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The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder

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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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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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