Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature: Ghosts
The Greenbrier Ghost
Note: Below is the text of the story as told by Dewitt Wyatt in the audio. There are factual errors in this version of the legend that is based on a true story. For example, it is obvious in the photo of the tombstone (which was not erected until the 1970s) that Zona Heaster Shue was twenty-two, not fifteen, when she married Erasmus Trout Shue and died. Sharyn McCrumb and her assistants conducted extensive research on these events and all the people involved in the families and the court case, for McCrumb's 2017 ballad novel, The Unquiet Grave (Atria Books). Her novel tells the story from the point of view of Zona's mother and James P. D. Gardner, the first African American lawyer practicing in West Virginia, who was a young member of the defense team in Shue's case.
Do you believe in ghosts? Some folks in Greenbrier County,
West Virginia do. In fact, there's a road sign in Greenbrier County that tells
how the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue helped convict her murderer.
In 1886, Edward Shue and his first wife lived in a cabin on
Rock Camp Run, in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Shue was a young man with
a strong, well-built body. He was also a bully who beat his wife. Shue's first
wife finally divorced him while he was in the penitentiary for stealing a horse.
After Shue got out of prison, it wasn't long before he married
again and set up housekeeping on the top of Droop Mountain. His second wife
died under peculiar and suspicious circumstances.
In November 1896, in Greenbrier County, Edward Shue married
a third time, to a fifteen-year-old girl named Zona Heaster. Some people said
Zona had fallen madly in love with Shue because of his striking appearance.
Others said that Shue persuaded Zona to visit her uncle on Droop Mountain, and
once he got her away from her parents convinced her to marry him. Edward and
Zona set up house in a two-story frame building in Livesay's Mill, where Shue
worked as a blacksmith.
In January 1897, two months after the wedding, Shue asked
young Anderson Jones to go to his house and do some chores for Mrs. Shue. When
Anderson got to the house, all the doors were closed. On the steps, he saw a
trail of blood. That scared him, but he knocked, and when no one answered, he
opened the door and went in. The trail of blood continued across the kitchen
floor to the dining room. That door, too, was closed. Anderson knocked, then
he opened the door and went in. He stumbled over Zona Shue's body. She was lying
on the floor looking up with wide-open eyes. Anderson reached down and shook
her and found her stiff and cold.
Anderson ran to the blacksmith shop to tell Edward Shue. Shue
let out a yell and started for his house, while Anderson went on to get Dr.
When Anderson and Dr. Knapp reached the house, Shue had placed
his wife on the bed and was holding her head in his arms, crying for her to
come back. And strangely enough, he had dressed Zona, placing a high, stiff
collar around her neck and tying it in place with a large veil, folded several
times and tied in a bow under her chin. During Dr. Knapp's examination of the
body, Shue continued to hold his wife's head in his arms.
Dr. Knapp pronounced Mrs. Shue dead of heart failure. During
the visits of friends and relatives to view the body, Shue never left the head
of his wife's casket. Zona was buried in the cemetery of Soule Chapel Church
in Greenbrier County.
That was not the end of the story, however. Zona's mother
was not satisfied with the account of Zona's death. She lay in bed praying that
God would relieve her doubts. When she turned over, there stood her daughter
Zona! Zona seemed hesitant to talk to her, however, and did not stay.
The next night, Mrs. Heaster again prayed that she might know
the truth about Zona's death. Again Zona appeared, and this night she talked
to her mother, saying that she would tell her the true story.
On the third and fourth nights, Zona told her mother how she
had been murdered by her husband, Edward Shue! "He came that night from the
shop and seemed angry. I told him supper was ready and he then began to chide
me because I had prepared no meat. I replied there was plenty, bread and butter,
apple sauce, preserves and other things that made a good supper. He flew into
a rage, got up and came toward me. When I raised up, he seized each side of
my head with his hands and by a sudden wrench dislocated my neck."
When Mrs. Heaster told her neighbors of Zona's visits, some
believed that she had been visited by a ghost. Others insisted that she had
only been dreaming. Mrs. Heaster insisted that these were not dreams, that she
had been wide awake. Furthermore, Zona had described her home and other spots
around Livesay's Mill, places Mrs. Heaster had never seen. When she traveled
to Livesay's Mill, the places were just as Zona had described them.
Mrs. Heaster and her brother-in-law were able to convince John
A. Preston, the prosecuting attorney in Lewisburg, of the possibility of foul
play in Zona's death. Mr. Preston and Dr. Knapp decided to exhume Zona's body
for an autopsy.
After a lengthy examination, Dr. Knapp discovered the true
cause of Zona Heaster's death—she had died of a broken neck.
Edward Shue was arrested and charged with murder. The case
came to court in Lewisburg on June 30, 1897. The defense attorneys allowed Mrs.
Heaster to testify because they believed they could easily demolish her testimony
by making her admit that the visitations from her daughter's ghost were only
dreams. Mrs. Heaster was adamant, however, in insisting that she was wide awake
and that the visits were quite real.
The jury found Edward Shue guilty of murder, and he was sentenced
to life in prison. After a failed lynching attempt by local residents who felt
Shue should die as his wife had, of a broken neck, Shue was sent to Moundsville
Penitentiary. He died there eight years later.
You can read about the case of Edward Shue in old newspapers
in Lewisburg. According to Case's Comment, a national lawyer's magazine, this
is the only case in the United States where a man has been convicted of murder
on the testimony of a ghost.
This account of the "Greenbrier Ghost" was compiled by Avis
Caynor from accounts by Dennis Deitz, George Deitz, and G. S. McKeever,
as recounted in The Greenbrier Ghost and other Strange Stories, by
Dennis Deitz (South Charleston, WV: Mountain Memories Books, 1990).
Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature in AppLit
This page's last update: 10/23/17