Did a ghost solve her own murder? The case of Zona Heaster Shue [‘The Greenbrier Ghost’]
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
On January 23, 1897, a 23-year-old woman in Meadow Bluff, West Virginia was found dead in her home. Although she died young and suddenly, this death was relatively normal as far as deaths go — until the supernatural came into play.
This case has been called the only one where testimony from a ghost was admitted into evidence where there was later a conviction. Let’s talk about Zona Heaster Shue — better known as The Greenbrier Ghost.
Not much is known about Zona’s early life. She was born in 1876 in Meadow Bluff, and some sources say she gave birth to an illegitimate child around 1895.
In 1896, Zona met a blacksmith named Edward Stribbling Shue, who went by the name “Trout.” The couple fell head over heels for each other and married in November of that year. But they would only be married for a few months when tragedy struck.
Around 11 am on January 23, Edward Shue sent for an 11-year-old neighbor boy named Andy Jones. Andy regularly did chores and errands for Zona, and Shue asked Andy if he would collect some eggs from their farm house and ask Zona if she needed anything.
But when Andy reached the couple’s home, nobody answered the door. When he stepped inside, he found Zona dead — along with a trail of blood leading from her body to the front porch.
After making this discovery, Andy went back home and told his mom about it, then to the blacksmith shop. Seemingly very upset over the death of his wife, Shue ran straight home.
Zona’s death was ruled to be the result of a heart attack, though some sources say it was “everlasting faint.” Interestingly, the coroner reportedly changed her cause of death later to complications from childbirth. This is kind of odd since there’s no evidence Zona was pregnant.
By the time the coroner arrived at the Shue home, Zona had been dressed in a high necked gown with a scarf around her neck, presumably by her husband. Shue also helped prepare her body, always making sure he was the one who handled her head. At Zona’s wake, he always stood at the head of the casket. He’d also put a folded sheet one one side of her head and some clothes on the other side, saying it would help her “rest easier.” A scarf had been tied around her neck — her favorite one, according to him.
Zona was buried in the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Greenbrier County. Even though rumors and speculation flew around town that foul play was involved, it was deemed to be nothing more than a tragic, natural death. Then a few weeks later, Zona’s mother, Mary Heaster, came forward with a surprising story.
According to Heaster, Zona’s ghost had appeared to her four nights in a row. Zona reportedly appeared to Heaster while she was praying, and vanished when Heaster tried to touch her. And she gave her mom some pretty damning information about her husband.
Zona apparently told her mom that Edward Shue had attacked her in a fit of rage during an argument about a meal she had prepared for him. She said Shue squeezed her neck hard, breaking it between the first and second vertebrae. Zona’s head even apparently turned 180 degrees around when she said this! In recalling her story, Heaster would also give details about the couple’s house and other buildings in the area — none of which she’d ever visited herself.
Heaster went to the local prosecutor and asked him to investigate Zona’s death. He was reluctant at first but eventually gave in. And the investigation would reveal some pretty interesting details about Edward Shue.
For starters, his name wasn’t Edward, but Erasmus Trout Shue. He’d been married twice before and his other wives had died under mysterious circumstances — including a broken neck for one of them. He’d also spent time in prison for stealing a horse.
Zona’s body was exhumed for examination, where it was found that her neck had been broken between the first and second vertebrae — just where her mom said it would be. All of her other organs and body parts appeared fine and normal.
“Edward” Shue was arrested and charged with murder. Before his wife’s body was exhumed he said he knew he’d be arrested but that nobody would be able to prove he killed her.
Shue went on trial in mid June of 1897. Almost all of the evidence against him was circumstantial.
Mary Heaster testified at the trial about her alleged ghostly visits from Zona. The defense claimed these ghost sightings were merely dreams. They were actually the ones who called Heaster to the stand, and it’s been speculated they did so to discredit her.
But if that was their plan, it didn’t work. On June 22, 1897, Shue was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died there of the flu in 1900.
So what happened here? Did a grieving mother really get visits from her daughter’s ghost? Or is there a more logical explanation? Let’s talk about some of the less supernatural speculation here.
The first theory is that the defense was correct and Mary Heaster really did just have a very vivid dream. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve had plenty of dreams that felt completely real in the moment. Occasionally, my dreams felt so real that I didn’t realize they were dreams even after I woke up! Did Heaster dream up these visits and think they were real? Or did she perhaps want to believe they were real?
The next theory is that Heaster really did see Zona’s ghost — or at least thought she saw it — but was coached by prosecutors to make her story more believable. Maybe she saw something a little more ambiguous — a slammed door, an object falling — something that many people attribute to the paranormal but could just be something ordinary, like a draft. Then her story was “punched up” a bit to make it more appealing.
The last theory is that Heaster never saw Zona’s ghost at all, knew she’d never seen it, and made the whole thing up. She reportedly hadn’t liked her new son-in-law from the start and might have had suspicions about his involvement in Zona’s death that she couldn’t prove. Did Heaster have a gut feeling that Shue killed her daughter and invent a ghost story to get more attention on the case? Even today, many cases are progressed and even solved due to more attention on them, since the attention often leads enforcement to investigate further.
After Zona died, her death was reported in the Greenbrier Independent. In that same issue, a story ran about a man in Australia who was killed and thrown into a pond. Several people in his town reported seeing the man’s ghost sitting by the pond. Years later, a man made a deathbed confession: He’d invented up the ghost story. After witnessing the murder, he was afraid to come forward with what he knew because he thought the killer may come after him next. So instead, he fabricated the ghost sightings and spread the rumor in order to get more attention on the case so it might one day be solved. Did Mary Heaster see this article and get an idea from it?
There are a couple of other bits of speculation in this case. There was a rumor that the people of Meadow Bluffs believed Heaster had broken Zona’s neck while she was in her coffin in order to frame Shue for her murder. Another rumor suggested that Zona really was pregnant and Shue attacked her because he thought she’d been unfaithful and the baby wasn’t his.
So what happened with Zona Shue? Did the jurors really convict her husband of murder based on the testimony of her ghost? Did they instead vote guilty based on the other evidence? Did Mary Heaster really see her daughter’s ghost? Did she think she saw it and convinced herself that her daughter was still with her in some way? Or did she invent the story in order to get attention on the man she thought was responsible? As always, I will let you decide for yourself what you believe.