On The Greenbrier Ghost in a Murder Trial, A “True” Impossibility From my Home (Part 2/2 – The Theories)

Three months ago, I made a post detailing a chilling real-world impossibility from my home of West Virginia: a woman who returns from the grave to give testimony about her murder when everyone had been convinced her death was natural causes. The case has gone formally unsolved, and to this day is the first and only instance in American legal history in which a murder trial rested on the testimony provided by a ghost.

I had intended for this post to go up about a week after the first one, but then real life got in the way, and when I finally returned to blogging I had all but forgotten about the Greenbrier Ghost! When I first made this post and shared it with friends and the Golden Age Detection Facebook, I challenged people to provide me with theories that explained all of the facts! I would like to share those theories below, debate their probability, and then share my own personal pet theory. Obviously to follow along, you need to familiar with the story, or read the post I made detailing it.

By far and large the most common theory I’ve heard is that the mother was complicit in Zona’s murder. She later betrayed her son-in-law under the guise of a ghost story. Why? Usually people argue guilt, or that she wanted both of them dead for another unknown reason.

I think it’s odd that this theory is so prevalent, as I find it to be the single most unlikely theory of them all. Shue was characterized as aggressive and powerful, and was apparently very capable of easily overpowering his wife Zona. It is unthinkable to me that Shue would need to enlist the aid of Mary Jane in any capacity in murdering a little lady, let alone being able to convince her to go along with the plan to murder her daughter.

Furthermore, if she wished to betray Shue, this was probably the worst way to do it. With such an unbelievable, albeit admittedly striking, story all Mary Jane does is signal her deceit to Shue while also minimizing the chances of authorities taking her claims seriously. In other words, this plan is ridiculous unless Mary simply wanted to be murdered while also achieving nothing.

The fact that the murderous Shue never once attempts to deflect the blame back to his supposed accomplice is also telling.

Another common theory I’ve heard is that the ghost story is a lie, dream, or hallucination brought on by the mother’s already-present suspicions of the husband, and it was created in order to pressure an exhumation. While much more possible, and in my mind very probably the correct answer, I have some issues with this one as well.

Firstly, the mother was strikingly accurate about the cause of death. While people argued that it’s possible she simply clued into it by watching Shue’s suspicious behavior at the funeral, I still believe, even in this situation, that it’s an immense coincidence. There are many ways a person could be killed that localizes around the neck, such as a cleanly slit throat or simply strangulation (without necessarily breaking the neck). In this situation, a slit throat is obviously unlikely, but seeing as strangulation is the more general between itself and neck-breaking, I feel like any sufficiently intelligent, suspicious person would more likely suppose strangulation, maximizing their chances of being at least partially correct.

Plus, like before, this theory doesn’t adequately explain why Mary Jane needed a ghost story of all things to get the point across. If she had a reasonable means of inferring this information, could she not simply make such a case to the authorities based on the weight of the same clues that led her to her own suspicions?

If she had been hallucinating, I have to wonder at how she could subconsciously conduct perfect reasoning to intuit the proper murder method, and yet not have the reasonable faculties to realize that the ghost of her daughter did not remove its head to tell her about her death.

Now all of these objections are fairly baseless, with my only contradiction being that it seems a little unlikely and unnaturally perfect. But, of course, such coincidences occur in real life all the time, and I very well believe this theory has nothing concrete in the way of evidence against it. In fact, I consider this very likely the reasonable and realistic explanation.

But then, I got a little carried away in my own explanation.

Below I posit two possible theories, which I felt accounted for all of the facts, which I felt were as probably as possible, and which I found to be, at the very least, interesting to read irrespective of how likely they were to be true. In them, I focus on three questions…

1.) Why would Dr. Knapp report a cause of death that is so suspiciously obviously fake?

2.) How could Mary Jane be so confident in her specificity about the cause of death?

3.) Why did Mary Jane conceive of a ghost story to pressure an exhumation?


Dr. Knapp Professional Reputation Theory

Exactly as described, Zona was murdered by her husband. Shue, in a fit of rage, crushed her windpipe, and threw her down the stairs. He left the house and later sent the young boy to the house to find the body — this was probably done just to deflect suspicion away from himself; “I would never send a child to find my murder victim! That’s just me begging to be caught!” He later returned home, dressed his wife, and waited for Dr. Knapp to arrive. Dr. Knapp would conduct his examination, exactly as described…

until Shue threatens Dr. Knapp’s life, as Shue is characteristically aggressive, and definitely upset about the possibility of a murder charge.

“There’s no evidence against me, you little man. I swear on my life, if you do anything to try and get this murder pinned on me, I will walk free. I will walk free, and I will kill you the second I do, do you understand me?”

Dr. Knapp, a mere country doctor and intimidated by the larger man’s threats, concedes to his terms. He proposes that he report the death as natural causes, which is amenable to Shue. Dr. Knapp, however frightful he may be, is also a moral man, and therefore he tries to reconcile casting suspicion on Shue with protecting his own life. Therefore, he opts to write “death by child-rearing complications” as an obviously fake cause of death — everyone was suspicious of this, as Zona was very obviously not pregnant. He further off-handedly noted bruises around the neck to tighten the noose of suspicion in just an indirect enough way that he hoped the police would take notice while Dr. Knapp could wash his hands of involvement in the eyes of his would-be killer.

Only, although they were suspicious, the police took Dr. Knapp at his word, refused to investigate further, and permitted a funeral the very next day. Dr. Knapp is wracked with guilt that his cowardice will allow a killer to go free, but he’s of two minds. If he rescinds his testimony about the cause of death, not only will his professional integrity be at risk (as everyone would know he deliberately lied about the cause of death in a murder case) but he’d also be painting a target on his back. This cognitive dissonance, he realized, could be assuaged with the help of, at least, one extra person: Mary Jane Heaster.

Dr. Knapp hurries to confess the whole truth to Mary Jane. He knows that Shue broke her daughter’s neck, and he, inadvertently, helped Shue walks free. He implores her to find some reasonable way to communicate this to the police while entirely leaving his name out of it to protect his life and professional reputation. Mary Jane is left with an uncomfortable situation to grapple with, naturally, as she has no earthly means for explaining her apparent clairvoyance, so…

The ghost story was concocted as a means of explaining information which Mary Jane did not naturally intuit, but came to know. She was required to use the ghost story to conceal the source of her information — or, in other words, to protect her informant. The ghost story is entirely safe for her in this situation, as Shue knows Mary Jane isn’t involved in the crime and therefore would simply be confused by this story, rather than incensed.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the joint plan between Dr. Knapp and Mary Jane was a success. Shue was indicted for his crimes after the exhumation, and subsequently lynched.


Doctor’s Orders Theory

That’s only, of course, if this story had a happy ending in which bad people are punished for their crimes and the innocent are vindicated…

Mary Jane could rest easy until her very last day on Earth with the satisfaction that she thought the murderer of her daughter was hanged for his crimes. What she might not know, however, is that she was the unwitting accomplice in a much more devious plot, and the true killer of her daughter walked free for the rest of his life, unsuspected and unbothered.

After all, Shue’s behavior was decidedly contradictory. He wanted his wife’s body to found to deflect suspicion away from him, and yet all the while he risked the discovery of the murder he also tried to make the crime appear a case of natural cases. If he had intended to pressure Dr. Knapp into providing false testimony about the cause of death, what was the point of getting an alibi for a murder that he was sure wouldn’t be suspected as murder anyway? Why not simply allow the crime to be discovered if he had gone to such trouble to send the boy to his house just to establish his innocence in such a roundabout way? Why further invite suspicion onto yourself by publicly trying to hide the wounds at the funeral?

Shue showed at least a reasonable amount of intelligence in covering up his supposed crime (as long as you assume it’s his crime), so why would a basically smart killer engage in such contradictory behavior that hurt him more than it helped?

……………

Dr. Knapp, for reasons entirely unknown to us and forever lost to time, came to the Shue house when he knew the husband was away, searched for Zona Heaster Shue, and then, upon locating her, crushed her windpipe with his bare hands. He then left, waiting for the crime to be discovered by Shue. It was instead discovered by a young child sent to the house by Shue. Dr. Knapp might’ve been worried this would make Shue’s guilt harder to establish, but he didn’t mind it too much. Knapp returned to the house under the summons of Shue, where he conducted his medical examination.

“I know you’re innocent, Shue, but you must understand that you will assuredly be hung for this crime. Everyone knows the way you treated poor Zona — they’re out for your blood! I can help you pluck your neck from the noose, but I need you to cooperate with me entirely. Can you do that?”

Shue, trusting Dr. Knapp implicitly, agrees to his plan. Shue arranges for a quick funeral. Shue dresses Zona. Shue tries to hide her wounds at the funeral. All by the direction of Dr. Knapp. Everything Shue did that invited suspicion onto him were merely the doctor’s orders. Little did Shue know that Knapp was conducting him to make himself look worse and worse.

To further aid in getting Shue convicted for Knapp’s crime, Dr. Knapp wrote an obviously fake cause of death on his report, and noted bruising around the throat.

After the funeral, Dr. Knapp runs to Mary Jane Heaster’s house and “confesses” to his improprieties.

“That brute of a man… your son-in-law, Shue! He threatened me into providing a false cause of death! He said ‘There’s no evidence against me, you little man. I swear on my life, if you do anything to try and get this murder pinned on me, I will walk free. I will walk free, and I will kill you the second I do, do you understand me?’!”

Dr. Knapp told Mary Jane Heaster the entire story you heard before. He begs her to conceive of a way to get Shue convicted, while leaving his name out of it! It was not for his professional integrity, though… It was so that, when Shue was convicted, Shue wouldn’t realize he’d been betrayed and admit to the part Knapp played in this whole drama.

Mary Jane Heaster believed the theory that had been posited before, and was easily manipulated thanks to her already-present suspicions of her son-in-law.

Come the day of the trial, Shue is confident. He knows he’s innocent, and he’s got the good doctor on his side. But to his immense surprise, his mother-in-law takes the stand. “The ghost of my daughter came to me, and she told me that her husband snapped his neck!”

An exhumation had been performed… and indeed the ghost’s story had been proven true. Zona’s neck had indeed been crushed. This to everyone seemed like the nail in the coffin. What nobody could’ve anticipated is that this ghost’s testimony would only be half true… but because the cause of death was vindicated, people merely accepted the rest of the ghost’s testimony implicitly.

Shue was hung, taking Knapp’s involvement to his grave, never realizing he’d been betrayed. Mary Jane, too, would take Knapp’s involvement to her grave, never realizing he had killed her daughter. Dr. Knapp would live the good life, free of all suspicion…


Well, there you have it! My pet theory concerning the death of Zona Heaster Shue. Do I believe it’s a true theory? No, not at all. It very obviously reads like a very bad Columbo Halloween special, with a killer who gets by on nothing but convoluted gas-lighting alone. But I do believe that, at the very least, it’s a creative explanation that accounts for all of the information we were provided without assuming information that doesn’t exist or can’t be inferred — of course, it only would work in the context of a detective story, where everyone is infinitely intelligent and acts with an unlimited supply of reason (except when it’s convenient) so that it’s possible to make deductions from supposedly “odd behavior”.

I had, at least, a considerable amount of fun concocting a goofy theory, and I hope someone at the least finds it an interesting, if unlikely, idea!

On The Greenbrier Ghost in a Murder Trial, A “True” Impossibility From my Home (Part 1/2 – The Situation)

A woman who wasn’t pregnant was named dead due to complications during childbirth. A whole month after the young woman’s death, her ghost appears to her mother and tells her the true cause of her death: her husband shattered her neck after a dispute over that night’s dinner. When the authorities are informed, they dig up the girl’s body and indeed they find new evidence of foul-play… from a corpse which the woman was never there to see… so how did she know about the cause of death?

This story is a genuine part of West Virginia folklore: our state is the only in all of America to officially claim to have settled a murder trial on the testimony provided by a ghost! Many might be to quick to question, from the telling, the validity of this tale. However I was struck, while reading it, that this story has been kicking around in my head as a bit of a Talbot/Halter-esque impossible crime, and I immediately conceived of a very simple explanation that makes all of the odd details fit into place — showing me that here is still a very human explanation at the heart of this problem even if you take the story at 100% face value.

I invite you to test your wits against the tale of the Greenbrier Ghost, relayed here in as clinical and unembellished terms as is humanly possible.


In 1987 Elva Zona Heaster Shue of Greenbrier County, West Virginia, was found dead in her home. Her body was discovered on January 23 at the foot of the main staircase of her and her husband’s home. She was discovered by a young boy sent to the house by her husband Mr. Shue to perform some errands. The boy went to tell his mother, who subsequently summoned the local doctor and coroner George W. Knapp, who didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.

When Dr. Knapp had arrived, Shue had already taken his wife’s body upstairs, cleaned her and dressed her (this was noted as odd behavior, as it was frequently considered the task of the woman of the community). He had made her up in a high-necked dress. Dr. Knapp attempted to perform an examination, but, noting the widow’s grief, made his examination very brief. However, when the doctor attempted to investigate under the collar of the high-necked dress, Mr. Shue was characteristically angry and vehemently refused to allow the doctor to continue. The doctor gave his professional opinion that the cause of death was complications during childbirth. He, however, offhandedly noted bruising about the neck in his report…….

Childbirth was accepted as the official cause of death, however nobody seemed to recall whether Zona was pregnant or not, and the child could not be located… Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was informed of the death, and the body was subsequently buried the very next day. During the burial, Shue had refused to allow anyone to approach the open coffin until he had left Zona with her “favorite scarf” tied about her neck and placing a pillow into the casket to “help her rest better”.

A full month later, according to Mary Jane Heaster, the spirit of her daughter Zona manifested before her, and claimed that her husband Shue was abusive, and broke her neck when he was unhappy with dinner. To emphasize this point, the ghost “turned its head 180 degrees”. Mary Jane Heaster reported to the police that her daughter was strangled and her neck broken by Shue. The police (already suitably suspicious of Shue) humored the ghost story and dug up the body of Zona and performed an immediate exhumation, finding the true cause of death to be strangulation. 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.

In other words… the story Mary Jane supposedly heard from the ghost of her daughter was entirely true. Something which nobody knew came to become Mary Jane’s knowledge, something she could’ve never seen: her daughter had been strangled to death.

The case was brought to court and, indeed, under the weight of the story, Mr. Shue ended up receiving an unambiguous conviction from the jury, who refused to find reasonable grounds on which to discredit the ghost tale — a conviction resting entirely, solely, on the testimony provided by the ghost of the victim.


I welcome any and all theories to explain the seemingly supernatural acquisition of Mary Jane’s knowledge of her daughter’s death. I happen to know a theory many people will likely jump to, but which I actually disagree with on a fundamental level (thanks to evidence provided in the story). Nonetheless, I’d love to hear the variety of solutions our impossible crime-loving community can conceive of to this problem — before too long, I think I’ll post my own theory to the problem which, in my eyes, perfectly explains away every little contradiction of facts…