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Greenbrier County’s Supernatural History Explored at GVT

Hannah McGinley as Zona Hester Shue and Kelly D. Cooper as Erasmus Trout Shue in Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s production of The Greenbrier Ghost.
Hannah McGinley as Zona Hester Shue and Kelly D. Cooper as Erasmus Trout Shue in Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s production of The Greenbrier Ghost.

In celebration of both West Virginia’s 150th anniversary as well as the history of Greenbrier County, Greenbrier Valley Theatre will present the original musical The Greenbrier Ghost.  

The Greenbrier Ghost tells the strange but seemingly true local legend of Zona Heaster Shue, a young woman who grew up in the Richlands area of Greenbrier County who was murdered in 1897. While her death was at first attributed to an “everlasting faint” by area physician, Dr. George Knapp, this diagnosis didn’t set well with everyone, especially the girl’s family.

Within a month of her burial on Little Sewell Mountain, the girl’s mother began claiming that Zona had come back from the grave to appear to her in a series of dreams. The message from beyond was that Zona had been murdered by her husband of three months, Erasmus Trout Shue.

That may sound strange enough, but this ghostly testimony eventually changed enough minds in the area that it led to Zona’s body being exhumed and her death ruled a murder upon reexamination. More disturbing facts about Trout Shue’s past soon emerged, including two previous wives, one of whom died under questionable circumstances. However the fact that Zona’s ghostly testimony was admitted in the eventual trial of Trout Shue and that it, along with physical evidence, helped lead to his conviction was an unprecedented legal maneuver both then and now.

Though the events of the story took place over a century ago, the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost remains a well-known story in the county. A number of books have been written on the topic, such as The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives, by Katie Letcher Lyle. GVT first staged a non-musical version of the story, simply called Zona, in 1998. The musical, developed by Cathey Sawyer and Joe Buttram, received its first production in 2003 and was subsequently produced in 2004 and 2009.

Sawyer says that when writing the book of the musical, she tried to base the details on actual coverage of the case as published by the classic area newspaper The Greenbrier Independent (1859-1980). “I tried not to read Katy Letcher Lyle’s book until I’d already written [the musical],” Sawyer says.

To fill in other details of life in 1897 that were not covered in the original reporting, Sawyer says she studied the types of gatherings that would have been common in order to give setting to the first meeting of Trout Shue and Zona Heaster. She also looked for details in everything from the heated political race of 1897, to the kinds of crops people were planting then, to etiquette books, to common phrases of the day. “Most of the references to the politics of the period are pretty accurate,” Sawyer says.

 The story will be told by a cast of over 25 local and professional actors, two of whom have deep ties to the story itself. Alana Preston is the great great granddaughter of John Alfred Preston, the original prosecuting attorney in the trial of Trout Shue. And cast member Vivian Gibson is a great niece of Trout Shue himself. Both are veterans of the musical, with Preston having appeared in all previous productions.

“I think it helps to know that it’s a true story and that it’s an important Greenbrier County story,” Sawyer says.

The show will run May 24-25, 30-31, and June 1, 12, 14, 19, 26-29 at 7:30 p.m. There will be matinee performances June 1 & 29, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors, and $15 for students and children. A Pay-What-You-Can preview performance will be held at GVT on May 23 at 7:30 p.m. and at Greenbrier West High School on May 28 at 6:00 p.m. For tickets or more information, call the GVT Box Office at 304-645-3838.

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