The Greenbrier Ghost

Grave of Zona Heaster Shue

I made the mistake of listening to the GPS unit.

I had spent the morning visiting a number of haunted locations in southeastern West Virginia and was headed toward the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Meadow Bluff. As with most of my journeys, I had planned this one the old-fashioned way – by using a roadmap. I had figured out the way I wanted to go, but in an attempt to avoid the approaching thunderstorms, I decided to listen to the directions my GPS was spouting. After it took me down a number of county roads barely wide enough for my vehicle – during which I could only hope I did not encounter another vehicle headed toward me – I finally arrived at the rural church and cemetery.

I stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the area – a distant bolt of lightning caught my attention and I knew my time was limited. I was surprised how remote the area felt – I blamed the narrow roads I had been traveling on, because Interstate 64 was only a couple miles south of where I stood.

The church building appeared welcoming and for a moment I debated checking to see if the doors were unlocked so I could enter, but pushed the thought aside as another distant flash of lightning filled the air. I studied the cemetery as I walked over, opened the gate, and stepped onto the sacred grounds. The carvings on many of the stones had faded over the years and a number of the graves were currently unmarked – either they never had a stone placed or the stone vanished over the years for one reason or another.

Although the stone I sought was facing away from me, I could see it as I stood at the entrance. I shut the gate behind me and carefully moved among the older stones as I approached the memorial. As I stepped around it, the words on it revealed this was indeed the marker I sought. I stood silently before it as I read the words on the stone: “In memory of / Zona Heaster / Shue / Greenbrier Ghost / 1876 – 1897.”

Having collected folklore of the Appalachians for years, I was very familiar with the story of the young lady who rests in the rural West Virginia cemetery. I was first introduced to the murder of Zona Shue in Dennis Deitz’s The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories and since then her story has been in numerous books that have been added to my collection of Appalachian folklore. The story of the Zona Shue and the trial for her murder is one of the more intriguing stories to come out of the Appalachians.

Elva Heaster, known to friends and family by her middle name Zona, was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, in the mid-1870s. Note: The year Zona was born differs from source to source. Her stone states she was born in 1876, but sources place her birth anytime from 1873 to 1876 with most sources stating 1873 was her birth date.

Erasmus Stribbling Shue, who went by the names Edward and Trout, was working as a blacksmith when he first met Zona in October 1896. Despite her mother’s disapproval, the two were married less than a month later. Zona was not Shue’s first wife but his third. Shue had married Ellen Cutlip in 1885. That marriage resulted in the birth of a daughter but the couple would divorce in 1889 while he was serving time in jail. Note: In some accounts, Trout supposedly murdered Ellen, but most early sources state the two had divorced. The story of her being murdered does not show up until later versions of the legend.

Shue married Lucy Tritt in 1894. Less than a year after they were married, Lucy was dead. It is unclear exactly what happened to Lucy – some accounts state she was a victim of Shue’s murderous ways and if she was, Shue was never tried for her murder. However, Shue was arrested for stealing a horse about the same time and served two years in prison for the theft. After serving his sentence, Shue moved to Greenbrier County where he found employment as a blacksmith. Here he met and wed Zona Heaster in late 1896.

On January 23, 1897, Zona’s body was discovered by a young boy who had been sent to the house on an errand by Shue. The boy discovered Zona lying at the base of the stairs and ran home to tell his mother what he had found. She contacted the local coroner, Dr. Knapp, who arrived at the Shue house roughly an hour after Zona’s body had been discovered.

By the time Dr. Knapp arrived, Shue had arrived from the blacksmith shop and had destroyed the scene. He removed Zona’s body from the base of the steps and carried her upstairs to the bedroom. After placing her in bed, he had washed her body and prepared it for burial. He then placed her in a dress with a high neck and stiff collar, and had her face covered by a veil.

If Shue’s behavior was not already odd enough, he refused to leave Zona during the examination by the coroner and refused to allow Dr. Knapp a close inspection of the body. According to Knapp’s report, Shue sat on the bed crying while cradling Zona’s head. Knapp noted some bruising on the neck, but was unable to examine the bruising due to Shue’s refusal to allow him a closer look.

Zona was buried on January 24, 1897 in the sacred grounds of Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery. Shue’s behavior during the wake had locals whispering. He remained at the head of the coffin for the entire service, refusing to allow anyone to approach Zona’s body. It was noted that Shue had placed a pillow on one side of Zona’s neck and a rolled up sheet on the other, as if to keep her head in place. Additionally, Trout placed a scarf, which he claimed was Zona’s favorite, around her neck. Zona’s mother was convinced that Shue was responsible for her daughter’s death, but she did not have any solid evidence against him.

Although Shue’s actions went against regional traditions, there was nothing to prove that he had killed his wife. But Mrs. Heaster was convinced her daughter had been killed.

For the next four weeks, Zona’s mother prayed for another sign to prove her daughter had been murdered. And she received one – Zona’s ghost appeared. It informed her mother that Trout had abused her. The ghost said how she and Trout had argued that day and Trout attacked her, breaking her neck. To prove this, the ghost turned her head completely around so it was facing backward.

Zona’s mother took the story of this vision to lawyer John Preston. Preston said he would not reopen the case for a ghost story, but he began investigating Zona’s death a little closer. Despite Shue’s protests, the body was exhumed for a complete autopsy. During the examination, it was discovered Zona’s neck showed signs of strangulation and her neck had been broken. Shue was arrested for Zona’s murder.

On June 23, 1897, the case went to trial. While many versions of the story state that the testimony given by Zona’s ghost was delivered by her mother as a part of the prosecution’s case, this is not correct. Preston knew the ghost story would not be admissible in court and avoided the subject completely when Zona’s mother took the stand.

In an attempt to make Zona’s mother look mentally unstable, Shue’s attorney William Rucker brought up the ghost story during the trial. His goal was to discredit her statements the defense brought up the story Zona’s mother had been telling people around the town.

The following is taken from the July 1, 1897 Greenbrier Independent. The questions are being asked by William Rucker, Trout’s Lawyer, and the answers are from Zona’s mother.

Q – I have heard that you had some dream or vision which led to this post mortem examination?

A – …It was no dream – she came back and told me that he [Trout Shue] was mad that she didn’t have no meat cooked for supper…. She cames [sic] four times, and four nights; but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.

Q – And was this not a dream founded upon your distressed condition of mind?

– No, sir. It was no dream, for I was as wide awake as I ever was.

Q – Then if not a dream or dreams, what do you call it?

– I prayed to the Lord that she might come back and tell me what had happened; and I prayed that she might come herself and tell on him.

– Do you think that you actually saw her in flesh and blood?

– Yes, sir, I do. I told them the very dress that she was killed in, and when she went to leave me she turned her head completely around and looked at me like she wanted me to know all about it. And the very next time she came back to me she told me all about it.

Q – Mrs. Heaster, are you positively sure that these are not four dreams?

– Yes, sir. It was not a dream. I don’t dream when I am wide awake, to be sure; and I know I saw her right there with me.

The trial lasted eight days and Shue did take the stand to deny the charges against him. The jury debated for little over an hour before returning a verdict of guilty – according to them, Mrs. Heaster’s story had little to do with their verdict. Shue was sentenced to life in prison and was sent to the penitentiary in Moundsville where he died three years later.

Zona’s ghost never appeared again to her mother and it can be assumed she was satisfied with the outcome of the trial.

The sound of thunder told me it was time to leave. I finished paying my respects and left the memorial as darker clouds filled the sky. I barely made it to the vehicle when the storm blew through the area. I sat waiting out the ten minutes of rain and it passed as fast as it arrived.

Winding down the window, the sound of crickets filled the air and I left them to sing their song and watch over the grave of the young lady whose murder had become a part of regional lore.

Note: Many versions of the legend describe her as being pure and innocent before her marriage to Trout Shue, but here’s there is another mystery about Zona’s early life. Some records indicate that she had a son out of wedlock in November 1895, to George Woldridge, but exactly who George was is unclear as there does not appear to be a George Woldridge living in the area at the time. I could not find a record to happened to her son. He does not appear mentioned in any of the newspaper accounts. It is possible the child died shortly after birth and the burial was never talked about or recorded. Or it may be that the child was given away to someone outside the immediate family.

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