Zona Heaster Shue was born in the mountains of West Virginia. Raised around Richlands, as far as we know, Zona never left Greenbrier county in her too short lifetime. Even now, Greenbrier county is 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. In such an isolated area, your friends and kin were your social safety net, and to run afoul of them means not only ostracizing, but peril when things turn bad.
And in 1895, things had turned bad for Zona Heaster Shue. She had given birth to a child out of wedlock, and no marriage was forthcoming. Strongly attractive and from the looks of her photo, incredibly willful, it would have been easy for Zona to have been cast out from the community for this transgression. But no doubt through the help and reputation of her mother, Mary Jane Heaster, Zona got by, biding her time.
Estratus Stribbling Shue, known as Trout was in his early thirties when he showed up in Greenbrier county. Coming from Droop mountain in the next county over, Trout was a mystery, as Pocahantas county might as well have been another world in those days. Trout was a big man, tall, ruggedly handsome and took work as a blacksmith in the 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, and to everyone around them, it was obvious that they were deeply in love. Trout had baggage himself – two previous marriages, one ending in divorce, the other leaving Trout a widower, which perhaps made him a bit more understanding about an illegitimate child.
There was one obstacle, Zona’s mother Mary Jane who took an instant dislike and distrust of Estratus Stribbling Shue. In her eyes, Trout was the devil himself, and she was dead set against the marriage.
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.
Life was tough in turn-of-the-century West Virginia, and there were almost as many ways to die as there were people, paramount among those being disease, which could strike quickly and spread almost as fast. It wasn’t unheard of for a person to wake up healthy and be dead by dark. Just after the ringing in of the new year, 1897, Zona took sick. For the next few weeks, Zona was looked after by Dr. George W. Knapp, though the cause of her ailment was something of a mystery. There were rumors that Zona was pregnant again, and perhaps the pregnancy was exceptionally difficult, or perhaps it was any of a number of mysterious ailments which afflicted women before their reproductive system was understood as it is today.
Whatever the cause of her illness, Trout played the part of the doting husband. On the morning of January 23, he went to the cabin of Martha Jones, a black woman, known to everyone in those parts as Aunt Martha, to ask if her son, Anderson could head over to the house to do some chores for Mrs. Shue. Anderson was busy that morning, but before leaving, Trout made the youngster promise to get over to the house that afternoon. And to make certain, Trout made no less than four more trips to remind young Anderson.
Just after lunch, Anderson made his way to the Shue house. He knocked, no answer. So he let himself in, knowing that Zona had been sick and maybe didn’t hear him. He went through the house and nervously peered into the bedroom, where he found Zona stretched out on the foot of the bed, feet together and her hand on her stomach. Dead.
Anderson took to flight, first telling his mother who sent him on to Crookshank’s shop to tell Trout Shue the news. Trout sent him on to fetch the doctor, who in those days doubled as coroner, and took off at a run for the house. 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.
Then 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. At times Trout leap up and pace the room, showing great energy in contrast to his overwhelming grief, which the mourners put down to his mourning. 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, 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 Heaster Shue.
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.”
After the funeral, she had removed the sheet which had covered her daughter’s body, 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. Zona’s mother began to pray each night, begging Zona to return to her and tell her the truth of her death.
After four weeks of her prayer vigil, 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 story.
On the night before her body had been discovered, her husband had come home and fell into a rage 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.
Mary Ann Heaster payed a visit to the county prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, pleading with him for hours to open the case once more, telling him of the visitation of her daughter. Whether Preston believe Mary Ann is not known. Perhaps he did, or perhaps after asking around and finding out 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, an act unheard of in rural West Virginia at the time.
On February 22, almost 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 presumably, as the neighbors recruited to dig up the grave refused until threatened with prosecution, such was the stigma of the time of disturbing the dead. Over the next three hours, the evidence of Zona’s cause of death became readily apparent, and Trout soon found himself in the jail of Sheriff Bill Nickell, held without bail for the first degree murder of his wife, Zona Heaster Shue.
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. Preston had discovered in the meantime, the fact that Shue’s first wife had divorced him because of his great cruelty, and his second had died under mysterious circumstances.
For his part, Shue hired Dr William Rucker and the first black attorney to practice in a Greenbrier court, James P.D. Gardner. Awaiting trial, Shue told another inmate that the case would never stand up in court, and that he would be soon freed, and hoped to eventually marry seven times.
June 30, 1897 and the trial of Trout Shue for the murder of Zona Heaster Shue began in Greenbrier Court. 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.
Then came the defense, and 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. Hoping to make a mockery of her, they put Mary Ann on the stand, who unwaveringly told of her daughter’s appearance. Responding to attacks on her character, Mary Jane replied that she was not a superstitious woman, 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. When the case went to the jury, they 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 guilty 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.
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.
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.
The possibility exists of course that Mary Ann read this article and found inspiration there, and simply invented the tale of Zona’s visits. The state of West Virginia however, appears to feel differently. Near the graveyard where Zona lives, just off Interstate 64, beneath the state seal of the West Virginia, reads the following words:
â€œInterred 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 apparitionâ€™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.â€
Travel Rating: I have to confess, I didn’t find Zona’s grave, nor the location of the house in which she lived and died, if it’s even there any longer. Luckily the marker is just off the exit from Interstate 64, which makes it an easy photo opportunity. If you could track down some of the other sites associated with Zona, you might find some chills. But since we’re basically looking at a historical marker here, albeit in rather scenic countryside, I have to go with a two crypt rating on this one.
If you go: On U.S. Route 60 (eastbound) at junction with Interstate 64, exit 156 just outside Sam Black Church.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them