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The Greenbrier Ghost Case

The Greenbrier Ghost Case may be the only case in American History which the word of a ghost helped to solve a crime and convict a murderer. In 1897 a young woman named Elva Zona Hester Shue was found dead in her home near Greenbrier, West Virginia. Her neck was broken, and it was assumed that she fell down the stairs. However, she had been strangled by her husband, Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue. According to local legend, after Zona was buried, her ghost came to her mother in dreams to expose the murdering husband. She said that Shue was a cruel man who abused her, and who had attacked her in a fit of rage when he believed that she had cooked no meat for dinner. He broke her neck; to prove this, the ghost turned her head around until it was facing backwards. Supposedly, the ghost appeared first as a bright light, gradually taking form and filling the room with a chill. She is said to have visited Mrs. Heaster over the course of four nights. She would awaken her mother from her sleep and explain over and over again how her husband had murdered her.

A short time later, Mary Jane went to the local prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, so that she could convince him to re-open the investigation into Zona’s death. She offered the visitations from her daughter’s spirit as evidence that a miscarriage of justice was taking place. By all accounts, Preston was both polite and sympathetic to Mrs. Heaster. The two of them spoke together for "several hours" and at the end of the meeting, Preston agreed to dispatch deputies to speak with the local doctor and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp and a few others involved in the case. While it seems unlikely that he was willing to take another look at the case because of the statement of a ghost, the investigation did get re-opened. Local newspapers reported that Mrs. Heaster was not the only one in the community who was suspicious about Zona’s death. There were also "certain citizens" who had started to ask questions, as well as the growing "rumors in the community".
Preston himself went out to Richlands to see Dr. Knapp, who admitted that his examination of the dead woman had been incomplete. The two of them agreed that an autopsy would clear things up and would confirm or deny the lingering suspicions. It would also give them a better idea of how Zona Shue died and lift suspicions from Trout, if indeed he was innocent.

The autopsy lasted for three hours with the doctors working under the uncertain light of kerosene lanterns. The body of the dead woman was "in a near state of perfect preservation" though, thanks to the cold temperatures of February, making their work that much easier. A jury of five men had been assembled to watch the proceedings and they huddled together in the barely warm building with officers of the court, Trout Shue, Andy Jones (the boy who had found the body) and other witnesses and spectators.

The autopsy was carried out by the standard methods, which meant that an examination of the vital organs came first. After that, the doctors cut an incision along the back of the skull so that the brain could be removed. This step was not taken in the case of Zona Shue however, as the doctors quickly found what they were looking for. "We have found your wife’s neck to have been broken," one of the physicians spoke to Trout Shue. His head dropped and an expression of despair crossed over his face.

"They cannot prove that I did it," he whispered.

It may seem odd that the broken neck was not found immediately and or that it was not more evident on the skin’s surface, but doctors will tell you that this is one of the most difficult injuries to detect. It makes it harder to tell in a corpse because the human head is naturally heavy in comparison to the body. When the muscles of the dead person are relaxed, the head tends to flop about. In addition, the first vertebra is located deep inside of the neck, directly under the skull. This makes it hard to find and it would have been that much harder for rural physicians in the late 1800’s.

The autopsy findings were quite damning to Shue. A report on March 9 said that "the discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe mashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken, the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck."

The findings were made public at once, upsetting many in the community. Shue was arrested and charged with murder. He was locked up in small stone jail on Washington Street in Lewisburg.

Zona’s mother succeeded in bringing the man to trial. The ghost’s testimony was actually admitted as evidence. Trout Shue was convicted and sent to prison for life. He died in jail in 1900. The Greenbrier Ghost is one of the rare cases where a ghost went to court. Zona’s ghost never came back once justice was done.

Mysteries, Legends, And Unexplained Phenomena " Ghosts and Haunted Places" by Rosemary Ellen Guiley;

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