Photos by Meg Hibbert
Meg Hibbert Contributing writer
The Greenbrier ghost gave best-selling author Sharyn McCrumb the initial plot for her latest historical novel, but it was the characters associated with murdered Zona Shue who gave life to “The Unquiet Grave.”
National award-winning writer McCrumb enthralled more than 80 listeners at the Salem Museum on Sept. 22 as she explained how the prosecutor, a doctor, the first African American man to practice law in West Virginia – and a forever 10-year-old neighbor who found the body –intrigued McCrumb. With the help of West Virginia genealogy buff Sandra Menders, they spent thousands of hours researching the men’s stories.
McCrumb, who lives in Catawba in Roanoke County, kicked off the museum’s Appalachian Festival and autographed copies for eager fans. Menders was by her side signing her name to the book which McCrumb dedicated to her.
Zona Heaster Shue’s story haunted McCrumb for more than 30 years, she explained, after McCrumb learned Shue’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, got local authorities to exhume and perform an autopsy on her daughter’s body by telling them her dead daughter had appeared to her four times, telling that she had been murdered.
Ultimately Zona’s husband, Edward “Trout” Shue was convicted of strangling his 22-year-old wife who supposedly had fallen down stairs to her death on Jan. 27, 1897. He died in the West Virginia state prison.
Zona’s death was well known through folk tales, but the facts were not. Much of what people knew before now was on this historical marker on U.S. Route 60 which explains in that county was the “only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convict a murderer.”
It’s not the only one, McCrumb pointed out, but it makes the start of a good story.
Putting together the back stories of the men who prosecuted, defended and testified in the case “was a lot of work and putting together,” McCrumb admitted.
“We have to find the truth and then explain it,” she said, adding that between her and Menders, they put together a stack of documents about a foot high from courthouse and other records of births, deaths, census, hospital documents, court cases, tombstone and cemetery listings and other sources.
“What we had to do was dig every piece of paper out of the archives one at a time,” McCrumb said.
McCrumb found that Zona was Trout Shue’s third wife: the first one divorced him for cruelty while he was in prison; his second wife – exactly a year before he married Zona – “fell and hit her head and died.”
Along the way, the two women found that prosecutor John A. Preston had fought in the Civil War; defense attorney William Parks Rucker was in his 70s when he defended Shue, and had practiced medicine for 15 years before turning to lawyering. He had owned slaves even though he was a Union sympathizer – and was hated for leading the Yankee Gen. William McCausland to families that had hidden silver, horses and cattle.
Rucker’s “second chair” assisting attorney was James P.D. Gardner, the first African American to practice law in West Virginia.
McCrumb told her listeners when you are writing a book, “You have to ask yourself whose story is it?” She needed two narrators for “The Unquiet Grave,” she said, and chose Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, for the personal side of the story, and James P.D. Gardner for the legal side. There were surprises.
She tracked Gardner and found that in 1930 he was in the West Virginia Asylum for Colored Insane in Laken. Two years later he was out and back practicing law. McCrumb and Menders surmised that Gardner had been grieving for his dead wife “and we think he had tried to kill himself.”
They tried without success – so far – to find where Gardner was buried but have not been able to yet. They also went to the house where Zona and Trout lived, the courthouse where the trial took place and dozens of other locations important to the book.
Her husband, David, does much of the driving for McCrumb on her book tours. During the signing, he noted this book is “the closest book she ever set to our house.” It’s 34 miles from their Catawba home to Greenbrier County as the crow flies, but takes more than two hours to get there via twisty, turning Rt. 311 and other routes.
Early in her writing career, McCrumb wrote columns for the Salem Times-Register and The New Castle Record.
McCrumb spoke at the Salem Museum during the second week of her whirlwind tour promoting the book. Published by Atria Books for $26, it available at the Salem Museum. It is her 27th book.