Friday, August 12, 2011

The Tale of the Greenbrier Ghost

In the state of West Virginia there is a historical marker that 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 a ghost helped convict a murderer.”

As the marker above mentions the Greenbrier Ghost helped solve a West Virginia murder, in fact, it was this very murder that created the ghost.

This tale starts in October of 1896 when Elva “Zona” Heaster ignoring strenuous objections from her mother, Mary Jane Heaster, married Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. Erasmus, sometimes called Edward, was a newcomer to Greenbrier who stated he was trying to get a fresh start as a blacksmith. Zona, who had a child out of wedlock in 1895 and worked in a shop in Greenbrier, jumped at this second chance.

The two appeared to be happy but in January of 1897 an eleven-year old African American boy, Andy Jones, discovered Zona’s body lying on the floor. He had been sent to the home by Edward to ask Zona if she needed anything from the store. The young boy upon discovering her body ran home to tell his mother.

It took the local doctor over an hour to reach the Shue home. When the doctor arrived he found that Edward, apparently grief-stricken had carried Zona upstairs. In fact, Edward had already dressed her in her Sunday best—a dress that had a high stiff collar tied with a large bow. This was unusual for the time because women normally performed this task. Edward had covered her face with a veil and clung to his dead wife’s upper body sobbing. The doctor impressed by Edwards’ grief examined the body very briefly and then pronounced Zona’s death to be related it to a female problem that he had been treating her for in recent weeks.

At Zona’s wake the townsfolk noted that Edward was acting oddly. He seemed nearly frantic in his efforts to keep his wife’s body comfortable—wedging an extra pillow, and a rolled up sheet near her head in the coffin. He did not allow people to move too close to her body. When her coffin was moved several people noted her head appeared to flop from side to side. At one point, after Zona was buried her mother tried to return the sheet that she had removed from the coffin to Edward but he would not accept it. When she took it home she noticed a strange smell so she washed it, oddly the water turned a rusty red in color and the sheet formed a stain that would not come out. Mary Jane, who disliked Edward intensely, took this as a sign that her daughter had met with foul play. She prayed for four weeks that her daughter would give her a sign.

Zona did exactly this when she returned to haunt her mother’s dreams for four nights in a row. She described the cruel abuse she had endured as Edwards’s wife. She told her mother how one night when Edward had come home he went into a rage when he mistakenly thought dinner was not ready—he then broke her neck. In Mary Jane’s dream her daughter turned her head all the way around to prove this to her mother.

Mary Jane
Mary Jane fearful her daughter’s soul could not rest in peace approached the local prosecuting attorney, John Alfred Preston, and described to him what her daughter’s ghost had told her. This information plus the stories circulating about Edward’s odd behavior, before, during, and after the funeral convinced Preston to check into the matter further.

Zona’s body was exhumed in February of 1897 and an autopsy was performed. Edward by law was required to attend—he objected strenuously. It was found Zona’s windpipe was crushed and her neck was broken. The cause of death was deemed strangulation. Edward muttered he had not done it. Preston then checked into Edward’s life before he moved to Greenbrier, he found that Edward had abused his first wife who then divorced him. His second wife had died under mysterious circumstances.

At this point Edward was arrested. Delusional he appeared confused when he was charged with murder. He suggested at one point that they should suspect the young boy, Andy Jones, who had discovered his wife’s body. Once in jail his spirits lifted for he bragged that Zona had been his third wife and he intended to have at least four more wives before he died.

Edward was convicted of the murder and nearly lynched by a local crowd in July of 1897 before he was moved to the state penitentiary where he died three years later. Mary Jane’s testimony about her daughter’s appearance was not solicited by Preston in court but when the defense cross-examined her Edward’s lawyer brought up her daughter’s ghostly visits hoping to discredit her—instead this strategy backfired when Mary Jane stuck to her story—so the jurors were sent to deliberate with a favorable impression of her ghost’s tale.

Mary Jane won twice. She got her wish because Zona’s spirit apparently satisfied never appeared again. She also proved that her daughter’s ghost had visited her—the jury believed her testimony. She lived until 1916 never recanting the story of her daughter’s ghostly visits. The Greenbrier case in the late 1800’s is the only one recorded where the alleged “testimony of a ghost” was accepted as evidence in a murder trail.

Shue House
The house where Zona was murdered still stands and is a private residence today.

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