The Greenbrier Incident: Ghost or No Ghost?

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skep·ti·cism:
1. an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object

2a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain

b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics


Merriam-Webster Dictionary

We start with the definition of scepticism (spelled 'skepticism' in the US dictionary above), because we're going to talk about the Greenbrier Ghost, an 1897 tale that invites scepticism in all its forms: doubt, general, particular, and widespread, doubt about the particular area under discussion, and quite possibly the philosophical stance that knowledge in this particular area is uncertain. This is because we're going to start with the question, 'Do you believe in ghosts?'

It's a funny question. Why should someone believe, or for that matter disbelieve in ghosts? You've either seen one, or you haven't. If you haven't seen one, you probably won't be convinced by an army of paranormal researchers armed with electronics. If you have, you probably won't accept the word of that sceptic on television that you're just imagining things.

Maybe the better questions to ask are, 'Did the people in a certain time or place believe in ghosts? If so, how did it affect their decision-making?' If we ask these questions, we might understand the historical marker in West Virginia. The marker stands on US Highway 60 in Sam Black Church, West Virginia1 and tells a spooky tale:

Interred in nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition's account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from ghost helped convict a murderer.

There is at least one inaccurate statement on that marker. So we'd probably better tell the story. Warning for the nervous: it contains murder and a possible revenant.

A Murder in West Virginia

22 January, 1897, was a bitter cold day in West Virginia. In a few days it would be 4 below zero Fahrenheit (-20° C), and locals with ice houses would be collecting blocks of frozen lake and pond water. But Zona Heaster Shue was beyond caring. The young wife of three months lay dead in her own home, according to sworn testimony, '… stretched out perfectly straight with feet together, one hand lying by the side and the other lying across the body, the head was slightly inclined to one side2.' The death was discovered by an African American boy who had been hired by Mrs Shue's husband, blacksmith Erasmus3, to 'go to his house and hunt the eggs4 and then to go to Mrs. Shue and see if she wanted to send to the store for any thing5.' Neighbours were called, and the doctor, who initially deemed the cause of death to be 'an everlasting faint' (1890s-speak for 'heart attack'). But doubts soon arose about the sudden death of Zona Shue. And many were convinced that if Zona had been murdered, her husband Erasmus was to blame.

Here were some of the reasons for the community's suspicions:

The character of Erasmus Shue: Erasmus Shue was an outsider. He came from neighbouring Pocahontas County, a big distinction to these remote-living people. Erasmus didn't have a good reputation, either. His marital record included the following incidents:

  • During his first marriage, Shue beat his wife Estie (neé Cutlip) so badly that a group of outraged neighbours threw him through the winter ice into the Greenbrier River. His wife went to court. The divorce decree was granted while Shue was in prison serving time for horse-thieving.
  • Shue's second wife, Lucy Ann Tritt, lived with him in her parents' home on Droop Mountain in 1894 – for a whole eight months before her mysterious death. Numerous stories circulated about the circumstances of her sudden demise, although no investigation was undertaken.

Shue's own words: Shue was known to have voiced the desire to have had seven wives in his life. This was not considered a normal ambition in West Virginia at the time. Shue was generally regarded as an unpleasant individual, a 'mean man'.

Shue's behaviour: Following Zona's death, Shue behaved in a way unacceptable to West Virginia society. First, he prevented close examination of the body by the doctor, who nonetheless observed bruising around Zona's neck. Then, Shue insisted on preparing the body for burial himself, rather than allowing the women of the community to do this, as was the custom. Finally, he hovered around the body until its burial, allowing no one near.

In spite of suspicions, Zona Heaster Shue was buried. And there the matter might have rested, gossip or no gossip, if it hadn't been for Zona's mother and the ghost story she told.

The Greenbrier Ghost Appears

Mrs Heaster wouldn't let her daughter's death go unavenged. She went to the county's prosecuting attorney, the Honorable John Alfred Preston, and told him that Zona was haunting her at night. The story she told was essentially the one that came out in court, so we'll quote it here.

It was no dream – she came back and told me that he was mad that she didn't have no meat cooked for supper. But she said she had plenty, and said that she had butter and apple-butter, apples and named over two or three kinds of jellies, pears and cherries and raspberry jelly, and she says I had plenty; and she says don't you think that he was mad and just took down all my nice things and packed them away and just ruined them. And she told me where I could look down back of Aunt Martha Jones', in the meadow, in a rocky place; that I could look in a cellar behind some loose plank and see. It was a square log house, and it was hewed up to the square, and she said for me to look right at the right-hand side of the door as you go in and at the right-hand corner as you go in. Well, I saw the place just exactly as she told me, and I saw blood right there where she told me; and she told me something about that meat every night she came, just as she did the first night. She cames [sic] four times, and four nights; but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.

Testimony quoted in the Greenbrier Independent, 1 July, 1897

Mrs Heaster insisted that she had seen her daughter's revenant, or postmortem apparition – a phenomenon commonly reported in the southern Appalachians. She asserted her belief in Jesus and divine justice. Mr Preston was convinced enough to investigate, especially after he'd talked to Dr Knapp and found out that Shue had prevented his examining the corpse. He also found out that Shue had dressed his wife for burial in a dress with a high-necked collar, over which he wrapped a scarf. Preston ordered an exhumation and autopsy.

The autopsy found a broken neck and crushed windpipe: Zona Shue had been strangled. Her husband, a bad-tempered blacksmith with a prison record, was behaving suspiciously. The case went to trial.

No belief in the supernatural was required to prove the murder, so the ghost business wasn't mentioned by the prosecution. The defence, however, brought the matter up in court – possibly with a view to impeaching Mrs Heaster as a witness. She stuck to her guns.

Q. – And was this not a dream founded upon your distressed condition of mind?


A. – No, sir. It was no dream, for I was as wide awake as I ever was.


Q. – Then if not a dream or dreams, what do you call it?


A. – I prayed to the Lord that she might come back and tell me what had happened; and I prayed that she might come herself and tell on him.


Q. – Do you think that you actually saw her in flesh and blood?


A. – Yes, sir, I do. I told them the very dress that she was killed in, and when she went to leave me she turned her head completely around and looked at me like she wanted me to know all about it. And the very next time she came back to me she told me all about it. The first time she came, she seemed that she did not want to tell me as much about it as she did afterwards. The last night she was there she told me that she did everything she could do, and I am satisfied that she did do all that, too.


Testimony quoted in the Greenbrier Independent, 1 July, 1897

According to the newspaper of record, the weekly Greenbrier Independent, the jury was convinced, not by a ghost story, but by overwhelming circumstantial evidence.

Shue was on the stand all Tuesday afternoon. He was given free rein and talked at great length; was very minute and particular in describing unimportant incidents; denied pretty much everything said by other witnesses; said the prosecution was all spite work; entered a positive denial of the charge against him; vehemently protested his innocence, calling God to witness; admitted that he had served a term in the pen; declared that he dearly loved his wife, and appealed to the jury to look into his face and then say if he was guilty. His testimony, manner, &c., made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.

Testimony quoted in the Greenbrier Independent, 1 July, 1897

Shue never got to marry again. He escaped the lynch mob, due to the vigilance of local law enforcement. He died three years later, in 1900, of an unknown disease that was going around the state prison. That was the end of Shue, but not his story.

Opinions and Explanations

This story began with the question, 'Do you believe in ghosts?' As events show, it is not at all necessary to 'believe in ghosts' to understand the facts in the circumstantial case for murder against Erasmus Shue. It is equally clear that Mrs Shue's fervent claim that she had been visited by her daughter's revenant – a claim she refused to recant for the rest of her life – didn't particularly disturb her neighbours. Things like that happened. It was part of their world experience, and somehow fit in with their concept of the 'permissive will of God'. Not a problem.

The story seems to be a much bigger problem for late-20th- and early-21st-century observers, who like their realities more cut-and-dried than that. Paranormal fans like to trot out the 'Greenbrier Ghost' as an 'irrefutable' case of spirit doings. This sort of claim is irritating to the group who call themselves 'sceptics'. 'Sceptic' in this context generally refers to Merriam-Webster's first definition, 'an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.' The 'particular object' in this case would be the idea of paranormal phenomena. This form of scepticism usually involves finding a non-supernatural explanation for an unusual event, and then declaring victory. This is not exactly the same as the school of Bishop Berkeley.

There is no doubt a lot to be said on the subject, but in 1986, novelist Katie Letcher Lyle believed she had stumbled upon the answer to the question, 'Was there a Greenbrier Ghost?' In her book – a heady jumble of interviews and highly romanticised reimaginings – Lyle describes her frustration with the casual attitude toward factual truth to be found in Greenbrier County. She was infuriated by all the ad-hoc mythmaking. These things ought to have a single, reliable answer, is the tenor of her research. Finally, she believed she had found it – on page 1 of the Greenbrier Independent: the fact that gives the lie to that historical marker's dual claims of ghostly apparition and 'only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.' She'd found the smoking gun.

This Researcher has checked, and yes, the story is there, in the very same issue of the regional weekly that included Zona Shue's obituary notice. As usual, the Independent ran the local news, including obituaries, on page 3. Page 1 was a roundup of news from all over, interspersed with entertaining anecdotes, outright jokes, and wise advice. Here it is, sandwiched between 'Ten Little Don'ts' ('Don't act like a child and scream when you feel that an elevator has started') and 'How a Life Was Saved' (the carriage driver threw the passenger off in the snow: running after it 'warmed her blood') is this enlightening tale.

A GHOST STORY


J Henneker Heaton tells in the London
Literary World an interesting sequel to the most famous Australian ghost story, which came to his knowledge as one of the proprietors of the leading New South Wales weekly, "The Town and Country Journal." One of the most famous murder cases in Australia was discovered by the ghost of the murdered man sitting on the rail of a dam (Australian for horsepond) into which his body had been thrown. Numberless people saw it, and the crime was duly brought home.

Years after, a dying man making his confession said that he invented the ghost. He witnessed the crime, but was threatened with death if he divulged it as he wished to, and the only way he saw out of the impasse was to affect to see the ghost where the body would be found. As soon as he started the story, such is the power of nervousness that numerous other people began to see it, until its fame reached such dimensions that a search was made and the body found, and the murderers brought to justice.

Greenbrier Independent, 28 January, 1897

So, is that the solution? Mrs Heaster read the Australian story the week after her daughter's death and got the inspiration to concoct a similar story in order to convince the district attorney to reopen the case. That's it? But, but, but… What about all the details Mrs Heaster allegedly got from the apparition? The clothes she was wearing? (How many did Zona own?) What the farm looked like, when Mrs Heaster had never been there? (Someone had been talking?)

To offer a divergent theory: What if Mrs Heaster read that story, but didn't consciously remember it in her grief? What if her suspicions, and the evidence she collected from talking to family, friends, and neighbours, convinced her of the truth? What if she really dreamed the supernatural event (though she insisted it wasn't a dream, it seemed so real)? What if Zona's ghost was just her unconscious mind at work, putting two and two together? Would we then be closer to Definition 2b, 'the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of sceptics'?

As shopkeepers said in the 1890s, 'You pays your money, and you takes your choice.'

Further Reading

Do you hunger to read Katie Letcher Lyle's book? We'd advise against it, but The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives is available through Open Library, so you wouldn't have to pay for the experience. Personally, we'd rather see a ghost.

An enthusiastic supporter of Ms Lyle's theory is one Brian Dunning, a well-known online sceptic. The transcript of his 'Greenbrier Ghost' episode of the 'Skeptoid' podcast can be read here. He's convinced, and has no more questions, although he urges everyone else to 'sharpen your critical thinking skills.'

Want to do some primary research of your own? Read the Greenbrier Independent, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Sharpen your critical thinking skills on some old-time journalism.

For much better fiction, read The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb.

If you have the patience, watch the epic Greenbrier, 1897, a musical entirely composed and performed by students aged 13-19 at the Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts.

1Sam Black Church is an unincorporated community in Greenbrier County in southeastern West Virginia. Sam Black Church is described as being 'near Smoot', another unincorporated community, which gives you an idea of the area's general out-of-the-way-ness. The Sam Black Church from which the community gets its name is a nationally-registered Carpenter Gothic masterpiece built in 1901 in memory of the Reverend Samuel Black (1813-1899), a circuit-riding Methodist of renown. Well, local renown. The church has its own historical marker.2Quoted from the account in The Monroe Watchman, 1 July, 1897.3Yes, the plaque says 'Edward'. Apparently Erasmus was sometimes called Edward, although this was not his name, which was, in full, Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue (1861-1900).4'Hunt the eggs': On a farm with free-range chickens, eggs can be found in many unusual places. Hunting eggs is usually a task assigned to children.5ibid.

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