For hundreds of years, people have believed in ghosts; they appear in ancient literature, plays and movies. In folklore, a ghost is the spirit of a deceased person or animal that appears to the living, generally in a semi-visible form. Ghosts may also be known as apparitions, haunts, poltergeists, shades, specters, spooks or wraiths, with descriptions varying widely from an invisible airy presence to translucent or barely visible misty shapes, to realistic, life-like visions. Spiritualists believe that theunseen things that make up a personality, such as ego and intellect, do not die and instead carry on in another plane of existence. According to the Gallup Poll News Service, belief in haunted houses, ghosts, communication with the dead, and witches had an especially steep increase over the 1990s. And, a2005 Gallup poll found that approximately 32 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.
The spirit of a deceased person that persists in the material world (the ghost) is regarded as an unnatural or undesirable state of existence and the thought of ghosts in the general proximity may cause nervousness or fear. This could be due, at least in part, to the thought that ghosts are frequently considered to be seeking vengeance for acts perpetrated against them, or have unfulfilled goals they did not accomplish while alive. Another theory is that the ghost is imprisoned on earth due to their wicked activities during life. Regardless, a place where a ghost resides is described as haunted, although not all hauntings are at a place of brutal death or even on violent grounds.
A White Lady is a specific type of ghost dressed all in white and reported primarily in rural areas. These spectral females supposedly died tragically or suffered severe trauma in life. While White Lady legends are found in many countries around the world, they are most common in the United States, Ireland and Great Britain. The theme of painfully losing or being betrayed by a husband or fiancé is common to many of the White Lady tales.
Elva Zona Heaster was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia and made history as a not-dressed-in-white spirit who helped solve her own murder. Zona met Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue in 1896, a drifter who moved to Greenbriar to start a new life working as a blacksmith. The two were attracted to each other and quickly married, against the wishes of Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster. On January 23, 1897, only a few months after their marriage, Zona’s body was discovered inside her house by an errand boy. She was stretched out at the bottom of the stairs, with her feet together, one hand on her abdomen and the other lying next to her still form. Her head was turned slightly to one side and her eyes were open and staring.
Before the local doctor and coroner could arrive, Erasmus carried his wife’s body up to their bedroom and laid her out on the bed. In a breach of local custom, he dressed the corpse himself in a high-necked, stiff-collared dress, put a scarf around her neck (her favorite, he said) and a veil over her face. Erasmus never left his wife’s body, continuously sobbing and cradling her head. Due to this extreme display of grief on the part of her husband, the coroner was unable to complete a thorough examination of Zona’s body; he listed the cause of death as“everlasting faint.”
On January 24, Zona’s body was transferred to her parent’s home several miles away, with Erasmus in constant vigil at the head of the open coffin. During the subsequent wake, Erasmus would not allow anyone to get too close to the coffin and when the body was moved, several of the mourners present noted a strange looseness to Zona’s head. After the interment of herremains, Mary Jane noticed a strange odor and color when she washed the sheet used to cover her daughter. As a result, sheprayed every night for four weeks that Zona would return to her and reveal the truth about the manner of her death.
Some weeks later, her prayers were answered. According to Mary Jane, Zona appeared over the course of four dark nights, waking her mother from sleep and explaining that Erasmus had indeed murdered her, attacking her and savagely breaking her neck. [Coincidentally, this story mirrors one of the more recognizable ghosts in English literature: the shade of Hamlet’s murdered father who demands that Hamlet investigate his “murder most foul” and seek revenge upon his usurping uncle.]Mary Jane approached the local prosecutor, requesting that the investigation into Zona’s death be re-opened. While the prosecutor agreed to talk to those involved in the case, he actually re-opened the case because others in the community were also suspicious about the nature of Zona’s death.
On February 22, 1897 the body of Zona Shue, well-preserved in the frozen ground, was exhumed to perform a more complete autopsy. During the course of this examination, it was determined that Zona’s neck had indeed been broken (ICD-10-CM code S12.9XXA, Fracture of neck, unspecified, initial encounter), her trachea crushed (code S17.0XXA, Crushing injury of larynx and trachea, initial encounter) and there werebruises on her throat indicating that she had been choked (code Y04.8XXA, Assault by other bodily force, initial encounter; and Y92.018, Other place in a private house as the place of occurrence). Erasmus was arrested, arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty. He was also overheard at the time of the autopsy to state “They cannot provide I did it.” The highlight of the trial, of course, occurred when the defense attorney asked Zona’s mother about her ghostly visitation. Although the attorney planned to discredit Mary Jane as a witness, the tactic backfired. It was apparent that most of the people in the community believed in Zona’s ability to reach from beyond the grave and point to her murderer.
Erasmus was subsequently convicted of murder, but in the absence of a unanimous decision he was sentenced to life in prison. He died on March 13, 1900 from one of the epidemics of measles, mumps or pneumonia that rampaged through the prison that spring. Mary Jane Robinson Heaster died in September 1916, without ever recanting her story about her daughter’s ghost. Zona, also called the Greenbriar Ghost, was never seen again. However, there is a roadside marker along Route 60 that commemorates the only known case in which the testimony of a ghost helped convict a murderer.