Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives

© Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1984

The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives


Early in the year 1897 in Greenbrier County in West Virginia, a bride of three months was found dead by a neighbor child. Within a month her ghost appeared on four successive nights and described in great detail the fact that her husband had killed her and just exactly how. On her mother's insistence, the young wife’s body was exhumed, the cause of her death confirmed, and her husband brought to trial, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in the penitentiary.

Convicted in a court of law, because of evidence furnished by a ghost?

That is what the natives of Greenbrier will tell you.

Who was she, the girl who was killed? Who was her husband? Why did people believe her mother’s story? What really happened?

When I first heard of Zona Shue’s death from my friend Paul Shue, a distant relative of the convicted murderer, I wanted to investigate and write about this locally famous story. So, on a summer day in 1982, while in West Virginia on other business, I stopped to read the road marker. Near where the uncompleted Interstate 64 ends in the rolling hills of Greenbrier County, and traffic is returned to old Route 60, there is a state historical marker that would stop even the most driven traveler. There today’s motorist must begin the slow trek of ninety twisting miles to get from just about anywhere in Virginia to Charleston, or anywhere west of it in the continental United States. Unless he should happen to glance to his left, back up Route 60, the modern driver is likely to miss this marker altogether. There it is, just visible, three or four hundred yards away, by the side of the old Midland Trail. It reads:

Greenbrier Ghost

Interred in nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from ghost helped convict a murderer.

Standing there in the hot sun, I knew at once that I wanted to know more about this, and I figured, as I have done before, that the best way to learn about something is to write about it.

I don’t believe in ghosts, yet of course they appear in stories told by men through the ages. So do a lot of other things that I believe do not exist.

In January 1897, the world was turning faster than anyone could dream of towards the twentieth century. You could have seen the gaslights of Broadway if you’d taken the train to New York. It left Ronceverte, five miles away, in the morning, and with some changes, you'd have been in the big city before midnight. London already had a subway system. Steam locomotives could run at speeds of 100 miles an hour, and more. Thomas Edison had discovered a practical way to light rooms, buildings, even whole cities. Sigmund Freud had already begun publishing his shocking theories, and Darwin’s revolutionary views of mankind’s origins had been around for nearly four decades. Yet, in mountainous West Virginia in 1897, education was limited; people relied on country school teachers and preachers for knowledge, and superstition stalked the land. The power of the printed word then as now was strong, and specters of all sorts appeared in stories printed every week in newspapers in West Virginia during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Scripture was accepted literally, and those who were students of the Bible could show you where there are spirits in that book. All in all, it must have come naturally to Greenbrier folks a century ago to believe in ghosts.

But very shortly, I was struck with the irony of such a thought. We today are probably no farther from witchcraft than they were just before the turn of the twentieth century. Irrationality holds the world in thrall even now, on the brink of space exploration, in the midst of burgeoning scientific and medical advances, and it is this irrationality that poses, to my mind, a threat to civilization greater than communism or nuclear war. A strong personal reason for wanting to write this book was to see if I could, by investigating this ghost story, shed some light of reason on a story generally accepted even today as supernatural, and thereby perhaps to cause others to view such claims with a salting of skepticism. If reason was then, as it still is, in shorter supply than mindless gullibility, why should that come as a surprise? Greenbrier County, West Virginia, in 1897, was, in worldly terms, a tiny place indeed. But it was a place and a time big enough for one’s heart to get lost in.’

All my life I’ve heard, or read, ghost stories—with no way to check them for truth. A name in a book or a newspaper article is impractical and usually impossible to follow up. Or it becomes a case of an earnest friend’s word against one’s own—and who is willing to call a friend a liar?

Here was a ghost story I could check on. If there was a trial, records were kept. The events happened within two hours’ driving time of my home, making an on-the-spot investigation possible. Surely there must be relatives still alive of both the woman who died and the man convicted of murdering her, and there must be folk-memories of the event still extant. For it is a story not easily forgotten, with all the elements a writer could wish for: love, death, passion, betrayal, murder, the supernatural.

Superstition is tenacious. Even when confronted with facts, people often wanted to reject them, to refuse to even consider the truth. For example, one man in Greenbrier County, when shown newspaper clippings confirming facts that disagreed with his version of the events, flatly declared that the newspapers were lying.

Another told me, “They say wolves howled when Zona was killed.”

“Oh,” I replied, “were there wolves in this part of the country then?”

And his reply was, “I don't think so. But that's what they say.”

“Do you believe in the ghost?” I asked, many times.

“Well, I don't, but there's no other explanation there could be,” would be the reply. Or, “No, of course not, but how else could she have known?”

A Pocahontas woman advised me, “Let the dead rest. Don't be mixing around with the dead. That's just trouble.”

And someone else said, by way of proving the ghost was real, “Y’know, the sheets turned to blood when Trout went to wash them.” (Trout was the husband, Edward, who was first called Erastus and also went by the name Erasmus.)

My research has revealed a world in some ways like our own, yet in other ways quite different. I have sometimes felt as if I have been trying to peer backwards down a telescope at figures so tiny or so dim I can hardly see them, or trying to listen desperately through space and time in the hope of hearing just a few remarks, a few words, from those days. The diction, words, thoughts, and day-by-day activities of the inhabitants of this book are all almost entirely lost to us. We are spoiled today, with our cameras and tape recorders and home movies and photostatic copying machines. Movies exist of Teddy Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler; today we can actually see the dead alive; if civilization survives, it will presumably be possible in five thousand years to see accurately five thousand years into the past. Yet only a brief century ago my characters had few ways to record themselves, left precious few written words, hardly any photographic likenesses that we can be certain of, and only one strange drawing. The transcript of the murder trial mysteriously disappeared from the Greenbrier County Courthouse about half a century ago. I have found no one who could describe Zona or Trout in any but the most general terms: “He was tall, big, powerful, handsome.” “She was pretty, with long black hair.” I have not one word that Zona ever spoke.

Yet the characters in this book were ordinary people, and people whose society and probably whose genes I share. They lived only seventy miles west of where I do, were of the same northern European extraction, of Scots-Irish-German lineage. They were probably originally from Virginia, and their speech patterns must have been similar to those of my grandparents. I trust that their emotional reactions were of the sort that I understand. They were rural folk, like my people. They were ordinary people who were, of course, like all of us, not ordinary at all.

It is February 13, 1983. Surprisingly, the tombstone is new, sharp-edged, shiny: “In memory of Zona Heaster Shue, ’Greenbrier Ghost’ 1876-1897.” The congregation of the nearby church put it up in 1979, raising the money themselves, perhaps believing still in the ghost, or believing at least that the cemetery's most celebrated occupant ought to be acknowledged in some permanent way. Apparently no grave marker ever existed for her until then. The West Virginia Highway Commission erected the nearby roadside marker as a concomitant of their efforts.

Some plastic daisies have been stuck in the ground in front of the gravestone. The grass is brown, with islands of snow. Yucca plants spike out of the ground, ever green. Yews and boxwoods grow here and there among the unkempt gravestones, and many of the markers are leaning or toppled over. I have followed the deserted winding road up Little Sewell Mountain to Soule Methodist Church, which is very small. I wonder idly if the names derive from the same root: Soule and Sewell sound exactly alike on the tongues of the folk hereabouts. (They do not: Soule was a nineteenth-century circuit-rider, and Sewell a railroad magnate who would also give his name to a boom town, now a ghost town, on the C&O main line.) I have come in winter to see the little cemetery more or less as it was when the hapless woman died nearly a century ago. Moss grows on what must be the north sides of the trees, and the ground is spongy in the early thaw.

The modern stone, carved with flowers, stands out in sharp contrast to the time-softened ones nearby. There seems to be no schoolhouse, or any other sort of house, near enough to have been Nickell schoolhouse, where I have heard the autopsy was performed, and no indications of any building foundations. There is only a farmhouse nearly out of sight down the road, from which unseen dogs send their frantic, accusative warnings in my direction. GO, go, go-go. Stay away. Stay away!

I have never particularly cared for historical novels, simply because it bothers me a great deal not to know what is fact and what is fiction. Even the names of such works are odious to me: “docudrama” is the new one, but “faction” (factual fiction) and nonfiction novels (a patent contradiction in terms) have been around awhile. All allow for dangerous half-truths that muddy real historical issues, and all allow writers to attach real names to our fantasies, which end up becoming realities in readers’ minds. I am very much aware that I now have in my mind clear pictures of the characters I have been working on, which may not be accurate.

As a researcher, I have for more than two years been committed to discovering and telling the truth of this story. Yet as a writer, I had finally to admit that defensible facts alone did not always tell the story to my satisfaction. A factual historical account did not enable me to evoke the feeling of the times, or to portray the minds of people or the details of their daily lives. These facts taken by themselves left all my characters as two-dimensional as cardboard figures, primitives in some quaint regional puppet show.

To tell the story of Zona Heaster Shue, her mother Mary Jane Robinson Heaster, her husband Trout Shue, and the “ghost” who supposedly solved a murder case in the state of West Virginia in 1897, I saw that it would be necessary for me to get myself inside the imaginations of these people, as a novelist must do, and to try to understand what they were feeling, thinking, imagining. I would have to attempt, out of my knowledge and experience of the region that I have spent my life in, from which all my people sprang, a mere sixty or seventy miles to the east of Greenbrier County, to reconstruct the characters with something of the complexity that I know they possessed as human beings.

Let me say here that I have invented no facts or motives that would in any way distort or change the historical record. I have filled in, but not altered. My solution to the problem of fictionalizing history, imperfect though it may be, has been to provide copious notes at the end of each chapter, by which I have tried to be scrupulous in distinguishing for the readers facts from factually based fiction. The truth is, there is a great deal about this story that can no longer be known’ such as how Trout Shue and Zona Heaster actually met, and so I have invented a plausible meeting for them. If I have occasionally, or often, told more than the reader wanted to know, I apologize. The account that follows, though some details of it cannot be proven, is, I believe, as honest an account as anyone could possibly write. I have been as objective as I could, and as fair as I could, and I have no bones to pick. I merely find the story interesting, and wanted to ferret out what really happened.

Site design by Mariner Media, Inc.