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The only ghost to testify in a murder trial
From the 1999 September issue of Wonderful WV Magazine
An article about one of the “residents” that used to live at the
former WV Penitentiary
By Katie Letcher Lyle
A state highway mile marker a few miles west of Lewisburg declares the “only known case in which [the] testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer.” Drawn by the story of the “Greenbrier Ghost,” I embarked on a search for the truth about a local legend based on certain events that occurred at the end of the 19th-century. The result is my book, The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives. The briefest form of the story is that told by the road marker: “Interred in a nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to state prison.”
Near the end of January 1897, Zona Heaster Shue, who had been a popular young girl in Greenbrier County, and was now a bride of three months, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor of the log house where she lived with her new husband. The body was discovered by a neighbor, a child of about 11 years, who did chores for her. Zona’s body was taken 14 miles across the valley to her childhood home on Little Sewell Mountain, and buried three days later. At the time, there was no intimation in the local newspaper, The Greenbrier Independent, of anything unusual about the young woman’s death. The physician who examined the body, Dr. George W. Knapp, announced that she “died of an everlasting faint.” On January 30 he wrote in the death record in Lewisburg that she died of childbirth.
The Richlands section of Greenbrier County, just west of Lewisburg, was a remote area, and the people were clannish. Zona’s husband was not one of them, but a blacksmith from Pocahontas, the next county to the north. He was a newcomer to Greenbrier County, but from the beginning cut a wide swath, as he was from all reports good-looking and powerful, charismatic and boastful, and he attracted even more notice than most strangers. Furthermore, he had swept one of their own off her feet, and married her faster than anyone could say “Jack Robinson.”
Within a month of the burial, the dead girl’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was telling neighbors that Zona’s spirit had appeared four nights in a row to accuse the blacksmith of her violent death – to “tell on him” – to set the record straight about her dying. Word spread quickly that these visions had convinced Mary Jane that the husband – who called himself Edward, but was really named Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue, and was known as Trout – had killed her daughter. In the weeks that followed Zona’s death, there was a great deal of local gossip about the glamorous blacksmith, and some details of his past came to light that he had neglected to share with his new neighbors. Not only had he changed his name, he had also failed to mention that Zona had not been his first wife, nor even his second.
Shue’s first marriage, to Allie Estelline Cutlip in 1885, produced a child, Girta Lucretia. Shue reportedly beat his wife Estie so badly that a group of vigilantes dragged him out of bed one winter night and threw him through the ice in the Greenbrier River. It is unclear whether this incident occurred before or after the birth of their baby girl in February 1887. The marriage ended in divorce four years later, while Trout Shue was in the state penitentiary serving time for horse stealing.
In June of 1894, Shue married again, this time to Lucy Ann Tritt, from near Alderson. They lived with his parents on Droop Mountain near Hillsboro, where Lucy died less than eight months later. There was no investigation, and the Pocahontas Times stated only that she died suddenly. Only later, when Shue was accused of murdering Zona, did four different stories about Lucy’s death circulate among the community.
After telling neighbors of her ghostly visits from Zona, Mary Jane Heaster visited the Honorable John Alfred Preston, the prosecuting attorney for Greenbrier County, and apparently presented enough troubling information that a court order was issued for the exhumation of the corpse. People who had viewed the corpse before it was originally buried had found it odd that the head was so loose that stuffing, a pillow and a folded sheet, had been placed in the coffin to keep it upright. Some folks noticed some discoloration on the right check. All noticed that Shue himself kept jealous watch over the body, and would let no one near it.
Preston went to see Dr. Knapp, the physician who had examined the corpse. Knapp admitted that because the husband had exhibited such distress over anyone’s touching Zona’s body, that his examination had been cursory. Furthermore, Trout Shue had already dressed his wife himself, before Knapp got there, in a high-necked gown, with a big scarf around the neck. Preston and Knapp together agreed that an autopsy would clear things up, denying or confirming the suspicions of Mary Jane Heaster and others, and lifting suspicion from Shue if indeed he were innocent.
Three physicians participated in the autopsy. As is common practice in an autopsy, they examined Zona’s stomach for poison, and checked the other vital organs of the chest and abdomen. Working around the head and neck, the doctors began to whisper. One of the doctors turned to Shue and said, “Well, Shue, we have found your wife’s neck to have been broken.” The Pocahontas Times reported that: “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.” Shue was charged with murder, and jailed in Lewisburg to await trial.
Preston and his assistant Henry Gilmer set about building a case against Shue. Shue continued to say from jail, as he had earlier, “They will not be able to prove I did it.” He was defended by William Parkes Rucher and James P.D. Gardner. Their efforts to gather witnesses, alibis and other evidence of his innocence must have been discouraging, for on May 20, 1897, the Pocahontas Times reported, “Trout Shue É now in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, has threatened to kill himself.” Although Preston’s case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, the jury convicted Shue of murder and sentenced him to prison.
Central to the story of the Greenbrier Ghost is whether it was in fact the ghost story that led to the jury’s decision to find Shue guilty of murder. The only part of the trial transcript available today is Mary Jane Heaster’s impassioned story about the appearance of her daughter for four nights in a row, telling of Shue’s wringing her neck and throwing her downstairs. The “ghost testimony” was brought out by the defense, presumably to call into question the sanity and reliability of Mary Jane Heaster. At the end of the trial, Shue took the stand, rambled on for an entire afternoon, and appealed to the jury “to look into his face and then say if he was guilty.” This made, according to the Independent account, an “unfavorable impression.”
The jury returned a verdict of guilty after only one hour and ten minutes of deliberation. The accounts in the Independent make clear that Shue was convicted of the murder of his third wife on circumstantial evidence, and not because of a “ghost’s testimony.” He was sentenced to life in the state prison. Following a foiled lynching attempt a few days later, he was taken by train to the state prison in Moundsville, where he died on the first of March, 1900.
Believing in a rational world where the dead stay dead, I wondered where Mrs. Heaster got the ghost story, and why she invented or dreamed up such a thing. Why weren’t the suspicions of her neighbors and her own misgivings enough to take to the prosecuting attorney? Why did she need the drama of a ghost? Mrs. Heaster lived until 1916, and never recanted her story.
My assumption finally was that she knew the blacksmith to be clever, unprincipled, and persuasive. If he’d murdered once, he could murder again. Perhaps she feared that if no one validated her accusations, Shue would prove extremely dangerous. So pretending to receive the news directly from Zona, she could appeal to the superstitions of her mountaineer neighbors and get a lot of public attention. As it turned out, she didn’t need the ghost story, for Shue was convicted, according to every account, strictly on earthly considerations, without any unearthly ghosts.
My research was more or less complete. I was satisfied that the ghost story was merely an ingenious method by which a canny woman contrived to seek justice for her daughter’s murder. Then late one night, I received a phone call which, I feel, shows what really happened in the case of the Greenbrier Ghost. And for this last bit of information, you’ll have to read the book.