Another story about the ghost of a murdered victim seeking vengeance, but this one has a twist. The only known case where the word of a ghost is credited with helping solve a crime and convict the murderer!
This is the sad tale of Elva Zona Heaster. She was born in 1873 in Greenbriar County, West Virginia. In October 1896 she met a man named Erasmus (Edward) Stribbling Trout Shue. Edward Shue was a drifter who moved to Greenbriar to start a new life and find work as a blacksmith.He went to work in the shop of James Crookshanks, and found plenty of work to keep him busy.
Zona met Edward shortly after he moved to town. The two became attracted to each other and married shortly after meeting despite the fact that Zona’s mother Mary Jane Robinson Heaster detested Edward from the moment she met him. She just felt that there was something “not right” about him.
Zona and Edward lived together, the happily married couple, for several months. Then on January 23, 1897 Zona’s body was found at her house by a young local boy Andy Jones. Edward had sent Andy from the blacksmith shop to see if Zona needed anything from the store. When Andy arrived at the house he found Zona lying at the bottom of the stairs with her head slightly to one side, her feet together, one hand on her abdomen and the other next to her. He immediately knew she was dead and ran home to tell his mother. His mother contacted the local doctor and coroner, Dr George W. Knapp who did not arrive for nearly an hour.
By the time the doctor arrived Edward had carried Zona’s body upstairs and laid her out on the bed. He had already washed and dressed her in her best clothing (even though this was normally done by the town ladies after the coroner had finished with the body) a high-necked, stiff-collared dress and a veil covering her face. While Dr Knapp examined the body and tried to determine cause of death, Edward stayed close to Zona’s body, cradling her head and sobbing. Because of Edward’s obvious grief , Dr Knapp made his examination of the body very brief and listed cause of death as “everlasting faint” then changed it to “complications of pregnancy”.
At the funeral in her parent’s home at Little Sewell Mountain, Edward exhibited bizarre behavior. He continuously paced by the coffin. In addition to the high-necked collar and veil he covered Zona’s head and neck with a scarf that even though it did not match her burial outfit he claimed was her favorite and what she would have wanted to be buried in. He also propped her head up, first with a pillow then a rolled up cloth. Although the behavior was odd, Edward was well liked by the town and rather than seeing his behavior as suspicious it was chalked up by most as the grieving process.
Notice I said most did not find it suspicious. One person, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster , did find it suspicious. She had never liked Edward and even without evidence was convinced he had murdered her daughter. She decided to pray that Zona would somehow be able to communicate from the other side and let her know what had happened. She prayed every evening for days, then weeks until finally one night her prayers were answered.
Mary Jane Heaster claimed that her daughter Zona appeared to her in a dream four nights in a row. She claimed it started as a bright light then formed into the image of her daughter bringing a chill into the room. Mary Jane claimed that Zona tearfully confessed that Edward Shue had been cruelly abusive to her. On the fateful night of her death he flew into a rage because he thought she had not made meat for dinner. He broke her neck, which the spirit of Zona demonstrated by turning her head completely around and walking away while staring at her mother.
Mary Jane Heaster went to the prosecutor, John Preston , and spent the afternoon in his office trying to get him to reopen her daughter’s case. Now no one can say for certain if John Preston believed the ghost story or if a mother’s persistence persuaded him, but either way he started asking questions. Edward Shue’s friends and neighbors related his bizarre behavior after the death and at the funeral and Dr Knapp admitted that his “cause of death” examination had been cursory at best. It was enough for Preston. He order a full autopsy on Zona’s body. The body was exhumed and taken to the town’s schoolhouse where it was thoroughly examined by Dr Knapp and two other doctors. The local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times, reported later that “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.” It was clear to one and all that Zona’s death was not of natural causes.
After the autopsy, Edward Shue was indited for murder although the evidence was clearly circumstantial. While Edward was awaiting trial, his past (if not his dearly departed wife) came back to haunt him. It came out that Zona was not Edward’s first wife. She was in fact his third. His first wife . Allie Estelline Cutlip obtained a divorce in 1889 while Edward was in jail for horse theft. In the divorce decree she alledged that he frequently beat her. In 1894. Edward married again. His second wife, Lucy Ann Tritt, died 8 months later under what were described as “mysterious circumstances”. Edward claimed Lucy had fallen and hit her head on a rock. Most did not believe him and it was under these circumstances that he left town and relocated to Greenbriar.
The trial began on June 22, 1897. Numerous people from the community testified, but of course the highlight was the appearance of Mary Jane Robinson Heaster, mother of the deceased. John Preston wanted her to appear sane and believable so he skirted the issue of the ghost story since not only would it make her look irrational but would be considered hearsay and thereby inadmissible.
Unfortunately for Mr Shue his attorney was not as astute and chose to question Mrs Heaster about her ghostly encounter, thereby entering it as evidence for the defense. He badgered Mrs Heaster about her “visions” characterizing them as the “wild ravings of a bereaved mother” He attempted to make her look irrational and ridiculous but Mary Jane never wavered in her testimony. After some time he realized that his tactics were not working and dismissed her. By this time the damage was done and since the testimony was entered by the defense the judge could not charge the jury to ignore it. Erasmus “Edward” Trout Shue was convicted of murder in just over an hour. 10 of the jurors voted for hanging but since it was not unanimous the sentence of life in prison was handed down.
On July 14, 1897 Erasmus “Edward” Trout Shue was moved to the West Virginia State Penetentiary in Moundsville. He lived there until March 13, 1900 when he died from one of the epidemics of measles , mumps or pneumonia that swept through the prison. Unclaimed remains of prisoners were buried at Tom’s Run Cemetery for which records were not kept until the 1930’s. No trace of Edward Shue can be found today.
Mary Jane Heaster repeated her story of her ghostly visitation by her daughter to all who would listen until her death in 1916. This sad story in commemorated on a historical roadside marker along Route 60 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 ghost helped convict a murderer.
The Greenbrier Ghost. (n.d.). Retrieved August 31, 2015, from http://www.prairieghosts.com/shue.html
Elva Zona Heaster: The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder. (n.d.). Retrieved August 31, 2015, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/30608/elva-zona-heaster-ghost-who-helped-solve-her-own-murder