Unraveling the curious case of the "Greenbrier Ghost."
How could a young, healthy woman drop dead of an “everlasting faint”?
This question was one of the things keeping Mary Jane Heaster, of Greenbrier County, W.Va., from a restful sleep in the winter of 1897, following the late January death of her newlywed daughter, Zona.
A healthy person doesn’t just drop dead of a heart attack — or an “everlasting faint,” as the examining doctor had written on his report — so Mary Jane slept fitfully that winter. Then the visits started.
Zona’s ghost, the “Greenbrier Ghost,” crept right up to her mother’s bedside and begged to climb in, Mary Jane reported. Zona was cold and she had something to tell her mother: It wasn’t a faint that took her; it was murder.
What unfolded next is the only documented case of a murderer convicted by the testimony of a ghost.
The facts: Zona was 23 in Oct. 1896 when she ran an errand in town and met 37-year-old blacksmith Edward “Trout” Shue. The pair married weeks later, despite Mary Jane’s objections, and settled into a house near the blacksmith shop.
Three months later, on Jan. 23, Zona was dead, found lifeless at the foot of the stairs by Andy Jones, a neighbor boy hired to do chores.
Andy ran to the blacksmith shop while his mother called Dr. George Knapp. Shue was there to meet Knapp, who arrived to find Zona had been taken to her bedroom and was already dressed for burial in a high-necked dress.
Meanwhile, there were rumors including local folks saying that Zona had given birth to an illegitimate child, and that Trout had been married twice before. His first marriage produced a child, Girta, and ended in divorce in 1889. His second wife, Lucy, died under mysterious circumstances. Some said she was pregnant and fell through ice, while others claimed it was a brick to the head, or poison, that did her in.
Mary Jane had never liked Trout, and now her dead daughter, she claimed, was visiting her as a ghost and telling her that she’d been right all along about Trout and that he had, in fact, killed her daughter.
Zona’s nighttime visits continued. Four nights in a row she came, Mary Jane claimed, filling her mother in on the discord that marked her brief marriage.
The day she died, Zona’s ghost allegedly said, her husband was angry with her because she had not fixed meat with supper. He then struck her and broke her neck.
Mary Jane woke up with a mission and headed straight to the office of Prosecutor John Alfred Preston, who agreed to make inquiries. He spoke with Dr. Knapp, who admitted to a not-so-thorough examination and revealed that there were bruises on Zona’s neck.
At the same time, townspeople told Preston about Shue’s odd behavior at the wake: He wouldn’t let anyone close to the coffin and he (or someone else) had placed a pillow on one side of her head.
Considering all of this, Preston had enough to order an exhumation of Zona’s body. There was a complete autopsy this time, and sure enough, Zona’s neck had been broken, dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. Her windpipe was crushed; she had been strangled.
Shue was arrested and the subsequent trial lasted eight days. On the sixth day, he took the stand in his own defense and it did not end well. He rambled, said everyone was out to get him.
The jury deliberated for a little over an hour and returned a guilty verdict. Shue was sentenced to life behind bars and sent to the state prison in Moundsville, after surviving a failed lynching.
Today, a historical marker sits along Route 60, and reminds all who traverse the winding mountain roads that the Greenbrier Ghost helped convict her own killer.