Greenbrier County, West Virginia was the site of one of the most unusual murder trials in U.S. history. The accused was tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison based on the testimony of a ghost.
This stranger than fiction tale began on January 23, 1897 when Elva Zona Heaster was found dead at her home by a local boy. The 23-year-old woman lay at the foot of the stairwell in the home she shared with her husband, Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue, the local blacksmith. The couple had been married just four months. Their union was met with strong objections from the mother of the bride, Mary Jane Heaster, who took an almost immediate disliking to the groom.
Zona’s body was lying on the floor, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. There was no one else in the house and Shue was at work. The young boy ran home and told his mother of the discovery and she in turn ran to get the local doctor, George Knapp, who served as county coroner.
When Knapp arrived on the scene, Shue had been told of his wife’s death and was at home with the body. He had laid his wife’s body out in their bedroom and had dressed it for internment which made Knapp suspicious. During the era, it was customary for local women to wash and dress the body in preparation for a funeral. Shue had dressed his wife in a dress with a stiff collar and refused to leave his wife’s body even when Knapp did his examination. Knapp observed bruising on Zona’s neck, but when he tried to look closer Shue became so enraged that the doctor cut his examination short. He listed her cause of death as “childbirth.”
Shue’s behavior during the wake struck Zona’s mother as suspicious. He would not leave his wife’s coffin, kept close vigil over the body and would not allow anyone near it. He tied a scarf around her neck which fueled his mother-in-law’s suspicions. After the wake, Heaster removed a sheet from the coffin and tried to give it to Shue, but he refused it. She took it home where she noticed it had a strong odor. She washed it, only to find that the sheet had turned pink and the stain could not be removed. She considered this a sign her daughter had been murdered.
A month went by and one night Heaster awakened and saw her daughter’s ghostly apparition standing at her bedside. According to Heaster’s later testimony, the ghostly form of Zona appeared to her and asked her to seek justice. She told Heaster that Shue had been abusive and had killed her during a fit of rage by breaking her neck. Zona’s ghost turned her head completely around in a ghastly effort to illustrate the point.
The following day, Heaster went to the office of John Preston, the Greenbrier County Prosecutor. Heaster told him of the ghostly visit, but the prosecutor was initially unmoved. How could he take a case to a jury based on the testimony of a ghost?
Heaster was determined to get justice for her slain daughter and argued with Preston for hours until the prosecutor agreed to investigate. Preston sent two deputies to conduct interviews with locals who knew the couple. He personally questioned Knapp, who told him of Shue’s violent behavior during the examination of his wife’s body. Knapp also stated that he did not complete his exam, which gave Preston cause to order an exhumation of the body.
Shue was present at the disinterment and autopsy of his wife’s body and complained bitterly. He told Preston he knew he would be arrested but maintained his innocence. Knapp determined that Zona’s neck had been broken and that finger marks were left on her throat. Shue was arrested and charged with murder.
Shue’s trial began on June 22, 1897. Prosecutor Preston called Heaster to the stand as his star witness. He did not question her about her ghostly visitor, but instead stuck to the facts of the case. During cross-examination, Shue’s lawyer questioned Heaster about seeing Zona’s ghost, hoping to make her look foolish in front of the jury. Despite intensive badgering, Heaster remained calm and told her story several times without deviation. Her recounting of the experience was vivid and honest that most of those present in the courtroom were convinced she was telling the truth. The prosecution also told of Shue’s two earlier marriages, one of which ended in divorce and the other ended with the mysterious death of his wife. The jury convicted Shue of murder and he was sentenced to life in prison in July, 1897. He died in prison in 1900.
The suspicious sheet was later determined to be stained with two different compounds of iron chloride, which were both used in the blacksmithing trade. This was proof that Shue handled the sheet extensively after it was placed in his wife’s coffin.
Mary Heaster died in 1916 and never recanted or changed her story. After the trial, Zona’s ghost was never seen again.