A mere three months after her wedding, Zona Heaster Shue of Lewisburg WV was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her log home. It was January 23, 1897, and the body was found by a neighbor boy who did chores for her.At first, Zona’s death was said to have been caused by “an everlasting faint” followed an unfortunate fall down the stairs.
Shortly after Zona’s burial, her mother began telling neighbors that Zona’s ghost had appeared to her saying that she had been murdered. The villain behind the crime was Zona’s husband, Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue.
Zona’s mother went to the law, and an exhumation of Zona’s body was ordered. The autopsy revealed that Zona’s death had indeed been the result of foul play. Her neck was broken and bore finger marks indicating that she had been choked.
Zona’s husband was arrested and found guilty on June 22, 1897, making Zona’s case the only case in the American judicial system in which the testimony of a ghost helped convict a murderer.
But there is a lot more to this story.
In her newest book, The Unquiet Grave, New York Times Bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb tells the story of Zona Heaster Shue like it has never been told before. The Unquiet Grave hit shelves on September 10th, and Sharyn was kind enough to carve time out of her book tour schedule to do an interview with The Weekly Holler. I hope you enjoy it!
Luke: So, first off, if you were introducing yourself to someone who was new to your writing, how would you introduce yourself, and how would you describe your journey to becoming the storyteller that you are today?
Sharyn: Well, my ancestors settled western North Carolina, where western North Carolina included Tennessee, back in 1790. I had two ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, and they stayed there in western North Carolina and became preachers and teachers. My father got out of North Carolina, out of the hills, to go to World War II. I wasn’t born up in the mountains because by then, he had settled on the coast of North Carolina.
I grew up with one parent who was a southern belle from the coast, so if you want to understand her, you can rent Steel Magnolias. My father was one of the mountaineers, and I still say to this day that if you want to understand the mountaineers of Appalachia, the movie that you should rent is Braveheart, because that’s who settled here. The people who went to the mountains instead of staying on the coast were the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and the Cornishmen. That split between the English and the Celts that fueled Braveheart that you saw there in Scotland carried over to this country. That’s where you get the hillbilly stereotypes and all that stuff. Those are those English people in the flatlands who haven’t gotten along with the Scots and the Irish for the last thousand years.
So I grew up in a mixed marriage, because my mother was one of those flatland English people, and my father was a Scot from the mountains. It was kind of like an atmosphere of Ernest Tubb meets Debussy. I grew up thinking that culture was optional. Whichever parent I imitated, the other one thought it was hilarious. I grew up as an outsider, which is what you need to be to be a writer. You look, as an outsider, at cultures. When I got old enough … My first novels, which were written when I was in grad school, were light, funny books that had been called Jane Austen with an attitude.
When I finished the master’s degree and got the children out of diapers and was ready to write serious books, I had a choice between two cultures: my father’s culture and my mother’s culture. I chose my father’s because all the good stories were in the mountains. I’m primarily known, then, for writing the Ballad novels, which are a series of books set somewhere in the central-southern mountains from West Virginia down to north Georgia, and they deal with the history and the folklore of the mountain south
Luke: The Ballad novels are how I discovered you. I thought that was such a great idea, exploring the stories behind these ballads that are stories set to music. How did that idea occur to you to mine that tradition?
Sharyn: Well, music was an important part of my family, although I could make a good living getting paid not to sing. My father’s uncles all played guitar and mandolin and fiddle and so on and knew those ballads. In fact, an epiphany in my life, I guess, was back when I was in college. When I was in college, folk music was at the forefront of American culture. This was the era of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary and Judy Collins. In lieu of going to some of the more tedious classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, I went to the pawn shop and bought a $10 guitar and learned to play about five chords. With five chords on a guitar, you can play at least 500 folk songs really badly. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I went home to wow my father, the Tennessee mountain boy, with this new skill that his tuition money was making possible.
After Thanksgiving dinner, I hauled him into the living room and sat him down and started playing this new song that I had just learned from my Joan Baez recording that I had bought at the Record Bar in Chapel Hill. It was the very latest thing in college music. I started playing this song, and my father joined in. He was a little Ernest Tubb on the tune, but he was letter perfect on the words, and I was horrified. I said, “How do you know this song? This is what the cool people are singing in Chapel Hill.” My father said, “Oh, that song, that’s John Riley. I had that song from my grandfather, and he had it from his grandfather.” After the holidays, I went back to college and looked at the liner notes on my album, and it said this song is a Child ballad from the 1600s in the north of England and the borders of Scotland and had been collected by Francis Child. It’s a Child ballad.
See, my father had had that song from when the people from Yorkshire that he’s descended from came over in the 1700s and settled those mountains and passed that song down from parent to child for 200 years. I went to the Record Bar and paid $6.98 for it. Doesn’t that tell you how fragile culture is? You’re the only link between the past and the future, and if you don’t pass something on, there’s a very good chance it could be lost. That focused me on the ballads. The ballads were, for me, a link to the past and to my own family’s past. Also, from the point of view of a novelist, songs, and even country songs today, are three-minute novels. When I teach writers’ workshops, I will bring in things like Midnight in Montgomery by Alan Jackson and play it and say, “That’s a three-minute novel.” The whole story’s there. There’s a lot of those.
From the point of view of a novelist, you’ve got songs which tell a story, and there are no boring minimalist ballads. There’s nothing about not much happened to people you don’t like anyway or the angst of a middle-class man in the suburb. They don’t write songs about that. They write songs in which something happens. I think the philosophy of the Scots-Irish is if nothing happens, shut up. That’s that feeling that I wanted to capture in the Ballad novels, that there’s a life and death situation happening and that it is archtypical, that these people are larger than life. A lot of them have songs written about them, which certainly makes you larger than life. Tom Dooley, who was hanged for murder in 1868 in North Carolina. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hearing that song, I decided to look into the story and discovered that if you know the song by the Kingston Trio, hang down your head, Tom Dooley, you have to be reprogrammed, because everything they told you is wrong.
It took me two years to research that song, going back to trial transcripts and birth certificates and local maps just to figure out what really happened. I did that with Frankie Silver, who was the first woman hanged for murder in the state of North Carolina. People had gone for 150 years assuming that she did it because she was executed. The first time I heard that story, I knew she didn’t, because she was 18 years old and her husband was killed and dismembered. As soon as they told me that and told me she was 18, I said, “Who did it?” They said, “Oh, no, she was convicted. She was executed.” I said, “There has never been a case of a woman younger than 35 dismembering a body. It has never happened. Who did it?” Took me four years to figure out what happened, but I started out knowing that fact. Google away. There has never been a dismemberment by a woman of 18.
Luke: You knew what you were looking for when you were digging into that one.
Sharyn: Yes. Yes. One of my mottos is, from Louis Pasteur, the French scientist, he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The more you know, the more connections you can make, and the more substance you can put into whatever you talk about. I read everything. If there’s nothing else, I’ll read cereal boxes. If you read geology and history and criminology, many different countries, and sociology and mining/engineering, you never know when one of those things is going to trip into whatever you’re looking at. The Unquiet Grave, that story, the new book that’s out, that story has always been told as a folk tale.
Luke: Do you recall the very first time you heard it?
Sharyn: Oh, I was grown, because I grew up in North Carolina and this story happened in West Virginia. I live about 70 miles from where it happened right now. That’s where our farm is. It takes you two hours to get there, but if they would flatten the mountain, I could be there in 45 minutes. In the middle of the town of Louisburg, there’s a historical marker that says the story of the Greenbrier Ghost. What it says on the marker is this case is the only case in America in which the testimony of a ghost convicted her killer. There it is. That’s it, on the historical marker. I’d seen that for years and years driving through there. Finally, one day, I just said, “Let me see what’s happening with that story.” I went to the Historical Society and said, “Give me everything you’ve got.” They’ve got all the records. Give me everything you’ve got on this case.
They led me into the gift shop and showed me this little ghost stories of West Virginia book with a three-page summary of the case. They said, “That’s what we got.” I thought, oh, boy. A year and a half later, I have a notebook that’s about six inches thick with documents. Then I started writing.
Luke: Wow. Was it when you saw that all that there was that little ghost story book, was that when you thought “I need to write this?”
Sharyn: Well, that’s when I got interested, but I didn’t commit to it until I got some more facts. If I were going to make it up, I could have started from anywhere, but I wanted to find out what really happened. In order to do that, I had to look into that story deeply enough to find out if there was a story there. When I discovered that one of the lawyers ended up in an insane asylum in 1930, I thought, oh, yeah, we can do this. He was my logical narrator because he was the first African American attorney to practice in southern West Virginia, and he was 29 years old when he was in that courtroom as the second sheriff of the defense. The other two lawyers in the case were both Civil War veterans, one from each side, one Union, one Confederate. Here’s this young African American attorney just watching these old bulls go at each other.
Luke: I couldn’t believe that. I’d heard the folk tale, too, but when I learned that it was the first African American attorney to practice in West Virginia that was involved in the case, I thought you couldn’t make this up. This is so many interesting characters.
Sharyn: Yeah. It was just amazing to find him.
Luke: How long did the research process take for you to unearth all of this?
Sharyn: About a year and a half, although we’re, honestly, still researching. I have a hard time letting go, because there are still things that I want to find out. The main thing is that I have found photographs of everybody in the story except Mr. Gardner, the lawyer. It’s not for lack of trying. I have written everybody I can think of to see if anybody’s got … I’ve been to archives. I’ve been to college archives and written to the Masons, because he was a Mason. State of West Virginia. Everything I can think of. BAR Association. Nobody can find a picture of him. He did not die until 1951. I have pictures of my parents from the ’30s and ’40s.
Luke: Yeah, you’d think there’d be something, with him living that long. You’ve got to think it’d be out there.
Sharyn: Yes. Yes. I’m hoping so, because the man was an attorney for 50 years, and he was an officer in the local Masonic lodge. At some point, those guys in the Masons must have put all the officers up on the steps, like people do in clubs, to take a picture of all the officers. I just don’t know what happened to it.
Luke: At what point did you realize that Mr. Gardner and Mary Jane Hester were the narrators of this story, were the ideal narrators?
Sharyn: First of all, I couldn’t use just one narrator, because Mary Jane is the one who would know everything about her daughter and the wedding and the whole personal side of the story, but she doesn’t know anything about the law, and she lives 15 miles from town on a four-acre farm. We’re not talking sophistication here. She was really good for the backstory, the emotional part, but when you got to the trial part, then you had to have somebody who knew the law. Using Mr. Gardner gave you a perfect outsider’s point of view. He is the ultimate outsider. He knows the law, but he’s sort of cold and detached and uninvolved with these people, but he knows his stuff. He’s a good lawyer. I let him talk about the life and times in the town. She speaks for the country people, and he speaks the lawyers and the more sophisticated, educated, professional people that you found in Lewisburg.
Luke: Now, when we start off the novel, he’s in the insane asylum. He’s being exposed to the beginnings of modern psychological therapy. Did you have to research that, as well, for this novel?
Sharyn: Yes. I have several friends who are psychiatrists or psychologists, and I’m accustomed to running things by him and say, “What would this do?” For the Ballad of Tom Dooley, the one person that had to be the narrator for that story was a sociopath. I read the trial transcript, and that woman was a sociopath. I had to keep feeding chapters to my psychiatrist friend. Any time that Pauline, in that book, expressed any emotion except for rage and gloating, he would make me take it out. That’s all sociopaths feel. There’s no sympathy. There’s no fear. There’s no anxiety. There’s nothing except rage when you lose and gloating when you win.
Yes, I did the same thing with Dr. Boozer. That’s the other thing in the research that isn’t finished yet. We’re trying to find where he’s buried. His death certificate tells us when he died, so does the Social Security index. He died in Westchester County, New York. We even found his great-niece, his brother’s granddaughter, and asked her where he was buried. She gave us the name of the cemetery. Well, she had two uncles, James and Thomas, and the cemetery she gave us is where Thomas is buried, but James is not there. So we checked every other cemetery in Westchester County and then down in Long Island, and we can’t find him. I think he’s in a coffee can in somebody’s garage.
Luke: You know, it sounds like just the research process for this was such an adventure in and of itself. Did you have any particular adventures that really stand out in your mind as you were looking into these people and their stories and looking for paper trails that led to them?
Sharyn: There was one. There are two things. First of all, did you notice in the first chapter, when he’s in the insane asylum, he and Dr. Boozer, Gardner and Dr. Boozer talk about the residents reporting seeing a demon with red eyes. Did you pick you on that?
Luke: I did, yeah.
Sharyn: Do you know who that is?
Sharyn: Neither did my editor. She said, “Okay, you’re going to have to explain to people about this demon with the red eyes,” and I said, “Well, really, I don’t, because it’s an insane asylum, and if you want to think it’s a hallucination, that’s okay.” If you’d like to know who he really is, that insane asylum was located north of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, right on the Ohio River.
Luke: Oh, okay, I know where you’re going with this.
Sharyn: Yeah. Just keeping renting Richard Geer movies until you find him.
Luke: I love it! That’s a little Easter egg in the book there.
Sharyn: The other adventure was one that Sandra had, because Sandra was looking at all these documents. The chief witness against Trout, besides Mary Jane, was the young man who found the body. In the folk tales, they talk about the fact that his mother was a widow and he was her only child. We looked in the census records and so on. He’s got five brothers and sisters, and his father’s still alive. We thought what’s up with that? So Sandra keeps digging. Remember, the trial was in June and early July of 1897. At that point, he had five brothers and sisters, and his father was right there in the house. Sandra called me after doing some more research and said, “I think I have uncovered a tragedy.”
I wrote that in one of the last scenes of the book, when Mr. Gardner runs into the boy’s mother in the courthouse and invites her to his wedding, which was going to be on Christmas day, which it really was. She says, “You don’t know, do you?” What happened was between the time that the trial happened and the time that he saw her in December in the courthouse, everybody else in the family had died except for her and Anderson, Joan’s son. They got typhoid. One would linger for two weeks or so, and then another one would come down with it. By the time he got to December, the father and the brothers and sisters are gone.
Sharyn: I know. They didn’t even get mentioned in the folk tales. They just said, okay, the mother was a widow. By then, we had gotten to know her, too. I really felt this, because these people are all real, and sometimes I think of myself as a speaker for the dead. There are people who slipped through the cracks in history. They don’t get their stories told. They’re forgotten. I find these people, like Frankie Silver, who was hanged for murder at the age of 19, or Mr. Gardner, who practiced law and we can’t even find a picture of him 50 years after he died. As a speaker for the dead, I ask them what do you want me to tell people about you? If you had a chance, what would you say?
Luke: That’s so true. I feel like oftentimes, folk tales really are all that remain of the history of these people that … I guess, for lack of a better term, the common folk that weren’t operating on a big political level or something like that. So often, the folktales get it wrong.
Sharyn: Yes. King’s Mountain is the book I wrote about the American Revolution in which a bunch of farmers who were not even members of the Continental Army, they were just farmers, got a threatening letter from a British officer saying that if they didn’t stay out of war, he was going to come up there and burn their homes and kill their families. They all got together and took the muskets down off the mantelpiece and went looking for him. The way that they found him was that there was a guy with him who could do what we would consider a Gomer Pyle act or Forrest Gump. He pretended to be a simpleton, so people just ignored him, and they talked around him as if he were not there. He was picking up all kinds of military secrets, because everybody thinks the idiot won’t get it.
He goes straight back to the patriots and tells them the location of that British regiment and so on. Because of him, they won the battle, because they were prepared. They knew what they were doing. They knew where the troops were. This guy was killed in the battle. He was one of the very few patriots that were killed. He’s not in the history books. He doesn’t have any descendants. Nobody remembers him. Never a biography. Of course, no diary or any memorial of him at all. I gave him a part in King’s Mountain because he deserved to be remembered.
Luke: An unsung hero.
Luke: How do you think we benefit when we learn the stories of these people that have been lost to history?
Sharyn: I think one of the things is I’ve long ago gotten tired of the whole hillbilly stereotype thing, very tired of it. I think, in writing these stories, I can bring these people to life, not in a demeaning way. They’re smart. They’re capable. Thomas Jefferson said that the Battle of King’s Mountain was the turning point of the American Revolution, and that was a bunch of guys from east Tennessee and western North Carolina. That was the traditional, quote, “hillbillies,” but they saved the war when George Washington was losing it. In that battle, for example, at King’s Mountain, the following people were there: the first governor of Tennessee, the first governor of Kentucky, the brother-in-law of the governor of Virginia, Davy Crockett’s father, Robert E. Lee’s father, and the grandfather of North Carolina’s Civil War governor Zebulon Vance. All in that one battle. Somebody’s got to do counterpoint for things like the Dukes of Hazzard. I mean, there are people out there who are smart and noble and brave, and they’re just getting ignored. I’m very happy when my books get studied in colleges, and especially in high schools because the kids in this region need to hear about this.
Luke: Well, Sharyn, it has been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much for doing this.
Sharyn: Well, thank you. It’s nice to meet you.