Since time immemorial there have been stories of the spirits of murder victims coming back to point a finger at their killer and seek justice for themselves. Such is the sad story of Zona Heaster Shue who lived in rural West Virginia at the turn of the 20th century.
ZONA AND THE STRANGER
Born Elva Zona Heaster in 1873 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, Zona’s life is something of a mystery before she met her eventual husband Erasmus Stribbling “Trout” Shue in 1896. Shockingly only a year prior to their meeting, the records of Greenbrier County indicate that when she was twenty-two years old on November 29, 1895, she bore an illegitimate male child, who’s supposed father was an unskilled laborer named George Woldridge. According to census records the absence of any child born in or near 1895 to the Heaster family indicates that Zona’s illegitimate child was raised by someone else, or that he died in infancy, but if so, his death is not recorded. That he is called Heaster in the birth book would seem to indicate that he would be accepted and raised by the Heaster family, but apparently that was not the case.
Zona was twenty-three when Trout Shue, a good-looking drifter came to town and found employment as a blacksmith which had been his father’s profession. However in those times just moving to another county could give a person a clean slate, and unbeknownst to Zona her beau was a man with a dark past that did not come to light until after her untimely death. Zona never knew that she was his either third or fourth wife, and in her ignorance of his past life, she found herself falling in love with the new blacksmith and accepted his proposal of marriage. Her mother Mary Jane Heaster, adamantly objected to the marriage from the beginning, citing an odd feeling and instant dislike of Shue. They married in October 1896.
DEATH OF THE BRIDE
On January 23rd, 1897, a mere three months after the marriage, a local boy had been sent to the house by Shue on an errand. The boy discovered Zona lying on her back at the foot of the stairs, almost as if posed with her feet stretched out together and one hand on her stomach. He ran to get help and his mother summoned the town physician, Dr. Knapp, who was also the coroner.
Dr. Knapp arrived an hour later, and during that time, Shue had returned to the house, washed and dressed his wife’s body, and moved it upstairs to the bedroom. He had dressed Zona’s corpse in a stiff, high-necked collared dress, and draped a veil over her face. Dr. Knapp noted it was odd Shue had taken that duty upon himself as this task was usually delegated to the women of the town. During the examination Shue stayed with the body, sobbing and cradling his wife’s head. When Dr. Knapp attempted to examine Zona’s neck, Shue became angry and reacted violently, at which time Dr. Knapp ended the examination. He initially listed Zona’s cause of death as “everlasting faint”, but it was changed to “childbirth” as he had been treating her for “female troubles” prior to her death. That she was indeed pregnant was never confirmed.
When told of her daughter’s death, Mrs. Heaster’s remark was, “the devil has killed her”.
The burial was scheduled for the next day, and Shue maintained the same vigil and signs of devotion he had exhibited during the wake at the Heaster household, in which he did not allow anyone near the body. He placed a pillow next to Zona’s head, and then another time tied a scarf around her neck, claiming it was her favorite. Throughout this time he would change from sadness to frenetic energy arousing the suspicions of the family and townspeople who attended the services.
THE RESTLESS SPIRIT OF ZONA
Zona’s mother needed no convincing that Shue was responsible for her daughter’s death, and she claimed that she prayed for four weeks asking for Zona to come and explain to her exactly what happened. She said that Zona did eventually appear to her in a dream for four consecutive nights, accusing Shue of abusing her and killing her in a fit of rage, thinking that she had not prepared a meal for him. He broke her neck and threw her down the stairs, and to prove this, the ghost turned her head around until it was facing backwards.
Mrs. Heaster visited John Preston, the local prosecutor and told him her story of Zona’s ghostly visitation, and whether he believed her or not, he did reopen the case after several witnesses were interviewed, including Dr. Knapp, who confirmed that he had not been able to make a complete examination of the body. Based on this, Mr. Preston ordered an exhumation and autopsy to be performed, with the findings to be brought before an inquest jury. By now public sentiment was that Zona had been killed by her husband.
The three hour autopsy was performed on February 22nd, 1897 in the one-room schoolhouse of the town. Shue was required by law to be present, and he complained bitterly about the examination.
Within two weeks he was arrested for her murder. The autopsy report based on the findings of the three doctors who had examined the body, detailed that "the discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe smashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked. 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."
THE TRIAL OF TROUT SHUE
Shue was jailed in Lewisburg while awaiting trial. It was then that the truth of his past came to light. He had been married either two or three times before according to different sources. His first wife Allis Estaline Cutlip divorced him while he was doing a two year stretch in prison for horse stealing. She based her request for divorce on accusations of cruelty; they had one child Girta Shue. His second wife Lucy Ann Tritt died within eight months of her marriage to Shue, supposedly after falling and striking her head on a rock. This was suspicious but he was never charged with the crime. He was only thirty years old when poor Zona became his third or fourth wife. Shue bragged to his cellmates and the newspaper reporters that there was there not enough evidence to convict him, and that he wanted to eventually marry seven women. During the trial he made the mistake of taking the stand, and spending an entire afternoon, bragging and trying to convince the jury he had not killed his wife. It was noted by the newspapers he had made an unfavorable impression.
Mary Jane Heaster was the star witness for the prosecution once the trial began on June 22nd, 1897, and Mr. Preston did not want to elaborate on Zona’s ghostly visits, however the defense attorney questioned her extensively, an approach that did not work in his favor as he had anticipated. She was steadfast in her account of her daughter’s message from the beyond, and it was difficult for the jury to disregard her story, especially after so many believed themselves that Zona had found death at the hands of her husband.
On July 11th, the jury only deliberated for one hour before delivering a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree and sentencing Shue to life in prison. A lynch mob tried to take matters into their own hands but the deputy intervened, and spared Shue from being hung, however he did not live long, as he died three years later at West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville during a prison-wide epidemic. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Tom’s Run Cemetery
Mary Jane Heaster never recanted on her story of her daughter’s ghostly visitation, which she claimed never repeated itself. Mrs. Heaster died in 1916.
A state historical marker has been erected near Zona’s grave, with the following inscription: “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
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer