Besides being a unique case in the annals of West Virginia ghost lore, the story of the Greenbrier Ghost has made history in other places also, like in the documents of the American court system. It remains the only one of its kind… the only case in which the word of a ghost helped to solve a crime and convict a murderer.
Elva Zona Heaster was born in Greenbrier in 1873, although little was known about her early life, other than that she gave birth to an illegitimate child in 1895. A year later, in October of 1896, she met a man named Erasmus (also called Edward) Stribbling Trout Shue, an out-of-towner who had come to Greenbriar to work as a blacksmith. The two were attracted to each other and soon married, despite the animosity felt towards Shue by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster. She had taken an instant dislike to him and always felt that there was something the otherwise amiable man was hiding.
On January 23, 1897, Zona’s body was discovered inside of her house by a small boy whom Shue had sent to the house to see if Zona needed anything from the store. Zona was found lying on the floor, stretched out with her feet together, one hand to her side and the other stretched across her abdomen. The local physician and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, was quickly summoned to the house, although he didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.
By this time, Shue had carried his wife’s body upstairs and dressed her in her best clothing. A high-collared dress covered her neck and a veil had been placed over her face. While Dr. Knapp examined her and tried to determine the cause of death, Shue stayed by his wife’s side, cradling her head and sobbing. Because of his obvious grief, Knapp made only a cursory examination, although he did notice some bruising near her neck. When he tried to look closer, Shue reacted so violently that he ended the examination and left. Initially, he listed her cause of death as “everlasting faint” and then as “childbirth”. It is unknown whether Zona was pregnant or not, but for two weeks prior to her death, Knapp had been treating her for “female trouble”.
Zona’s body was laid out for wake and while many friends and neighbors came by the house, Shue allowed no one to get close to the body. He had tied a large scarf around her neck and told everyone that “it had been her favorite”. He placed a pillow on one side of her head and folded cloth on the other. He said that he “wanted Zona to rest easier”, but several people noticed the strange looseness to the corpse’s head. Needless to say, people started to talk.
There was one person who was convinced that Shue was lying about Zona’s death and that was her mother, Mary Jane Heaster. She claimed to have prayed that her daughter would come back from the dead and reveal the true facts behind her death. According to legend, four weeks later, her prayer’s were answered.
For four nights, the spirit of Zona Shue appeared at her mother’s bed side and explained how she had been murdered by her husband. He had been abusive and cruel, she told her mother, and in a fit of rage over the fact that she had not had dinner for him, he attacked her and had broken her neck.
Heaster went to the local prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, and told him about the visitations by Zona’s ghost. It is unlikely that he agreed to pursue the matter on the word of a ghost… it is more likely that he had heard the rumors that were going around about Shue’s strange behavior at the wake.
Preston ordered the girl’s body exhumed on February 22 and an autopsy revealed that she had indeed died from a broken neck and a crushed windpipe from being strangled. She was arrested and charged with murder. His last words on the way to jail were “they cannot prove I did it”.
While he awaited trial, information from Shue’s past began to surface… apparently Mary Jane Heaster had been right about him all along. He had served time in jail for theft and had been married twice before Zona. His first marriage had ended in divorce because he beat his wife and his second wife had died under mysterious circumstances. According to Shue, she had fallen and hit her head on a rock.
The trial began in late June and despite the fact that the evidence against Shue was circumstantial, he was quickly found guilty of murder. Numerous people testified against him although Mary Jane Heaster’s story of Zona’s ghost was ruled inadmissible. The defense attorney did bring it up while he was questioning her, trying to show that she was unbalanced, but this had no effect on the jury. In other words, they believed the story of the ghost…. they just didn’t want to admit it.
Shue was sentenced to life in prison but the verdict didn’t satisfy many of the townspeople. On July 11, a lynching party was formed but Shue was taken away to the state prison in Moundsville, just before the vigilantes reached the jail. Shue died in prison in March of 1900 from an undisclosed illness.
Did Zona Shue’s ghost really visit her mother to tell her of her murder? There have been many questions raised about the authenticity of the story over the years, but the fact remains…. according to the jury, the right man finally paid for his crime. Who are we to argue?