Most authors create characters, plots and locations as they write, taking the reader on a journey. For New York Times bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb, it’s the real stories that interest her.
McCrumb, who is well known for her Ballad series – novels based on folklore and real stories from Appalachia – recently published The Unquiet Grave, a novel based on the story of The Greenbrier Ghost.
McCrumb gave a presentation on her research for the novel Saturday evening at the Hillsboro Library, after which, she held a book signing.
McCrumb explained why she wanted to tell the story of Zona Shue – who is better known as the Greenbrier Ghost – and she told about the avenues she traveled to make the book become a reality.
“What I wanted to do with this book was to take a story that has always been told as folklore,” she said. “Most of the time, you haven’t got a well-researched story about these folktales from the mountains. Nobody had done the research and some of that is because the research was very difficult to do until lately when the genealogy records and census records, and all of those documents got put online.”
The story of The Greenbrier Ghost first caught McCrumb’s attention when she was traveling through Greenbrier County and saw the historical marker that told about the story.
“There’s a historical marker at the other end of Greenbrier County that says this is the only case in America in which the testimony of a ghost convicted a killer,” McCrumb said. “I knew it wasn’t the only case ever. I knew about the case that happened in 1828 and my question was, ‘did the people in this case have any way of knowing about the 1828 story.’”
As McCrumb began her research, she realized how difficult it would be to find what she needed in order to tell Zona’s story.
“I went to the Greenbrier Historical Society and told them that I wanted to write about the Greenbrier Ghost and they said, ‘that’s nice,’ because even with five New York Times bestsellers, there are apparently places where I am more obscure than Paul Newman’s first wife and that was one of them,” McCrumb said, laughing. “I said, ‘give me everything you’ve got on the Greenbrier Ghost,’ and they led me into the gift shop. They handed me a little book called West Virginia Ghost Stories that covers this story in two pages. You could go over those two pages with a divining rod and not find a fact.
“I knew I was right back to square one, and I was going to have to do all the research on the story,” she continued.
McCrumb, with the help of genealogist Sandra Meinders, researched the lives of Trout and Zona Heaster Shue, as well as Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, the trial’s attorneys, including the young James P.D. Gardner, Anderson Jones who found Zona’s body and the doctors who performed her autopsy.
The story of The Greenbrier Ghost begins with a marriage.
Trout Shue, who was from Droop Mountain, married Zona Heaster and the couple lived in Livesay’s Mill in Greenbrier County. Seven weeks after their marriage, Zona was found dead in their home, the result of an apparent accident.
“They got married after only knowing each other about five weeks and went off to live in a rented house in Livesay’s Mill,” McCrumb said. “Then seven weeks after that, the wagon bearing her body goes back to her parent’s farm, and they’re told she fell down the stairs – came over faint, fell down the stairs and died of a broken neck. She was buried in the churchyard at Soul Chapel, the church where she had gotten married seven weeks before.”
The story would have ended there if not for a late night visit from Zona’s ghost to her mother, Mary Jane. According to Mary Jane, who testified at Trout’s trial, Zona’s ghost appeared to her several times and said that her death was no accident – she was murdered by her husband.
Mary Jane visited the prosecuting attorney in Lewisburg and shared the story, compelling him to exhume Zona’s body and call for an autopsy which revealed that Zona was indeed murdered.
With the bare bones of the story as common knowledge, McCrumb said she chose to have Mary Jane and attorney James P. D. Gardner act as narrators instead of Zona or Trout to give more insight into the trial and the mentality of a mother determined to find justice for her daughter.
While the book is published and McCrumb is on a tour promoting it, she says she continues to do research into the individuals involved, saying there’s always more to know.
“You notice that even though the book is already out, we’re still researching it because the thing about writing about real people is that you start to feel like you went to high school with them and after a while, you just want to know everything that you possibly can,” McCrumb said.
After summarizing the book and explaining the history of the characters, McCrumb turned the floor over to Meinders, who explained the journey of finding the genealogical records of the characters.
The floor was then opened to questions and McCrumb signed copies of the book.
The Unquiet Grave is available online and at most book stores. For more information on the author, visit www.sharynmccrumb.com