True Crime, WV

The Greenbrier Ghost: How The Testimony Of A Ghost Put A Man In Prison

the greenbrier ghost convicted a murderer

This is actually a true story. Whether or not there was really a ghost involved is up for debate but the following events really happened in Greenbrier County, WV.

There was a woman in Greenbrier County named Zona Heaster. In October of 1896, she met a man named Erasmus (also known as Edward) Shue. He was sort of a drifter and came to Greenbrier County looking for work as a blacksmith.

Relationship

Shue and Zona met each other shortly after he arrived in town. They were soon married even though Zona’s mother, Mary Heaster, didn’t like him at all. She always felt like he wasn’t a good person and that he was hiding something.

They lived together for the next several months. But on January 23, 1897, Zona’s body was found in her home by a young boy named Andy Jones. Pretending that he needed the boy to do an errand, Shue had him go to his home to see if Zona needed anything from the store.

Zona Heaster’s Body

Andy Jones found Zona’s body at the bottom of their stairs. She was stretched out with her feet close together and her head turned slightly to the side. Andy ran home to tell his mother what happened.

The town doctor and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, came to the home (it took him about an hour to arrive though).

Shue’s Behavior With Zona’s Body

Before the doctor had arrived, Shue had already carried Zona’s body upstairs and put her in the bed. He dressed her body himself (which was not the local custom at the time). He put her in a high-necked, stiff-collar dress. He also put a veil over her face.

The doctor tried to examine her body but her husband wouldn’t leave her side. He kept cradling her head and crying. Shue seemed to be in a great deal of pain, so the doctor didn’t bother to do a very thorough examination. He did notice some bruising on her neck though.

Her cause of death was listed as “everlasting faint” but later changed to “childbirth”. No one knows if she was actually pregnant at the time of her death but the doctor had been treating her for “female issues” for 2 weeks before her death.

Zona’s Mother’s Reaction To Her Death

After being informed of her daughter’s death, Mary Heaster said, “The devil has killed her!” On January 24th Zona’s body was taken to her parent’s home. People that went to pay their respects noticed some very strange behavior from Shue. He seemed to flip back and forth between extreme grief and mania. He wouldn’t let anyone get too close to her coffin. He put a scarf around her neck claiming it had been her favorite.

Mary Heaster’s Suspicions

At this point, the townspeople were starting to talk. But Zona’s mother had always hated Shue and knew that something was wrong but had no way to prove it.

Not long after Zona’s wake, Mary took the sheet that was inside the coffin and tried to return it to Shue. For some reason he refused it. Mary decided to wash it and claimed that when she put it in the basin, the water turned red. The sheet then became pink and the red in the water disappeared. She tried and tried to get the pink color out of the sheet but it seemed to be permanently stained. At this point, she believed this to be a sign that her daughter Zona had been murdered. She began to pray that she would learn the truth.

For the next month, she prayed that Zona would come to her and tell her the truth about her death. Apparently, her prayers were answered.

The Greenbrier Ghost

According to Mary, her daughter’s spirit came to her bedside. The ghost explained over and over again that Shue had murdered her. Shue had been very abusive and killed her in a fit of rage because she hadn’t cooked any meat for dinner. He broke her neck. The ghost turned her head completely around until it was facing backward.

Mary went to the prosecutor, John Preston, in order to convince him to re-open Zona’s case. She claimed the visits from Zona’s ghost were evidence that she had been murdered. Preston actually agreed to send people out to talk to Dr. Knapp and some other people involved in her case. The death investigation was re-opened.

Dr. Knapp admitted he hadn’t been able to examine Zona’s body very well. So they decided an autopsy should be performed. Her body was exhumed and the autopsy was performed in the Nickell School Building. Shue complained about this but had no choice but to attend. Otherwise, he would have been arrested. He reportedly said, “They will not be able to prove I did it”.

Zona’s Autopsy

Her autopsy took about 3 hours but her body had been preserved fairly well due to the cold February weather. Doctor’s found that her neck had been broken. When informed of the finding Shue stated, “They cannot prove that I did it”.

A report from March 9 said that her neck had been broken and her windpipe crushed. Her throat had finger marks indicating that someone had choked her.

Shue’s Arrest

Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of his Wife. He pleaded “not guilty”.

While he was waiting for his trial he stated his grieving for Zona was over. Zona had been his 3rd wife and he claimed he had a goal of having 7 wives. He continued to insist that his guilt couldn’t be proven.

The Trial

Shue’s trial started on June 22, 1897. Many people testified against him including Mary Heaster. Preston wanted to ensure that she came across as credible so he skirted around the issue of the Greenbrier Ghost. He thought it would make her appear crazy and it wasn’t admissible anyway.

But Shue’s lawyer had a different plan. He decided to ask Mary about seeing her daughter’s ghost in order to make her look insane to the Jury. He questioned and badgered her for a long time but she never changed her story about what she had seen. Shue’s lawyer finally dismissed her but the damage was done. The judge couldn’t tell the jury to dismiss Mary’s testimony about the ghost since it was the defense and not the prosecutor that brought it up.

Shue’s Sentencing

Amazingly people believed Mary’s story and Shue was found guilty. Ten people voted he should be hanged but instead he was sentenced to life in prison. Shue died in the West Virginia State Penitentiary on March 13, 1900, after becoming sick. The prison buried unclaimed bodies near Tom’s Run Cemetery and no trace of Shue can be found.

The Greenbrier Ghost

The spirit of Zona has never been seen again but she left quite a mark on Greenbrier County. There is a roadside historical marker on Route 60 that explains the story and also mentions that this is the only known case where the testimony of a ghost helped put a man in prison for murder.

If you enjoyed this check out my article about The Mad Bomber of New York.

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