Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thursday in History: Ghostly Testimony

Today, if a witness in a murder trial were to say something like, “my daughter’s good-for-nothing husband killed her, and I know because her ghost appeared to me and told me so,” she would be tossed out of court as an unreliable witness (and a crazy person).
Mary Jane Heaster was questioned by the prosecutor at the trial which would bring justice to her daughter, but he didn’t ask her anything about voices from the beyond. She was happy to share that particular story with the lawyer for the defense. He was hoping to show the jury that she was, as he assumed, a crazy person, but was defeated by the unwavering account she gave of the four nights that her daughter’s ghost visited her, and the story the apparition shared about her cruel husband who strangled her because he was displeased with the dinner she made.
Since the defense had made such a point of dragging out the whole implausible story, there was no way the judge could caution the jury to forget what Mrs. Heaster had said about the ghost turning its head all the way around to prove its neck had been broken.
The unfortunate widower was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, a life which was saved by the deputy sheriff’s quick action in disbanding a lynch mob that arrived the evening after the sentencing to mete out justice. He died three years later of an epidemic that swept the West Virginia State Penitentiary in 1900.
On this day in history in 1897, Zora Heaster Shue was found collapsed at the foot of the stairs in her home by a boy who had been sent there with a message from her husband. Important parties were notified, and when the tardy doctor arrived at the Shue household, he found that Erasmus Shue had taken it upon himself to dress his wife’s body for burial. Normally the women of a community performed this heart wrenching task to allow the family of the deceased to grieve, but everyone handles the death of a loved one differently. Shue’s way was apparently to hover around his beloved’s head, sobbing. These effusions of woe prevented the doctor from noticing much more than some bruising around the neck of the deceased, and he soon left the man to his mourning.
Zona Shue’s mother had never liked her daughter’s useless husband. She was against their marriage in the first place. He’d been a drifter before settling in Greenbrier county to work as a blacksmith. What did they know about him? Nothing! And the way he refused to move away from Zona’s body was suspicious. He’d shouted at several people when they’d tried to see Zona laid out in her coffin, and got especially worked up when they asked him why he was putting a pillow and a towel on either side of her neck. “To help her rest easier”?! She was dead and gone! How would a pillow help her rest? And no one believed him when he put that hideous scarf around her neck. “Her favorite,” indeed!
But she couldn’t ignore the fact that he refused to take the sheet his wife’s body had lain on before burial. She decided to keep it herself, and when she washed it, was astounded to find blood there. Hoping that her daughter, wronged and murdered by her husband, would return to tell the truth of it, she began a month of earnest prayers.
Whether Zona’s spirit appeared to her mother or not, the determined old lady badgered a local prosecutor into looking at the case, and he found enough suspicious things to order Zona’s body exhumed. No ghost was present to incriminate Shue at the inquest, but his words and behavior showed a guilty conscience: he protested against attending but was required by law to be there. Whining that he knew he would be arrested, he showed up, but also added that there was no proof that he had done anything wrong. The results were as he predicted: he was arrested after the examiners found bruising on his late wife’s neck, a crushed windpipe, and a broken neck.
The prosecution was not wasting time while Shue was waiting in jail for trial, and dug up certain things about his past: two marriages, one ending in divorce (accompanying accusations of “great cruelty”) and the other making him a widower for the first time, as his wife mysteriously expired soon after they were married. Shue threw caution to the wind as he awaited his doom in the cell, talking about his plans to marry seven women once he was let off of these proof-less charges.
Zona’s mother found some justice for her murdered child when the jury sentenced her son-in-law to life in prison on July 11th, 1897. The ghost of her daughter has not been seen since, and may never have been seen at all; the fact of the matter is that people who heard the story believed it, and that the events surrounding the murder of Zona Heaster Shue have been remembered.
West Virginia state marker, located near Zora Shue's burial site in Greenbrier County, West Virginia
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