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!