TESTIMONY FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE
THE TRUE STORY OF THE GREENBRIER GHOST
On this date, January 23, 1897, the body of a young woman named Zona Heaster Shue was discovered in her home in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. It seemed to be a rather ordinary case of perhaps domestic discord gone wrong, but in the end, the case turned out to be anything but ordinary. In fact, it went on to become one of the most unusual stories in the history of crime and the supernatural. It remains a one-of-a-kind event: the only case in which the word of a ghost helped to solve a crime and convict a murderer!
Zona Heaster was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, around 1873. Little is known about her life, growing up in the Richlands region of the county but in October 1896, she met a man named Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. He was a drifter who came to Greenbrier County to work as a blacksmith and to start a new life for himself. He began working in the shop of James Crookshanks, which was located just off of the old Midland Trail. A blacksmith could find plenty of work along this rough, unpaved trail, and throughout the county, and Shue became well-known for his work.
Zona became acquainted with Shue a short time after he arrived in town. The two of them were attracted to each other and soon were married, despite the animosity felt towards Shue by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster. She had taken an instant dislike to him and often told her daughter that she felt there was something the otherwise amiable man was hiding.
The Shues lived together as man and wife for several months and then, on January 23, 1897, Zona’s body was discovered inside of their house by a young boy that Shue had sent there on a contrived errand. He asked him to run to the house from the blacksmith shop and see if there was anything that Zona needed from the store. The boy, Andy Jones, found Zona lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. She was stretched out, with her feet together. One hand was on her abdomen and the other was lying next to her. Her head was turned slightly to one side and her eyes were wide open and staring. Even to this small boy, Zona Shue was obviously dead. Andy, not surprisingly, ran home to tell his mother. The local doctor and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, was summoned to the house, although he didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.
By that time, Shue had carried his wife’s body upstairs and had laid her out on the bed. Contrary to local custom, he dressed the corpse himself. Normally, it was the proper thing for ladies of the community to wash and dress a body in preparation for burial. However, Shue took it upon himself to dress Zona in her best clothing. A high-necked, stiff-collared dress covered her neck and a veil was placed over her face.
While Dr. Knapp examined her and tried to determine a cause of death, Shue stayed by his wife’s side, cradling her head and sobbing. Because of Shue’s obvious grief, Knapp gave the body only a cursory examination, although he did notice some bruising on her neck. When he tried to look closer, Shue reacted so violently that the physician ended the examination and he 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 treated her for “female trouble.”
Dr. Knapp sent someone out to notify Zona’s parents but word of the young woman’s death quickly spread through the community. By late afternoon, two young men who were friends of Zona’s, volunteered to ride out an area called Meadow Bluff and tell the Heaster family what had happened. The Heasters lived in an isolated area, about 15 miles away, where a small scattering of homes and farms were nestled against the side of Little Sewell Mountain. When she was informed of the news of her daughter’s death Mary Heaster’s face grew dark. She reportedly said, “The devil has killed her!”
On Saturday, January 24, Zona’s body was taken by carriage to her parents’ home. A handful of neighbors presided over the funeral entourage and they brought Trout Shue along with them to the mountain farm. He showed extraordinary devotion toward the body, keeping a vigil at the head of the open coffin as the wagon traveled over the rutted and bumpy roads. The body was displayed in the Heaster’s house for the wake, an event that lasted all day Sunday. It gave neighbors and friends an opportunity to pay their last respects to the dead, visit with one another, give solace to the bereaved, and bring food for the family. A few local ladies sat up with the body throughout the night and until the time of the burial on Monday.
Those who came to pay their respects during the wake pointed out the bizarre behavior of Trout Shue. His grief swung back and forth between overwhelming sadness and manic energy. He allowed no one to get too close to the coffin, especially while he was placing a pillow on one side of her head and a rolled-up cloth on the other. He explained that these items were to help Zona “rest easier.” In addition, he tied a large scarf around her neck and explained 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. Needless to say, people started to talk and speculation began about how Zona had really met her untimely demise.
Mary Jane Heaster did not need to speculate about whether or not Trout Shue had some part in her daughter’s death; she was convinced that he had. She had disliked the man from the start and had never wanted Zona to marry him. She was sure that he had murdered her, but there was no way that she could prove it.
After the wake, Mary Jane took the sheet from inside the coffin and tried to return it to Shue, but he refused it. Folding it back up to put it away, she noticed that it had a peculiar odor, so she washed it out. She came to believe that what happened next was some sort of strange omen. Mary Jane dropped the sheet into the wash basin and when she did, the water inside turned red. Strangely, a few moments later, the sheet turned pink and the color in the water disappeared. Mary Jane then boiled the sheet and hung it outside for several days but the stain could not be removed. She interpreted the eerie “bloodstains” as a sign that Zona had been murdered.
After this strange incident, she began to pray. Every night for the next four weeks, Mary Jane prayed fervently that her daughter would return to her and reveal the truth about how she had died. According to her story, a few weeks later, her prayers were answered.
Over the course of four dark nights, the spirit of Zona Shue appeared at her mother’s bedside. She would come as a bright light at first and then an apparition would take form, chilling the air in the entire room. She woke her mother and explained over and over again how her husband had murdered her. Trout Shue had been abusive and cruel, and had attacked her in a fit of rage because he thought she had not cooked any meat for supper. He had savagely broken her neck and to show this, the ghost turned her head completely around until it was facing backwards.
Mary Jane had been right. Shue had killed her daughter and the word of her spirit proved it!
A short time later, Mary Jane went to the local prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, to try and convince him to re-open the investigation into Zona’s death. She offered the visitations from her daughter’s spirit as evidence that a miscarriage of justice was taking place. By all accounts, Preston was both polite and sympathetic to Mrs. Heaster. The two spoke together for “several hours” and at the end of the meeting, Preston agreed to dispatch deputies to speak with Dr. Knapp and a few others involved in the case. While it seems unlikely that he was willing to take another look at the case because of the statement of a ghost, the investigation did get re-opened. Local newspapers reported that Mrs. Heaster was not the only one in the community who was suspicious about Zona’s death. There were also “certain citizens” who had started to ask questions, as well as the growing “rumors in the community.”
Preston himself went to see Dr. Knapp and the physician admitted that his examination of the dead woman had been cursory and incomplete. The two of them agreed that an autopsy was needed to answer the questions about Zona’s death once and for all. If Trout Shue was innocent of any wrongdoing, this would clear his name.
A few days later, an exhumation was ordered and an inquest jury was assembled. The autopsy was performed in the Nickell School House, which was just a short distance away from the Soule Methodist Church graveyard, where Zona had been buried. The schoolchildren were dismissed on the day of February 22, 1897, and Zona Shue’s grave was opened. It was reported in the local newspaper 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 did not attend willingly. He replied, “They will not be able to prove I did it.” This was a rather odd and careless statement for a man who claimed to be innocent.
The autopsy lasted for three hours under the uncertain light of kerosene lanterns. The body of the dead woman was “in a near state of perfect preservation,” thanks to the cold temperatures of February, making the work of the doctors much easier to complete. A jury of five men had been assembled to watch the proceedings and they huddled together in the cold building with officers of the court, Trout Shue, Andy Jones (the boy who had found the body) and other witnesses and spectators.
The autopsy was carried out by the standard methods, which meant that an examination of the vital organs came first. After that, the doctors would normally cut an incision along the back of the skull so that the brain could be removed but this step was not taken in the case of Zona Shue because the doctors quickly found what they were looking for. One of the doctors turned to Trout Shue, “We have found your wife’s neck to have been broken.”
Shue’s head dropped and an expression of despair crossed his face. He whispered, “They cannot prove that I did it”
The autopsy findings were quite damning to Shue. A report on March 9 stated, “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 choken [sic]. 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.”
The findings were made public at once, upsetting many in the community. Shue was arrested and charged with murder. He was locked up in the small stone jail on Washington Street in Lewisburg and in spite of the fact that the evidence against him was circumstantial, at best, he was indicted by a grand jury and was formally arraigned for murder. He immediately entered a plea of “not guilty.”
While he awaited trial, information about Shue’s unsavory past began to surface. Zona had been his third wife. His first marriage, to Allie Estelline Cutlip, had produced one child but had ended in divorce in 1889 while Shue was in prison for horse stealing. His wife alleged in the divorce decree that Shue had been violent and had frequently beaten her. In 1894, Shue had married again, this time to Lucy Ann Tritt. Lucy died just eight months later under circumstances that were described as “mysterious.” Shue claimed that Lucy fell and hit her head on a rock, but few believed him. Before any action could be taken against him, he packed up and left the area. In the fall of 1896, he moved to Greenbrier County.
In jail, Shue remained in good spirits, and reported that his grieving for Zona had ended. In fact, he announced that he had a lifelong goal of having seven wives. Since Zona had only been his third, and he was still a young man, he had a good chance of realizing such a worthwhile ambition. He repeatedly told reporters that his guilt in the matter could not be proved.
The trial began on June 22, 1897 and numerous people from the community testified against Shue. The highlight of the trial, of course, came with the appearance of Mary Jane Heaster. Preston put her on the stand as both the mother of the dead woman and also as the first person to notice the unusual circumstances of Zona’s death. He wanted to make sure that she appeared both sane and reliable. For this reason, he skirted the issue of the ghost because it was bound to make her appear irrational and also because it was inadmissible evidence. The teller of the story, in this case Zona Shue, could obviously not be cross-examined by the defense and so her testimony would be hearsay under the law.
Unfortunately for Shue, his attorney decided to ask Mrs. Heaster about her ghostly sighting. It seemed obvious that he was doing it to try and make Mary Jane look ridiculous to the jury. He characterized her “visions” as a mother’s ravings and worked hard to admit that she might have been mistaken about what she allegedly saw. He continued to badger her for quite some time, but Mary Jane never wavered in her descriptions of Zona’s ghost – nor about what the specter had told hr about Shue’s guilt. When the defense counsel realized that the testimony was not going the way that he wanted, he dismissed her.
By that time, though, the damage was done. Because the defense and not the prosecution had introduced the testimony about the spirit, the judge had a hard time telling the jury to exclude it. It was apparent that most of the people in the community believed that Mary Jane had seen her daughter’s ghost. Despite Shue’s eloquent testimony in his own defense, the jury quickly found him guilty. Ten of them even voted that he be hanged, which spoke volumes about Mrs. Heaster’s believability as a witness. Without a unanimous verdict of death, though, Shue was sentenced to life in prison.
The sentence did not satisfy everyone in Greenbrier County. On July 11, 1897, a citizen’s group of anywhere from 15 to 30 men assembled eight miles west of Lewisburg to form a lynching party. They had purchased a new rope and were well armed when they started towards the jail. If not for a man named George M. Harrah, who alerted the sheriff, Shue would have surely been lynched. Harrah contacted Deputy Sheriff Dwyer at the jail. It was said that when Shue was informed of this threat against his life, he became “greatly agitated” and was unable to tie his own shoes. Dwyer hid him in the woods a mile or so from town and until deputies were able to disband the mob and return them to their homes.
Shue was moved to the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville on July 14, where he lived for the next three years. He died on March 13, 1900 from one of the epidemics that swept through the prison that spring. At that time, the prison commonly buried unclaimed remains in the nearby Tom’s Run Cemetery, for which no records were kept until the 1930s. Thanks to this, no trace of Trout Shue can be found today.
Mary Jane Robinson Heaster lived to tell her tale to all who would listen. She died in September 1916 without ever recanting her story about her daughter’s ghost.
And as for Zona, her ghost was never seen again, but she has left a haunting, historical mark on Greenbrier County. It is one that is still being felt today. In fact, a roadside marker along Route 60 still commemorates the case. It reads:
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 ghost helped convict a murderer.