The Greenbrier Ghost
The year was 1897; the place, a courthouse in Greenbrier county, West Virginia. The accused murderer stood grinning, confident of acquittal. He'd broken his young wife's neck and left her to be found by others, sure that no evidence linked him to the brutal crime. But then his mother-in-law took the stand, and all present sat transfixed as she told how her daughter's ghost had come to her over each of four nights, and revealed the grisly details of her own murder. The killer's grin melted away, and he was soon convicted and sent to live out his life in prison. We know the Greenbrier Ghost as the only documented case in which a ghost's testimony convicted a murderer in an American court of law. Today we're going to find out whether that reputation is both justified, and true as reported.
The murder happened over a century ago among ordinary people in a rural area, thus not very much about any of their lives is known beyond the basic facts of the case. The young woman was Elva Zona Heaster and went by Zona; her new husband was a rough drifter named Erasmus Shue. Zona's parents didn't like him at all. He'd been married twice before; he spent most of his first marriage in jail for horse theft and the rest of it beating his wife, and was generally believed to have killed his second wife, though was never charged. Zona was to be the third of what Shue often said he hoped would eventually be seven wives. Zona had served in that capacity for only about three months when Shue, working as a blacksmith, sent a boy to his house to fetch some eggs, where he discovered Zona's body lying at the foot of the stairs.
Dr. George W. Knapp was summoned. He had been treating Zona for several weeks for a condition recorded as "female trouble", but this was clearly different. He found bruises on her neck, but Shue angrily prevented him from examining her neck further. Dr. Knapp listed the cause of death as "everlasting faint", changed a week later to "childbirth"; and Zona was buried.
However, the court of public opinion, led by Zona's mother Mary Jane Heaster, held that Shue had murdered her. Mary Jane told the county prosecutor that Zona's ghost had appeared to her on each of four nights and revealed that she'd been murdered. But it was only upon learning that Shue had prevented Dr. Knapp from doing a proper examination that the prosecutor ordered Zona's body exhumed and an autopsy performed. In its March 9 edition, a local paper, the Pocahontas Times, gave a gory account of the autopsy's results:
Shue was arrested for Zona's murder. Much has been written about his braggadocio and defiance of the charges, but it's unclear how reliable this is. We do know that the transcript of the trial has been lost, so little is known about what evidence was presented — except for one part. At one point in the trial, Mary Jane was put on the stand and questioned about her ghostly visits from Zona, and this part was reported in various publications so it survives. Here, as it appeared in the Greenbrier Independent on July 1:
Upon Shue's conviction, it was indeed widely reported that this ghostly testimony is what tipped the scales. The Baltimore American newspaper put it this way:
In the years since, the Greenbrier Ghost convicting a murderer has become a mainstay of West Virginia culture and paranormal culture. At least three stage adaptations have been made including a musical, it's been dramatized and novelized at least twice, and a state historical marker outside the cemetery where Zona was buried declares it the "Only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer."
With so much corroborating information out there supporting this extraordinary tale, how should we respond to it intellectually? Should we accept the popular tale as told to be the null hypothesis? Should we flip the logic upside down and assert that it's the claim that this might not have happened as reported is the extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence? Fortunately we need not do either of these things. Because, even though this is an old story that's relatively thinly documented, there is still enough information out there that we can piece together a non-paranormal narrative that fits the facts quite neatly.
A more skeptical study of all these stories of what transpired reveals that Mary Jane's ghost story — while she did indeed tell it — played little or no part in the conviction. It was reported that the ghost story was never mentioned at all by the prosecution, and had no part at all in the government's case against Shue. Mary Jane was called to testify only by the defense, and was asked about her ghost story in an apparent attempt to discredit her and make her come off like some sort of kook; and indeed, the papers reported that her testimony left the jury with an "unfavorable impression". They needed only an hour and ten minutes to complete their deliberations, and convicted Shue on other evidence, despite the defense's attempt to discredit Shue's adversaries with Mary Jane's rambling ghost story.
The author who's done the most digging on the Greenbrier Ghost story is Katie Letcher Lyle, an amateur historian who wrote The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives: The Greenbrier Ghost and the Famous Murder Mystery of 1897. Even though her book is almost entirely dramatized with invented dialog and events to read like a novel, Lyle wrote from a pragmatic perspective, and sought to find the real, rational reason that Mary Jane had told the ghost story in court. In a 1999 issue of Wonderful West Virginia Magazine, Lyle explained her conclusion:
When you're an author — especially if you've been working at length on a specific project and have interviewed people who are involved with the original story — word of your book tends to get around. And when it does, sometimes surprising people contact you out of the blue. As Lyle was wrapping up her book, satisfied that Mary Jane made up the ghost story to ensure Shue's conviction, this phone call came unexpectedly late one night. It was Fred Long, the editor of the Hinton News Leader, who advised her of a previously unpublished detail.
When Zona was killed, one of the places her death was first published was in the Greenbrier Independent, on page 3 of the January 28, 1897 issue, a brief mention reading simply:
However, the following article was found on that same paper's front page, entitled "A Ghost Story":
A person who concocted a ghost story in order to ensure the conviction of a killer they knew to be guilty: successfully in the unnamed Australian's case; unnecessarily in Mary Jane's case. It seems probable that Mary Jane would have seen her daughter's obituary in her local paper; is it not also possible that she read, or was told about, the front page ghost story in the same issue? It was only a few days after this paper came out that she first went to the county prosecutor to tell her ghost story. The timing fits; the logic fits; the motivation fits; and the stories are identical in the relevant details. We will never know if Mary Jane was indeed inspired by the frightened Australian's story, but even if it's a colossal coincidence, her reasons for making up such a tale on her own are no more or less than those of the Australian who did so. Either way, she got her wish, and her daughter's killer went to jail.
Addendum: Although the paper did not give more details, it's clear that the Australian ghost story referred to is Fisher's Ghost, a story well known to many Australians. —BD
Even urban legends as seemingly innocent as a ghost story like this one, or Bigfoot, or a UFO sighting are important to think about with rational, skeptical analysis. Accepting them simply because they sound compelling is the same broken thought process that leads us to accept much more impactful claims like vaccine denial, the flat Earth, or assertions that the moon landings were faked. Enjoy your ghost stories; and rather than dismissing them as simply fun diversions, recognize the important opportunity they offer to sharpen your critical thinking skills.
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