Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Greenbrier Ghost in Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery

“Most mothers are
instinctive philosophers.”
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 2016, I was planning a trip to Eureka Springs with my mother and wanted us to have a ghostly excursion on the first day of driving. Zona and her mother’s story seemed like the exact type of journey a mother and daughter should take on a ghostly vacation. Plus, the cemetery is a little over three hours from my home and right off Interstate 64 in Greenbrier, West Virginia. It seemed like the perfect place to stop, give a wink to our vacation, and pay our respects to the Heaster family.

Mom and I visited both the cemetery and the historical marker.We left flowers for Zona and it appears that others do as well since there were already flowers placed on her grave. I actually forgot to snap a picture of our flowers and took pictures before placing them. I'm noting this because I'm a bit of an artificial-flowers-on-graves snob. :-/ Sorry!

Zona Heaster met a man named Edward Stribbling Trout Shue who had moved to Greenbrier County, West Virginia to work as a blacksmith. The two fell in love and married, even though Zona’s mother Mary Jane Heaster objected.

On January 23, 1897, Zona's body was found lying at the foot of the stairs, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. The local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp was summoned and arrived within an hour. Yet, by that time, Shue had already carried his Zona’s body upstairs to the bedroom. He had washed and dressed her for burial, something unusual for the time since it was customary for the women of the community to do this, not the husband. Zona was wearing a high-necked dress with a stiff collar. Shue had placed a veil over her face and remained by her side while Knapp examined the body. Each time that Knapp moved closer to Zona’s body, Shue would begin cradling his wife's head and sobbing. Knapp was only able to give a brief examination and noted that there were some bruising on the neck.

Zona's cause of death was listed as "everlasting faint” which was later changed to "childbirth". Knapp had been treating Zona for "female trouble" shortly before her death, but there was no documented pregnancy before her death.

Shue kept a vigil at the head of the open coffin which had been laid out in the Heaster’s house. His behavior was suspicious since he would grieve and them show great liveliness. Shue wouldn’t allow anyone close to the coffin. He rolled a sheet up and tucked it by Zona’s head explaining that this would help her rest. He also tied a large scarf around her neck noting that it had been Zona’s favorite.

As Zona’s body was being taken to the cemetery, some noticed that was an odd looseness to her head.

Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was convinced that her son-in-law had murdered his wife. Sshe removed the sheet from inside the coffin and when she noticed a stain and washed it, the water ran red. Mrs. Heaster began to pray.

Zona was buried in the local cemetery now known as the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery. This wasn’t the easiest place to find. The Find a Grave website did not have the typical gps locations, nor did it have the address listed. Mostly when I searched about the story, I was directed to the historical marker but I’ll get to that in a minute. When I finally found the directions, this became our excursion on the way to the 1886 Crescent Hotel.  We made our way to the cemetery by following several narrow, winding roads. One road was one lane and since we were going straight up a hill, I had to honk to make sure that we didn’t collide with another vehicle. Interestingly enough, we did not see any other vehicles on any of the roads heading to the cemetery. It’s that out of the way.

After her death, Zona appeared to her mother in a dream and stated that Shue was a cruel man who abused her. He had attacked her and broke her neck. Some legends note that to prove this the ghost turned its head around until it was facing backwards.

Mrs. Heaster went to the prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, and convinced him to reopen the case of her daughter's death. Preston sent deputies to interview Dr. Knapp who explained that he had been unable to complete a thorough examination of the body. The statement was sufficient justification for an autopsy, and Zona’s body was exhumed and examined on February 22, 1897 in the local one-room schoolhouse. 

The autopsy showed that Zona's neck had indeed been broken. The report was published on March 9, 1897 and read, "The discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe mashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked. The neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck." Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.

The trial began in June and Zona’s mother was their main witness. Preston tried to avoid the ghostly sightings but Shue's lawyer focused on this during cross-examination. The judge found it difficult to instruct the jury to disregard the story of the ghost, and many people in the community seemed to believe it. Consequently, Shue was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The state of West Virginia has erected a state historical marker on Route 60, a few miles away from the cemetery.

The cemetery is out in the middle of some serious rural country! The graveyard is old and quite uneven. I worried about my mother walking but she seemed more annoyed by the hot sun beating down on us and having left her hat in the car. 

The grass was maintained but many of the stones were in need of repair, including Zona’s mother’s gravestone which was broken and propped up. Zona’s grave is near the middle of the graveyard toward the back. It appears to be a large, newer marker. 

The story of the Greenbrier Ghost has been adapted to the stage. Jan Buttram's play Zona (1998) and Cathey Sawyer and Joe Buttram’s The Greenbrier Ghost (2003).

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