel, she said, and had attacked her in a fit of rage, savagely breaking her neck. Word spread quickly that these visions had convinced Mary Jane that the husband … had killed her daughter.
Mary Heaster and her brother-in-law Johnson Heaster went to Lewisburg prosecutor John A. Preston, who first disbelieved the story, but after several hours of questioning Mrs. Heaster became convinced that there was a basis for an investigation.”
So the investigation began. Here’s more from appalachainhistory.net “Dr. Knapp was consulted, and he agreed that he might have been mistaken in his diagnosis. An investigation into Shue’s background revealed that he had served a term in the penitentiary and had been married twice previously, and both wives had died under strange circumstances. One wife was supposed to have died from a broken neck when she fell from a haystack. The other wife died while helping Shue to repair a chimney. He was on top of the chimney, and his wife was placing the rocks in a basket with a rope attached to it, and as the basket was drawn up, the basket turned and dropped the rock on the head of his wife.
An exhumation was ordered, and an inquest jury was assembled. The Greenbrier Independent reported that Trout Shue “vigorously complained” about the exhumation, but it was made clear to him that he would be forced to attend the inquest if he did not go willingly. In rebuttal, he replied that he knew that he would be arrested, “but they will not be able to prove I did it.” This careless statement indicated that he at least had knowledge that his wife had been murdered.”
They exhumed Zona’s body and, after a complete autopsy, found that her neck had been broken and dislocated between her first and second vertebrae. Her windpipe had been crushed, proof that she had been strangled.
Zona’s mother was the prosecution’s star witness, but Preston really wanted to avoid the issue of the ghostly sighting for two reasons. Zona’s story, as relayed by her mother, might be objected to as hearsay by the defense, and the whole “my daughter came back to me as a ghost” might make the jury see Mary Jane as unreliable.
This is how St Mary’s University wrote about the event, “The trial started on June 23, 1897, and lasted for eight days before the jury decided on a verdict. During the trial, the prosecutor tried to avoid using Mary Jane’s testimony due to the misunderstanding the jury might have had. Regardless of these allegations, Mary Jane went ahead and revealed how she knew that Shue had murdered her daughter. Shue’s attorney immediately rejected the idea claiming that Mary Jane was crazy and unstable. The jury, however, found her story credible but did not mention it again after the first statement. The evidence against Shue was overwhelming, and on the last day of the trial, the jurors finally decided on a verdict. Ten of the twelve jurors voted on execution, but since it was not a unanimous decision, Shue was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of Elva Zona Heaster.”
The townspeople were pretty upset he wasn’t hanged for his crime and actually tried to do it themselves. Eventually, he was sent to a state penitentiary, where he died of natural causes on March 13, 1900.
Interred in nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband, Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.