Those of you who read my novel Till Life Do Us Part know that Barbara, the main character in this paranormal mystery, can hear voices of the dead people. They tell her how they died and she is able to help the police solving some case.
Well, what I am sharing with you today is not fiction. It really happened in west Virginia, on January 23, 1897.
24 years old Zona Heaster Shue is found dead in her own house.
She is buried, though witnesses do notice her head flopping around limply when she is moved. Cause of death? “Everlasting faint,” and “complications from pregnancy,” according to the local doctor who also acts as coroner. The doctor tried to examine the victim, but the violent protestations of Shue, her husband of three months, kept him from doing much more than glancing at her.
After praying every day for a month, Zona’s mother, has a dream. Zona’s ghost confesses to her that Shue cruelly abused her, and one night attacked her in a rage because she hadn’t made any meat for his dinner. He broke her neck, the ghost says, and it turns its head completely around to show her mother what happened. Then the ghost turns and walks away, disappearing into the night while staring back at her mother.
Armed with this information, Zona’s mother goes to the local prosecutor, Mr. Preston, and demands him to open an investigation. She is persistent and convincing enough so that he begins asking questions around town.
Shue’s neighbors and friends tell the prosecutor about the man’s strange behavior at the funeral. They say that Shue paced by the casket, fiddling with Zona’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.
Dr. Knapp also admits, at last, that his examination was incomplete.
An autopsy is done.
A local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times reports that, “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she was strangled; 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 is clear the young woman’s death was not natural, but there is no evidence pointing to the killer, and no witnesses.
Shue’s strange behavior since his wife’s death stuck in the prosecutor’s mind and cast some suspicion on him.
The prosecutor continues to investigate and begins looking into Shue’s past. He learns that Shue was 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, Zona's mother is the prosecution’s star witness, with what the ghost revealed her. Many people in the community, if not the jury, believe Heaster’s story, and Shue does 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 reports that his “testimony, manner, and so forth, made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.” The jury deliberate for just an hour and ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
Shue is sentenced to life in prison, but dies 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 Mrs. Heaster's story 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.
What strikes as unusual is the fact that the state erected a monument in remembrance of the ghost who solved the death mystery!