American history is riddled with famous legends that involve supernatural occurrences. From stories about strange coincidences and disappearances, to legends of odd creatures that are said to haunt the remote edges of our wilderness parks and preserves , interpretations of past events shaded by the unexplained has long remained a popular element in folk traditions.
This is particularly the case with the American Southeast, with legends like that of Tennessee’s “Bell Witch” that tie the likes of U.S. President Andrew Jackson into their narratives; of this famous story of a supernatural tormenter, it is known that prior to his presidency, Jackson did travel to the property of John Bell, convinced that he and a group of his compatriots would be able to drive away whatever the source of the haunting had been. As the story goes, Jackson and his company were unsuccessful in their attempts, and left the following morning a bit more shaken than when they had arrived.
Despite the historical counterparts that help lend a touch of veracity to such legends, stories like that of the Bell Witch don’t really present grounds for “evidence” of the supernatural; rather, they supplement legends such as that of the Bell family’s “witch” with real people and events, allowing them to maintain, at very least, a slightly firmer ground amidst myriad similar retellings of popular hauntings.
However, one such ghost story does come to mind that, along with its significance in the rural heritage and history of the region in which it occurred, is noteworthy for other reasons. Known as the “Greenbriar ghost”, this particular legend tells of a death (later confirmed to be a homicide) that occurred in West Virginia in 1897. What makes it unusual, however, is the alleged way in which the death had been ruled an act of murder: the victim’s mother reported that her daughter’s ghost had appeared before her, and stated that her husband had been her killer.
I first learned of the incident when an associate of mine sent along a photograph one of his family members had shared with him, which depicted a West Virginia State Historical Marker (seen above) that told the following unusual story:
“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.”
This is a rather remarkable story, to say the least. The actual legend has to do with a woman known as Elva Zona Heaster, an unusual name by today’s standards. Zona, as she preferred to be called, had married a man named Edward Shue, who had been described as a drifter and a man of some disrepute who had taken up work as a blacksmith. Already a single mother, Zona met and soon married Shue, despite her mother’s protests in light of her new son in law’s reputation.
Some time later, Zona was found dead under rather unusual circumstances: Shue had tasked a young messenger with visiting his home, where upon entering the body of Zona had been found. Upon hearing of his wife’s death, Shue returned home, and according to an account recorded by West Virginia folklorist Dennis Dietz in his book The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories, Shue took the liberty of dressing the corpse of his wife on his own, fitting her with a dress that featured a high neckpiece that remained on the body at the time her body was examined by a visiting doctor. No foul play had been suggested at this time, and speculation that Zona may have been pregnant led to the cause of death being listed as “childbirth”. However, no evidence for the alleged pregnancy had been forthcoming.
The story of the “haunting” is somewhat ambiguous, and some accounts appear to infer that rather than a physical manifestation of a ghost, it had been a dream that Mary, Zona’s mother, had that presented the “ghost” who claimed she had been murdered. Whatever the case, Mary began to believe based on the visions she experienced over the course of four nights that her daughter had indeed been killed by her husband, and shortly thereafter notified authorities of this, and demanded the exhumation of the body for purpose of an autopsy.
During the requested autopsy, it was revealed that Zona’s neck had been broken, and a March 9, 1897 report noted that a smashed windpipe and visible bruising about the neck suggesting fingermarks seemed to indicate that she had been strangled. “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked,” the report read. “The neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured.” With new evidence that the death had been a murder, Shue’s actions at the time of her discovery were soon called into question, and he was arrested for the murder of his wife.
The case is notable not only for the historical marker suggesting that Zona’s “ghost” helped solve the murder, but also for the records associated with the case that still exist. Of equal interest is the fact that Zona’s tombstone, which can be found via the website FindAGrave.com, bears the following epitaph: “In Memory of Zona Heaster Shue: Greenbriar Ghost.”
This epitaph is indeed unusual, since it is seldom the case — if ever — that the inscription on the gravestone of the deceased actually describes them as having been a “ghost”. In likelihood, the gravestone commemorated Zona’s burial the second time around; that is, after the autopsy that revealed her death to be a murder. Alternatively, the updated gravestone might have been something that came much later, though whichever the circumstance had been, it was obviously changed to reflect Zona’s mother’s account of her ghost appearing before her.
So what can be made of the story? Had Zona’s ghost actually appeared, or was it merely a vivid dream her mother had, based on her misgivings for Edward Shue, as some accounts suggest? Whatever the case, it seems that Mary Heaster’s conviction regarding the death of her daughter helped bring her killer to justice, and her story remains one among the more unique and compelling supernatural folk legends of the American Southeast.