Elva Zona Heaster: The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder

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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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