Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Revenge of Zona Shue

Normally when a murder victim helps to convict their killer, they do so via forensics. Zona Shue went one step further when she allegedly returned from beyond the grave as a ghost and provided evidence that helped convict her murderous husband. This is the story of the tragic young bride who would become known as the Greenbrier Ghost.

Zona and Erasmus Stribbling Shue, 1896, image in Public Domain

Elva Zona Heaster was born and raised in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Known to her friends and family as Zona, we know very little of her life before her murder as precious little has been recorded. What is known is that, in 1896, Zona met a man by the name of Erasmus "Edward" Stribbling Shue, known to those who made his acquaintance as Trout. The two fell in love. It was a good old fashioned whirlwind romance. Suitably swept off her feet, Zona married Trout not long after. This seemingly happy marriage was short-lived. Less than three months later Zona was dead.
It was January 1897, and Trout was working as a blacksmith. Apparently trade was good because although he claimed his wife was unwell, he was too busy to go home and check on her himself. He still found time to visit the local errand boy's home and hired 11-year-old Anderson Jones to check on Zona. What the poor boy found probably left him with some serious PTSD. Zona was home, but she was a little worse than unwell. Her body lay face down on the floor at the bottom of the stairs; her legs together, one arm tucked under her, the other stretched out, her head twisted to the side at an unnatural angle. An oddly neat corpse, but still a terrible sight for one so young to witness. Anderson fled the scene, running all the way back to Trout to tell him what had happened before running to tell his mother, who called for the local doctor.
Doctor George Knapp took around an hour to reach the Shue's home. This delay allowed Trout to get there before him. Upon his arrival he discovered that the grieving husband had been busy. He had carried Zona's body upstares, wasting no time in washing and dressing her for her funeral in a high collared dress and veil, preventing the doctor from getting a good look at her face and neck. Trout was wailing like a banshee, cradling his wife's upper body and head. Doctor Knapp did notice what looked like bruising on the girl's neck, but any attempt made to get a better look at her only seemed to distress Trout even more, so he gave up. Knapp would initially put Zona's death down to an Everlasting Faint, an old fashioned and rather whimsical way of saying she'd had a heart attack. For reasons unknown he would later change the cause of death to Childbirth. There's no evidence that she was pregnant, but Knapp had been treating her for "Female Trouble." This doesn't mean she was pregnant, because in those days "Female Trouble" could be anything from a headache to cramps.
If Doctor Knapp thought Trout's behaviour was a bit extreme, it only got worse. By cart, Zona's body was moved to her parents' house for an open casket wake before her funeral, a final chance for her friends and loved ones to say goodbye. Trout refused to leave her side, specifically the upper half of her, even on the journey there. The high collared dress and veil were now accompanied by a huge scarf, which Trout refused to remove, telling anyone who would listen that it had been her favourite. At the wake itself, he covered much of Zona's head with a pillow on one side and wadded up bedsheet on the other, apparently to make her more comfortable. If this wasn't odd enough, his mood seemed to constantly swing from pantomime level grief to barely restrained excitement. People were meant to be able to view the body and say their final farewells, but Trout patrolled the coffin-like a guard dog, not letting people get too close and virtually chasing them away when they did. It was all quite bizarre to those who witnessed it, and people were already becoming quite suspicious.
Mary Jane Heaster,
image in Public Domain
Enter Mary Jane Heaster, Zona's mother. 
Mary Jane wasn't just heartbroken. She was filled with rage. She'd never liked Trout and had objected to the marriage from day one. She refused to accept the verdict of a natural death, seeing how suspicious the whole situation was. Everything Trout had done was off, from his behaviour at the funeral to how he'd treated Zona's body. Preparing the body for burial wasn't the husband's job; it was traditionally done by the women in the family or community where they lived. It wouldn't have been done before the doctor had had a chance to check the body over. There was also the chance that Mary Jane was aware that Trout had been married twice before, with the first wife divorcing him for being abusive and the second one having died under mysterious circumstances after Trout "accidentally" dropped a stone on her head while doing some DIY. Suspicions alone weren't enough to get Trout arrested, and it looked like he was going to get away with murder, quite literally.
Mary Jane would soon experience something that convinced her that her instincts were correct. Between the wake and the funeral, she managed to get close enough to the coffin to see her only daughter and removed the sheet at her head. It wasn't at all clean. It smelt very unpleasant and had odd stains, a strange thing to have near a loved one's body. Why not use a clean one? Why use something that was little more than a dirty rag? Despite her dislike for Trout, she approached him and attempted to return the sheet to him, but he told her that he didn't want it. For reasons unknown, Mary Jane decided that she would wash the sheet rather than throw it away. As she soaked it, the stain seeped out into the soapy water, turning it an unpleasantly bright shade of red and staining the sheet itself pink. Mary Jane took it as a bad omen, proof of her suspicions that her daughter had been murdered. But what could she do? Zona had been buried, and Trout had gone his merry way, probably intending on skipping town like he had when his last wife had died. A devoutly religious woman, Mary Jane did the only thing she could think of doing. She prayed. Every night for four weeks. She prayed for answers, for her daughter to give her some sign from the beyond, for anything that would help her bring Trout to justice.
And then, one night, Zona returned.
She appeared in an ethereal glow, freezing the air around her and, for four nights, this desperate and angry spirit would describe to her mother how her husband had ended her life. He had been an abusive monster, she told her mother. He had thrown a tantrum because she hadn't cooked the meat he wanted for dinner. In his rage, he had strangled her and then broke her neck. One night, while recounting her story, Zona's spirit even twisted her head around a full 360⁰ degrees to demonstrate how broken her neck was. This horrified Mary Jane, yet at the same time bought her a sense of purpose. There was always the risk that nobody would believe her fantastical story. She stood to lose a lot if they didn't; her reputation would be in tatters, her family would be a laughing stock and there was the very real chance of being sent to a sanatorium. But to Mary Jane the visitations were all the proof she needed to drag her son in law straight through the courts and onto the gallows. It was a risk she was willing to take and that's why, when morning came, she marched into town and into the office of John Preston, a local prosecutor. In a situation where many would have laughed in her face, Mr Preston chose to listen to Mary Jane, sitting with her for hours as she explained the situation. And it seemed to some degree that he took her seriously, maybe not about the ghost but definitely about the possibility of Zona having been murdered. 
Preston began an investigation immediately, starting by reinterviewing people who'd been involved in the case. When talking to Doctor Knapp, he hit gold, as the doctor finally admitted that he hadn't properly examined the body and explained why. This was all Mr Preston needed to have Zona's body exhumed for an autopsy. Trout was furious, strongly objecting to the situation. He grew even more agitated when he found out that, as next of kin, he would have to be present as it was performed. He knew he'd be arrested, he said, but boasted that they wouldn't be able to prove that he did anything. Not the sort of thing you expect an innocent man to say.
The autopsy was performed by Doctor Knapp, and it quickly became clear why Trout had been so desperate to hide Zona's neck and face. Her windpipe was crushed, the bones broken, and the tendons mangled. The blanket and pillow had been needed at her funeral because the damage was so severe that her neck couldn't support her head's weight. Even though she'd been buried for over a month, the bruises from her husbands hands still showed on her neck. Just as Zona's ghost had suggested, her death had been a violent one. These injuries might seem a little too extreme to have been inflicted on her by another person, but we must remember that Trout was a blacksmith. As a result, he easily had the strength to snap his wife's neck, just as her ghost had described.
You can't send a person to jail on suspicions and a ghost story, but those autopsy results changed everything and the case went to court on the 22nd of June, 1897. Trout, convinced that he'd walk free, plead not guilty. The Defence tried to use the ghost story to get the case thrown out of court, questioning Mary Jane on her experience. All attempts they made to embarrass her or get her to back down failed. She stuck to her story, changing nothing about it. In all probability it was probably the autopsy results that swayed the jury, but their decision was unanimous, GUILTY.
Erasmus Stribbling Shue was sentenced to spend the rest of his life locked up in the infamous West Virginia State Penitentiary, narrowly avoiding the hangman and a lynch mob that had formed outside.
Three years later, the flu swept through the prison, claiming Trout's life. Like many serving sentences there, he was buried in an unmarked grave. No records were kept, so its location is unknown. Zona is a different story. Not only is there a state historical marker near the cemetery where she's buried, but also a grave to visit if you are so inclined.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Personally I'd like to believe in Zona's vengeful spirit, but I think this mystery has a much more earthly origin; a heartbroken mother determined to avenge her beloved daughter, one who was prepared to go to extreme lengths to do so. Like I previously said, she was a very religious woman and would have sworn an oath over a bible in court. It's unlikely that she would have willingly lied over something so important to her faith. However I'm still sceptical about her having seen an actual ghost. I believe that when Mary Jane removed the sheet from her daughter's coffin, she saw what had done to her, and it pushed her over the edge. Whatever the truth is, Mary Jane took it to her grave with her, swearing up until her death that her story was true.
What do you guys think? Ghost or dream? Have you heard of any similar stories? Let me know by tagging me in a Tweet or by leaving a comment below.