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. Many claims state she had a child out of wedlock in 1895, however no proof can be ascertained of such a situation. Several modern portrayals describe the Heasters as poor, but Jacob was a successful farmer and the family owned several houses, one of which was 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 a peculiar individual with a shady past. Trout grew up in the Mossy Creek portion of the county. He came from a respected family. His father was Jacob Trout, blacksmith, which was the trade that Trout ultimately entered. 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 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 had once belonged to William G. Livesey.
Elva grew ill in January of 1897. Dr. Knapp visited the household regularly for two weeks to treat her. Trout was gentle and loving while the physician was there. From all known evidence, he was as tender and loving as possible until his wife recovered.
On January 23, 1897, Trout left home on his way to work. He stopped at the home of his neighbors, a “Negro” 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 of his own to finish.
Trout returned to the neighbor’s house around 11 am and asked if the boy had left yet. He hadn’t, but his mother assured him the boy would go there once he had lunch. Trout said he wasn’t taking lunch that day.
It wasn’t long before the boy sounded the alarm. Elva was dead. The neighbor summoned the doctor and coroner. Knapp was back to perform the autopsy. He was unable to perform anything other than a visual inspection of the body. Trout wouldn’t let him. Trout cried and mourned. He loudly wailed over his wife’s sudden passing. Knapp was able to ascertain the body showed signs of being deceased far longer than just a few hours. Still, Trout made it impossible to say more.
Knapp had been to the Shue household in the previous weeks because Elva was sick. In frustration, the doctor just said she’d died of heart failure. Her body had been laid out in the dining room and her clothing was pulled down. Her feet were perfectly together, as if someone laid her body out.
The coroner didn’t get there for an hour. By the time he arrived, Trout had already carried the body upstairs to prepare it for burial. This was unusual for the community as the women always prepared the bodies of the dead.
She was taken to her father’s house for the wake. Everyone who held vigil with the family noticed Shue’s bizarre behavior. No one could approach the coffin unless he stood at its head. The corpse’s head moved unusually freely until Trout padded the coffin. He claimed it was just to make her more comfortable, but red flags were raised. People began to talk. He’d also chosen a strange neck wrapping for the body. Her dress was not something most would choose for dressing a corpse. It had a particularly high collar. He also wrapped a crepe veil around that and claimed it was her favorite.
Mary took the sheet from the coffin used during the wake. She tried to give it to Trout as a memento, but he told her just to keep it. Elva was buried on January 24.
People were powerless to do more than talk for some time after the trial. Mary continued to mourn for her child. She had 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.
Mary already had a load of white fabrics in the washtub, so she threw the sheet in overtop them. The water went blood red. She assumed every piece of fabric in the tub was now ruined. Strangely enough, no other article of white fabric was affected. The sheet alone turned red. She hung the clothes out normally, even left the sheet to bleach in the sunlight for three days, but the red wouldn’t come out. She decided it meant her daughter was murdered.
She prayed every night for four weeks for some kind of sign or divine communication of what happened. The prayers ended with four nights of visits from her daughter. Eventually, Mary figured out how to communicate with her daughter.
She learned that Elva had prepared a lavish dinner for Trout after work. Unfortunately, they had no meat to go with it. Trout grew enraged over this and physically attacked her. His fury escalated until her put one hand on either side of her head and snapped her neck.
Mary visited the local prosecutor and spent several hours explaining what happened. There is little record of just how much he accepted, but he knew there was already a great deal of talk in the community about Trout’s behavior. By the time Mary left, he was intrigued enough to re-interview many of the original witnesses.
Dr. Knapp had been the coroner and freely admitted he was unable to properly examine the body. The prosecution believed there was sufficient evidence to exhume the body and conduct a proper autopsy.
Trout didn’t like how the events were proceeding. He vigorously complained about the inquest, but couldn’t stop the proceedings. He also wanted to be present at the inquest, but the authorities denied him.
Constable Jim Shawver gathered six inquest jurors and they exhumed the body. She’d been buried at Soul Chapel Cemetery. The inquest itself was conducted at near-by Nickels schoolhouse. W. H. Squire Burns was one member on 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. There was no evidence of poison in her stomach or other organ damage. Juror Burns noticed the body’s head was quite 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. The windpipe was crushed and despite a month of decomposition, the authorities could still make out finger marks on her throat.
On March 4, headlines read “Foul Play Suspected.” Henry Gilmer arrested Trout and took him to the Lewisburg jail. Trout admitted he already expected an arrest, but the authorities couldn’t prove his guilt.
He had a number of previous wives, although it’s difficult to ascertain just how many. Many accounts have Elva as his third wife, while others state she was his fourth. He was only 30 himself, when he went on trial. His first wife divorced him on the grounds of unimaginable cruelty. The next few wives, in either account, were all dead 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.
It was established that Trout was a former prisoner for horse theft. The trial lasted 8 days. Mary also brought the sheet in question as an exhibit in the courtroom.
Members of the jury at trial were:
- S. Lockhart
- Charles W. Dunbar
- M. Hughart
- W. McClung
- A. Vaughan
- A. Hartsock
- R. Ridgeway
- Richard Blofield
Trout was found guilty after only one 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 Hill 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 have 7 wives in his life, 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.
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 trial coverage. Had Trout taken in another man’s child to raise it as his own, it would’ve been used by his defense team. Another fact is that Trout left her body alone for some time. The screaming and crying of a 2-year-old would have drawn attention from neighbors long before midday the next day.