The boy did as requested, but when he knocked on the door of the Shue house, no one answered. He opened the unlocked door and found Zona sprawled on the floor. She was dead.
By the time a local doctor, who was also the coroner, arrived, Trout Shue had moved his wife’s body to their bed and changed her clothes to a high-necked gown and scarf. Her husband held her head, sobbing, and showing signs of “distress” any time the coroner attempted to examine the body, the coroner later reported.
After a cursory examination, the doctor attributed her cause of death to “everlasting faint.” Later, he changed that to “childbirth” — a somewhat odd claim since the Shues had only been married for three months and had only known one another for a brief time before that.
And that was it. She was put in a casket and taken to her mother’s home for the funeral, during which Trout Shue remained inconsolable, jealously preventing anyone from getting near his wife’s body, according to Katie Letcher Lyle in the magazine Wonderful West Virginia.
But a month after the burial, the town began to talk. Her mother, Mary Jane Heaster, had been telling people that her daughter’s ghost was visiting her at night.
The ghost said she had been murdered.
Eventually, Heaster went to the prosecutor. She said that over a period of four nights, her daughter’s ghost appeared before her as she lay in bed. The ghost told her Trout Shue had grown enraged that Zona didn’t serve meat for dinner and grabbed her by the neck, squeezing until it broke between the first and second vertebrae.
So the prosecutor asked the coroner what he noticed about Zona’s neck during his examination, and he said something to the effect of, “Well, now that you mention it, the husband wouldn’t let me examine her neck. You don’t suppose that might be suspicious?”
They exhumed the body and summoned two more doctors. As Zona’s husband, Trout was brought in to observe. As they examined her neck, one of the doctors turned to him and, according to Lyle, said, “Well, Trout, we have found your wife’s neck to have been broken.”
There were bruises in the shape of fingers. Her windpipe had been crushed. And her neck was broken between the first and second vertebra — just as Heaster claimed the ghost said it would be.
Trout was charged with murder.
While he awaited trial, people in town discovered a few things. First, Edward “Trout” Shue was actually Erasmus “Trout” Shue, a blacksmith from a neighboring county. And he had been married before; a first wife was granted a divorce after enduring severe physical abuse, and a second wife had suddenly died after only eight months of marriage.
At trial, there wasn’t much by way of hard evidence to present. Zona’s neck was broken and there were hand marks, sure, and he did have a way of bragging, “They will not be able to prove I did it” — but that wasn’t exactly “beyond reasonable doubt” material.
Then the defense called Heaster to the stand. The defense attorney asked her to describe her visits from the so-called ghost, which she did. It was probably an effort to make her look like a fool, but Heaster stuck to her guns.
A local newspaper, which called it “very remarkable testimony,” published a full transcript:
Attorney: Mrs. Heaster, are you positively sure that these [visits] are not four dreams?Heaster: 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.Attorney: Are you not considerably superstitious?Heaster: No, sir, I'm not. I was never that way before, and am not now.Attorney: Do you believe the scriptures?Heaster: Yes, sir. I have no reason not to believe it.Attorney: And do you believe the scriptures contain the words of God and his Son?Heaster: Yes, sir, I do. Don't you believe it?Attorney: Now, I would like if I could, to get you to say that these were four dreams and not four visions or appearances of your daughter in flesh and blood?Heaster: I am not going to say that; for I am not going to lie.
Later in the trial, when Trout Shue took the stand, he “rambled on for an entire afternoon” and made an “unfavorable impression,” according to Lyle.
The jury deliberated for little more than an hour before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to life, which ended up being only three years. He died in prison in 1900 from an unknown illness.
The legend of Zona — who is commonly called the Greenbrier Ghost — has grown over the years. It’s a tale frequently told on local ghost tours. And a West Virginia microbrewery named its “Zona’s Revenge” witbier in her honor.
There’s even a “Drunk History” episode where comedian Jennie Pierson slurs through the story.
And out on U.S. 60, between Sam Black Church and the I-64 entrance ramp, sits a historical marker. Zona is buried nearby, it reads, and her murder trial was the only known instance “in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer” — which significantly overstates the case, since a ghost did not in fact testify.
So did it really happen? Did an apparition really cross over from the spirit world to solve a murder?
Lyle, who has done more research on the case than anyone, is skeptical. She theorizes that Heaster was already suspicious of her daughter’s husband before she was killed, and by “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.”
That’s right, folks. In 1897, a ghost may have been more compelling to a jury than a mother’s intuition.
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