It was murder most foul in Greenbrier County, West Virginia on January 23, 1897. The corpse of an attractive young woman, Mrs. Zona Heaster Shue age 24 was found at the foot of her bed by a neighborhood boy running an errand for the woman’s husband.
Zona had a checkered past. She had given birth out of wedlock two years earlier, which made her an unmarriageable pariah in her small community. A handsome drifter blew into town and won her heart and hand with a line of glib small talk and a willingness to ignore the lingering scandal surrounding his new bride.
Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue—that’s a real name folks, I don’t have enough talent to invent that—preferred, for obvious reasons, to be called Edward. His past was shrouded with secrecy, but he was a skilled blacksmith, an occupation that made it easy to get work where ever his rambles took him. With a steady job and apparently good prospects wooing the lovely Zona was probably pretty easy.
But Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, smelled a rat from the beginning. She was a very attractive woman herself and recognized a line of bullshit, most likely from bitter experience.
The couple married shortly after meeting in October of 1896. They lived together in an isolated house away from the nearest village. At first, despite Mrs. Heaster’s reservations, they seemed happy enough—until the bride turned up dead only months into married life.
The frightened lad who discovered the corpse ran to tell his mother what she found. That woman in turn sent someone to fetch the local physician and part-time Coroner Dr. George W. Knapp. It took Knapp an hour to arrive at the home.
By the time he got there, Shue had arrived home, moved the body to an upstairs bedroom, washed and cleaned the corpse, clothed her in her finest dress which had a high, stiff collar, and placed a veil over her face. As Knapp tried to examine the body, Shue became distraught and cradled his wife’s head weeping and moaning. Not wanting to impose on the husband’s grief, Knapp gave the body only a cursory examination.
The Doctor did note some bruising around the neck but listed the cause of death as an everlasting faint, whatever that meant. After a day or two of reflection he changed that to childbirth although there was no evidence Zona had been pregnant or any evidence of a spontaneous abortion or the corpse of a fetus apparently because the doctor had been treating her for female trouble in the couple of weeks immediately before her death.
As for Zona’s mother, she was having none of it. Immediately upon hearing the news of the death she reportedly said, “That devil killed her.”
Wasting no time, Shue arranged a wake and burial the next day. He kept a tight vigil over the body and let no one approach her open casket. During the wake, apparently distraught, he cradled her head between a pillow and blanket and draped a “favorite scarf” around her neck. His behavior was so extreme he began to arouse suspicion. Mourners also noted “strange looseness” around the neck, as the body was moved.
No one was more suspicious than Mrs. Heaster. Before the coffin was closed she retrieved a sheet that had wrapped the body, supposedly to return it Shue. But Shue refused, almost hysterically, to take it. She noted a strange odor on the sheet and decided to wash it.
The water in the wash tub turned blood red when she immersed the sheet, then the water cleared and the sheets was turned pink. Mrs. Heaster took it a sign from her daughter had been murdered and prayed for a message explaining her discovery.
She prayed every night for word from Zona. After four weeks, Zona finally appeared to her in a blinding light. Over four consecutive nights the ghostly presence recounted her tale. Shue had been abusive from the start and grew more violent. On the day of the murder he attacked her for not preparing meat for his supper and snapped her neck. To display the injury the ghost rotated her head 360 degrees—just like that girl in The Exorcism. After that dramatic fourth night the ghost never returned again.
Mrs. Heaster took her story to local authorities who, although dubious, had begun to harbor doubts of their own. Prosecutor John Alfred Preston was at length convinced to reopen the investigation with fresh interviews of Dr. Knack and ordered the body exhumed. A fresh autopsy revealed that Zona’s neck had indeed been snapped between the first and second vertebrae. Her windpipe had been crushed probably causing asphyxiation and bruising consistent with fingers was found on her throat.
After the autopsy was published on March 9, Shue was arrested and charged with Zona’s murder.
Shue was taken to jail in Lewisburg to await trial. He continued to behave bizarrely. He boasted that he would never be convicted because there was not enough evidence against him. Investigation into his shady passed revealed that he had been married twice before. His first wife had divorced him charging cruelty and abuse. His second wife died under mysterious circumstances. He openly boasted to fellow inmates that he wanted to be married seven times.
When the trial finally opened in June the prosecution was naturally loathe to introduce testimony about Mrs. Heaster’s vision. But they needed her to testify on other matters. Shue’s lawyer pounced on the ghost story in an effort to portray the whole prosecution as the fruit of a hysterical, unstable woman. But the jury listened carefully and was apparently swayed by the second-hand testimony from beyond the grave.
Shue was found guilty of First Degree Murder on July 11. The night that the verdict came in a deputy had to disperse a lynch mob. He was sentenced to life in prison at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville where he died in an epidemic in March 1900.
Zona became posthumously famous as the Greenbrier Ghost. The site of the murder is marked with an official State historical marker that notes the trial was the “only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.”