Victim Zona Heaster Shue. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia share and share alike license
One of the most important lessons I teach my students each year is the ability to recognize and discover bias in historical works. It is vital to understand an author’s bias so their work can be judged accordingly since I am awesome, I will make that super-easy for you, this is one of my favorite odd stories of all time because it is from my home state of West Virginia. West Virginia is weird, in a good way, we get a bad rap from the rest of the state, but hear me out. We are an illegal state, we broke away from Virginia during the Civil War and took the land just because we wanted to and were tired of going to Richmond on official business. Our coal miners invented the greatest delicacy of all time, the pepperoni roll when they had their wives roll entire sleeves of pepperoni into loaves of bread to take into the mines. And, something that grosses me out and boggles my mind at the same time, we are obsessed with putting coal slaw on hot dogs, we are an odd bunch.
We are also a state filled with odd stories and legends, and I struggled to decide which story deserved a spot in this book, but after careful consideration, and my mother insisting, I have decided upon, by far, the most off the wall court case in state history, the murder of Zona Hester Shue. Zona Shue lived in Greenbrier County, West Virginia in the late 19th century. She was just a normal country girl growing up in the small community of Lewisburg. Greenbrier County is just across the border from Virginia which gives it a rich Civil War era history, but most of that is overshadowed by Zona’s story.
Zona worked at a local tavern which back then was like a combination hotel, bar, and restaurant for travelers. Zona was said to be one of the most beautiful women in the area and men hit on her multiple times a day while she worked at the tavern. Zona didn’t have time for those road-weary Romeos throwing their game out there; she wanted a real man. Zona had her eyes set on the new blacksmith in town, Edward Shue who just moved into the area a few months before. Zona and Edward began a sordid love affair, and in 1897 they are wed.
Life was great for Zona and Edward after their wedding, except for Zona’s mother. Zona’s mother absolutely detested Edward and begged her daughter to leave the young blacksmith. Zona, being the headstrong and independent woman, she was, refused to leave her husband just on the wishes of her overbearing mother. The relationship between mother and daughter deteriorated and Zona stopped visiting her mother daily like was her custom. The strained relationship hurts Zona’s mother, and she begged her daughter to reconsider, but to no avail. Zona also stopped coming into town as often as she once did, with many believing that Edward didn’t like her to be out and about.
On January 23, 1897, Zona’s mother had enough, she hadn’t seen her daughter in days and asked a local boy to go to the Shue’s house to give Zona a message. When the local boy arrived at the home, the door was ajar, and slowly opened it to find Zona Hester Shue laying at the bottom of a staircase, hands folded on her chest, deader than a doornail. Think about this for a second folks, if a person falls to their death down a flight of stairs, it is highly unlikely they land on their back, with their hands folded on their chest. It doesn’t take a crack CSI team to figure out something was fishy here. The law was called, and the local doctor as well.
When Edward arrived at the home, he was beside himself with pain and anguish, he carried his dead bride up the stairs and laid her on the bed. He sat beside her lifeless body for hours and refused to let the Doctor do a proper examination of the body. The doctor attempted to check on Zona’s cause of death, but Edward refused to let the doctor undress his dead wife. Again, Sherlock Holmes isn’t needed in this case, but shockingly, the authorities didn’t insist upon the autopsy, they just accepted the fact that Zona fell down the stairs and landed perfectly at peace, ready for her coffin.
Country folks in places like West Virginia had a very odd custom during the 19th and early 20th centuries, sitting up with the dead. Partly religious, partly practical, the idea was to lay the dead body out in their living rooms, and the family would sit up with the dead person all night. The religious aspect was so the family could preach and pray over their dearly departed, and the practical aspect was to make sure the person was actually dead. In the 19th century, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of people being buried alive, with medical technology almost nonexistent, it was impossible to tell if someone was in a coma or dead in specific instances. The folks figured that giving the body 24 hours to wake up was sufficient, so they all brought over a covered dish and stared at a corpse all night.
Most of the locals came to the Shue home to pay their final respects, and Zona was upstairs being prepared for her final dinner party. Zona’s mother and a few local women went upstairs to prepare the body for burial, but, once again, Edward refused to let anybody near the body. Edward insisted that he, and he alone, would prepare young Zona for burial, and he picked out her favorite black dress with the high collar that was so fashionable at the time.
All night as people came over to the casket to pay their final respects, Edward rushed them along and didn’t let them take too long in line. His behavior was all chalked up to a devasted husband by the locals, except for Mrs. Hester, she knew he had something to hide. The next day, Zona was placed under six feet of dirt, and her tragic tale was over. Not really, did you think I would waste an entire chapter on a lady falling down the stairs?
Mrs. Hester began having terrible nightmares the night of her daughter’s funeral; she saw Zona walk into her bedroom and just stand and watch her. This same dream continued for days, until, the dream became more and more real. Zona now began to walk towards her mother and point to her neck, pulling at the high collar of her fashionable dress. Zona’s mother was convinced that she had been murdered by her husband. Mrs. Hester began begging the local judge to order Zona’s body be exhumed (which is a fancy word for dug up), and after days of begging, the judge granted her wish. The local authorities dug up Zona’s body, and as they opened the casket and pulled down the high collar, they saw two handprints on her neck. Zona’s neck was snapped, and things began to look quite grim for old Edward. The handprints of her husband, Edward Shue! Shue was arrested and put on trial for murder. The ensuing murder trial makes the OJ Simpson trial look like a Thursday at traffic court; the attorneys actually used the testimony of Zona’s ghost in the trial!
Well, only in West Virginia folks! Not only did the judge allow the mother to testify about her daughter’s ghost visiting her, the jury deliberated the testimony of that ghost. Based on the spectral evidence, the behavior of Edward, and the handprints and broken neck of the corpse, Edward Shue was found guilty of murder. Shue was sent to the terrifying State Penitentiary at Moundsville where he died of disease, and West Virginia became the first and only state to send a man to prison based on the testimony of a ghost.