How do we explain unnatural occurrences that actually makes sense? This is a debate the people of Greenbrier dealt with in Victorian times. There is something of a dissonance in the universe as well as in our minds when something like the appearance as a ghost, finds the truth no living people knew.
This is the case of the Greenbrier ghost, the ghost that went to court. She is now resting in a cemetery near Lewisburg in West Virginia, USA. And she is known as the only ghost that have testified in her own murder trial in the American judicial system.
In the small and dull village of Livesay’s Mill in Greenbrier County, nothing happened. Surrounded by lush green scenery of West Virginian landscape, the lives of the people living there, moved slowly along.
Then a stranger arrived. He was a young man, strong and muscular. The new and handsome worker at the blacksmith’s shop usually introduced himself as Edwards, but was called Trout by the rest. He was a mysterious figure, but a pretty face can hide dark secrets very well.
It was there he met a farmer’s daughter called Elva Zona Heaster, commonly known as just Zona. She was a popular girl in the Greenbriar County. Not much of her life before marriage is known, but there have been reported she had a child out of wedlock. Normally a pretty stoic guy, Trout caught the eye of Zona and started courting her. They fell in love and married the same year as he arrived in 1896. This was despite her mother’s disapproval. She really hated Trout from the get go. But from the outside, it was seemingly a happy marriage.
The Death of Zona
The marriage didn’t last long though. Three months after the wedding, it all was about to change. On that late January day in 1897, Trout was at the house of a Martha Jones. Zona was supposedly feeling sick so Trout asked if Martha’s son, Anderson Jones could go and look to Zona if she needed anything. Just a boy of 11 years, he followed his orders. Once there, a horrific sight awaited him. The lifeless body of Zona was found at the foot of the stairs. Dead. She was only twenty three years old.
The local doctor and coroner was called for and when he arrived at their home, Zona was already prepared for the funeral, by Trout. He had carried her upstairs and she was laid out on the bed. This was odd as Victorian custom was that the female family and friends did the washing and dressing of the dead. She was dressed in a long gown with a high collar and he had wrapped a scarf around it that he said was her favorite.
Dr. Knapp as the doctor was called did a post mortem exam just to have it done. He concluded the cause of death was because of ‘everlasting faint’, more known today as a heart attack. Later he did change the cause of death. Then it was said she died of childbirth, even if Zona hadn’t said to anyone that she was pregnant, although the doctor had treated her of ‘female troubles’ before her death.
At the wake, Trout was unconscionable. Mourners gathered at their home to pay their respect. But Trout didn’t want anyone near Zona’s head. He added a veil to her and propped her up on pillows, saying he wanted her to be comfortable. He was weeping and pacing in front of her open casket until she was buried at the cemetery. She was brought to a hilltop near her childhood home. No one thought it was strange of his intense display of grief, although it was a bit uncharacteristic for the stoic man. So no one thought it strange, except Zona’s mother, she had thoughts on her own.
The Ghost of Zona
Mary Jane Heaster, the mother of the deceased did not like her new son in law. Zona was her only daughter, and first, she had been taken away from the place she was from to move in with him all the way across the county. And now she was gone for good. She knew he had something to do with her death and didn’t believe of the everlasting faint or that Zona had been with child. She was certain her daughter was murdered. When she was told of the death of her daughter, she reportedly said:
“The devil has killed her!”
In desperation Mary Jane prayed for nights on end non stop, as the bible told her to. She prayed that her daughter should come back to her, somehow. Either to tell things as they were, or even just to come and say goodbye.
Restless and in prayer, she stayed this way for several nights. And just as Mary Jane was going to bed, a strange light flowed into her bedroom. The light took shape into a human and just for a few moments, Zona was back as a ghost. And not only did she appear, she also spoke.
For four nights the ghost appeared again and again to explain to her mother how it all went down. The night before Anderson found her, she was preparing dinner. When Trout came home he was livid. She had made apple butter, a spread and bread. But no meant. In a rage because of this he attacked her and dislocated her neck.
Zona told this wasn’t the first time he had attacked and abused her. She told about a sad pattern of Trout’s terrible temper and how she was unable to reason with him. On the second night, she told her mother again how Trout had squeezed her neck and how he snapped it at the first joint. The last night the ghost of Zona twisted her head 180 degrees to show her mother. She died, not of natural causes, she had been murdered.
Digging up the body
The towns gossip traveled. Mary Jane told the neighbors about the vision and that she was on a mission to set things straight. This was the time that the gossip about the handsome blacksmith came to light as well. That he lied about his name, calling himself Edward and his shady past as a thief, and his troubling past with other women.
After Zona had related the tale, Mary Jane hurried to Prosecuting Attorney John Preson in Lewisburg. She told him of her paranormal visions, but he didn’t believe them. But what did interest him though, was the poor post mortem exam by Dr. Knapp. And on that ground they exhumed her body for a second examination.
This time, Dr Knapp teamed up with Dr Rupert and McClung for a second post mortem that lasted three hours. Dr Knapp claimed it was because of the widowers distress that made him just do a shallow examination of Zona. Also present at this post mortem was Trout. He was calm a they checked her stomach for poison and her vital organs. Then they started examining the head and neck. They whispered among themselves.
“Well, Shue, we have found your wife’s neck to have been broken.”
On it, they found finger-shaped bruises and her windpipe was crushed. And, just as the spirit of Zona herself told, the first and second vertebrae was fractured. Trout was arrested.
He accepted no responsibility of his wife’s murder, and pleaded ‘not guilty’. He was nonetheless charged of the circumstantial evidence. Prison didn’t sit well with Trout and the Pocahontas Times reported that:
“Trout Shue É now in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, has threatened to kill himself.”
During the trial, Trout said the chargers was nonsense, nothing more than the tales of a spiteful mother in law. During the trial, they found out that Zona wasn’t his first wife. She was his third, and the first one left him because of his beatings. Her name was Allie Estelline Cutlip. Trout beat his wife so bad that a group dragged him out of bed one winter night and threw him in the icy water of Greenbirer River as revenge. She gave birth to a child, Girta Lucretia in 1887. She got out though on grounds of divorce four years later. But the second one was not as lucky.
In 1894, Trout married once again. Lucy Ann Tritt died eight months later. But at this death, there was no investigation, and the Pocahontas Times only stated she died ‘suddenly’. But after the death of Zona, the rumors about what really happened to Lucy Ann started circulating again.
When Mary Jane took the stand, she stood her ground, firmly believing it was the presence of Zona that solved the case. She also knew stuff no one else did, like what she had been wearing and about all of her injuries. This is not the only time however the supernatural visitation has gotten a headliner in the court room, like with the case of the Red Barn Murder in England.
A murder mystery that was allegedly solved by the appearance of the ghost of the victim.
But it was on the circumstantial evidence he was convicted and he was found guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the West Virginia State Penitentiary were he dies a few years later at the age of 39 in 1900. He know rests in an unmarked grave.
It wasn’t that the testimony was the thing that got Trout convicted. If anything, it was brought by the defense to discredit Mary Jane. Was she really seeing her dead daughter? Did she lie? She lived until 1916, and never recanted her original story.
Now the state remember her as a marker along the highway. The sign 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.”
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