The situation with John Gamble did not bode well for West Virginia cases that alleged paranormal involvement. Oddly enough, there was an unspoken change decades later during the trial of a man named Trout Shue. The testimony of the “Greenbrier Ghost” was actually given credence in court.
Elva Zona Jane Heaster was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, around 1873. Records of her early life do not exist. She was the eldest daughter of Jacob and Mary Jane Heaster, who were of English descent. Several modern portrayals describe the Heasters as poor, but Jacob was a successful farmer, and the family owned a boarding house. The family had a number of children.
Elva met Erasmus Stribbling, or E. S., “Trout” Shue in 1896. Contemporary sources call him “Edward” but the original trial records called him “Trout.” Like his name, 30-year-old Trout was an odd individual. He grew up in the Mossy Creek portion of the county. He came from a respected family. His father was a blacksmith named Jacob Trout. By adulthood, Trout was said to be a “drifter” who couldn’t quite find the stability or success his father enjoyed. Elva fell in love with him, despite her mother’s misgivings. Mary Heaster couldn’t say why she had such an instant dislike of him, only that she did.
The seemingly happy couple was married in the Methodist Church in Livesey’s Mill. The union happened during November of 1896. The happy couple moved into a 2-story frame house that once belonged to William G. Livesay.
Elva grew ill in January of 1897, just two months into her marriage. Dr. Knapp visited the household regularly for two weeks to treat her. Trout was gentle and loving while the physician treated her. From all known evidence, he was tender and loving until his wife recovered.
On January 23, 1897, Trout left for work. He stopped by the neighbors’ house, an African-American family, and asked if their 12-year-old son might help his wife with some chores. The mother agreed, but said it would be a while because he already had chores to finish.
Trout returned to the neighbor’s house around 11 am and asked if the boy had went to help Elva yet. He hadn’t, but his mother assured him the boy would visit once he had eaten lunch. Trout said he wasn’t taking lunch.
It wasn’t long before the boy sounded the alarm. Elva was dead. Her body was found on the dining room floor, and her clothing was pulled down. Her feet were perfectly together, as if someone deliberately laid her body out.
Dr. Knapp, who had been to the Shue household to treat Elva’s sickness, was now her coroner. It took him about an hour to arrive. Even though he was a familiar face, he was unable to perform anything other than a visual inspection. By the time he arrived, Trout had already carried her upstairs to prepare her for burial. This was highly unusual, as the community women always prepared the dead for burial. It was also unusual that the husband destroyed the scene of an unexpected death before the authorities could examine it.
Trout wouldn’t let the doctor get too close to the body. He cried and loudly wailed over his wife’s sudden passing. Knapp ascertained the body showed signs of being deceased far longer than a few hours. Still, Trout made it impossible to say more. In frustration, the doctor said she’d died of heart failure. Her previous ailments had suggested issues with her cardiovascular system, so it seemed logical.
Shue dressed Elva strangely. He chose a dress with a particularly high collar, not something used for dressing a corpse. Shue then wrapped a crepe veil around dress collar and claimed it was her favorite. No one could really recall her wearing it that often. Mary draped a sheet across her daughter for the wake.
She was taken to her father’s house for the service. Shue’s bizarre behavior didn’t end, and by that point it drew much more attention. Those who kept vigil noticed no one could approach the coffin, unless he stood at its head. Elva’s head also moved unusually freely. Trout padded the coffin once he noticed. He claimed it was to make her more comfortable, but the red flags were raised. Others continued to whisper.
After the service, Mary removed the sheet from the coffin. She tried to give it to Trout as a memento, but he told her to keep it. Elva was buried on January 24.
People were powerless to do more than talk after the burial. Mary continued to mourn for her child. She put the coffin sheet away for a few days, but she knew it needed to be washed. It had, after all, draped a corpse and it probably had the lingering scent of death.
She already had a load of white sheets from the boardinghouse in the washtub, so she threw the sheet in with them. The water went blood red. She assumed every piece of fabric in the tub was ruined. Strangely enough, no other article in the tub was affected. The coffin sheet alone turned red. She hung the items out to dry as normal, even left the coffin sheet to bleach in the sunlight for three days, but the blood red color never faded. She decided it meant her daughter was murdered.
She prayed every night for four weeks for some kind of sign or divine indication of what happened. The prayers ended with four nightly visits from her daughter. Mary learned what happened that final evening.
Elva’s spirit said she had prepared a large dinner for Trout. Unfortunately, she had no meat to go with it. Trout grew enraged and physically attacked her. His fury escalated until her put one hand on either side of her throat and murdered her.
Mary visited the local prosecutor and spent several hours explaining what happened. There is little record of how much he initially believed, but he was certainly aware of the number of people discussing Trout’s behavior. By the time Mary left, he was intrigued enough to re-interview many of the original witnesses.
Dr. Knapp openly admitted he couldn’t properly examine the body. The prosecution believed they had sufficient evidence to exhume the body and conduct a proper autopsy.
Trout didn’t like the proceedings. He vigorously complained about the inquest, but couldn’t stop it. He also wanted to be present at the autopsy, but the authorities denied his request.
Constable Jim Shawver gathered six inquest jurors and they exhumed the body. She’d been buried at Soul Chapel Cemetery, so the inquest was conducted at nearby Nickels schoolhouse. W.H. Squire Burns was one member of the inquest jury. Justice Homer McClung presided. John A. Preston was the State Attorney for the County. Henry Gilmer was the assistant prosecuting attorney.
Drs. Rupert, Knapp, and Machesney conducted the autopsy. The doctors didn’t find any evidence of poison in her stomach or unnatural organ damage. Juror Burns noticed the body’s head was too loose for a corpse. The doctors then turned their attention to her head and neck. The autopsy proved what the ghost had told Mary Heaster. Elva’s windpipe was crushed, and despite a month of decomposition, her throat still carried visible finger marks.
On March 4, headlines read “Foul Play Suspected.” Henry Gilmer arrested Trout and took him to the Lewisburg jail. Trout admitted he expected an arrest, but the authorities couldn’t prove his guilt. His seemingly insurmountable grief had disappeared.
He had a number of previous wives, although it’s difficult to ascertain just how many. Many accounts state Elva was his third wife, while others state she was his fourth. He was only 30 at the time of his trial. His first wife divorced him on the grounds of unimaginable cruelty. The next few wives died under mysterious circumstances.
Judge J. M. McWhorter presided over the trial. Shue’s defense team consisted of William Rucker and James Gardener. Gardener was the first African American attorney in Greenbrier, and the first in the state to defend a white man. Gardener is also called Jas. P. D. Graham in some sources. The defense tried every method employable to trick Mary Heaster or to manipulate her story. They couldn’t. They put Shue on the stand, but he contradicted himself several times and became an unreliable witness.
The trial revealed Trout was also an ex-convict who had served time for horse theft. Mary also brought the sheet in question as an exhibit in the courtroom.
Members of the jury at trial were:
The trial lasted 8 days, but Trout was found guilty after an hour of deliberation. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at the Moundsville State Penitentiary, on July 11. John Seward organized a mob to lynch Shue, but George Harrah notified Sheriff Nickel. The Sheriff persuaded the group to stop because the law had already decided his fate.
Eventually, the group listened to reason. The authorities remained apprehensive. They handcuffed Shue to Deputy John Dwyer and the three of them hid in a cornfield until morning. Shue was rushed to the Prison.
Trout bragged that he was going to eventually have seven wives, but didn’t quite make it. He died 8 years into his life sentence. Many sources state he died from an unknown epidemic in the prison, but rumors suggest he was actually murdered.
Many contemporary sources state Elva had a child out of wedlock in 1895; however, there is absolutely no proof. Era publications would have made note of such a scandalous situation during the trial. Had Trout taken in another man’s child to raise, his defense team would’ve been used it to his benefit. Another fact is that she was likely dead for over 12 hours. The crying of a 2-year-old would have drawn attention from neighbors long before midday the next day.