Nearly every town’s got a ghost story. Far more rare is when a ghost story can be traced back to one specific, legally documented criminal case. Still, they do exist, and the stories they spawn are even scarier with real-life context. Here are five horrifying murders that created five spooky legends.
1) Zona Heaster Shue, “The Greenbrier Ghost”
This story is so remarkable it merits a highway marker in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. The sign directs the curious to a nearby cemetery, where murdered bride Zona Heaster Shue is buried, the unfortunate victim in “the only known case in which testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer.”
Say what now? It seems in 1896, 23-year-old Zona Heaster swiftly fell for an older man: the new-in-town blacksmith, Edward Shue (full name: Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue, though he went by “Edward” and some called him “Trout.”) He’d been married twice before (and his second wife had died mysteriously), but Zona was smitten and ignored the warnings of her mother, who’d been overprotective since Zona gave birth to another man’s out-of-wedlock baby the year before.
Three months after she married Edward, Zona was dead, her lifeless body found at the foot of her home’s staircase by a young neighbor who’d been dispatched on an errand by Edward. As Prairie Ghosts writes:
She was stretched out, with her feet together and one hand on her abdomen and the other lying next to her. Her head was turned slightly to one side. Her eyes were wide open and staring. Even to this small boy, Zona Shue was obviously dead. [The young neighbor], not surprisingly, ran home to tell his mother. The local doctor and coroner, Dr. George W. Knapp, was summoned to the house, although he didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.
By this time, Shue had carried his wife’s body upstairs and had laid her out on the bed. Contrary to local custom, he dressed the corpse himself. Normally, it was the proper thing for ladies of the community to wash and dress a body in preparation for burial. However, Shue took it upon himself to dress Zona in her best clothing. A high-necked, stiff-collared dress covered her neck and a veil had been placed over her face. While Dr. Knapp examined her and tried to determine a cause of death, Shue stayed by his wife’s side, cradling her head and sobbing. Because of Shue’s obvious grief, Knapp gave the body only a cursory examination, although he did notice some bruising on her neck.
Edward Shue prevented any closer examination of the body, and Zona’s death was chalked up to “childbirth”—though nobody seems to know if she was even pregnant at the time of her death. She was swiftly buried wearing a high-necked dress and a scarf provided by her insistent but apparently grieving husband, who also took care to prop up his dead wife’s head using a rolled-up sheet.
This was 1897, and spiritualism was all the rage in America. Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, was a believer—she was already convinced that the rolled-up sheet she’d removed from Zona’s coffin was marked with mysterious bloodstains—and she prayed for insight into her beloved daughter’s death… to sources beyond the grave. And she soon got her supernatural response, as Murder by Gaslight recounts:
About four weeks after her daughter’s death Mary Jane began having visions. Four nights in a row, Zona’s ghost came to her and told her that Trout had abused her. The ghost told Mary Jane how she and Trout had argued the day of her death. She said that Trout attacked her and broke her neck. As the ghost was leaving, she turned her head around until it was completely facing backward.
Oooooooh, you better believe Mama Heaster went straight to prosecutor John Alfred Preston, who somehow was convinced by this bonkers tale to exhume Zona’s body. Lo and behold, the subsequent autopsy revealed she had died of a broken neck. Edward Shue was soon arrested and tried for murder; Preston tried to keep the ghostly tales out of the legal proceedings (for obvious reasons), but wasn’t exactly successful, as Mental Floss writes:
Perhaps hoping to prove [Mary Jane] unreliable, Shue’s lawyer questioned Heaster extensively about the ghost’s visits on cross-examination. The tactic backfired, with Heaster refusing to waver in her account despite intense badgering by the lawyer. Many people in the community, if not the jury, seemed to believe Heaster’s story, and Shue did himself no favors taking the stand in his own defense, rambling and appealing to the jury “to look into his face and then say if he was guilty.”
The Greenbrier Independent reported that his “testimony, manner, and so forth, made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.” The jury deliberated for just an hour and ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
The “testimony” of a ghost was enough of an oddity to spare Shue the death penalty, but he did get life in prison; he died just three years later while serving his sentence.
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