The star witness in the trial was a ghost.

Photo from The Greenbrier Ghost, a play produced by the Greenbrier Valley Theater.
Photo from The Greenbrier Ghost, a play produced by the Greenbrier Valley Theater.

THE TIME WAS THE LATE 1970s. Bucky, Wally and Russell had big plans—plans for all of the things they were going to do during summer vacation. They were still dreaming up ways of making extra spending money when Russell blurted out, “The first thing I think we ought to do is pitch a tent in one of our back yards and spend the first week of summer vacation sleeping out there.”

“Yeah. Let’s get started, now. Who has an already-made tent, or are we going to make one out of blankets or something?” Wally asked.

“What about that new guy, Eddie? Should we invite him over for awhile today? If he is an all right-dude, we can ask him to camp out with us.” Bucky threw out some questions.

The boys were intrigued by their new neighbor from West Virginia. They were all Boy Scouts and knew from the by-laws that including a newcomer would be the good-citizen thing to do, yet like any newcomer, especially one from the rim of Appalachia, he seemed foreign and a bit odd.

Soon he was beginning to fit right in though, and even had some of his own campout gear to lend to the back yard adventure.

The first night of the campout, the boys fell to sleep quickly. The school year had exhausted them more than they realized, and a hard day of playing running games in the neighborhood contributed to the weariness factor. The second night lent itself better to the campout staple of telling ghost stories.

They swilled water from canteens like trail bosses, and wiped their mouths with the back of their hands. After eating several different suppers of Vienna sausages right out of the can, or sandwiches made with the contents, various chips and candy bars and pudding cups, the boys took their lantern into the tent and began re-arranging their sleeping bags.

It was hard to get really comfortable, but they tried. Wally turned out the battery-lantern and the scary tales began.

“I have seen The Exorcist at least five times. It is the scariest movie I ever did see,” Russell started talking.

“Yeah, that part where Regan’s head turns round and round—you aren’t expecting it—it gives me the creeps every time,” Bucky agreed.

Eddie made his own comment. “When that first came out, they wouldn’t let kids go in the show because of the language and stuff.”

“We had to watch it on tapes around here, Eddie. We had to sneak around to do it, too. Our parents all kept wondering why we were afraid to sleep by ourselves for a long time,” Russell explained.

Then Wally said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t let them turn out the light in my room at night for a long time after watching that. They just thought I was going through a phase.”

“I know another story where a head turns around like that over and over. I think they should make a movie of it. It would be as good as The Exorcist. It is a true story that happened not too far from where I lived in West Virginia.”

“True? Nah. Really?” Wally found this unbelievable and tantalizing.

“Yes. There was a lady named Mary Jane Heaster in the late 1800s in Greenbrier County,” Eddie started to explain.

“Greenbrier County? Is that in the state you came from, Eddie.”

“Yeah. Right there in West Virginia. Anyway, what this woman saw from her bed one night started out as a bright light. When the bright light appeared for four nights in a row, the room also became filled with chilly air. Then, the light turned into a ghost, taking a human form. The ghost said to Mary Jane, ‘he broke my neck…he broke my neck.’ Then, as if to prove the point the head on the ghost spun around.”

“Yikes!” Russell yelped. He catapulted right out of his sleeping bag at this news, searching for a lantern that he couldn’t find.

“This is the interesting part,” Eddie said. “The ghost was now facing the door of the bedroom. But its head was still turned around backwards. It walked out of the door and faded away, while the face of the head kept staring at Mary Jane and mumbling.”

“How does anybody know all this?” Bucky was puzzled and waited for more of the story.

“It was in all the newspapers. This will get you,” Eddie promised. “The ghost was her own murdered daughter, Elva, and she was returning to tell her mother that she had been killed by her husband. Elva’s real name was Zona Elva, but she went by Elva. Elva’s death was so mysterious that the doctor had written the cause of death as ‘everlasting faint’ and ‘complications of expecting a baby,’ something like that.”

Russell yelped again, but then he had an important question. “How come the doctor did not know that the lady had a broken neck? Why did he write ‘everlasting faint’ that other junk?”

“It was because Elva’s husband was acting very strange, and the doctor did not want to upset him more at the time, so he wrote that to smooth things over for the time being.”

“Acting strange? How?” Bucky asked.

“This was how the whole thing happened, start to finish—I think you’ll see. Erasmus Shue, a blacksmith sent a neighbor boy, to his own log cabin to see if his young wife Elva needed him to bring anything from the store. The young neighbor boy then discovered Elva’s dead body at the bottom of a stair inside the cabin. He ran home and told his mother who summoned a doctor to go to the log cabin and check it out. Before the doctor got there, Erasmus Shue went home and fixed his wife for better viewing. He carried her up to their bed, bathed her…”

“Bathed her?” Russell yelped again.

“Yes, he bathed her and dressed her in her funeral clothes. The dress had a high, stiff-necked collar and Erasmas put a veil over his wife’s face. Then the doctor arrived. Dr. Knapp tried to examine the body, but it was hard because Erasmas kept clinging to the body and sobbing. The doctor could not even examine the neck at all. So he wrote those things on his chart and left to keep from disturbing the man further. Actually he had already been treating Elva in his office for those conditions he listed.”

“Then what happened?” Bucky, along with everyone else had been drawn into the creepy tale.

“They went ahead and buried her. Elva’s mother, Mary Ann Heaster was suspicious of Erasmus Shue. She had a feeling that he killed her daughter. Oh, I forgot to tell you about Elva’s funeral.”

“What?” Bucky asked, again.”

“Erasmas behaved all quirky at the funeral. He paced back and forth. He kept messing with the body. He added another veil, a scarf to the neck area. He kept propping her head up with pillows and rolls of cloth. He would pace awhile, then, mess around with the body some more. Everyone thought it was because he was so sad but the funeral attenders were bothered by it.”

Russell yelped then exclaimed, “Messin’ with the body at the funeral!”

“Elva’s mother, Mary Ann decided to go tell the prosecutor, John Preston about her strange experiences with her daughter’s ghost. The ghost had told her that Shue had gone into a rage and broken Elva’s neck because she did not have any meat ready for his supper. Though Shue protested, Preston had the body dug up and a new examination was done on it. They found the broken neck. Preston then started checking up on Shue’s past. He had two wives before Elva and they complained of beatings or abuse. In the second marriage, the wife died mysteriously, too.”

“Oh he killed her for sure!” Bucky exclaimed.

“They eventually put him on trial and Elba’s mother was the star witness—she got to tell of the ghost visits, where the head twirled around. People seemed to believe her. Elva had returned from the dead to tell her mother the truth about her death. Shue demanded to take the stand in his own defense and was so weird while up there testifying that they convicted him in only one hour.”

Russell asked, “Then what happened?”

“Erasmus Shue was taken off to life in prison. It wasn’t a very long life, though. He died of disease when epidemics raged through the prison in 1900, killing many of the prisoners.” Eddie finished his story with one more tidbit. “There is a marker up in Greenbrier County about the Greenbrier Ghost not far from Zona’s grave. It says it is the only known case in which a ghost helped send a murderer to jail.”

From a voice in the darkness came a low “Ooooooo!”

“Ooooooo!” Another voice followed

“Oooooo! That would make the best movie of all,” Wally agreed with the teller of the tale.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental.

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