It wasn’t long after Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue – better known as just Trout – arrived in Greenbrier, West Virginia that he managed to sweep a local girl off her feet. Zona Heaster was immediately taken by the fast-talking blacksmith and they were married shortly after meeting.
Tragically, the couple’s happy marriage would be cut short when Heaster died unexpectedly. A neighbor boy found her dead at the bottom of the stairs when he went to the couple’s home to help out with chores. A medical examiner had determined her death to be from “everlasting faint” – a heart attack – and the case was closed.
Her body was taken to the home of her mother. Trout had wrapped her favorite scarf around her neck and placed a pillow under her head “to help her rest,” and she was buried in a small ceremony. No one thought much of the young woman’s untimely death until nearly a month later.
Heaster’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, began telling neighbors that each night Zona had been visiting her. She claimed that the spirit told her that her death was not natural, as everyone had believed, and that it was Shue who had killed her. This occurred for four nights in a row, until Mary Jane finally decided to talk to the county prosecutor.
While her story seemed bizarre, it was a disturbing enough to have Heaster’s body exhumed. Undergoing a second autopsy, it appeared there had been strangulation marks around her neck and her head appeared to have been loose from broken vertebrae, only held upright by the pillow Shue had placed under her head prior to her burial.
As prosecutors began building a case against Shue, his troubling past had begun to come to light. Heaster wasn’t his first marriage, nor was she his second.
In 1885, Shue was wed to Allie Estelline Cutlip and together the couple produced a daughter. During one particularly heated argument Shue had beaten his wife so badly that the townsfolk went to Shue’s home and threw him into the Greenbrier River in the dead of winter. Shue went to jail in 1891 after he was found guilty of stealing horses and the marriage to Cutlip ended.
In 1894, Shue would marry another woman named Lucy Ann Tritt. Like Zona, Tritt had died suddenly. There was no investigation into her death and it was only after the investigation into Heaster’s possible murder that there had been any speculation that Tritt’s death may have been the result of a homicide.
Heaster’s mother went to visit with Dr. Knapp, who had conducted the original autopsy on Zona. Knapp told Heaster that Shue had appeared so distraught that he was barely able to touch the body and his ruling could only be based on cursory evidence.
During the trial little information was given about the ghostly sightings on the end of the prosecution. Mary Jane Heaster had always had her suspicions about Shue and there’s some who believe her wild story about ghosts was more or less a way for her to get people interested in reopening her daughter’s case, but up until her death she never wavered from her account.
The defense attempted to use these visions against Mary Jane to make it seem like the case was based on the ravings of a mad woman. After being badgered for several minutes about the ghost sightings, it was clear that the questioning was not going as the defense had hoped and that most of the jury accepted Mary Jane’s story as the truth.
The jury deliberated for a little over a hour before they returned with their verdict. Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, but some wanted to see him dead. A group of vigilantes made plans to march to the jail and lynch Shue, and probably would have if the sheriff hadn’t gotten involved. Shue died a short time later of a measles, mumps and pneumonia outbreak in West Virginia State Penitentiary.
The story would go down in history as the first and only trial ever based on a spirit’s testimony. A roadside marker was later erected in honor of the tale near the cemetery Heaster was buried.