Freaky Friday: The Case of the Greenbrier Ghost

Oh, is it that time of the month again?  The time to let the demons, ghosties, ghoulies, and all the little strange things out of the basement to play? Why yes, yes it is, it’s Freaky Friday on Lawyers & Liquor where I’ll be talking about all the weird stuff that tends to clog up, or is tangentially related to, the legal system like so much ectoplasm running down the walls of that house you just got for an insanely cheap price.

Today’s journey into the dark unknowns of the dark corners where things go “Objection!” in the night takes us to the hills and hollers of West Virginia in 1897.  Coal was king, the people were a little less sophisticated, and, as was the fashion at the time, the men all tied an onion to their belt. The place is Greenbrier County, and the case?

Well, that would be the case of a ghost leading to the conviction of its own murderer. That’s right, today we’re gonna shiver under the blankets, light a flashlight under our faces to set the mood, and ramble about the Ghastly Case of the Greenbrier Ghost.

The Ghost Story

Zona Heaster Shue was 22 years old when she gave birth to a child out of wedlock, a position not enviable even in the forward thinking and progressive time and place of Greenbrier County, West Virginia in 1897. The disgrace that would naturally have followed giving birth to what locals likely, and colorfully, called a “woods colt” in that time would have been unbearable. Which may explain why Zona, when she met a drifter in 1896 by the name of Edward Stribbling Trout Shue in 1896 who was willing to overlook this little incident she married him damn near instantly and over the objections of her mother, Mary Jane Heaster.

Now, let me be clear, anytime you see the words “met a drifter” in a story, you should assume someone’s going to die. In fact, that’s a pretty good rule for real life as well. Drifters are drifters for reasons. But there was no helping the fact that Zona loved the man, and instead of rebelling against her mother’s wishes by taking to Instagram to post duckface photos, Zona did the absolute best she thought she could do in the time and settled down with the motherfucking drifter in a peaceful little home on what I can only assume is the edge of town, and all was happy.

You know, until a few months later when Zona was found dead by a visiting child that the fucking drifter-husband sent to the house on an errand. Zona was found laying at the foot of the stairs, sprawled somewhat peacefully actually, when the boy found her. The kid, of course, fucked up preservation of evidence by failing to immediately cordon off the scene and leaving an officer to monitor it, and instead did the dumbass thing of running for a doctor, giving Shue time to get home (probably after being told his wife was dead) and carry Zona’s body up to the bedroom where he dressed and washed her himself in a high-necked dress.  By the time the coroner arrived to look the body over, Shue was inconsolable, sobbing over the body of his wife and refusing to let anyone near her.  The cause of death was listed first as “everlasting faint,” and then “childbirth.”

[Sidenote:  “Everlasting faint” is…I mean…is that a thing? Google doesn’t seem to think so, considering the fact that searching for it literally only brings up links to the story we’re talking about right now. That should probably throw up a couple flags about the healthcare quality in your community when doctors are diagnosing shit whose only recorded instance is that single diagnosis. “What is it, Doc?” “Oh yes, right Mr. Miller, seems you have goblin dick. Don’t bother searching for it. Totally a real thing.”]

Anyhow, during the funeral Shue continued to not let anyone really near the body of his wife, and shortly after the funeral began to spurn his mother-in-law, who offered him the sheet from the coffin for a keepsake. Shit was morbid back in those days. Shue refused this generous gesture, his wife was buried, and things in Greenbrier County began to go back to how they were before Zona had died…except for Momma Mary Jane. See, Mother Heaster had a sneaking suspicion that her little girl hadn’t died an accidental death, in part because the sheet from the coffin was pink, as if stained with blood, and in part because she flat out fucking hated Eddie Shue. So, of course, she prayed and prayed, and then, one night and for the next four nights the ghost of her daughter appeared only to her, telling her that what had been ruled a natural or accidental death was actually murder most foul, and the culprit was Ed Shue.

[Sidenote: If you think your mother-in-law sucks, folks, remember she never tried to get you convicted for murder. Probably.]

So Momma Shue took her ass down to the prosecutor, who did a little digging and found that there was likely sufficient cause to exhume the body of Zona, and a coroner’s inquest found that her neck had, indeed, been broken. There was also an indication of fingerprints around the neck, and that, based on the behavior of Mr. Shue before and after the exhumation led to his arrest and a charge of murder.

It would come out later that Zona wasn’t Eddie’s first wife, by the way.  The first had divorced him for cruelty, while the second “died under mysterious circumstances.” The odds were not great for Eddie in the court of public opinion, but in the court of law he may fare a bit better. What did they really have in the way of evidence? They had a pink sheet, a broken neck on a body found at the foot of the stairs, some fingermarks, no real time of death to say whether Zona went before or after Shue left for work the day she was found, his behavior, and the testimony of a mother who insisted she had been told Shue was the killer by a fucking ghost.

As the Baltimore American put it after his conviction, “The evidence was purely circumstantial.”

Circumstantial or not, however, it was trotted into court, and Momma Heaster was put on the stand. The prosecutor was careful to avoid any mention of otherworldly witnesses, aware it may make his client look crazy. The defense, however, decided this was an area to dig into, to display the full absurdity of the matter to the jury. So the defense pressed the hell out of Momma, who was insistent in repeating everything the ghost told her for the jury to hear. The judge found it difficult to tell the jury to disregard the testimony, and Momma’s conviction won the day.  Shue, largely on the testimony of the alleged ghost of his deceased wife, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

A few years later, he died.

The story ends there. The legal aspect of the matter doesn’t.

Why Was Shue Convicted? Because They Wanted Him Convicted.

You want my opinion? Shue was convicted because the people in community wanted him convicted.

This is the sad fucking fact of small town crime, and especially small town crime in an age where the supernatural may influence and have credibility in the eyes of the prospective jurors.  See, one of the reasons the prosecutor, based on contemporary accounts,  decided to have the body exhumed at all wasn’t really the insistence of Momma Heaster that a fucking ghost had materialized in her room to tell her the story, but the fact that Ed Shue had been acting strange and the whole community was already talking about him, speculating that he’d murdered his wife.

“Acting strange,” of course, meant that he wouldn’t let anyone near the body, he stood a vigil, and he went from extreme sorrow to bouts of energy.  Today, most funeral directors will tell you this isn’t a particularly strange set of emotions and responses for someone who recently lost a loved one to go through. And we need to remember, back in those days there wasn’t this whole “several days before burial” thing. In rural areas, you likely didn’t have the ability to embalm, and even if you did the modern practice of embalming, at the time of Mrs. Shue’s death, was only about 30 years old and had barely begun to take hold in the United States from its German roots. Many times, you had about 24-48 hours to dress and wash the body of the recently deceased, then get it in the fucking ground.

So the community was judging Mr. Shue’s behavior based off of the 24-48 hour window after he found his wife dead. A time period where anyone who just found their wife dead would be upset and possibly be expected to act erratically as they went through the throes of grief.

This isn’t helped by the fact that, immediately after the conviction was announced, a lynch mob formed to hang Ed Shue from the highest branch they could find. People who aren’t already worked up in the community about something don’t tend to form fucking lynch mobs. Shit, in some accounts the only way to keep Shue alive long enough to get him to the state prison was to handcuff him to a deputy and hide with him in a cornfield. Think about that: he was sentenced to life in prison, but the community wanted this man dead so fucking bad that the police had to hide him in a goddamn cornfield.

It sounds to me like, going into the trial, Greenbrier County already wanted some blood.

There are other reasons too, less savory reasons and reasons that are probably darker than any ghost story. See, it looks like one of Shue’s defense attorneys was the first African American lawyer in Greenbrier County and the first such lawyer in the state to defend a white man.

I’m sure that played really well with an all-white, 1897, rural West Virginia jury, especially one that only a little over 30 years earlier had overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.

That may explain why the jury was willing to accept weak, and partially inadmissible evidence, and make no fucking doubt about it, the evidence was weak and partially inadmissible at the very least, at least by modern standards.

The Evidence Was Insufficient, and the Defense Sucked.

That pink “blood stained” sheet?  Remember how I said earlier that there wasn’t an embalming process in place in rural areas in that time? Well, one of the things that embalming does is remove bodily fluids and replace them with embalming fluid. In the absence of embalming, however…well…a body leaks what’s known as “purge fluid” from the nose and, like a “virgin” at a gangbang, from the anus. This can start occurring in less than 24 hours after death. There’s a fucking reason the sheet was in the coffin to begin with.

The fingermarks on the neck? Let’s remember a few things: these were discovered well after the death and burial during an exhumation, and were caught after a poor examination at the scene. Unless there was something more there, I think you can argue that the “fingermarks” on the neck could have been caused by any number of things, including but not limited to a rare case of post-mortem bruising when Mr. Shue was carrying and dressing his wife.

The injuries and broken neck? The body was found at the bottom of the stairs. She could have fainted and fallen, gaining those injuries on the way down shortly after her husband left for work that morning. This assumption could be supported by the fact that the same coroner, who was the local doctor, had been treating Mrs. Shue for a “female issue,” a common euphemism for certain…procedures…shortly before her death…but the exact issue is lost to time because of the next big whammy.

The testimony of the mother regarding the fucking ghost should never have been allowed. First, letting one person repeat an out of court statement made by another for the truth of the matter is pure hearsay. You can’t fight that, and if they tried to argue something along the lines of “unavailability” to over come that, I think the response is the Mrs. Shue certainly wasn’t unavailable. After all, she had given testimony to her mother post-mortem, they could simply have Momma pray really hard again and serve an ethereal subpoena on her daughter to appear in court and testify.

Second, the defense never should have pressed on the matter.  The temperature of the community was such that they were looking for a reason to convict, and by opening the door to the obviously alluring story of a “murder victim coming back from beyond the grave” to identify her killer, the defense gave them just that fucking reason. It probably played well to the mind of the rational defense attorney to make the point that the best evidence they have is the testimony of a mother who believes her dead daughter visited her, but in Greenbrier County, in June of 1897, the community was not inclined to be rational. They were out for the blood of Edward Shue.

Third, and importantly, the conviction should have been appealed. Granted, in those days the legal profession was not the procedural beast it is today, but the matter of a man’s life should always be appealed to the highest court. A court which would have been outside of Greenbrier County and away from the dramatic and inflamed story that was presented there. Unless Mr. Shue’s attorneys were entirely inept, they would have preserved the matter of the testimony, the weight of the evidence, and everything else related to it for review. Especially the mistrial they should have requested.

Which brings us to our last point, the defense should have asked for a mistrial at some point. Once Momma began to talk about ghosts and dramatic stories, and the judge realized he would not be able to force the jury to disregard the fantastical tale, the stage was set for the defense to request a mistrial, and thereafter a change of venue. Even if both were denied, it would have established a damn good reason for an appeal.

I’m SO Getting Haunted For This.

Can you guess what my conclusion is here?

Edward Shue wasn’t convicted because of the ghostly testimony of his deceased wife. He was convicted because of inflamed passions, a spotty past, and the possible racism of an 1897 West Virginia Jury. He was convicted because the defense asked questions on a point that would, in a rational world, seem laughable but in a ready-to-convict atmosphere gave the jury a good story. He was convicted because appropriate motions and objections weren’t made, and stayed convicted because after the trial no appeal was taken to question the court.

Did Edward Shue murder his wife? Maybe. Maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. What I do know is if you look at the facts together, some of which simply weren’t able to be known in 1897 rural West Virginia and certainly aren’t as eye-catching as “ghosts testifying,” there’s at least the specter of reasonable doubt lurking in the cold, angry, otherworldly testimony of Zona Shue’s restless spirit. And that’s all it takes to acquit.

Unless, of course, the deck is stacked against you.