Back in 1897, when Trout Shue snapped the neck of his wife, Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost, he believed his troubles were over. He didn’t know it at the time, but the ghost of his murdered wife had two accomplices – his mother in law and his ex wife – who ensured he remained haunted for the remainder of his short life, spent in a West Virginia penitentiary.
Now Trout Shue didn’t get a fair trial. He wasn’t convicted on the circumstantial evidence the prosecution presented. It was a ghost story, a rumor everyone knew, the jury included. The defense had to take the story down.
They failed, and Trout Shue was shipped off to prison based on spectral evidence, banned since the Salem witch trials.
It doesn’t mean he wasn’t guilty either. It just means that people believed the ghost more than they believed Trout Shue.
The Greenbrier ghost was a popular folktale in the hills and mountains of West Virginia, and it’s certainly based on real people and a real murder. At the time, it was firmly believed to be true. The importance of the tale isn’t lost on the state of West Virginia. Near her grave on the side of a mountain in West Virginia is a historic marker, that makes West Virginia the only state to claim to have a murder trial reach a conviction with the testimony of a ghost?
The marker reads: “Interred in nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.”
In the mountains, people believed in ghosts
They were used to death, as there was always a lot of it about. The line between this world and the next can be blurry in a mountain mist. The dead cross over, and most people knew it. It was just accepted. You hear it in the folk songs, the fiction and from the storytellers.
A folk tale is a living thing. With each generation the story grows. Facts are secondary to a good story.
And the Greenbrier ghost is a good story … The good looking drifter with a secret history of spousal abuse and murder, blows into the county and sweeps a young lady with a checkered past off her feet. Her mother’s intuition screams “beware!” but her daughter doesn’t listen. A few months later they’re burying the daughter in the frozen ground of a West Virginia cemetery.
Her death attributed to natural causes, her ghost appears to her mother, tells her that she was murdered, how she was murdered and to go to the sheriff and “tell on him!” The mother does just that, the body is exhumed and they find the mother’s story is corroborated. The husband is arrested and put on trial.
The defense blunders in attacking her mother and the story of the ghost in court, trying to poke holes in it. It backfires and the jury believes the mother’s ghostly tale. The husband is sent to prison where he dies a few years later during an epidemic.
But the truth is a darker tale than even that.
A short life begins at the foot of Little Sewell Mountain
Zona Heaster Shue was born at the foot of Little Sewell Mountain, a bit north of Meadow Bluff. As far as we know, Zona never left Greenbrier county. The middle child, with four brothers, raised in a god fearing home, not much is known about her short life. It’s not for her life that she’s remembered, but for her afterlife.
Today, Greenbrier county is still far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, with a population of about 34,000, spread out over a thousand square miles, mostly mountainous, with steep valleys, dense and dark woods and winding streams.
On the map, it doesn’t look like there’s much distance between towns. But that can be an illusion. In reality that little space on the map might be filled with a mountain and these towns weren’t that large to begin with, sometimes nothing more than a few scattered farm houses.
Nature could feed you as there was wildlife in abundance. The drawback is that some of that wildlife could kill you. So you turn to farming, but the land is rocky and steep. Still, you can raise a family and make a living. Barely.
The weather isn’t your friend. Spring and autumn are gorgeous. The summer is oppressive, humid to the point of saturation. Winter can kill you with the cold, ice and snow.
Greenbrier people, held together and seasoned by a hard way of life
Life was tough and there were almost as many ways to die as there were people, paramount among those being disease, which folks would talk about like it was a person. For death could strike quickly like a knife in the back, and spread almost as fast. It wasn’t unheard of for a person to wake up healthy and be dead by dark.
For a newborn, the chance of reaching adulthood was far less likely than today. If you were a parent, wanting to raise a family, it paid to have a lot of children. When epidemics swept through an area, as it did every few years, it struck the very young and the very old the hardest.
Your children aren’t just your pride and joy, but an essential source of labor to help around the house and the farm. Most farms were small and could never support more than one family. When you reached adulthood, you were expected to go out and find your own way, if you were one of the superfluous kids that stood to inherit the farm. Daughters were married off, for marriage was still one way to grow the family’s reputation and standing, not to mention the number of acres.
When you grow up in a small town, and live in a small town, that little piece of geography becomes your whole world. Time, and progress moves slowly, and when that happens, it feels like your life is flying past. Or dragging tedious slow.
In such an isolated area, your neighbors and kin were your social safety net. You knew everybody’s name and their family history. Your family name can make or break you and your reputation is everything. Your name is how you get a loan when the crops don’t make it. It’s what convinces a parent to let their daughter marry you. And it’s not just your name, but your family’s name that gets blackened when things turn bad.
Even in the hills, you live under the microscopic eyes of your neighbors
And in 1895, things had turned bad for Zona Heaster Shue, who was about twenty one or two years old. She had given birth to a child out of wedlock with a man named George Woldridge. One writer said it was a boozy buggy ride, hopped up on moonshine and hormones. George didn’t have any money, not much of a job and couldn’t support a wife, let alone a wife and kid. And according to the story, wasn’t even sure if it was his.
So George avoided the shotgun and the minister.
Strongly attractive and from the looks of her photo, rather intense, it would have been easy for Zona to have been cast out from the community. Perhaps she went to stay with a relative for the last few months? Or just stayed on the farm, rather than visiting her cousins in Falling Springs, ten miles or so across the county.
Whatever happened, there are no documented reports of the baby beyond its birth. It simply vanishes. Ancestry.com even offers a free subscription for anyone who can find where the child went.
The middle child breaks free
Zona was the apple of her daddy’s eye till the apple got a worm in it. It was up to the mother to straighten out the wayward daughter, and if possible, keep her reputation intact till she could be married off and no longer her parent’s worry.
After all, if Zona had kept her baby, it would have been up to her parents to feed it and likely raise it. They could barely make ends meet. The last thing they needed was a another mouth to feed, and a black mark on the family’s reputation.
Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was by all reports an upstanding, god fearing and it should be added, strong willed woman.
Their home in the shadow of Little Sewell mountain, was quite a ways from the nearest big town. It was a rugged life and Zona felt confined there.
It’s believed that Zona used to visit her cousins on her mother’s side in Falling Spring, now known as Renick, about twenty five miles away. It wasn’t the city, but it wasn’t at the foot of the mountain either. She’d already learned, the hard way, bad boys are more fun. But she likely had had enough of bad boys who lacked a decent job.
And so Zona fell for the blacksmith.
Trout Shue and the mysterious deaths of his previous wives
Erasmus Stribbling Shue, known as Trout was in his early thirties when he showed up in Greenbrier county back in 1895. Tall, and muscular with trembling lips and piercing eyes which were said to turn black with anger, he turned Zona’s knees to jelly.
Shue was born in Mossy Creek, over in Fayette county, the son of Jacob Shue, a respected blacksmith, and Trout followed in his father’s trade. Some years later Jacob Shue moved his family to Droop Mountain, which borders Greenbrier county.
Thirty four years earlier, it was the site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War to have taken place on West Virginia soil.
That battle still haunts the mountains of West Virginia. While Trout was still living there with his parents, a retired logger who went by the name of Edgar Walton decided to spend the night in what is now Droop Mountain State Park. After building a fire near a Confederate cemetery, Walton saw before him a headless ghost of a soldier buzz past him.
And he’s not alone. Other visitors to the park have reported hearing battle noises, as well as screams and wailing, and visible apparitions of the soldiers.
Today these stories are scrutinized, while in Shue’s day they were accepted more readily. Even Trout would likely have been a believer. Ghosts weren’t questioned as they are now, as these were a poor and often uneducated population. They hadn’t learned to be skeptics yet, and that would prove to be Shue’s undoing.
According to the Greenbrier ghost legends, Trout was a mystery, as Pocahantas county is described as having been another world apart from Greenbrier in those days. He took work as a blacksmith in a shop belonging to James Crookshanks. It wasn’t long before his path crossed Zona’s.
In Trout Shue, Zona found a release for her passion, as well as stability in that it was more than a drunken one night stand. Shue had a real job, and to everyone around them, it was obvious that they were deeply in love.
But Trout had baggage himself.
To begin with, Shue was about a decade older than Zona. And he’d been married before, most recently to sixteen year old Lucy Ann Tritt. During the trial, the talk around Greenbrier county was that Lucy was only sixteen and immediately after the wedding, they settled on Droop Mountain. About six months later she was dead under mysterious circumstances. The explanation usually given is that while working on the chimney, Shue dropped a brick which landed on her head.
This seems far fetched, as she died on February 11, 1895. A person doesn’t typically do masonry on a chimney, when you live on a mountain in West Virginia in the coldest part of winter.
In reality, there likely isn’t any mystery about Lucy Ann Tritt’s death. When a girl married at that age and immediately left the county, there was bound to be talk that she was pregnant. Her death less than eight months later is then quite logical, and likely occurred during childbirth. That no child is spoken of, means it probably didn’t survive, and both mother and child were buried in an unmarked grave in the same cemetery where Shue’s family is interred.
After her death, the official narrative says that Trout decided to move to Greenbrier county, a complete stranger, to escape his past. But in truth he was moving back to Greenbrier, and confronting his past head on.
What no one seems to catch is that Shue was already in the county when he married Lucy, who lived in Greenbrier, less than seven miles southwest from Zona’s family home. Certainly close enough that if there was anything sensational, they’d be familiar with Trout’s name.
The 1880 U.S Census has Lucy living with her parents, Isaac Tritt, a farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, along with six brothers and sisters. She was nine years old at the time, which makes her nearly a decade older than she’s portrayed in the folk tale.
A bit of Greenbrier County geography
By now the geography of this story is shaping up.
Zona’s family lived a few miles north of Meadow Bluff, about twenty some odd miles to the northeast from the county seat of Greenbrier county, Lewisburg. So his first wife lived deep into Greenbrier, and it can be safely assumed he lived near there at the time.
North of Lewisburg about sixteen miles is Falling Spring, now known as Renick, near the Greenbrier River. It’s another small collection of farms, but with more people than where Zona lived. Her uncle, Mary Jane Heaster’s brother lived there, with his wife and daughters, and Zona visited often.
It can be assumed she traveled there with her family, much of the way along the Midland Trail, which went right past the house where Zona would later be killed. The house was grand enough, and the man who built it notable enough, that they surely would have recognized it and know the story behind it. After all, the town they were passing through was named for the man, Livesay’s Mill. Which was itself pretty much a part of the area known as Richlands, named for the quality of the ground.
Just past Richlands, you steer north to Falling Spring. You could travel from Meadow Bluff to Falling Spring on a horse in a few hours. By wagon or buggy it was most of a day, as it was all dirt and often mud roads.
These aren’t necessarily towns as we know them, but scatted collections of houses, often tied together by blood and marriage.
Just north of Mary Jane’s brother’s farm in Falling Spring was land belonging to the McMillion family.
One of the McMillion boys, Tinker, married Allie Estaline Cutlip, who was seven years his senior and appears to have been his first cousin. They had grown up together, and stayed in Falling Spring the rest of their lives, raising a family, along with the daughter from Allie’s first marriage, to Trout Shue.
It’s said Shue told people he preferred to be called Trout, a nickname. One of the most popular ways people pick a nickname is to use the place from which they came. Just to the west of Falling Spring is Trout valley. It’s reasonable to assume that he first came into Falling Spring from Trout valley, before meeting his first wife some ____ years earlier.
Also, consider this …
The first families you come across when you leave Trout Valley are the McMillions, Allie Shue’s family. And just a few miles to the northeast of both Falling Spring and Trout valley is Droop Mountain, where Shue was raised. Come down off Droop Mountain into Greenbrier County from that direction, and what family do you run into first? The McMillions.
A first wife who not only didn’t die, but never gave up making Shue’s life hell
Trout and Allie got married in 1885 and had a child together two years later, a girl named Girta Lucretia Shue. During this time the couple lived in the bride’s hometown in Falling Springs in Greenbrier county, the same tiny town where Zona often visited her cousins.
Legend has it that Trout used to rough up Allie. It got so bad, some of the local boys came into the house one night, yanked Trout from his bed and tossed him in the frozen Greenbrier river. As a chilling warning.
Shue later denied being cruel to his wife, but the rumors preceded him. He claimed she was unbalanced and that the chid was being raised by Allie’s parents.
About a decade after Shue was sentenced for murder, the ghost story made a resurgence, and some newspaper accounts stated definitively that Shue had killed all three of his wives.
Which is obviously not true as Allie was very much alive. And likely still quite pissed off at that worthless bastard that ran out on her and their daughter. Even if it wasn’t his choice that he was sent to prison for two years.
Horse theft up in Pocahontas county.
Now it’s a decade later, 1897 and Allie and Tinker are in the county seat of Lewisburg, picking up a marriage license. Their first child had been born a couple months earlier.
The next week, in that same courthouse, Trout Shue and Zona Heaster come in to pick up theirs.
Can you can tell the kind of man by the company he keeps?
It was the first of May
a lovely warm spring day
I was strolling down the street
in drunken pride
but my knees where all aflutter
and I landed in the gutter
and a pig came up and lay down by my side.
As I lay there in the gutter
thinking thoughts I could not utter
when a lady passing by did softly say,
“You can tell a man who boozes
by the company he chooses…”
And the pig got up and walked away.
Anonymous Irish Verse
Trout Shue has developed a bad reputation since he died, which could well have been warranted in his life as well. But the thing that strikes me, is after the death of his second wife, why did he return to a town where according to the stories, the locals had thrown him into the river, and he had a bad reputation as a horse thief, a wife beater and an ex con?
But prior to murdering his third wife, did he warrant such a bad reputation?
The name James Crookshanks carried a lot of weight in Falling Spring. According to local history, his influence in that area was strong. Crookshanks appears to have owned a few forges scattered along the main roads through this area, down to the Richlands, and likely a larger shop in Lewisburg. These forges were mostly self-reliant, and their main business was shoeing horses and repairing buggies and wagons along the main roads.
To man these forges he needed hard workers he could trust. Trout Shue was a blacksmith, and the son of a noted blacksmith as well. Crookshanks likely had the business sewn up in Falling Spring, so when Trout lived in Falling Spring with his first wife he likely would have worked for Crookshanks then.
It’s reasonable to think that after his release from prison, Trout Shue moved back Greenbrier county, as he was there when he met his second wife. If she was indeed pregnant at the time, it would have been logical to take her to his parent’s place on Droop Mountain. When she died, he decided to move back to Greenbrier, and simply crossed the county line and took up residence in the first town he came to. Falling Spring where his first wife was about to remarry.
As Crookshanks was a respected man, he wouldn’t likely hire someone with the tarnished reputation that Shue bears in folklore. Indeed, in most of the contemporary newspaper accounts, Shue isn’t portrayed as particularly mysterious or diabolical. His reputation grew darker as the facts receded and folklore took over.
As if you needed to get darker than twisting the head off your wife.
The marriage of Zona Heaster and Erasmus Shue
There was said to be one obstacle to their marriage, Zona’s mother Mary Jane who took an instant dislike and distrust of Erasmus Stribbling Shue. In her eyes, Trout was the devil himself, and she was dead set against the marriage.
The facts were bad enough. He’d been married before, twice, abandoned his child and been in prison. That’s not your dream son in law.
But a mother’s wish has little sway over a daughter’s desire, and in November of 1896, in the Methodist Church at Livesay’s Mill, Zona and Trout were married. They set up house in a two-story frame home that had once been the residence of the founding father of Livesay’s Mill, William G. Livesay.
His boss, Crookshanks was married to a descendent of Livesay, and likely either owned it herself, or was part owner. Once again, if Shue has such a bad reputation, they likely wouldn’t have rented to him their ancestral home.
And so they were settled into what is now the still tiny settlement of Richlands, West Virginia, a hard working and by all accounts, devoted husband and his doting wife.
Perhaps for some reason the older Crookshanks took a liking to Shue, and thought it best to get him out of Falling Spring. At any rate, Zona was closer to home if she chose to visit. And close enough to her cousins, so she wouldn’t feel isolated in Livesay’s Mill.
But just after the ringing in of the new year, 1897, Zona took sick. For the next couple weeks, Zona was looked after by Dr. George W. Knapp, who now lies buried in the cemetery at Richlands, though the cause of her ailment is something of a mystery. There were rumors that Zona was pregnant again, and perhaps this was the reason she and Shue married so quickly. Trout stayed by her side, and witnesses testified during the trial that he was a devoted husband and truly cared for her. Which makes it a mystery why a few days later he broke her neck.
The mysterious death of Zona Heaster Shue
Here’s the legend …
It was January 22, 1897 and blistering cold in Richlands, West Virginia. If you want to be precise, the house that eleven year old Anderson Jones was approaching from the northwest was in Livesay’s Mill, but the border between the two towns was lost in the fields that now lay frozen under the young African American’s boots.
Trout Shue had been by his house earlier that morning on the way to the forge and asked his mother, affectionately known as Aunt Martha, if her son could check on his wife later on. She was needing help pickling some eggs, and had no business being out in the cold gathering them.
Anderson was already busy that morning, but Aunt Martha promised she’d have him look in on Zona when he got back.
Shue was agitated and came back four times to find out if Anderson had been there yet. He hadn’t.
It was after lunch before Anderson reached the front porch of Shue’s house and knocked at the door. There was no answer, so he opened the door a crack and called out for Mrs. Shue. Still no answer. He went on in and there lying on the floor was Zona Heaster Shue, at the foot of the stairs, stretched out, with her feet together. One hand was on her abdomen and the other was lying next to her. Her head was turned slightly to one side and her eyes were wide open and staring.
Anderson freaked and ran screaming across the field toward his own home. His mother heard him and came running. Together they ran and told Shue, then fetched Dr. George Knapp.
When Doc Knapp reached the house, Trout was in the bedroom, cradling the head of his dead wife, inconsolable. After finding her corpse, Trout had dressed her in a fine dress, if somewhat old-fashioned, with a tall, stiff collar, veil over her face and around her neck, what he said was her favorite scarf. The doctor at first examined Zona for signs of life. Finding none, he made a cursory examination for the cause of death, which seemed to agitate Trout in his grief, and knowing all too well of Zona’s ill-health, he determined that the cause of death of “everlasting faint,” which he later changed to childbirth.
Clearing the fog from Zona’s death
Unfortunately, much of the details presented during the trial were lost, as all the court records burned in a later fire. The trial did make the papers, but unfortunately, until the more sensational testimony was given, not a lot of information was printed.
Storytellers hate a vacuum, and happily fill the gaps in with their own flourishes. There was a lot of talk about this case around Greenbrier county, and no shortage of rumors and theories, all of which colored later accounts.
Luckily in 1910, Anderson Jones was interviewed about that day, and dropped a few clues in the process that help separate fact from fiction. While adding a few flourishes of his own.
Jones’ interview is a source for the claim that Shue came by four times. But the earlier accounts say he came by again only once, at 11 a.m to ask if Anderson had been there yet and for him to tell his wife he wouldn’t be home for lunch. Jones wouldn’t necessarily know how often Shue had been there as he wasn’t there himself. He could be excused for stretching the tale a bit.
He also described finding the body … “Going to the house, I felt that something was wrong. All of the doors were closed and there was an air about the place I did not like.”
“Reaching the steps, I saw a trail of blood. That scared me, but I went to the door and knocked. No one answered. I tried it and, finding the door unlocked, walked into the kitchen. The trail of blood continued across the floor to the dining room. This door, too, was closed.”
“Once more I knocked. and, getting no answer, walked in. I stumbled over Mrs. Shue’s body. There she was, stretched out or the floor, looking right up at me through wide-open eyes. She seemed to be laughing.”
“I was frightened but still able to reach down and shake her. She was stiff and cold, Running from the house, I called across the field to Aunt Martha, ‘Mrs. Shue is dead!’”
“As she ran to the house, I went down the road for Mr. Shue, finding him at the blacksmith shop with Charles Tapscott. When I told him what I had found, he let out a yell and, with Mr. Tapscott, started for the house. I continued on to get Dr. Knapp.”
What he describes differs in some ways from the commonly told story. What I previously had trouble understanding is why wouldn’t the obvious cause of death for a woman found at the bottom of a set of stairs be from falling down them? The answer is that she wasn’t at the bottom of the stairs. She was in the dining room, and the stairs were on the other side of a closed door.
The trail of blood was discussed at the time, though it’s often missed in the folk tale. And that’s where it gets weird.
Ask yourself, after a very brief courtship, two people – one who had a child out of wedlock, the other on his third marriage – suddenly get married. A couple months later his wife takes ill, with an illness nobody wants to talk about. Three weeks later she’s found at the end of a trail of blood, dead. The cause of death is listed as childbirth.
In other words, a miscarriage.
Anderson says he alerts his mother and she takes off for the house while he goes to tell Shue. Which means Aunt Martha is already there when Shue arrives. So he didn’t have a chance to do anything to the body unseen.
When the doctor arrives, Shue has moved her body upstairs to bed, but he hadn’t changed her clothes. She wasn’t wearing the high necked dress. He assisted others in helping dress her after the doctor left, and chose the high necked dress as it was her wedding dress, and possibly the only nice one she owned.
Stripped of the folkloric elements, the scene is more believable, and the doctor’s diagnosis makes sense.
Shue did keep his wife’s head in his hands the whole time she was being examined, and likely while she was being dressed. Cradling your dead wife’s head is natural for a grieving husband. He didn’t, as legend states, pick out and dress his wife in a garment which covers her neck. It can be assumed ladies of the area, or even Aunt Martha did the actual dressing.
Zona Heaster Shue is laid to rest
Dr, Knapp sent riders to inform Mr. And Mrs. Heaster of their daughter’s death. Her body, accompanied by her son in law and others from Richlands, followed suit the next day.
The day after came the funeral and still Trout was out of his head with grief. He refused to leave his wife’s side during the wake, spending most of the time still cradling her head in his hands, holding a pillow to the side of her face to keep her comfortable. On the other side of her head he had folded a sheet for that same purpose.
At times Trout leapt up and paced the room, showing great energy in contrast to his overwhelming grief, which the other mourners put down to his mourning. But Shue’s odd behavior aroused the suspicion of more than one person at the wake, some of whom noticed that as the corpse was being taken to the cemetery, the head flopped about more than one would expect.
Zona was buried in the graveyard of Soule Methodist Church on January 25, up on Sewell Mountain, in a grave which remained unmarked till 1979. It took almost a hundred years before the congregation of the church erected a marker for the most famous person buried there.
Zona’s obituary ran in the Greenbrier Independent, page 3 on January 28, 1897. It read “Mrs. E. Z. Shue, wife of E. S. Shue, died at her home in the Richlands this county, on Sunday last, the 24th inst., aged 22nd years. Mrs. Shue was a daughter of Mr. Hedges Heaster, of Meadow Bluff district. Mr. Shue formerly lived in Pocahontas county.”
It would be about a century before this seemingly innocent obit became the main reason skeptics doubt the claims of Mary Ann Heaster and her daughter’s ghost.
A mother’s love brings back a daughter from the grave
Zona’s mother, Mary Ann Heaster wasn’t just suspicious of Trout Shue. She was convinced. When told of her daughter’s death, Mary Ann responded that “the devil has killed her.”
Keep in mind, by this time she’s already aware of Shue’s reputation from her family in Falling Springs, where his ex wife lives. She likely has heard the rumors of his second, from neighbors in her own district. This isn’t a mother’s intuition. It’s a reasoned guess based on a mix of fact and rumor.
After the funeral, she had removed the sheet which had been used as her daughter’s head prop, and at first tried to return it to Trout, who refused it. Taking it back home, she began washing it by hand, and was chilled to see that as she did so, the water in the basin turned blood red, and a foul odor of death emanated from the cloth. The water then cleared, and Mary Ann might have put the incident down to her imagination, had she not then seen that the sheet was now stained pink.
Convinced it was a sign, and having no recourse left except to her god, Zona’s mother began to pray. Each night she begged that Zona would return to her and tell her the truth of her death.
The prayer paid off, and on a dark and moonless West Virginia night, a radiant, white light appeared to Mary Ann, which then faded away. On the next night Zona appeared herself, not as a wispy form, but as flesh and blood, corporeal and cold to the touch. For the next three nights Zona appeared to her mother and told her the story.
On the night before her body had been discovered, her husband had come home and was pissed off when he saw that she hadn’t cooked any meat to go with supper.
The specter went on to tell her mother that her husband, in a blind rage overpowered her and closed his fingers around her throat. Such was his fury that Trout hadn’t merely choked his wife to death. Instead, his iron strong grip had mashed her windpipe, ruptured and tearing ligaments before finally breaking her neck, snapping it between the first and second vertebrae.
After relating this tale, as the seemingly reanimated corpse of her murdered daughter made her way towards the door and away from her mother for the last time, Zona turned her head towards Mary Jane, completely around on her body, to show her that indeed her neck had been shattered.
A mother’s vengeance
That’s the legend of what Mary Jane Heaster testified to in court. In reality, what she said was that Trout Shue had put a hand on each side of her head and snapped her neck. Aside from that, the story is essentially what she recounted in court.
When faced with the ghost of your dead daughter, pleading to you to exact vengeance, you’d likely take it seriously. Mary Jane certainly did.
Building the case against Shue was made easier by her brother and sister in law, who probably both knew Shue, and certainly knew his ex wife, who was now their neighbor.
Allie is the obvious source for Shue’s background in the legend, and it can’t be said with a straight face that she harbored no ill will towards her ex. When news reached the Falling Spring folk about Zona’s ghost, it was the beginnings of what one newspaper called a coalition of people out to get vengeance.
The rumors spread, both about the murder and Trout Shue’s unsavory past.
Alon with her brother in law, Mary Ann Heaster paid a visit to the county prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, pleading with him to open the case once more, telling him of the visitation of her daughter. Whether Preston believed Mary Ann is not known, but he had heard the stories which were circulating.
After asking around and finding that several people in the area had the same suspicions, he spoke with Dr. Knapp.
Knapp had remained somewhat troubled about Zona’s death himself, as Trout’s grief prevented him examining the body as thoroughly as he liked, and he told Preston so. Armed with this information, and the word of several locals who had reported seeing bruising on the neck of Zona, he ordered that the corpse be exhumed, a ballsy act unheard of in rural West Virginia at the time.
When told about the scheduled autopsy, Trout Shue naturally “vigorously complained.” But as next of kin, he was informed that his presence there was mandatory. He’d go willingly or by court order. He said he knew he’d be arrested, “but they will not be able to prove I did it.”
This statement, which Shue repeatedly made up to and during the trial could have two meanings. The diabolical one is the obvious. He’d covered his tracks. However, his relatives later would point to another obvious meaning, that they couldn’t prove it because he didn’t do it.
On March 9, more than a month after her death, Zona was dug up and brought to Nickell schoolhouse, now gone or lost to the woods. Trout Shue accompanied the small party of neighbors, led by Prosecutor Preston and Doctor Knapp, as well as some local law enforcement. The neighbors recruited to dig up the grave refused until threatened with prosecution, such was the stigma of the time of disturbing the dead.
Trout whittled while the three doctors headed by Dr. Knapp sliced. The body was in remarkably good shape, as the West Virginia winter kept it chilled. As is common practice in an autopsy, they examined Zona’s stomach for poison, and checked the other vital organs of the chest and abdomen.
Anderson Jones accompanied the party to the autopsy and tells the story. “Dr. Knapp was working around Mrs. Shue’s head. I could see Shue was getting more nervous. His whittling was not so good.”
“Suddenly, the doctor turned to Mr. Preston. They whispered together for a few minutes. Then, Mr. Preston turned to Shue and said: ” ‘Well, Shue, we have found your wife’s neck to be broken.’ Shue’s head dropped. A change came over him that I can’t explain. But it certainly proved his guilt to me.”
The Pocahontas Times reported that: “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.”
Shue was arrested, and yet as they passed his house in Richlands on their way to the jail of Sheriff Bill Nickell, they stopped and he cooked the whole party breakfast. They then rode on where Trout was held without bail for the first degree murder of his wife, Zona Heaster Shue.
The racial perspective in the trial of Trout Shue
On May 20, 1897, the Pocahontas Times reported, “Trout Shue, now in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, has threatened to kill himself,” so it must have discouraged him as well. Or perhaps he was grieving for his wife.
In those days justice wasn’t swift, and it wasn’t till June that circuit Judge J.M. McWhorter made his way to Lewisburg. While waiting for his arrival, Prosecutor Preston tried to shore up his case against Shue, with the help of his assistant prosecutor Henry Gilmer. After all, the evidence against him, discounting the spectral evidence was purely circumstantial.
Shue’s lawyers must have been horrified when they saw how the story of Mary Ann’s visitation by the Greenbrier ghost, and the treacherous picture painted of their client had permeated the Greenbrier social consciousness.
Shue’s enemies in various parts of the county had decided not to wait for the judge and instead tried him in the court of public opinion. Having no family in the county to defend him, he was guilty before the judge dropped the first gavel in the courtroom. Likely with the jury as well.
For his part, Shue hired Dr William Rucker and the first black attorney to practice in a Greenbrier court, James P.D. Gardner. It’s not known if Shue hired them because he thought they were the best men for the job, or if they were just assigned the role.
Having the first black attorney to practice in a Greenbrier court wasn’t to the defendant’s advantage in the last part of the nineteenth century. If there are two things many southerners disliked, it was blacks taking on more prominent roles and positions of authority. The second thing people disliked, then and now, are lawyers. A black man entering the legal profession was enough to earn the adjective “uppity.”
In hindsight, it was a strike for racial equality. But also a strike against Shue with that jury that alone would have likely ensured that he would be found guilty.
Ghostly evidence comes to light in the trial of Trout Shue
Awaiting trial, Shue told another inmate that the case would never stand up in court, and that he would soon be freed, and hoped to eventually marry seven times. This of course came out during the trial as well.
If there’s one thing you can say about Trout Shue, even through the murky waters of folklore, the man didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.
June 30, 1897 and the trial of Trout Shue for the murder of Zona Heaster Shue began in Greenbrier Court. Prosecutor Preston kept his case to the earthly facts, including testimony from several people of how Trout had refused to let anyone near his wife’s body during the wake and funeral, as well as the stiff, high necked collar and scarf with a large bow tied around her neck. Others related how after the funeral, Shue’s grief seemed to have dissipated quickly, and he showed no signs of mourning and behaved nothing like a man who had lost his wife of little more than a couple of months.
He couldn’t introduce the spectral evidence, but he made sure the local gossip got to the jury.
Spectral evidence was most prominently noted in the Salem witch trials, of 1692. Those victims were convicted based on the testimony of girls, who claimed to receive information from spirits only they could see. Those trials resulted in the executions of twenty innocent people, and the madness was only broken when spectral evidence was finally declared inadmissible in court.
Besides, Preston didn’t have to put Mary Jane Heaster on the stand to recount the story of the ghost. Everyone already knew it.
Then came the defense, and they tried to offer alternate theories. There were other explanations for a broken neck, including the typical jostling of body in January, both in dressing, putting in the coffin and carrying in a wagon for over fifteen miles across frozen roads. Then Rucker and Gardner turned to the circumstances that had lead to the autopsy in the first place, the visitation of Mary Jane Heaster by her deceased daughter Zona.
Modern writers tend to think they put her on the stand to make a mockery of how the case was reopened. But the reality is, since everyone had heard about it, they had no choice but to ask her about the ghost and try to punch a hole in her story.
Mary Jane Heaster was about fifty years old when she took the stand. Our picture of her is as a younger woman, dark haired and determined looking. That must have been thirty years earlier or more, before a hard lifetime of being the wife of a poor farmer living at the foot of a mountain in West Virginia.
Responding to attacks on her character, Mary Jane replied that she was not a superstitious woman, she was a good Christian and that Zona’s appearance was not a dream. According to the Greenbrier Independent, which printed the entire transcript, an event unheard of at the time:
Q.-I have heard that you had some dream or vision which led to this postmortem examination.
A.-They saw enough themselves without me telling them. It was no dream – she came back and told me that he was mad that she didn’t have no meat cooked for supper.
The defense attacked Mary Jane mercilessly, which backfired as she responded with dignity and stuck to her story. She was just like the people in the jury box. She believed in the power of a mother’s intuition, just like they did. That the ghost of a murdered girl could appear to her mother was completely believable. And most of all, when a wife is killed, the husband is the natural suspect. And Mary Jane Heaster, and likely Shue’s first wife, made sure he looked as guilty as he could before he ever stepped into the witness box the next day.
“Shue was on the stand all Tuesday afternoon. He was given free rein and talked at great length; was very minute and particular in describing unimportant incidents; denied pretty much everything said by other witnesses; said the prosecution was all spite work; entered a positive denial of the charge against him; vehemently protested his innocence, calling God to witness; admitted that he had served a term in the pen; declared that he dearly loved his wife, and appealed to the jury to look into his face and then say if he was guilty. His testimony, manner, etc., made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.
– Testimony quoted in the Greenbrier Independent, 1 July, 1897
The verdict comes in on Trout Shue
The jury took less than an hour to return a guilty verdict. Shue had told reporters in jail that he would never be convicted, as there was no evidence against him. Which also seemed to backfire, as this was listed as among the reasons his guilt was so readily apparent.
Shue was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which was almost never carried out, as an impromptu lynch mob formed to exact the vengeance that they believed the court had failed them in. It was only because of the quick-thinking of a determined deputy that the mob was turned back, and eventually four of them faced charges for their attempt on the life of Shue.
As for Shue, he was sent away to the West Virginia State Prison in Moundsville, where three years later he fell victim to an epidemic that passed through the cell block.
The legacy of the Greenbrier ghost
As with most court cases, the furor over Zona Shue’s death soon died down. But it didn’t disappear. It was kept alive through folk tales, and the occasional newspaper article.
Newspapers in the early twentieth century were into the sensational. Many stories were written as much for entertainment as for education. Facts could be something as simple as convincing someone to say it. Even if they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.
A good example is from The Independent-Herald in Hinton, West Virginia from February 18, 1904. The writer claims to know Mary Jane Heaster well, and describes her as a “thoroughly credulous old woman, and that we believe as the jury in the case believed, that she told the truth in regard to her dream and presentiments.”
Shue is portrayed as a “rare type of brute criminal” who had killed all three of his wives, which was demonstrably false. But by then Shue was dead in prison, and there was nobody to set the record straight.
And then the story became a folk tale with each generation adding its own flair. Along comes facts from time to time but instead of removing the folklore, they just add to it. In the 1950s the folktale underwent a resurgence, as it was printed in various West Virginia newspapers. Unfortunately, they didn’t go back to the original source material for their research.
So in the end you’re left with a story so full of holes you can’t help but wonder how the man was convicted to begin with?
The Skeptics arrive
In her book, “The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives,” Katie Letcher Lyle makes note of the fact that on the same day that Zona’s death was reported in the Greenbrier Independent, there ran an article about a case in Australia, where an eyewitness to a murder invented a tale about how the ghost of the victim had appeared to him, pointing to the spot where the unfortunate lie buried.
When she wrote the book Ms. Lyle believed that Mary Ann read this article and found inspiration there, then simply invented the tale of Zona’s visits.
This is the argument most skeptics make when trying to prove that the ghost wasn’t real. She got the idea from the newspaper and simply copied the idea.
But that begs the question, could Mary Ann even read? The aforementioned Independent Herald article, where the writer claims to know her well, describe her and her husband as “poor uneducated country people.”
Yet in the 1880 census, they are listed as able to read and write. But you have to keep in mind that the ability to read a few Bible passages and write your own name during that time and place constituted literacy. And some were embarrassed and simply lied when asked.
Also, Lewisburg is quite a ways from Meadow Bluff, and Mary Jane lived a ways from there. They didn’t have the money to buy newspapers. But yes, it’s likely someone at least gave her a copy of the obituary, if not the whole paper. And if she could read, she surely read the whole thing, including that article.
Then in a subsequent book, Layle changes course, after having read the early work by British researchers who traveled to America to study the case and talk to the participants. She believes, the last I heard, that Zona’s ghost was real.
Was Trout Shue guilty?
I began to wonder, could there be any signs that Shue might have been innocent? That’s seldom mentioned in stories about the Greenbrier ghost.
In a modern courtroom, the case against Shue would have never stood up. But at the time, adherence to the law was looser. It was easier to convince a jury of a man’s guilt without having to deal with the nuances of law.
Shue was portrayed as an outsider. Though he was born in another county, on the border, he was familiar with Greenbrier, had lived there a number of years and by all accounts was well liked,, until the death of Zona.
In rural areas, even today, old America still exists. When charged with a crime, and the more heinous the crime the more likely, you’re believed guilty until proven innocent, especially if you’re an outsider. The obvious answer must be the answer … ain’t no reason to look any deeper. After all, you can tell the makeup of a man by looking in his eyes. You learn to trust your intuition, and especially when colored by rumor and outright lies, Trout Shue wasn’t the kind of guy you could trust.
Shue had at least two women out for vengeance against him, in a world where a man’s reputation made or broke him. They were convinced he was guilty, and set out to make sure he hung for it. And they had a ghost for an accomplice.
This is a trial that took place over a century ago, where most of the records are lost, and we’ll never know the whole story. We take it on faith that Shue was guilty for the same reason the jury did. We believe the ghost story.
Writing in The Monroe Watchman, an unknown reporter’s father attended the trial as a spectator. Writing in 1971, Watchman states that according to his father “Those who witnessed the trial were much impressed with her sincerity and the jury of twelve good men of Greenbrier County and Judge J. W. McWhorter evidently believe her. The question of whether a person can return from the grave was very well answered.”
In short, Trout Shue was convinced based on spectral evidence, just as the victims in the Salem witch trials. A desperate and unavoidable move by the defense spelled his doom. But it was already etched before his mother in law took the stand.
The defense was summed up this way … “There was no living witness to the crime charged against Defendant Shue and the State rests its case for conviction wholly upon circumstances connecting the accused with the murder charged. So the connection of the accused with the crime depends entirely upon the strength of the circumstantial evidence introduced by the State. There is no middle ground for you, the jury, to take. The verdict inevitably and logically must be for murder in the first degree or for an acquittal.”
Public opinion is easily sussed out in the case. After all, some of the good people of Meadow Bluff were going to lynch him after the trial. People associate lynchings with blacks, which is true in more cases than whites. But it’s also true that in their thirst for vengeance, American mobs were no more sympathetic to white skin than black.
Or perhaps in this case, they were sending a message both to the prisoner and his lawyer.
So yes Shue should have gone free. But that doesn’t mean he was innocent. And it doesn’t mean Mary Jane Heaster didn’t talk with her dead daughter.
Was Mary Jane Heaster telling the truth about the Greenbrier ghost?
Mary Jane Heaster never recanted her story of the ghostly visitation of her daughter Zona. Zona was, as far as anyone can say, at peace, and no reports were ever heard of her again.
But Mary Jane never stopped talking about it, no doubt still smarting from the fact that her daughter’s killer didn’t hang right in front of her.
It’s pretty obvious, even from this late date that she was armed with information from her sister in Falling Springs, who likely enlisted Shue’s first wife, at least for background on him.
That the whole county knew the whole story before Mary Jane Heaster walked into the courtroom is evidence that she waged a bitter public relations campaign against Shue, that went on even after he was dead. But that doesn’t mean the ghost didn’t appear, and give her a good reason to fight so hard.
You have to admit, armed with information from her family and new friends, she could easily have made up the details of the house, the layout and much of what she offered as proof that her daughter’s otherworldly testimony was true.
Except one thing. The details of the broken neck, and how she was killed. A broken neck yes, she could have guessed that. But was she that well versed in human anatomy.
It turns out, no she wasn’t. Here’s what she actually testified to in court that the ghost said, “I told him supper was ready, and he began to chide because I had prepared no meat for supper, and I replied that there was plenty; there was bread and butter, apple sauce, preserves, and other things that made a very good supper, and he flew mad and got up and came toward me when I raised up and he seized each side of my head with his hands and by a sudden wrench, dislocated my neck.“
“According to the autopsy, on the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.”
In short, she was strangled, and her neck broken. What the ghost described was a broken neck, and no strangulation. The autopsy results proved the ghost wrong.
My verdict on the Greenbrier ghost
We’ll never know if Trout Shue went down because of a vendetta against him, or whether he was the person he’s portrayed as. The evidence was lost to history.
If Mary Jane’s story is true, she had every reason to go after Shue with all ten nails bared and scratch out his very eyes. The ghost of your dead daughter has a way of kicking in a mother’s protective instinct, so she can be forgiven for going beyond the pale. Did she embellish the story to make Shue look more guilty? I’m sure of it. But it doesn’t mean the gist of it isn’t true.
I have my own theory, because a case like this invites you to draw your own conclusions.
I think Zona met Trout that day outside when he got back from work. They argued, and she felt a warm gush of blood trickling down her thighs and realized she was miscarrying. Trout was likely enraged already, and she turned and ran into the house. Perhaps he blamed her for losing the child, because there was a good chance he only married because she was pregnant. Or perhaps she had caused herself to lose the child, with a variety of folk remedies at her disposal.
For whatever reason, in the dining room she turned and he snapped her neck. Seeing the trail of blood, he realized the doctor would think she died from the miscarriage. And so he went with that story, and the doctor bought it.
And I believe Mary Beth Heaster saw something that she believed was her daughter’s ghost.
And why not?
It might not have been nothing more than mist in the room, or it could have been much like she described. Either way, it convinced Mary Jane that her daughter wasn’t at rest and she needed to take steps to help her find peace.
Maybe she did read that article about how the ghost story convicted a criminal who would otherwise go free, and took inspiration from that, and combined it with her own experience. And perhaps she had help in fleshing out the details to make it more believable and to point more clearly to Shue’s guilt.
But you have to admit based on the evidence that we have, she was able to point to the fact that her daughter’s neck had been broken, when the doctor who examined her wasn’t able.
In the end, like all ghost stories it comes down to whether you believe what the storyteller is telling, and whether you believe a living person, or the Greenbrier ghost.