Testifying Beyond the Grave - The Greenbrier Ghost

Life isn't like the movies. Sometimes the bad guy or girl does win but not in this case. How many times have you watched Court TV and heard the judge allow the assistance of a ghost to help win a case? I think it's safe to say there is only one case where that was allowed: the murder of Zona Heaster Shue. Let's start at the beginning.

Around 1873, Elva Zona Heaster was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Little is known about her childhood except she gave birth to an illegitimate child in 1895. A year later, she met Erasmus (Edward) Stibbling Trout Shue, a drifter who moved to Greenbrier to work as a blacksmith. Greenbrier County was a perfect place for a blacksmith since all public roads were unpaved and the county was given over to rolling hills. Plenty of horses and cattle could be found there. He worked in the shop of James Crookshanks.

Zona and Shue married soon after he arrived in town despite her mother's, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster, dislike of him. She felt like there was something he was hiding but didn't know what. The couple lived together as husband and wife for several months. On January 23, 1897, a young errand boy, Andy Jones, discovered Zona's body inside of her house. He found her lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He knew she was dead and ran home to tell his mother. Dr. George W. Knapp, the local doctor and coroner, arrived at the house nearly an hour after being summoned.

Before Knapp got there, Shue carried his wife's body upstairs and laid her on the bed, dressing the corpse himself. It was the proper thing to wash and dress the body in preparation for burial. Shue dressed Zona in a high-necked, stiff-collared dress the covered her neck and placed a veil over her face. Shue stayed by cradling her head and sobbing while Dr. Knapp tried to determine cause of death. Since he was obviously grieving, Knapp only gave the body a cursory even though he noticed some bruising on her neck. Upon examining them further, Shue became violent and Dr. Knapp left. The cause of death was listed as "everlasting faint" and then as "childbirth". No one knows if Zona was pregnant or not but Dr. Knapp was treating her for "female trouble".

Two of Zona's male friends volunteered to notify the Heaster's family. When Mary Heaster was informed of her daughter's death, she replied, "The Devil has killed her!" Zona's body was taken to her parent's home in an unfinished coffin. Shue and a handful of neighbors presided over the move. He showed extraordinary devotion toward the body. The body was placed in the Heaster's house for the wake. Neighbors and friends were able to pay their respects to the dead all Sunday and up until the burial on Monday. They noticed some bizarre behavior from Shue during the wake. His grief shifted back and forth from overwhelming sadness to manic energy. He wouldn't allow anyone to get close to the coffin. He placed a pillow and a rolled up cloth on either side of Zona's head and a scarf around her neck.

Mary Jane took the sheet from inside of the coffin and tried to return it to Shue after the wake, but he refused it. She began folding it back up when noticing that it had a peculiar odor. Mary decided to wash it out but when she dropped the sheet into a basin, the water turned red, the sheet turned pink and the color in the water disappeared. Mary Jane boiled the sheet and hung it outside but the stain wouldn't go away. She took the eerie stain as a sign that her daughter had been murdered.

Mary prayed every night for four weeks. She hoped her daughter would come to her and reveal the truth about her death. It only took a few more weeks for her prayers to be answered. During four dark nights, the spirit of Zona Shue appeared to her mother. She would come as a bright light and then the apparition would take form. She explained to Mary that Trout Shue had been abusive and said he had attacked her in a fit of rage because he thought she had not cooked any meat for supper. He then broke her neck. A short time later, Mary went to John Alfred Preston, the local prosecutor, to try and convince him to re-open the case. She offered the ghostly visitations as evidence. Sympathetic to Mrs. Heaster, Preston agreed to dispatch deputies to talk with Dr. Knapp as well as others involved in the case. Since there were others in the community asking questions about the case, the investigation re-opened.

Preston went to speak with Dr. Knapp, who admitted to an incomplete examination of Zona. They both agreed an autopsy would clear up all rumors and speculations revealing the truth once and for all. Days later, an inquest jury was assembled and the autopsy performed in the Nickell School House. Of course, Trout Shue was totally against the exhumation but it was made clear to him that it was mandatory he attend. He made a confession that told them he knew about his wife's murder.

The autopsy lasted for three hours. Fortunately, Zona's body was in near perfect condition due to the cold climate. It made the doctors work much easier. A jury of five men, officers of the court, Trout Shue, Andy Jones and other witnesses and spectators attended the autopsy. It didn't take the doctors long to discover the cause of death. Zona Shue had died of a broken neck. Trout Shue's only replied, "They cannot prove that I did it."

A report on March 9 said that "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. 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."

Soon after the findings were made public, Shue was arrested and charged with murder. Despite the fact that the evidence against Shue was circumstantial, he was indicted by a grand jury and was formally arraigned for murder. He entered a plea of "not guilty".

While waiting for trial, Shue's past began to surface. Zona had been his third wife. His first, Allie Cutlip divorced him while he was in prison for horse stealing. She stated in the divorce decree that he had been abusive. Shue's second wife Lucy Ann Tritt died eight months after they were married. Shue claimed she had fallen and hit her head on a rock. No one really believed him. So he packed up and moved to Greenbrier.

The trial began on June 22, 1897. Many people from the community testified against him but the highlight of the trial was the testimony of Mary Jane Heaster. He wanted her to appear sane and reliable and for that reason, he skirted around the issue of the ghost story. Although, Shue's attorney didn't. He worked hard to get her to admit she may have been mistaken about seeing the spirit of her dead daughter. Unfortunately, she never wavered about what she saw and he dismissed her.

Most people believed what Mary saw. Despite Shue's eloquent testimony, the jury found him guilty. Most jurors voted that he be hanged but without a unanimous decision, Shue was sentenced to life in prison.

However, the sentence didn't satisfy everyone. A citizen's group formed a lynch mob and if it wasn't for George M. Harrah, Shue would have been hanged. Harrah contacted Deputy Sheriff Dwyer about the threat and he took Shue to a place of refuge in the woods a mile from town long enough to disband the mob.

Shue was later moved to the West Virginia State Penitentiary. After three years he died from one of the epidemics of measles, mumps or pneumonia. Shue was buried at the Tom's Run Cemetery but since they didn't begin keeping records until 1930s, no trace of Trout Shue can be found.

Mary Jane Robinson died in September 1916 without ever recanting her story about her daughter's ghost. Zona's ghost was never seen again but she left a lasting haunting and historical mark on Greenbrier County. A roadside marker along Route 60 commemorates the case today.


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