The Greenbrier Ghost
The Greenbrier Ghost refers to the popular name given to the ghost of a young woman in Greenbrier County, West Virginia who was murdered in 1897.
Elva Zona Heaster, known as Zona, was born in Greenbrier County sometime around 1873, though little is known of her life up until she met a drifter named Edward Shue in 1896. Not long after Shue came to town to work as a blacksmith, the two fell in love and married despite objection from Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, who did not like Shue.
The couple lived happily for a short time but at the end of January, 1897, Zona’s body was discovered lying at the foot of the stairs, with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. Her body was found by a young boy who had been sent by Shue to run an errand to the house. After the boy ran to tell his mother, the local doctor and coroner were beckoned, though they did not arrive for nearly an hour.
By the time the doctor and the coroner had arrived, Shue had taken his wife’s body upstairs to the bedroom and dressed the corpse in a veil and a dress with a high, stiff collar. Since the job of prepping the corpse for burial was traditionally done by the women of the community, the doctor and coroner found the behavior unusual but thought nothing of it. While the coroner examined the body, Shue remained near the corpse, sobbing and became violent when the coroner tried to examine the body more closely. Subsequently, the doctor and coroner quickly ended the exam and left the house.
When Zona’s mother first heard of her death, she allegedly said, “the devil has killed her.” Zona’s cause of death was initially stated as “everlasting faint” but was later changed to childbirth, though it is unknown whether or not she was pregnant at the time. Zona was laid to rest on January 24, 1897. During the funeral, Shue began to raise suspicion when his behavior turned from overwhelming grief to an intense, bizarre energy. He would let no one come very close to the coffin and sandwiched her head between two pillows so she could “rest easier.” Furthermore, Shue tied a scarf around her neck, exclaiming that it had been her favorite. When the body was moved to the cemetery, guests noticed a strange looseness about the neck.
Mary Jane was convinced her daughter had been murdered by her husband. When she removed a sheet that had been placed inside Zona’s coffin during the funeral, she tried to give it back to Shue but he refused. She noticed a strange odor to it so she took it home to wash. When she dropped the sheet into a basin of water, the water turned red, then the sheet turned pink and the water became clear again.
Mary Jane took this as a further sign Zona had been murdered. She began to pray every night for weeks that Zona would return to her and explain what had really happened. Legend has it after four weeks, the ghost of Zona appeared to her mother and said that Shue had been a cruel man who abused her and had broken her neck. The ghost supposedly visited Mary Jane over the course of four nights. Mary Jane claimed that the ghost turned her head in a full circle to prove that her neck had been snapped.
After being visited by the ghost of her daughter, Mary Jane spent several hours convincing the local prosecutor that Zona had indeed been murdered. Coupled with the rumors floating around town that Shue had killed Zona, the prosecutor had enough doubt to reopen the case. After interviewing several people, the prosecutor discovered the coroner had failed to do a complete exam on the body, so it was exhumed and an inquest jury was formed.
An autopsy of Zona’s body found that she had indeed been murdered - her neck had been broken, the windpipe was smashed, and ligaments had been torn. In addition, finger marks and bruises along her throat indicted that she had also been choked.
Given the evidence and his behavior after her death, Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of Zona. Shue was found guilty and sent to prison. The case of the Greenbrier Ghost was a very late example in American legal history in which the alleged “testimony of a ghost” was accepted at a murder trial, since it took place at the very end of the 1800s.