The Greenbrier Ghost

zona
Grave of Zona Heaster Shue

I made the mistake of listening to the GPS unit.

The journey was taking me to Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Meadow Bluff, West Virginia. I had planned out the journey on the map and usually I follow those directions, but I decided to listen to the directions the GPS was spouting. After taking a number of county roads that were barely wide enough for my vehicle – and I could only hope that I did not encounter another vehicle – I finally arrived at the rural church and cemetery.

Getting out of the vehicle, I was glad to be off the narrow roads for a while. I scanned the area – it held a tinge of wildness that seemed out of place for the modern era. 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 I turned my attention to the cemetery. Many of the stones show the effects of time and, in researching the cemetery, I knew a number of them were missing. As I opened the gate into the cemetery I spotted the one I was searching for and walked carefully across the hillside cemetery to it.

The name on the stone faced away from me, but having seen a number of pictures of it, I knew without a doubt it was the one I wanted. Carefully stepping the the face of the stone, I read the words on the modern marker: “In memory of / Zona Heaster / Shue / Greenbrier Ghost / 1876 – 1897.” The stone recognizes the strange events that happened after the death of the young lady buried here.

In my years of collecting folklore, the story of the Greenbrier Ghost was one of the first legends to adorn the bookcase. I was first introduced to it in Dennis Deitz’s The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories, and since then more books on the subject have joined it. The story of the Zona Shue, also known as the Greenbrier Ghost, is one of the more intriguing stories to come out of the Southern Appalachians.

Elva Heaster, known to friends and family by her middle name, Zona, was born in Greenbrier County in 1876. Many versions of the legend describe her as being pure and innocent before her marriage to Trout Shue, but records indicate that she had a child out of wedlock in November 1895. 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. 

Edward Stribbling Trout Shue, who went by the name of Trout, was working as a blacksmith when he first met Zona in October 1896 and before the end of the month they were married. Zona was not Shue’s first wife but his third. Shue had married Ellen Cutlip in 1885. The marriage resulted in the birth of a daughter but Ellen and Trout would divorce in 1889. His second wife was Lucy Tritt, and they were married in 1894. Less than a year after they were married, Lucy was dead. It is unclear if Trout murdered her – some versions state she was a victim of Shue’s murderous ways while other versions state otherwise. If Shue was responsible for Lucy’s death, he was never tried for the murder. However, he was arrested for stealing a horse and served two years in prison. After being released, he moved to Greenbrier County where he found employment as a blacksmith.

Note: Edward was born Erasmus. Many sources state he changed his name to Edward. Exactly when he changed it is not clear, but I would imagine it was after he was released from prison. Also, it appears that he rarely went by that name, most sources identify him by the name Trout.

Despite Zona’s insistent statement that she was in love with Trout, her mother disapproved of the relationship. Her mother’s instincts about Trout would prove correct.

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 later.

By the time Dr. Knapp arrived, Trout had already destroyed the scene. Shue had carried Zona upstairs to the bedroom, had washed the body and prepared her body for burial. Zona had been dressed in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar, with her face covered by a veil. During the body’s examination by the coroner, Shue never left Zona’s side, refusing to allow close inspection of the body by Knapp. According to Knapp, Shue sat on the bed crying while cradling Zona’s head. Knapp noted some bruising on the neck, but was unable to get a close look at it due to Shue’s refusal to allow a closer look.

Zona was buried on January 24, 1897 in the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery. During the wake, Shue remained at the head of the coffin, refusing to allow anybody to approach the body.  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. In addition,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.

And at this point, the story takes an odd turn.

After the wake, Zona’s mother removed the sheet that had covered the body and offered it to Shue. He refused it. Zona’s mother took the sheet and washed it – the water immediately turned blood red, staining the sheet pink. When the sheet was removed from the basin, the water supposedly returned to normal. The stain could not be removed and Zona’s mother took this as a sign her daughter had been murdered.

For the next four weeks, Zona’s mother prayed for a sign. And she received one. Zona’s ghost appeared and told 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. Although 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 autopsy, 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 given by her mother as a part of the prosecution’s case, this is not entirely correct. Preston knew that the ghost story would not be admissible in court and avoided the subject completely when Zona’s mother took the stand. It would be William Rucker, Trout’s attorney, who brought up the ghost story in court as an attempt to make Zona’s mother appear mentally unstable, thus discrediting her testimony. This was the only time the story was brought up in court, and it did more damage to Shue than it did to the testimony of Zona’s mother.

The following is taken from the July 1, 1897 Greenbrier Independent. The questions are being asked by William Rucker 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 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 though only to deny the charges against him. The jury debated for little over an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. 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.

As I was paying my respects, the sun broke through the overcast sky. There was a warmth that seemed to say, justice had been served and as quickly as the sun appeared, it vanished again behind the clouds.

I finished paying my respects and started walking towards the vehicle. I left her resting in the quiet countryside as the sounds of crickets filled the air with their song.

If you choose to visit, please do so with extreme caution due to the number of older, fragile stones in the cemetery. West Virginia has erected a historical marker to the event along Route 60, just south of the junction with Interstate 64.

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