Zona Heaster Shue was born in the mountains of West Virginia. Raised around Richlands, Zona never left Greenbrier County in her short lifetime. Greenbrier county is spread out over a thousand square miles, mostly mountainous, with steep, valleys, dense and dark woods and winding streams.
In 1895, life had turned bad for Zona Heaster Shue. She had given birth to a child out of wedlock, and no marriage was forthcoming...but 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 visited 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 believed 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. Trout Shue accompanied the small party of neighbors, led by Prosecutor Preston and Doctor Knapp, as well as some local law enforcement. 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.
The trial of Trout Shue for the murder of Zona Heaster Shue began on June 30, 1897 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:
The following very remarkable testimony was given by Mrs. Heaster on the pending trial of E. S. Shue for the murder of his wife, her daughter, and led to the inquest and post mortem examination, which resulted in Shue’s arrest and trial. It was brought out by counsel for the accused:
Question. – I have heard that you had some dream or vision which led to this post mortem examination?
Answer. – They saw enough theirselves 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. But she said she had plenty, and said that she had butter and apple-butter, apples and named over two or three kinds of jellies, pears and cherries and raspberry jelly, and she says I had plenty; and she says don’t you think that he was mad and just took down all my nice things and packed them away and just ruined them. And she told me where I could look down back of Aunt Martha Jones’, in the meadow, in a rocky place; that I could look in a cellar behind some loose plank and see. It was a square log house, and it was hewed up to the square, and she said for me to look right at the right-hand side of the door as you go in and at the right-hand corner as you go in. Well, I saw the place just exactly as she told me, and I saw blood right there where she told me; and she told me something about that meat every night she came, just as she did the first night. She cames [sic] four times, and four nights; but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.
Q. – Now, Mrs. Heaster, this sad affair was very particularly impressed upon your mind, and there was not a moment during your waking hours that you did not dwell upon it?
A. – No, sir; and there is not yet, either.
Q. – And was this not a dream founded upon your distressed condition of mind?
A. – No, sir. It was no dream, for I was as wide awake as I ever was.
Q. – Then if not a dream or dreams, what do you call it?
A. – I prayed to the Lord that she might come back and tell me what had happened; and I prayed that she might come herself and tell on him.
Q. – Do you think that you actually saw her in flesh and blood?
A. – Yes, sir, I do. I told them the very dress that she was killed in, and when she went to leave me she turned her head completely around and looked at me like she wanted me to know all about it. And the very next time she came back to me she told me all about it. The first time she came, she seemed that she did not want to tell me as much about it as she did afterwards. The last night she was there she told me that she did everything she could do, and I am satisfied that she did do all that, too.
Q. – Now, Mrs. Heaster, don’t you know that these visions, as you term them or describe them, were nothing more or less than four dreams founded upon your distress?
A. – No, I don’t know it. The Lord sent her to me to tell it. I was the only friend that she knew she could tell and put any confidence it; I was the nearest one to her. He gave me a ring that he pretended she wanted me to have; but I don’t know what dead woman he might have taken it off of. I wanted her own ring and he would not let me have it.
Q. – Mrs. Heaster, are you positively sure that these are not four dreams?
A. – Yes, sir. It was not a dream. I don’t dream when I am wide awake, to be sure; and I know I saw her right there with me.
Q. – Are you not considerably superstitious?
A. – No, sir, I’m not. I was never that way before, and am not now.
Q. – Do you believe the scriptures?
A. – Yes, sir. I have no reason not to believe it.
Q. – And do you believe the scriptures contain the words of God and his Son?
A. – Yes, sir, I do. Don’t you believe it?
Q. – Now, I would like if I could, to get you to say that these were four dreams and not four visions or appearances of your daughter in flesh and blood?
A. – I am not going to say that; for I am not going to lie.
Q. – Then you insist that she actually appeared in flesh and blood to you upon four different occasions?
A. – Yes, sir.
Q. – Did she not have any other conversation with you other than upon the matter of her death?
A. – Yes, sir, some other little things. Some things I have forgotten – just a few words. I just wanted the particulars about her death, and I got them.
Q. – When she came did you touch her?
A. – Yes, sir. I got up on my elbows and reached out a little further, as I wanted to see if people came in their coffins, and I sat up and leaned on my elbow and there was light in the house. It was not a lamp light. I wanted to see if there was a coffin, but there was not. She was just like she was when she left this world. It was just after I went to bed, and I wanted her to come and talk to me, and she did. This was before the inquest and I told my neighbors. They said she was exactly as I told them she was.
Q. – Had you ever seen the premises where your daughter lived?
A. – No, sir, I had not; but I found them just exactly as she told me it was, and I never laid eyes on that house until since her death. She told me this before I knew anything of the buildings at all.
Q. – How long was it after this when you had these interviews with your daughter until you did see buildings?
A. – It was a month or more after the examination. It has been a little over a month since I saw her.
Q. – You said your daughter told you that down by the fence in a rocky place you would find some things?
A. – She said for me to look there. She didn’t say I would find some things, but for me to look there.
Q. – Did she tell you what to look for?
A. – No, she did not. I was so glad so [sic] see her I forgot to ask her.
Q. – Have you ever examined that place since?
A. – Yes, sir. We looked at the fence a little but didn’t find anything.
On the same day, the Greenbrier Independent printed the following article:
The State vs. E. S. Shue
The evidence in this case was concluded yesterday morning and the argument begun in the afternoon, after the instructions had been given to the jury by the Court.
We mention the following, among other circumstances relied upon by the State to show that Shue killed his wife by dislocating her neck by some means the evidence does not disclose; that he was the only person seen about or known to have been at the house that morning prior to the time when his wife was found dead; that he requested Dr. Knapp, after he had resorted to the usual means of resuscitation, to make no further examination of the body; that he assisted in dressing the body and in doing so put around the neck a high collar and a large veil several times folded and tied in a large bow under the chin; that the head was observed by a number of the witnesses to be very loose upon the neck and would drop from side to side when not supported; that Shue sent the negro boy to the house to gather the eggs, instructing him to go into the house, find his wife and see if she wanted anything; that in his conversation and conduct, after his wife’s death, he seemed in good spirits, and showed no proper appreciation of the loss he had sustained; that when summoned to the inquest and post mortem out at Sewell he said to various witnesses that he knew he would come back under arrest; that in speaking to a number of witnesses on the subject he always said he knew that they could not prove that he did the killing, &c. So the connection of the accused with the crime depends entirely upon the strength of the circumstantial evidence introduced by the State.
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, &c., made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.
There is no middle ground for the jury to take. The verdict inevitably and logically, must be for murder in the first degree or for an acquittal.
On July 8, 1987, the Greenbrier Independent published the verdict:
After an elaborate argument of the evidence by Messrs. Gilmer and Preston for the State and Jas. P. D. Gardner, colored, and Dr. Rucker for the accused, the case of the State vs. E. S. (“Trout”) Shue was given to the jury last Thursday afternoon, and the jury, after being out one hour and ten minutes, returned into Court with a verdict of murder in the first degree, as charged in the indictment, but recommending that the accused be punished by imprisonment, which means, under the law, that he be confined in the penitentiary for the term of his natural life. Dr. Rucker entered a motion for a new trial, but this was withdrawn the next morning, and Shue will be duly sentenced before the Court adjourns. Though the evidence was entirely circumstantial, the verdict meets general approval, as all who heard the evidence are satisfied of the prisoner’s guilt. After the murder Shue had every opportunity to make his escape, as four weeks elapsed before he was arrested and put in jail. The fact that he did not do so was explained by Mr. Gilmer, in his argument, by showing that Shue was all the time laboring under the impression that he could not be convicted on circumstantial evidence, and felt secure in knowing that there was no witness but himself, to the crime. This Mr. Gilmer argued, showed not a lack of sense, but information, and accounts for Shue’s presence at the inquest and his oft repeated remark that they could not show he did it.
Taking the verdict of the jury as ascertaining the truth, then we must conclude that Shue deliberately broke his wife’s neck – probably with his strong hands – and with no other motive than to be rid of her that he might get another more to his liking. And, if so, his crime is one of the most horrible, cruel and revolting ever known in the history of this county.
Mr. Preston deserves the thanks of the people for his diligence in hunting up the evidence and for his admirable management of the case before the jury.
Trout Shue was given a life sentence at Moundsville Penitentiary, where he died three years later.
Haunted Homeland: A Definitive Collection of North American Ghost Stories (Haunted America)
Ghosts of Greenbrier County
Big Book of West Virginia Ghost Stories, The (Big Book of Ghost Stories)
Man Who Wanted Seven Wives: The Greenbrier Ghost and the Famous Murder Mystery of 1897