It was July 1897, when Edward Stribbling “Trout” Shue was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling and to have broken his wife’s neck. His trial, which was held in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, was based entirely on circumstantial evidence that demonstrated man’s guilt, beyond any reasonable doubt, in an unusual way: evidence was presented to the jurors come from beyond the grave!
The facts that led to the conviction of Shue included some “post-mortem” statements of his deceased wife, Zona Heaster Shue, who appeared to her mother four weeks after her death, to tell her what had actually happened on the day of her murder, and obtain justice.
Elva Zona Heaster was only 23 years old when she met, in October 1896, a stranger recently arrived in the area, Edward Trout Shue, 37, who had found work as a blacksmith right there, in the county of Greenbrier. Trout Shue was said to be a big, powerful man. He was full of charm, black-haired, blue-eyed, and, in addition, very beautiful. He had come from Droop Mountain to work for James Crookshank at his blacksmith shop in October of 1896. Then he met a pretty young woman, Zona, and a love story ensued.
Zona’s mother did not look kindly on the man, of whom nothing was known, but had to resign herself to the hasty marriage, celebrated just six weeks after the first meeting.
It was 10 am on January 23, 1897 when Zona’s body was found by a delivery guy, Andy Jones, sent home by Shue to run a commission. What the boy found was horrible: a trail of blood led to the broken and lifeless body of Zona Shue laying near the bottom of the stairway. The girl was lying on the floor, face down, with one arm bent under her chest and the other stretched forward; her head was tilted to one side. Andy ran to the blacksmith’s shop to warn Trout, while her mother tried to track down the doctor, Dr. George Knapp, who arrived about an hour after the discovery of the corpse.
Meanwhile Shue had already moved his wife’s body, laying it on the nuptial bed, but not only. He had dressed the corpse in a high-necked dress, a circumstance that later appeared suspicious, because traditionally it was the women of the community who took care of funeral rituals such as washing and dressing a dead woman.
When Dr. Knapp began to examine the body of Zona, her husband showed signs of inconsolable pain, hugging her shoulders and the woman’s head, rocking her gently in sobs. The doctor interrupted the examination of the body, out of respect for her husband, and after a short look-see of the body, declared aloud: “It is an everlasting faint. Her heart has failed.”.
During the traditional vigil to the deceased, everyone noticed a rather strange behavior of Trout: immediately after the body had been put in the coffin, the man put a scarf on the neck of Zona, and then placed a pillow and a blanket beside the head of the woman. He never left his wife’s face during her funeral, so that nobody could get close. Zona was buried in the Greenbrier County Methodist cemetery the day after her death, on January 24, 1897.
Initially, no one suspected about Trout, except Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster (in photo below), who prayed every night for the Lord to reveal the truth to her.
According to the woman’s story, after four weeks, in the darkness of the night, while Mary Jane was completely awake, the ghost of Zona appeared. The woman always said that it was not a dream, but rather the materialization of her daughter’s spirit: first it manifested itself as an intense light, which turned into a human figure. The ethereal presence visited Mary Jane Heaster for four consecutive nights, reporting the events that had led to her death.
Zona revealed to her mother a story of physical abuse by her husband, culminating on the evening of her murder, when the man had gone on a rampage because his wife had not “cooked the meat”: Shue had strangled her, after having broken her neck at the first joint.
Mary Jane went to talk to prosecutor John Alfred Preston, who satisfied the woman, asking for information from Dr. Knapp. The doctor’s inattentive examination and the rumors of Shue’s strange behavior during the funeral convinced the prosecutor to order an exhumation of the body. The autopsy, carried out on February 22, 1897, showed that Zona’s neck was broken between the first and second vertebra, while the trachea was crushed: the woman had been strangled.
Trout Shue didn’t admit his guilt, but he didn’t have a valid alibi and was accused of murdering his wife.
Preston did not want to testify to Mary Jane, fearing that the ghost’s story could make the trial unreliable, but Trout’s defense attorney made her render a long account of her night experience with the spirit of Zona.
No one will ever know if the members of the jury were influenced by the story of Mary Jane Heaster, or if it had no weight in their interpretation of the facts, in a trial where the evidence was exclusively circumstantial. Whatever happened, the jurors took 80 minutes to find Trout guilty, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on July 22, 1897, just 7 months after the murder of his wife. He will die in 1900 from an unknown epidemic, and buried in an area of land without a name in the penitentiary where he was serving a life sentence.
Today, those who walk the winding mountain roads of West Virginia, can come across in a plaque that tells of the Zona ghost:
Soule United Methodist Church and Cemetery
279 Farmdale Road
Western, WV 24958 (Exactly here: 37.921599, -80.696590)
And Zona’s ghost? Some say she still walks among the graves at the little Soule United Methodist Church and Cemetery…..
Images from Web.