Our first story is so unique that it has its own historical marker. Just off of Interstate 64 at the Sam Black Church exit, there standing alongside highway 60 as the old two lane route winds its way through West Virginia, is a sign telling of the late Zona Heaster better known as the ghost of Greenbrier County.
This unlikely event of the paranormal is said to be the only known case in which testimony from the grave, helped convict a murderer.
Our story begins in 1896 when a young local girl, the 23 year old Zona, fell madly in love with a newcomer, Edward Shue, who became the town blacksmith. Edward had been married twice before and although his second wife had died mysteriously, Zona was smitten and ignored the warnings of her mother, who’d been overprotective since Zona had gave birth to another man’s out-of-wedlock baby the year before.
If you are a student of history and versed in the sensibilities of the culture that existed in rural America in the late nineteenth century, you will recognize that this was quite a scandalous situation with both Zona and Edward. Having a child outside of the marriage covenant was unheard of, well it happened frequently enough as you might imagine, but polite culture simply frowned on such in those days and society generally ostracized young women who were inexplicably found with child.
Edward, well he had been married before, not once but twice! And there was a mystery surrounding the demise of the second wife. I would not hesitate to say that the tongues of gossips in the small town were furiously wagging, dredging up rumors and cruel innuendo surrounding both of these unfortunate souls.
Blacksmiths were business men, often pillars of the community, with services very much in high demand in those days. Edward may have not been wealthy, but probably was well off. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that perhaps poor Zona felt that Edward was a prime catch, perhaps the best that she could do as an unmarried mother with child.
A marriage was performed, more than likely the license was solemnized by a Justice of the Peace as was common in those times when church weddings were the exception and not the rule.
Three months later, Edward sent a neighbor boy on an errand, and the boy was the one to discover the lifeless body of Zona at the foot of the staircase in Edward’s home.
They say Zona’s body was found to be laying stretched out, with her feet together, one hand on her abdomen and the other lying next to her. One would think that after a fall down the staircase, the victim would not be stretched out laying neatly, as if reposed peacefully in bed, but rather we would think that a body, after a fall like that, would be found in a twisted unnatural heap.
Her head was turned slightly to one side. Her eyes were wide open and staring. Even to this small boy who found the body, Zona Shue was obviously dead. The young neighbor boy, not surprisingly, ran home to tell his mother. The local doctor and coroner, Dr George W. Knapp, was summoned to the house, although he didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.
By this time, Shue had carried his wife’s body upstairs and had laid her out on the bed. Contrary to local custom, he dressed the corpse himself. Normally, it was the proper thing for ladies of the community to wash and dress a body in preparation for burial. However, Shue took it upon himself to dress Zona in her best clothing. A high-necked, stiff collared dress covered her neck and a veil had been placed over her face.
While Dr Knapp examined her and tried to determine a cause of death, hue stayed by his wife’s side, cradling her head and sobbing. Because of Shue’s obvious grief, Knapp gave the body only a cursory examination, although he did notice some bruising on her neck.
Edward Shue prevented any closer examination of the body, and Zona’s death was chalked up to “childbirth”—though nobody seems to know if she was even pregnant at the time of her death. She was swiftly buried wearing a high-necked dress and a scarf provided by her insistent but apparently grieving husband, who also took care to prop up his dead wife’s head using a rolled-up sheet.
This was 1897, and spiritualism was all the rage in America. Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, was a believer—she was already convinced that the rolled-up sheet she’d removed from Zona’s coffin was marked with mysterious bloodstains—and she prayed for insight into her beloved daughter’s death… to sources beyond the grave.
By 1897, spiritualism was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes. Spiritualism flourished for a half century without canonical texts or formal organization, attaining cohesion through periodicals, tours by trance lecturers, camp meetings, and the missionary activities of accomplished mediums. Many prominent spiritualists were women, and like most spiritualists, supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.
Spiritualists believed in the possibility of communication with the spirits of dead people, whom they regarded as discarnate humans.” They believed that spirit mediums were gifted to carry on such communication, but that anyone may become a medium through study and practice. They believed that spirits are capable of growth and perfection, progressing through higher spheres or planes, and that the afterlife is not a static state, but one in which spirits evolve.
The two beliefs—that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits may dwell on a higher plane—lead to a third belief, that spirits can provide knowledge about moral and ethical issues. So it was within this sort of paranormal environment that Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, made her appeal to the great beyond, the petition of a distraught Mother seeking justice for her deceased child, and shortly thereafter, she received her supernatural response.
About four weeks after her daughter’s death, Mary Jane began having visions. Four nights in a row, Zona’s ghost came to her and told her that Trout had abused her. The ghost told Mary Jane how she and Trout had argued the day of her death. She said that Trout attacked her and broke her neck. As the ghost was leaving, she turned her head around until it was completely facing backwards.
Mary Jane went straight to prosecutor John Alfred Preston, who somehow was convinced by this other-worldly tale, to order that Zona’s remains be exhumed.
Following this testimony, Elvaʼs body was exhumed for a post-mortem examination to attempt to verify a cause of death. Upon examination, it was found that the body had a crushed windpipe and a broken neck, likely caused by strangulation.
Edward Shue was soon arrested and tried for murder; Preston tried to keep the ghostly tales out of the legal proceedings (for obvious reasons), but wasn’t exactly successful.
Accounts of the trial indicate that Edward Shue’s defense attorney, during cross examination, questioned Mary Jane Heaster extensively about the purported visits of the ghost, perhaps in an attempt to discredit Zona’s mother in the eyes of the jury. This strategy proved to be a mistake as, despite the intense badgering, Mary Jane remained adamant in her allegations and refused to waiver.
Again this was during a time period when many people believed that communication from the great beyond was possible, if not routine. Many people in the community, if not the jury, seemed to believe Heaster’s story, and Shue did himself no favors taking the stand in his own defense, rambling and appealing to the jury “to look into his face and then say if he was guilty.
The Greenbrier Independent reported that his “testimony, manner, and so forth, made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.” The jury deliberated for just an hour and ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The “testimony” of a ghost was enough of an oddity to spare Shue the death penalty, but he did get life in prison; he died just three years later while serving his sentence.
Questions can to this day be asked about this unusual case. Did Mary Jane really see a ghost, or did she act on her suspicions of the oddities surrounding how Zona was found and the bloody sheet Mary Jane removed from her daughter’s coffin. What was the motivation of the jury to be prejudiced against Edward? Was it his actions during his testimony, did his arrogance and the fact that the death of his second wife was questionable, sway their deliberations against him? Was it the evidence of the postmortem examination that indicated death by strangulation and not “child-birth” as originally claimed?
Or was it that the members of the jury were true believers. Were the men of that jury faithful disciples of the prevailing ideology in that long ago time, that the dead could communicate with the living?