The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder

Image credit: VisitWV.com

One January afternoon in 1897, Erasmus (aka Edward) Shue, a blacksmith, sent his neighbor’s young boy to see if Elva, Shue's wife of three months, needed anything from the market. When the neighbor boy walked through the front door of the Shues’ rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia, log house, he found Elva’s lifeless body at the foot of the stairs. The boy stood for a moment looking at the woman, not knowing what to make of the scene. Her body was stretched out straight with her legs together. One arm was at her side and the other rested across her chest. Her head was tilted to one side.

At first he thought that the woman was simply asleep on the floor. He stepped toward her, quietly calling, “Mrs. Shue?” When she didn’t respond, he panicked and bolted from the house. He told his mother what he had found and she summoned the local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp.

Knapp didn’t get to the Shues' house for almost an hour. By the time he arrived, Shue had already gotten home, carried his wife's body up to the bedroom, washed and dressed her, and laid her out on the bed. He’d prepared her body for burial in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar and placed a veil over her face. Knapp went about examining the body, Shue cradling his wife's head and crying the whole while. When Knapp attempted to examine Elva’s neck and head, Shue became agitated. Knapp didn’t want to provoke him any further, so he left. He’d found nothing amiss with the body parts he had examined and had also been treating Elva for a few weeks prior, so he listed the cause of death as “everlasting faint” and then changed it to “complications from pregnancy.”

Elva’s body was taken to her childhood home of Little Sewell Mountain and buried, but not before a bizarre funeral where her widower acted erratically. He paced by the casket, fiddling with Elva’s head and neck. In addition to the collar and the veil, he covered her head and neck with a scarf. It didn’t match her burial dress, but Shue insisted that it was her favorite and that she would have wanted to be buried in it. He also propped her head up, first with a pillow and then a rolled up cloth. It was certainly strange, but most guests likely chalked it up to the grieving process. Shue was generally liked and regarded without suspicion by everyone in town.

Mother-in-Law's Intuition

Everyone, that is, except Mary Jane Heaster, Elva’s mother. She had never liked Shue, and even without evidence, she was convinced that he had murdered her daughter. If only Elva could tell her what happened, she thought. She decided to pray for Elva to somehow come back from the dead and reveal the truth about her death. She prayed every evening for weeks, until finally her prayer was answered.

Heaster claimed her daughter appeared to her in a dream four nights in a row to tell her story. Supposedly, the spirit appeared first as a bright light, gradually taking a human form and filling the room with a chill. Elva’s ghost confessed to her mother that Shue cruelly abused her, and one night attacked her in a rage when he thought that she hadn’t made any meat for his dinner. He had broken her neck, the ghost said as it turned its head completely around. Then the ghost turned and walked away, disappearing into the night while staring back at her mother.

Heaster went to the local prosecutor, John Preston, and spent the afternoon at his office trying to get him to reopen the case. Whether Preston believed her story about the ghost, we don’t know, but Heaster was persistent and convincing enough that he began asking questions around town. Shue’s neighbors and friends told Preston about the man’s strange behavior at the funeral, and Dr. Knapp admitted that his examination had been incomplete.

It was enough for Preston to justify an order for a complete autopsy, and a few days later, the body was exhumed despite Shue’s objections. Knapp and two other doctors laid the body out in the town’s one-room schoolhouse to give it a thorough examination. A local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times, later reported that, “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that 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.”

It was clear Elva’s death was not natural, but there was no evidence pointing to the killer, and no witnesses. Shue’s strange behavior since Elva’s death stuck in Preston’s mind and cast some suspicion on him. At the same time, Elva’s mother had described exactly how her daughter was killed before the autopsy was performed. Maybe she’d done it, and the ghost story was an elaborate plot to frame Shue.

Skeletons in Shue's Closet

Preston continued to investigate and began looking into Shue’s past. He learned that Shue had been married twice before. The first ended in divorce while Shue was in prison for stealing a horse. That wife later told police that Shue was extremely violent and beat her frequently while they were married. His second marriage ended after just eight months with the mysterious death of the wife. In between these marriages, Shue boasted in prison that he planned to marry seven women in his lifetime. The previous wife’s mysterious death and Shue’s history of abuse were circumstantial, but enough for Preston to bring him to trial.

Mary Jane Heaster was the prosecution’s star witness, but Preston wanted to avoid the issue of her ghostly sightings, since Elva’s story as relayed by her mother might be objected to as hearsay by the defense. Perhaps hoping to prove her 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.

Shue was sentenced to life in prison, but died soon after as epidemics of measles and pneumonia tore through the prison in the spring of 1900. Mrs. Heaster lived until 1916, and never recanted her story about Elva’s ghost. Maybe her story swayed the jury and won the case. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe her daughter spoke to her from beyond the grave, maybe the ghost was all in Heaster’s head, or maybe it was a strategic lie. But no matter who saw or believed what, without the ghost story, Heaster may have never gone to Preston, and Shue might not have gone to trial.

A historical marker in Greenbrier County commemorates Elva’s death and the unusual court case that followed, noting that this was the "only known case in which testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer."

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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