by Gary Wright
“I know there is no such thing as a ghost, but, on the other hand . . . .”
Greg Washington, ‘Not a Ghost of a Chance
1896, the year she was married, was a significant year for Elva Zona Heaster, of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. 1897, the year she died, was an even more significant year for Elva Zona Heaster Shue.
Married only three months earlier to Edward Stribling ‘Trout’ Shue, after their whirlwind courtship, Zona’s life was snuffed out, by what the Coroner first termed ‘everlasting fainting.’ He later changed that curious non-medical term to ‘complications of pregnancy,’ which, though medically oriented, is still only vaguely explanatory. Because she was pregnant, Trout, who, busy at his job as a blacksmith, had sent a young boy to his home to check on his wife’s condition, where the boy found Zona lying at the foot of her bed — quite dead.
Alleged marriage photo of Zona and Trout Shue
After learning from the boy that his wife was lying lifeless on their bedroom floor, Trout quickly sped to her side. The Coroner, Dr. George Knapp, was summoned, and arriving at the scene, about an hour after the original discovery of the body, found that Trout had already washed his wife’s corpse and dressed her in a high-collared dress, which he claimed was her favorite.
When Dr. Knapp began his autopsy, Trout went into such wailing and piteous ministration at the very touching of his wife’s body, that the Coroner was finally forced to perform only a mere semblance of an autopsy. Trout remained by the corpse while Dr. Knapp examined it, cradling his wife’s head and weeping. Knapp, observing the husband’s grief, gave the body only a cursory examination, but noted some bruising on her neck. When he tried to look closer, Trout reacted so violently that Knapp ended the autopsy. Dr. Knapp’s pronouncement was that Zona had died of natural causes, and he listed ‘everlasting fainting’ as the direct cause of death. As he had been treating her early pregnancy, Dr. Knapp later changed his wording to ‘female problems.
Zona’s body was ‘laid out’ for the obligatory ‘sitting up with the dead’ at the Heaster family house, where Trout displayed overwhelming grief and was inconsolable during the vigil. Throughout the entire two-day ritual, he maintained an almost continuous watch at the head of his wife’s corpse, holding her head, kissing her, and keeping her company, as though she were still alive. He even added a small pillow to each side of her head, maintaining that this would help her rest easy. He also placed a small scarf around her neck, indicating to all that it had been her favorite. While these attentions kept onlookers from getting a good view of the corpse, some still remarked later that there were bruises around the neck and that her head seemed to be at an odd angle. Elva Zona Heaster Shue was buried in Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery on January 24.
Home where Zona Shue died
Shortly after her daughter’s burial, Mrs. Mary Jane Heaster tried to wash a stain from Zona’s death shroud, but the stain would not come clean. Mrs. Heaster, having never liked Trout anyway, nor having approved of the marriage between him and her daughter, took this as a ‘sign’ that Trout had murdered her daughter. Mrs. Heaster began a prayer vigil, asking God to allow her daughter to cross back from the dead so that she could make known to her Mother what had caused her death. In subsequent weeks, Mrs. Heaster claimed that the spirit of Zona had appeared to her on four separate occasions, telling her that Trout had strangled her and broken her neck. The mother even said that to illustrate, the spirit had turned her neck entirely around.
Mrs. Heaster contacted John Preston, the local prosecutor, telling him the story of her daughter’s ghost. Although it was not exactly evidence, Mr. Preston had also nursed suspicions about Trout, so the ghost story served as motivation for him to re-interview witnesses and to do a little snooping on his own. He was able to come up with enough evidence to convince a judge to exhume Zona’s body for a more thorough autopsy. The second autopsy plainly revealed that Zona’s neck had been broken, her windpipe crushed, and that she had indeed been strangled.
Trout was immediately arrested, and a trial was set. In jail, Trout was overheard to say that they could never prove that he did it. Though mostly circumstantial, it seems that there was plenty of evidence to prove his guilt, the most damning of which would be coming from the testimony of the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue. Evidence, presented by a spirit is not allowed in courts, however, through a remarkable turn of events, the judge allowed Mary Heaster to testify about the appearance of her daughter’s apparition and her revelations about the cause of her death. The jurors, all mountaineers from West Virginia, were strongly oriented toward the supernatural, and rather than decrying Mrs. Heaster’s testimony, they believed every word of it, taking it as a sign from God.
Trout’s attorney, William Rucker, to discount Mary Heaster’s testimony and to demonstrate that she was a crazy woman, had previously asked Mrs. Heaster about her ghost visions and Zona’s statements. When Rucker saw the effect on the jury, he pleaded with the court to instruct the jury to disregard the testimony, allegedly from a ghost. The judge would have none of it, however, saying that Rucker had brought it up himself, and would, therefore, have to live with it. The testimony from the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue sealed Trout’s fate, and, in record time, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. Ten of the jury members had voted for death by hanging, but, since it was not unanimous, the Judge handed out a life sentence to be served at the nearby Moundsville State Prison. Edward Stribling ‘Trout’ Shue died three years hence from an unspecified plague.
Zona Heaster’s ghost was never seen or heard from again. Whether she appeared in response to a grieving mother’s prayer request, or whether it was a clever ploy to play on the local mountaineers’ natural belief in ghosts and the supernatural, I reckon is something we’ll never know. But, Mrs. Heaster never recanted her story, nor did she ever sway from her belief in her daughter’s ghostly visit. There still exists a roadside marker in honor of the “Greenbrier Ghost” on Route 60 outside of Meadow Bluff, West Virginia which reads: “[The] only known case in which the testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.”
All photos licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Google Images