Post by Joanna on Apr 7, 2014 23:55:03 GMT -5
The Greenbrier Ghost: Testimony from Beyond the Grave
Following is the story of The Greenbrier Ghost – a remarkable case in which the victim’s spirit testified as to the cause of her own violent death and named her killer:
Her daughter was only 23 and Mary Jane Heaster watched through teary eyes as the body of her child was lowered into the cold ground. It was a grey, dreary day in late January1897 as Elva Zona Heaster Shue (above) was laid to rest in the cemetery near Greenbrier, West Virginia. Her death came much too soon, Mrs. Heaster thought. Too unexpectedly... too mysteriously. The coroner listed the cause of death as complications of childbirth, but Zona, as she preferred to be called, had not been giving birth when she died, or even pregnant for that matter. Mary Jane was certain her daughter’s death was unnatural. If only Zona could speak from the grave and explain what had really brought about her untimely passing.
In one of the most remarkable trials in U.S. jurisprudence, Zona Shue did speak from her grave, revealing not only how she died – but at whose hand. Her spirit’s testimony named the killer and was instrumental in convicting the perpetrator. So far as is known, it is the only case in the nation in which the testimony of the ghost of a murder victim aided in solving the crime in a court of law.
The Marriage. Just two years before Zona’s death, Mary Jane Heaster had endured another hardship concerning her daughter. Zona had given birth to a child out of wedlock – a scandalous event in the late 1800s. The father, whoever he was, did not marry the young woman and she was in need of a husband. In 1896, Zona chanced to meet Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. Going by the name “Edward,” he was a newcomer to Greenbrier, looking to make a new life for himself as a blacksmith. Edward and Zona took an instant liking to each other and began courting. Mary Jane, however, was not pleased. Protective of her daughter, especially after her recent difficulty, she did not approve of Zona’s choice. There was something about him she didn’t like. He was, after all, a virtual a stranger, and there was something about him she didn’t trust ... perhaps even something evil that her daughter, blinded by love, could not see. But despite her mother’s misgivings, on October 26, 1896, Zona and Edward were married.
The Body. Just three months had passed when, on January 23, 1897, an 11-year-old colored boy named Andy Jones entered the Shue home and found the lady of the house lying on the floor. He had been sent by Mr. Shue to ask Zona if she needed anything from the market. The lad stood for a moment looking down at the woman, at first not knowing what to make of the scene. She was stretched out straight with her legs together, with one arm at her side and the other resting across her body. Her head was tilted to one side. Andy wondered if she was asleep on the floor and stepped quietly toward her. “Mrs. Shue?” he called softly. Something wasn’t right. The boy’s heart raced as panic swept over his body and he bolted from the house, ran home as fast as his legs would carry him and told his mother there was something wrong with Mrs. Shue.
The local physician and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, was summoned. It was more than an hour before he arrived at the Shue residence (above) and by that time Edward had already carried the lady’s lifeless body to an upstairs bedroom. When Knapp entered the room, he was astonished to see that Shue had redressed his wife in her Sunday best – a lovely dress with a high neck and stiff collar – and covered her face with a veil. When a woman or girl died, neighboring women washed, prepared and dressed the corpse for burial. The doctor couldn’t recall a single instance of a man ever dressing his dead wife.
Obviously, Zona Shue was dead. But how? Knapp attempted to examine the body to determine cause of death, but all the while, Edward, crying bitterly – almost hysterically – cradled the woman’s head in his arms. Initially, the physician could find nothing out of the ordinary that would explain the death of what appeared to have been a healthy young woman. But then he noticed something – a slight discoloration on the right side of her cheek and neck. He wanted to examine the marks, but Shue protested so vehemently that Knapp ended the examination, announcing that poor Zona had died of “an everlasting faint.” Officially and for the record, he inexplicably wrote “childbirth” as the cause of death. He also mysteriously failed to notify the sheriff concerning the strange marks on the lady’s neck that her husband wouldn’t allow him to examine.
The Wake and the Ghost. Mary Jane Heaster was beside herself with grief. She had felt from the first that Zona’s marriage to Edward would come to a bad end ... but not this. Were her apprehensions about Edward worse than she had imagined? Were her motherly instincts correct in not trusting this stranger who had married her daughter? Her suspicions increased at Zona’s wake. Edward was acting strangely, nothing like a husband mourning his wife. Some of the neighbors attending the wake noticed it, too. One moment he seemed grief-stricken and the next he was highly agitated and nervous. He had placed a pillow on one side of Zona’s head and a rolled up cloth on the other, as though keeping it propped in place and he refused to allow anyone near the coffin. In addition to the high-collared dress, Mrs. Shue’s neck was covered by a scarf that Edward claimed was her favorite and that he wanted her to wear to the grave. At the end of the wake, as the coffin was being prepared for conveyance to the cemetery, several people noticed an odd “looseness” to Zona’s head.
Zona was buried and despite all the mystery surrounding her daughter’s death, Mary Jane Heaster had no proof that Edward was somehow to blame, or that Zona’s demise was unnatural. The suspicions and questions might have been buried along with Zona Shue and eventually forgotten but for a series of events that can best be described as “supernatural.” Mary Jane had managed to remove the rolled up white sheet from Zona’s coffin before it was closed for the last time and days after the funeral, attempted to return it to her son-in-law. In keeping with his peculiar behavior, he refused it and Mrs. Heaster decided to keep it as a memento of her daughter. She noticed. however, that it had a strange, indefinable odor and decided to wash it. She filled a basin with water and when she submerged the cloth, the water turned red, the color apparently “bleeding” from the sheet. Mary Jane was astonished, scooped up some of the water in a pitcher and it was clear. However, the once snow-white sheet was now tinted pink and nothing she did removed the stain. She washed it, boiled it and hung it in the sun, but the stain remained. It was a sign, the grieving mother thought – a message from Zona that her death was anything but natural. If only Zona could tell her what happened.
Every night for weeks, Mary Jane fervently prayed that her daughter would somehow return from the dead and reveal the circumstances of her death. As the cold winter winds swirled up and down the streets of Greenbrier and early darkness crept into the Heaster home, she lit oil lamps and candles for light and stoked the wood stove for warmth. From within this dim atmosphere, so the lady claimed, the spirit of her beloved Zona appeared on four nights and during these spectral visitations, told her mother how she had died. Edward was cruel and abusive, Zona said. And on the day of her death his violence went too far. He became irrationally angry when she announced she had no meat for his dinner. Overcome with rage, he lashed out at his defenseless wife, savagely attacking her and breaking her neck. To prove her account, the ghost slowly turned its head completely around at the neck.
The Proof. Zona’s phantom had confirmed her mother’s worst fears. It all fit: Shue’s strange behavior and the manner in which he attempted to conceal his dead wife’s neck and prevent movement and inspection. He had murdered the poor woman! Mary Jane took her tale to John Alfred Preston, the local prosecutor. Preston listened patiently, if skeptically, to Mrs. Heaster’s story of the telltale ghost. He had his doubts, but there was something unusual and suspicious about the case, so he requested the corpse of Zona Shue be exhumed for autopsy. Edward protested, but was powerless to stop the wheels of justice. He began to exhibit signs of extreme stress, publicly stating that he knew he would be arrested for the crime, but that “they will not be able to prove I did it.” Prove what?, people wanted to know – unless he knew his wife had been murdered. And how would he know that unless he killed her?
The Evidence. The autopsy revealed – just as the apparition had said – that Mrs. Shue’s neck was, indeed, broken and her windpipe crushed from violent strangulation. Edward was charged with murder and arrested. As he awaited trial in jail, the man’s unsavory past came to light. He had served time in jail for stealing a horse. He had also been married twice before and his violent temper had figured prominently in both. His first wife divorced him after he put her out of their home and angrily threw out all her possessions. The second Mrs. Shue died from a mysterious blow to the head. Once again, Mary Jane intuition about her daughter’s husband was verified – the man was pure evil. And maybe he was a bit of a psychopath, too. Jail keepers and cell mates reported that Edward Sue seemed to be in good spirits while incarcerated, bragging that intended to eventually have seven wives. Because he was only 35-years-old, he said he should easily be able to attain his goal. Apparently, he was certain he would not be convicted of Zona’s death. After all, what evidence was there? While the evidence against Shue may have been circumstantial, he hadn’t anticipated the testimony of an eyewitness to the murder.
The Trial. Spring had come and gone and it was late June when the Shue trial began. The prosecution lined up several witnesses who attested to Edward’s peculiar behavior and unguarded comments. But would this be enough to convict him? There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and Mrs. Shue’s husband was nowhere near the scene at the time she died. Taking the stand in his defense, Edward vehemently denied the charges.
Testimony from Beyond the Grave. The court ruled that any mention of the alleged apparition was inadmissible, but then the defense attorney made a mistake that likely sealed his client’s fate when during his questioning of Mary Jane Heaster. In an attempt to show the woman was unbalanced – maybe even insane – and prejudiced against the defendant, he broached the subject of Zona’s ghost. A grieving mother is always sympathetic and anything suggesting otherworldly intervention in the affairs of man intrigues even the dullest mind, thus, when Mrs. Heaster spoke, the jury, and everyone else, listened. The matronly country woman explained how her beloved daughter’s spirit appeared and accused Edward Shue of attacking her, saying her neck had been “squeezed off at the first vertebra.”
No one knows for certain that the jury took Mary Jane’s – or rather Zona’s – testimony seriously, nevertheless, the 12 men did find Shue guilty of murdering his wife. In the late 19th century, a murder conviction usually resulted in a sentence of death, but because of the circumstantial nature of the evidence – and possibly because he realized the jury had based its verdict on the testimony of a dead woman – the judge sentenced Edward Shue to life in prison. Shue died March 13, 1900, at the penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia.
The Questions. Was the jury swayed, even a little, by the story of Zona’s spirit? Was there even a ghost at all? Or was Mary Jane Heaster so convinced that Edward Shue had killed her daughter that she made up, or imagined, the incident? In either case, without the story of the phantom witness, Mrs. Heaster probably wouldn’t have approached the prosecutor, and if she hadn’t, Shue probably wouldn’t have ever been brought to trial. Also, there are stories – all unsubstantiated – that the jurors wondered how the “ghost” was able to describe her injuries with such specificity, i.e., “squeezed off at the first vertebra,” unless the specter was a genuine manifestation from beyond the grave.
A highway historical marker near Greenbrier commemorates Zona Shue and the unusual case surrounding her death.
Authors: Graveyardbride and Joanna.
Sources: The Greenbrier Ghost by Dennis Deitz; Stephen Wagner, ParanormalPhenomena; Doug McGowan, "The Greenbrier Ghost," September 21, 2011; and Wonderful West Virginia.
See also: “Dixboro Woman Returns from Grave to Avenge Her Death”