January 23, 1897: Murderer Convicted by Testimony From a Ghost!

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A Brief History

On January 23, 1897, Elva Zona Heaster, about 24 years old, was found dead, later proven to have been murdered by her husband through her own ghost’s testimony!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find a West Virginia couple married less than a year, Zona having been an unwed mother prior to the wedding and Erasmus Shue a divorcé and widower.

Zona Heaster Shue, murder victim

Zona’s body was found by a boy who had been sent on an errand by Shue, and Shue was summoned to the scene.  Prior to the arrival of the local doctor (who doubled as coroner), Shue had moved the body to the bed and had dressed her in a high neck dress with a veil.  The doctor tried to examine the victim, but the violent protestations of Shue kept him from doing much more than glancing at her, certainly not a normal examination.

After her death having been ruled natural (“everlasting faint,” whatever that is!), Zona was buried, though witnesses did notice her head flopping around limply when she was moved.

House where the murder took place

After praying every day for a month, Zona’s mother had a dream or vision from the ghost of Zona who told her mother that Shue had murdered her by strangling her and breaking her neck.  Armed with this information, Zona’s mother demanded the prosecutor open an investigation, which he did.  An autopsy was done, and indeed, it was found that poor Zona had been murdered by strangulation and a broken neck.

Erasmus Shue went on trial for his wife’s murder, but he confidently predicted he would be let go due to lack of substantial evidence.  The prosecutor declined to use the ghostly information as he thought that would actually hinder his case, but incredibly, the defense insisted on bringing it forward when questioning Zona’s mother!

Mary Jane Heaster, Zona’s mother

The court believed the ghost, now known as the “Greenbrier Ghost,” and not Shue, and Shue was convicted of murder and sent to prison where he died of “natural” causes shortly thereafter.

There were no more reports of Zona’s ghost appearing to anyone, but it bears mention that to emphasize that her husband had broken her neck, the ghost had turned her head around backwards for her mother!

Map of West Virginia highlighting Greenbrier County by David Benbennick.

Another highly unusual aspect to this case, bizarre aspect if you will, is that the State of West Virginia actually erected a monument to the case, noting that it is the only case where a ghost’s testimony solved a murder!  Probably also the only monument erected by any state to a ghost!

Questions for students: Should supernatural evidence ever be considered in a trial?  If so, what kind of evidence and under what circumstances?

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Historical Evidence

For more information on this particular incident and others from West Virginia, please read…

Fitzhugh, Pat.  Ghostly Cries From Dixie.  The Armand Press, 2009.

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Southall, Richard.  How to be a Ghost Hunter (How To Series).  Llewellyn Publications, 2003.

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Wilson, Patty A.  Haunted West Virginia: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Mountain State (Haunted Series).  Stackpole Books, 2007.

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The featured image in this article, a photograph of The Shue House, Greenbrier County, West Virginia from http://www.prairieghosts.com/shue.html, is in the public domain in the United States. In most cases, this means that it was first published prior to January 1, 1924 (see the template documentation for more cases).

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube:


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.