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The Greenbrier Ghost is the name popularly given to the alleged ghost of a young woman in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, United States, who was murdered in 1897. Initially judged a death by natural causes, the court later declared that the woman had been murdered by her husband following testimony by the victim's mother, in which the latter claimed that her daughter's spirit revealed the true cause of death.
Elva Zona Heaster, the murder victim, was born in Greenbrier County sometime around 1873. Almost nothing is known of her early life, other than that she was brought up near Richlands and that she gave birth to a child out of wedlock in 1895. In October 1896, Zona met a drifter named Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue, also known as Edward; he had moved to Greenbrier County in search of a new life, and to work as a blacksmith. Shue found work in the shop of one James Crookshanks; Zona met him not long after his arrival in town. The two fell in love and soon married, despite objection to the match by Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, who had taken an instant dislike to Shue.
The couple lived peacefully for a short time, but on January 23, 1897, Zona's body was discovered at her home by a young boy who had been dispatched to the house by Shue on an errand. The boy found Zona lying at the foot of the stairs, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. The boy ran to tell his mother, who summoned the local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp. Knapp did not arrive for close to an hour. By the time the doctor arrived, Shue had carried his wife's body upstairs to the bedroom, and laid her out on the bed. He dressed the corpse himself; this was unusual, as traditionally the job of washing and preparing the body for burial would be undertaken by the women of the community. Nevertheless, Shue dressed her in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar, and placed a veil over her face. Shue remained by the corpse while Dr. Knapp examined it, cradling his wife's head and sobbing. Knapp, noting the husband's grief, gave the body only a brief examination, noting some bruising on the neck. When he tried to look closer, Shue reacted so violently that Knapp[clarification needed] ended the examination and left the house.
Initially, Zona's cause of death was listed as "everlasting faint"; later, this was changed to "childbirth". Knapp had been treating her for "female trouble" for two weeks before her death, but whether she was pregnant or not is unknown.
Zona's parents were soon informed of her death. Mary Jane Heaster is reported to have said that "the devil has killed her" upon hearing the news.
Zona was buried on January 24, 1897 in the local cemetery now known as the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery. Shue showed great devotion toward the body, keeping a vigil at the head of the open coffin during the move. The body was 'laid out' in the Heaster’s house. Soon his behavior began to arouse suspicion. During the wake, his grief changed repeatedly from overwhelming sadness to incredible energy. He allowed no one to come close to the coffin, especially while he was placing a pillow on one side of her head and a rolled-up sheet on the other.
He explained these additions by saying that they would help his wife 'rest easier'. Shue also tied a large scarf at the corpse's neck, explaining tearfully that it 'had been Zona's favorite'. When it came time to move the corpse to the cemetery though, several people noticed that there seemed to be a strange looseness to Zona’s head.
For her part, Mary Jane Heaster was convinced that her son-in-law had murdered his wife. After the wake, she removed the sheet from inside the coffin and tried to return it to him, but he refused it. She noticed an odd odor about it, so she washed it; the water in the basin turned red when she dropped the sheet in. The sheet then turned pink and the water cleared. The stain could not be removed, which Mrs. Heaster interpreted as a sign that Zona had been murdered. She began to pray, and every night for four weeks kept up her prayers, hoping that Zona would return to her to explain what had happened.
According to local legend, Zona appeared to her mother in a dream four weeks after the funeral. She said that Shue was a cruel man who abused her, and who had attacked her in a fit of rage when he believed that she had cooked no meat for dinner. He broke her neck; to prove this, the ghost turned her head around until it was facing backwards.
Supposedly, the ghost appeared first as a bright light, gradually taking form and filling the room with a chill. She is said to have visited Mrs. Heaster over the course of four nights.
Exhumation and autopsy
Armed with the story allegedly told to her by the ghost, Mary Jane Heaster visited the local prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, and spent several hours in his office convincing him to reopen the matter of her daughter's death. Whether he believed her story of the ghost is unknown, but he did have enough doubt to dispatch deputies to reinterview several people of interest in the case, including Dr. Knapp. He was likely responding to public sentiment, as numerous locals had begun suggesting that Zona had been murdered.
Preston himself went to speak to Dr. Knapp, who stated that he had not made a complete examination of the body. This was viewed as sufficient justification for an autopsy, and an exhumation was ordered and an inquest jury formed.
Zona's body was examined on February 22, 1897 in the local one-room schoolhouse. Shue had "vigorously complained" about this turn of events, but was required by law to be present at the autopsy. He responded that he knew he would be arrested, but that no one would be able to prove his guilt.
The autopsy lasted three hours, and found that Zona's neck had indeed been broken. According to the report, published on March 9, 1897, "the discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe mashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked. The neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck." On the strength of this evidence, and his behavior at the inquest, Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.
Shue was held in the jail in Lewisburg while waiting for the trial to begin. During this time, more information about his past was coming to light. He had been married twice before: his first marriage ended in divorce, with his wife accusing him of great cruelty; his second wife died under mysterious circumstances less than a year after they were married. Zona was his third wife, and Shue began to talk of wishing to wed seven women; he freely spoke of this ambition while in jail, and told reporters that he was sure he would be let free because there was so little evidence against him.
The trial began on June 22, 1897, and Mary Jane Heaster was Preston's star witness. He confined his questioning to the known facts of the case, skirting the issue of her ghostly sightings. Perhaps hoping to prove her unreliable, Shue's lawyer questioned Mrs. Heaster extensively about her daughter's visits on cross-examination. The tactic backfired when Mrs. Heaster would not waver in her account despite intense badgering. As the defense had introduced the issue, the judge found it difficult to instruct the jury to disregard the story of the ghost, and many people in the community seemed to believe it. Consequently, Shue was found guilty of murder on July 11 and sentenced to life in prison. A lynch mob was formed to take him from the jail and hang him, but the mob was disbanded by the deputy sheriff before any damage was done. Four of the mob's organizers later faced charges for their actions.
Shue was moved to the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he lived for three more years. He died on March 13, 1900, the victim of an unknown epidemic, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the local cemetery. Mrs. Heaster never recanted her story of her daughter's ghost, and died in September 1916. As for Zona, her ghost was never seen in the area again.
State historical marker
- 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.
The story of the Greenbrier Ghost is the subject of two stage adaptations. Jan Buttram's play Zona was produced in 1998 by Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the Year-Round State Professional Theatre of West Virginia. The Greenbrier Ghost, a full-length musical adaptation, was written by Cathey Sawyer (book and lyrics) and Joe Buttram (music). The show premiered in 2003 at Greenbrier Valley Theatre, with subsequent productions in 2004, 2009 and 2013.
- "Mother-in-law's Vision as Evidence". Baltimore American. Retrieved 5 July 1897.
- Dietz, Dennis. The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories, South Charleston, WV, Mountain Memories Books, 1990. ISBN 0-938985-08-6
- Fitzhugh, Pat. Ghostly Cries From Dixie, Nashville, TN, The Armand Press, 2009. ISBN 0-9705156-5-0