More than 100 years ago, a man in Greenbrier County, W.Va. was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. But it wasn't just physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that brought about his conviction in a court of law. Many believe that it was the ghost of his late wife that brought him to justice.
In October 1896, Elva Zona Heaster, then 23, met a drifter named Erasmus "Edward" Stribbling Trout Shue. He had moved to Greenbrier County to find work as a blacksmith. The young couple fell in love and soon got married. However, Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, instantly disapproved of Shue as her prospective son-in-law and objected to the marriage.
For a brief period, the couple lived happily and peacefully. But on Jan. 23, 1897, an errand boy who had been sent to their house made a grisly discovery. He found Zona's body lying at the foot of the stairs, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. The local coroner, Dr. George Knapp, was summoned by the boy's mother to the Shue household. By the time Knapp arrived, Shue had carried his wife's body upstairs to the bedroom and laid her out on the bed. He had dressed the corpse himself and prepared it for burial. That was unusual because in those days either the women of the community or the closest undertaker did that kind of work, according to a Web site.
Shue had dressed his wife's body in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar and placed a veil over her face. He stayed by the corpse while Knapp examined it, cradling his wife's head and sobbing. The coroner could only give the body a brief examination. When he tried to look closer, Shue reacted so violently that Knapp ended the examination and left the house.
Initially, the cause of death was listed as "everlasting faint." This was later changed to "childbirth." It was never determined whether or not she was actually pregnant.
The plans for her funeral were soon made. At first, Shue showed great devotion to his late wife and kept a constant vigil at her open coffin. Later, his behavior became more erratic and began to arouse suspicion among friends and family members. During the wake, his grief changed repeatedly from overwhelming sadness to incredible energy. He wouldn't allow anyone to come close to the coffin.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane Heaster was convinced that her son-in-law had murdered his wife, her daughter. She had never liked or trusted the man anyway and his odd behaivor only confirmed her suspicions. After the wake, she removed a sheet from inside the coffin and tried to return it to Shue, but he refused it. She noticed an odd odor about it and so she washed it. The water in the basin turned bright red when she dropped the sheet in. The sheet then turned pink and the water cleared. Mrs. Heaster took this as a sign that her daughter had been murdered. She began to pray in earnest for something that would show her the truth about her daughter's death.
Four weeks after the funeral, her prayers were answered. The ghost of Zona reportedly appeared to her mother in a dream. The ghost told her that Shue was a cruel and abusive man. On Jan. 23, 1897, he attacked her in a fit of rage when he believed that she had cooked no meat for his dinner. He broke her neck in the attack. To prove this, the ghost turned her head completely around until it was facing backwards, according to her mother's dream.
The apparition of Zone Heaster Shue supposedly visited her mother over the course of four nights. As a result, Mary Jane Heaster visited the local prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, and spent several hours in his office convincing him to reopen the case of her daughter's death. We don't know whether or not he believed her story about the ghost, but he felt it was high time to take another and more thorough look at the matter.
Zona's body was exhumed and an autopsy showed that her neck had indeed been broken, just as the ghost said in her mother's dreams. Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.
The trial began on June 22, 1897 and of course, Mary Jane Heaster was the star witness. However, Preston avoided any mention of the ghostly dreams and stuck to the known facts in the case. Despite an intense cross-examination from Shue's lawyer, Heaster did not waver in her testimony. Many people in the local community believed that Heaster's dreams were real and Zona's ghost had come back to reveal the truth about her death.
On July 11, 1897, Shue was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was taken to the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he lived for three more years. Mary Jane Heaster never recanted her story of her daughter's ghost and she died in September 1916.
To this day, an historical marker placed by the state of West Virginia points out the cemetery where Zona Heaster Shue is buried. It reads that this is the "only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer."
Contact Mike Conley at 652-3313, ext. 3422 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.