By: Brett Swancer ……
Some ghostly phenomena seem to go beyond just fleeting glimpses of apparitions and strange goings-on. There are cases out there that seem to truly transcend the weird, and high among these are those tales in which ghosts have apparently solved their own murders, reaching out through the unknown to make their mark felt upon the world of the living. Our story here takes place in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where in 1896 a woman by the name of Zona Heaster found herself swept off her feet by an older man, the blacksmith Edward Shue. The two began a whirlwind romance, much to the consternation of her overprotective mother, Mary Jane Heaster, who was not only against their age difference, but had issues with the fact that Shue had been married twice before. Despite this, the two were married against her mother’s wishes and settled down. Things seem to have gone well for the two at first, but then 3 months later things would spiral out of control into a dark tale of murder, conspiracies, and ghosts.
On January 23, 1897, a young boy was sent to Zona and Edward’s home on an errand, but no one seemed to be home. The boy let himself in, tentatively calling out to see if anyone was at home, and that was when he came across Zona’s dead body crumpled on the floor at the foot of the stairs, her eyes wide open and staring lifelessly up at the ceiling as if in terror. The frightened boy went home to tell his mother about his gruesome discovery, but a doctor, by the name of George W. Knapp, was not able to arrive at the rural location for a full hour. By the time Knapp arrived, Shue had moved the body upstairs to lay her on her bed, change her clothes into a high-necked dress, and place a veil over her face. Shue was described as deep in grief, cradling his dead wife’s head and sobbing uncontrollably as Knapp did a cursory examination of the body. Oddly, when Knapp tried to do a more thorough examination, Shue vehemently forbade it, practically pushing the doctor away, but not before he noticed some odd bruising about Zona’s neck.
Knapp would make a preliminary judgement that Zona had died from what was called “everlasting faint,” which could be a lot of things, and then he then changed it to “childbirth,” which doesn’t make much sense considering that it is unknown if she was pregnant and she had only been married to Shue for three months. Nevertheless, this became the official verdict, despite the fact that Zona’s mother was not convinced, and allegedly claimed that “the devil has killed her.” Zona was given a proper burial, and throughout all of this Shue was described as being deeply in shock and grief. At the time there was absolutely no reason to suspect that he had had any hand in his wife’s death, and there was not so much as a whispered rumor that he had had anything to do with it. However, his behavior at the funeral would be seen as odd, as he jealously guarded the corpse and let no one approach too closely, and it would in retrospect be seen as strange that her neck had been wrapped in a scarf, which he explained as being her favorite.
In spite of this, at the time the only one who regarded him as suspicious was Zona’s mother, who was convinced that something shady was going on. She had learned that one of Shue’s previous wives had died under mysterious circumstances, although he had never been charged, and she would also claim that she heard voices in her head telling her that he had killed her. She would secretly remove the sheet from the body and bring it home to find that the water in the basin turned red when she tried to wash it and the sheet turned pink. She took this bizarre turn of events as a sign from God that Shue had killed her daughter, but there was little she could do about it at the time. She took to praying every day for some sign that could help her confirm her suspicions, and that was when the story would become strange indeed.
One evening, Mary Jane had an extremely potent dream in which her daughter Zona appeared to her. In this dream, Zona told her that Shue had been a violent tyrant of a husband, frequently beating her and abusing her, and not only that, she claimed that Shue had murdered her in a fit of rage. Over the next four nights, Zona would explain that Shue had become enraged over a meal one evening in which she had not made him any meat. One thing had led to another and he had grabbed her by the throat and snapped her neck, which the phantom underscored by turning her head completely around. These dreams were so vivid and real that Heaster was convinced that her daughter was actually coming back from the dead to talk to her, and despite how crazy it sounded, she told of this to the county prosecuting attorney, John Alfred Preston. The attorney didn’t really buy into the story of ghosts, but still asked Knapp if he had noticed anything weird about the corpse. When Knapp confirmed that he had actually not been allowed to do a detailed examination because of Shue, red flags went up and the attorney went about getting the body exhumed for a more thorough examination. The body was exhumed and examined by two other doctors, who took no time at all to find that there were bruises in the shape of fingers on the throat, the windpipe had been crushed, and the neck broken. Zona Heaster had indeed been murdered.
Shue was immediately arrested on charges of murdering his wife and a trial ensued. By this time the stories of Heaster seeing the ghost of her daughter accusing him had heavily made the rounds around town, so the trial was a bit of a media circus. After all, here was a murderer who had been fingered by the ghost of his own victim, and whether one believed in ghosts or not, it was compelling stuff. When the trial got underway, Heaster’s attorney, Preston, wisely downplayed the paranormal element to the tale, although Shue’s defense leaned into it heavily, attempting to make Heaster out to be a loon and an unreliable witness. Amazingly, this backfired, and people began to really believe her bizarre story, despite the judge’s constant pleas to disregard any testimony regarding the ghost. Through this all, Shue smugly assumed that there was not enough evidence against him, that it was all circumstantial, so it must have been quite the surprise for him when the jury quickly and unanimously found him guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
As Shue languished in jail, things got a bit exciting when a lynch mob formed and tried to forcibly break him out to face vigilante justice. This failed, and he spent the next 3 years rotting away until the flu got him on March 13, 1900, with no one claiming his body and him being buried alone. Heaster would stand by her story all the way to her own death in in September of 1916. The whole weird affair of what has come to be known as “The Greenbriar Ghost” has gone on to be legendary in the region, and is proudly advertised on a historical marker in the area as the “Only known case in which testimony from ghost helped convict a murderer.” It has become the focus of several ghost tours and is talked about to this day.
What really happened here? We know that all of this did happen, but the unknown is whether anything paranormal was involved. It is quite possible that Heaster was merely acting on her personal hunch that her daughter had been murdered and just happened to be right, making up or hallucinating the story of the ghost in the process. There is nothing about any of this that requires a supernatural element for it to work out the way it did. However, Heaster adamantly stuck to her story to her dying day, despite the fact that she had gotten what she wanted. The case has gone on to become a rather strange feature of the world of the paranormal, and it is hard to know what to think about it all. Was this a ghost solving her own murder or something else altogether? We will very likely perhaps never know for sure.