A Fresh Twist on an Old Tale: The Greenbrier Ghost Revisited

by Jo Ann Dadisman

As storytellers, we are always looking for the next tale that chooses us. You read that right. Some folks might say we choose the stories we wish to share, but on occasion, we read a story that refuses to let us go. It lingers around the edges of our consciousness, even when we have moved on. For me, one such story is the West Virginia Shue Murder, or as it is more commonly known, the Greenbrier Ghost. From the first time I read it in Ruth Ann Musick’s volume of student-collected stories, Coffin Hollow (1977), I was hooked.

I have found the story retold in James Gay Jones’ Appalachian Ghost Stories (1975), Deitz’s The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories (1997), Gavenda and Shoemaker’s A Guide to Haunted West Virginia (2001) and in the first edition of The West Virginia Encyclopedia (2006). Wikipedia’s more recent version provides photographs. Other sources are undoubtedly out there.

Many of the details in the various accounts vary slightly, but the storyline remains consistent: a young woman marries against her mother’s wishes and moves away with her new husband; within 2 months she is found dead and her body is returned to the family for burial; the grieving mother believes her son-in-law killed his new wife; she convinces several others to initiate an investigation; the husband is arrested and convicted of murdering his wife. He later dies in prison.

What makes this tale so compelling is the reason the mother gives for knowing the truth about Zona’s untimely death: her daughter has visited and spoken with her after she has been buried!! According to Deitz, this court testimony is the only example in American history of a ghost’s testimony convicting a defendant of murder!

So I fleshed out the story from the details I had, telling the story from the point of view of Mary Heaster, who “knew something was wrong with that man. She didn’t know what it was—for he was handsome enough with his dark curly hair and sparkling eyes. His quick smile smile brought one in return to women, young and old alike. And yet, Mary knew there was something wrong with his heart. She begged her daughter Zona not to marry….” The story carried itself and I always ended it with Edward Shue’s death in Moundsville eight years later. I always wondered if he died under mysterious circumstances or from another cause but never knew what his death certificate stated.

Imagine my thrill to learn that my favorite Appalachian novelist and author of the acclaimed ballad series (including The Ballad of Tom Dooley and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, both based on historical figures) has released The Unquiet Grave, a historical novel based on the  Shue story from our own Greenbrier County. 

Sharyn McCrumb is legendary in the crafting of tales set in our mountains, with characters that spring off the written page. This new novel does not disappoint, as she artfully weaves together two distinct stories. The first is set in 1896-97 in Greenbrier County and is told in first person from the perspective of Mary Heaster, the bride’s mother. The second occurs in 1930 in Lakin, West Virginia, and is a third-person account of Edward Shue’s defense lawyer, now a man who had been remanded to an insane asylum for attempting suicide. As second chair in the proceedings, James Gardner’s first case was the infamous Greenbrier Ghost case, and in the novel, his memories are relayed to a young psychiatrist whose job it is to determine if Gardner is well enough to be released. McCrumb flawlessly weaves the two stories together with facts borne of her research and her sharp sense of the Appalachian lifestyle, speech, and social mores of that time period.

For me, it was her research that I found to be most compelling. When we begin to flesh out the bones of a story, we spend time with the people, the places, and the events. Sometimes we travel to where the story took place, visit the graveyard, or seek out information pertinent to the time period. McCrumb’s story is compelling because she provides new information about the story’s characters based on historical records, and she also offers an alternative to the “ghost” character. It is her chapter endnotes and author’s notes that I found incredibly helpful. In her own words, McCrumb writes, “When I first requested information on the Greenbrier Ghost, I was referred to a book of regional folktales, in which Zona’s story took up a page and a half. Two years later, with the help of a number of generous and scholarly people, I had amassed a pile of documents six inches thick—census records, birth and death certificates, property records, maps, and photographs—a weath of evidence to bring the folktale back into the real world.”

When we are busy with our storywork lives, we have choices to make. We can tell original stories from our own imaginations or urban legends that are common and lovely to tell. Unique among the many stories are those that are historical, and we owe them our very best. Kudos to McCrumb for giving our state tellers so much new information on the Greenbrier Ghost. I know Zona Heaster Shue is pleased. And for the alternative explanation for the ghost—I’ll let you find out for yourselves. Enjoy a good read!


Bringing Historical Figures To Life

by Ilene Evans

First person historical narrative is a way of telling stories from a person’s life as they might tell them themselves. It is a special style of storytelling. This style of storytelling combines the arts of storytelling, acting, improvisation, characterization, imagination, creative writing, biography, historical research, directing, and then stepping into the role of the historical figure.  It is a wonderful form of re-“membering” our his-story (and her-story) which can enrich both you and your repertoire. By re-“membering” I mean that we can literally put something back together that has been torn asunder. Many families have experienced a kind of loss that remembering through storytelling can help heal. Reconnecting through storytelling can mend our memory and sense of identity. Telling stories through character is a teaching tradition found in many cultures. This is particularly true of African and African American culture, its folk life and traditions. 

Historical stories, especially first person historical narrative, engages the teller in a spiritual sensitivity and a technical skill set. Combining all these skills is a challenge to any storyteller. A storytelling artist must integrate the skills of research, writing, performing and educating, respect, humility, and gratitude. Listening to their original words, working with their writings in diary, articles, poetry photographs, songs and compositions connects you to their artistic spirit and humanity. In reaching back to render historical figures, it is helpful to look for an affinity with that figure. Storytelling goes far beyond fact and dates and numbers. The goal is to express the heart and soul of the character. 

Creating an historically plausible framework is essential to the effectiveness of this style of telling. Having a deep understanding of that ancestor’s life and times adds a sense of authenticity to the presentations. Understanding the era in which the person lived helps the teller to keep the person’s voice alive and bring the conflicts and pressures of the past into clear focus in the present.

This style of storytelling does not attempt to impersonate.  Nor should this style of telling be thought of as a reenactment. I prefer to use the word portrayal. The portrayal is based on the teller’s immersion into the research of their life, getting as close to the person as possible. One does not need to look like the person so much as to bring their stories, ideas, and essence to the listeners.  As much as possible we use the persons own words to shape the stories we share.

First person historical narratives help us understand the people who have shaped our lives and influenced out opinions and opportunities, our choices and options. today. Their victories and their challenges reveal the consequences of choices made. When we look at the turning points, the crossroads of their lives, it gives us a chance to rethink what they were thinking when they did the things they did. As my Grandmother Odessa used to say, we must walk a mile in someone else’s footsteps to understand them.  When we “walk a mile in their moccasins” we learn empathy at a cellular level.  We can see the world from their vantage point. 

The direct impact of first person historical narration is very effective in connecting the past to the present and strengthening the moral fiber of our culture. I found that many of the lessons that teachers were struggling to get across out of a text book leapt to instant clarity and full comprehension with first person historical narrative, in a way that just telling them about the story did not. It is a short term -  high impact teaching tool.

A storyteller using the first person brings the audience into direct contact with those critical moments of decision. It allows the audience to interact directly with their history. It can be used to open dialogue, civil discourse, conversation and discussion to build unity in the community. For example, instead of telling someone about the parade, you become a person at the parade, watching it and feeling it with an immediacy of delight, joy, dread, fear, terror, whimsy, transcendence, victory….

Where can someone find this kind of storytelling? Humanities councils around the country have benefited from promoting this kind of storytelling.  An historical portrayal may be accompanied by contextual seminars and symposiums to help bring dry boring history lessons to life. Museums are using it to enliven the experience of their visitors to give context to artifacts and items no longer commonly used. National Parks service employees are finding that telling stories in first person helps increase the personal connection to the value of the natural environment. Classroom teachers are using this form of storytelling along with creative dramatics to help students understand conflicts and time periods far removed from our daily life.  Welcome to my world! 

Happy Telling, Ilene

Story Swap #2 !

by Jo Ann Dadisman

WVSG’s Story Swap #2: Feasting Time

On November 4 Story Swapping participants drove into rural West Virginia on a sunny morning, shared introductions, slurped freshly ground and roasted coffee that Dave and Candy brought, and nibbled June’s sweet rolls. Are you hungry yet?

The day stretched ahead of us, filled with promise. We found time to uncover new possibilities for personal stories, talk about the hurdles we face in choosing stories and telling them to different audiences, and share bits of advice or pose questions for the novice and experienced tellers.

After a lunch of Barbara’s delicious spinach salad, Diane’s shrimp dip with crackers, and homemade vegetable soup and cornbread, our stomachs were full, but the feasting had just begun! We then sunk our teeth into sharing stories: tales about floating school houses, boyhood and surprises on the Chicago streets, girl power, the life of an Italian immigrant, growing up in the 1950s era of polio, a coal camp widow, boyhood and families on the city streets, and much more. Some came to listen while others came to simply tell a story for the pure experience of sharing. Some came for help with voice, framing, or feedback while some came for suggestions on the best delivery method for a special story. We even found time for apple crisp and pumpkin pie, thanks to Jane and the Brauers. Was the day over? Reluctant to leave, we began another round of telling. These stories were a bit different: bubbles as a counterpoint to demonstrations on overseas streets, a brother coaxing an egg from a tired chicken, life on the Erie Canal, Ricky the wayward yet inventive raccoon, gold nuggets and dilapidated houses. The stories continued. Only a football weekend and the hectic traffic patterns it creates and additional obligations kept us from gathering around the campfire for yet another round of stories!

Our day was done. The need for food had been met—both physically and emotionally. The greatest benefit of story swapping is the comraderie that comes from taking time to laugh, to listen, to talk. The stories settled down over us, our own and the ones we heard, much like a favorite meal from our childhood. We were filled with contentment, but ready for the next time. And that’s real feasting!