Greenbriar, West Virginia – In the courtroom, a man sits accused of murder. The victim’s mother takes the stand and proclaims his guilt. Her only evidence can neither sit on a table nor can it take the stand. She’s speaking for the deceased. In fact, her daughter’s ghost told her he did it. The man protests, but to no avail. The ghost is proven right, and he spends the rest of his natural life in jail. What happens afterward is anyone’s guess.
Law in the United States is peppered with weird cases and laws. For example, did you know that in the state of Texas, it is illegal to take more than three sips of beer while standing? Alaska actually has a law that prohibits moose from mating on a public sidewalk (as if anyone could stop them). The same holds true for our courts. Do a Google search and you’ll come up with some truly bizarre cases where animals have testified, criminals have convicted themselves and other bits of idiocy. But there is only one case that reads like a movie script from a ghost story. Only one in which the victim’s ghost testified and managed to convict a killer.
In 1873 a girl was born to Mary Jane Heaster of Greenbriar County, West Virginia. The child, named Elva Zona, grew to be a young woman, but before 1895 she led an unremarkable life. In fact, there are no records of her life at all other than the fact that she was born. However, when she was twenty-two years old, she (who preferred to be called by her middle name) got pregnant and had a child of her own out of wedlock. Because of the times, she struggled with the child and with being deemed “less than respectable” by the community at large. A year after the child was born, Zona met a blacksmith named Erasmus Shue. The two fell in love and married. But the marriage didn’t sit well with Zona’s mother, who never liked him and considered him a drifter.
Only three months later, Erasmus, while in town, sent a young boy to his house to ask Zona if she needed anything from the market. When the child entered, he found her lying at the foot of the stairs, dead. The boy ran to tell his mother and Erasmus, who raced back to the house and was found by the coroner cradling his wife’s body and sobbing. The coroner noticed that Erasmus had moved her body to an upstairs bedroom and changed her into her best dress, one that had a high collar. So flustered was he by Erasmus’ carryings on that he ended the cursory examination by saying she died of an “everlasting faint” brought on by complications from childbirth. It should be noted that Zona wasn’t even pregnant at the time.
At her wake Zona’s husband acted strangely, nervous, and wouldn’t let anyone near the body. He propped her head up with a pillow and a towel, the latter of which her mother managed to get out of the coffin before it was buried. She took it home, a keepsake from her beloved daughter, but she noticed it had a strange smell to it. She tried to wash it, but when she put it in a basin of water, the water turned blood red. She took it as a sign that Zona was murdered, and prayed for some kind of additional sign. That sign came when Zona paid her mother visits for four nights.
Erasmus, claimed the spirit, was abusive and killed her over a meal which had no meat. He’d broken her neck, she claimed, and turned her head backward to prove her point. Mary took her story to the prosecutor, who ordered an exhumation. Erasmus protested but was quoted as saying, “They will not be able to prove I did it.” The autopsy revealed Zona died of a broken neck and a crushed windpipe.
Erasmus stood trial, during which a few details about his sketchy past came to light. Details about his having been in jail before and about how his second wife had also died of mysterious circumstances (a blow to the back of the head). While in prison, he boasted that he wanted to eventually tally up seven wives. During the trial Mary took the stand and recounted Zona’s ghost’s testimony, and that was enough to convict Erasmus by jury. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died, March 13, 1900, in the famous Moundsville.
Zona’s ghost has not appeared since 1897, but that doesn’t mean people don’t still talk about her. There are a few unfounded claims that her ghost haunts her grave site, but most of those are treated as overactive imaginations or rumor-mongering.
Elva Zona Heaster Shue’s grave marker is clearly visible today in the Soule Chapel Church cemetery in Greenbriar, West Virginia. Erasmus, who died during an outbreak of one of the many diseases that ran rampant at Moundsville, was buried in an unmarked mass grave somewhere on the grounds, unmourned and, some say, deserving far worse. Out by the highway the state placed a marker which 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.”
Because she doesn’t appear anymore, and because her grave is easily found, there really isn’t a “best time” to visit Zona’s final resting place. However, if ever you’re in Greenbriar County, it might be nice to pay respects to the one ghost who stood up for herself and was recognized. Then be sure to drive by Moundsville and tell Erasmus what a piece of garbage he was.
See you in two weeks!
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