Usually when people think of ghosts, they imagine a disturbing presence that harasses and makes the lives of the living more difficult. But, in the case of the Greenbrier Ghost of the late 1800s, the ghost helped solve a West Virginia murder—the very murder that created the ghost.
Born in the early 1870s, Elva Zona Heaster married Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue on October 26, 1896. Erasmus (sometimes called Edward) was from out of town, coming to Greenbrier to start a new life as the blacksmith. Zona (as she was called) married the near stranger very quickly in her mother’s opinion, and so the marriage was opposed but not halted.
On January 23, 1897 Erasmus sent Andy Jones (an 11-year-old African American) to the house, supposedly to ask Zona if she needed anything from the store. Jones found her body and ran home to tell his mother. The local doctor, and coroner, arrived within an hour to find the body had been carried upstairs by the apparently grief-stricken husband, Erasmus. Erasmus had already dressed Zona in her “Sunday best”—a dress with a conveniently high and stiff collar tied with a large bow. A veil covered her face and throughout the rudimentary examination Erasmus cradled his wife’s head and upper body and sobbed.
Convinced of the husband’s grief, the coroner announced the death was related to childbirth (as he had been treating Zona for symptoms we can only now presume were related to such a state a few weeks earlier).
At Zona’s wake, people observed Erasmus acting oddly. He was nearly frantic with trying to keep her “comfortable”—wedging her head between a pillow and fabric and maintaining that the large scarf now tied around her neck was her favorite. He kept people back from the body.
Zona’s mother removed the sheet from inside the coffin and tried to return it to Erasmus, but he wanted none of it. Thinking it smelled oddly, Heaster washed it. Oddly, the water turned red then clear. The sheet developed a pink stain. Heaster took it as proof that her daughter had met a foul end. A God-fearing woman, Heaster prayed Zona would return from the grave long enough to tell the truth of what happened to her so that she could find eternal rest.
Zona did cross back over, haunting her mother’s dreams for four nights as she explained the abuse she’d suffered at her husband’s hands and how—in a sudden fit over not having dinner ready for him—Erasmus had broken her neck. In the dream Zona’s ghost turned her head all the way around to illustrate.
Heaster approached the prosecuting attorney and in short order Erasmus was arrested. Her ghostly story was not the only thing to prod him to action, as the rumors had continued to fly about Erasmus’ odd actions.
In jail, Erasmus kept his spirits high, even proclaiming that he would like to have seven wives, and since Zona had been number three and he was only 35, he felt it was still an achievable goal. But then the truth began to come spilling out. Zona’s body had been exhumed and they discovered she had a crushed windpipe and broken neck. The cause of death became “strangulation.” Erasmus’ life before coming to Greenbriar was looked into. His first wife was abused and finally forced into divorcing him. His second wife died under mysterious circumstances.
Erasmus seemed puzzled that he was being charged with murder—hadn’t anyone wondered about young Andy Jones? Was he not suspect?
Although the case against Erasmus was mainly circumstantial, he was convicted and nearly lynched before being moved to the state penitentiary where he died. The ghost story Heaster was prepared to tell in court was ruled inadmissible, but revisited multiple times by the defense in a hope she would be viewed as unstable and a worthless character witness. Zona’s spirit seems to be at peace, never having been spotted since the arrest of her husband.
The house where Zona died still stands and is a private home.