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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Greenbrier Ghost Murder, January 23, 1897

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On January 23, 1897, Elva Zona Heaster was found dead at her home in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. The court drama that arose from her death is possibly the only time in US history that the testimony of a ghost was accepted at a murder trial.

Elva Zona Heaster, known as Zona to her friends and family, was around 23 years of age in October, 1896 when she met a man who was newly arrived in Greenbrier County. His name was Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue and he was a blacksmith by trade. He told anyone who asked that he had moved to this rural part of West Virginia to start a new life. Zona fell in love with Shue over the objections of her mother, who uncharacteristically disliked the man from the start. The two were married by the end of the year.

From all accounts, the couple lived a relatively quiet life. That all changed on January 23, 1897, when a local boy discovered Zona's body at her and Shue's home. She was lying on the floor, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. There was no one else in the house; Shue was at work. The young boy ran home and told his mother of the discovery, and she in turn ran to get the local doctor, George Knapp. Knapp was also the county coroner, meaning that he had a legal obligation to examine the body in order to determine a cause of death.

Dr. Knapp did not arrive on the scene for another hour, by which time Shue had been told of his wife's death and was at home with the body. He had laid his wife's body out in their bedroom and had dressed it for internment. This was the first unusual behavior exhibited by Shue; at that time, it was traditional for local women to wash and dress the body in preparation for a funeral. Shue had dressed his wife in a dress with a stiff collar, which was not unusual for that era. He would not leave his wife's body, even when Dr. Knapp did his examination. Knapp noticed some bruising on Zona's neck, but when he tried to look closer, Shue became so angry that the doctor cut his examination short. He listed her cause of death as "everlasting faint" and then "childbirth". Since he was the only doctor in the area, Knapp had been treating Zona for some time and was aware that she had been experiencing what he euphemistically termed "female trouble" in the weeks prior to her death. 

Zona was buried the next day, January 24, 1897. Shue tied a large scarf around his wife's neck during the wake and, once again, would neither leave sight of her body or let anyone else near it. Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, began to grow suspicious of Shue. After the wake, she removed a sheet from the coffin and tried to give it to Shue, but he refused it. She took it home, where she noticed it had a strong odor. She washed it, only to find that the sheet had turned pink and that the stain could not be removed. To her, this was a sign that her daughter had been murdered.

A month went by, during which time Mary Heaster waited for another sign telling her beyond a doubt that her daughter had been murdered. According to her later testimony, that sign came four weeks after the funeral when Zona appeared to her as a ghostly apparition. She told Mary that Shue had been abusive and had killed her during a fit of rage by breaking her neck. According to Mary, Zona's ghost turned her head completely around in order to illustrate the point.

John Preston, the Greenbrier County Prosecutor, was surprised when Mary Heaster arrived in his office and proceeded for the next several hours to try and convince him that the ghost of her daughter had, indeed, proven Shue guilty of murder. We do not know if Preston believed Mary's story or not, but he must have believed at least some part of it because he sent two deputies to conduct interviews with locals who knew the couple. Preston questioned Dr. Knapp, who told him of Shue's violent behavior during the examination of his wife's body. Knapp also stated the he did not complete his exam, which gave Preston cause to order an exhumation of the body.

West Virginia law required that Shue be present at the disinterment and autopsy of his wife's body. He complained bitterly, and even said that he knew he would be arrested. Nonetheless, he maintained his innocence, even when it was discovered that Zona's neck had been broken and that finger marks were left on her throat. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Shue's trial began on June 22, 1897. Prosecutor Preston called Zona's mother, Mary, to the stand as his star witness. He did not question her about her ghostly visitor, but instead stuck to the facts of the case. When it was time for her cross-examination, Shue's lawyer dove into Mary's story about seeing Zona's ghost, hoping to make her look foolish in front of the jury. Despite his badgering, Mary remained calm and told her story several times without deviation. 

Since Mary's testimony concerning the ghost was made during cross-examination, the judge in the case was reluctant to tell the jury to disregard it. Her telling of the experience was so clear and honest that most of those present in the courtroom that day were convinced she was telling the truth. The prosecution also told of Shue's two earlier marriages, one of which ended in divorce and other by the mysterious death of his wife. The jury convicted Shue of murder and he was sentenced to life in prison in July, 1897. He lived only three more years, dying of an unknown illness in 1900.

The stained sheet defied explanation at the time, but today it is thought that it was saturated with two different compounds of iron chloride, which were both used in the blacksmithing trade. This is further proof that Shue, a blacksmith, handled the sheet extensively after it was placed in his wife's coffin.

For the rest of her life, Mary Heaster believed that her daughter had visited her from the afterlife. She died in 1916, having never recanted or changed her story. After the trial, the ghost of Zona Heaster was never seen again.

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