The wild goose (or should I say â€œghostâ€) chase began innocently. I was working on this newsletter. I dove into â€œThe Year Was 1897â€ since I had found several Halloween-ish events associated with that year. One of these was a reference to â€œThe Greenbrier Ghost,â€ so I set off in search of more information. I found the story online at a site called Dead Men Do Tell Tales.
The site revealed that Elva Zona Heaster was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, around 1873. In 1895, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, and in late 1896, she married a man named Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue who worked as a blacksmith. Elvaâ€™s mother, Mary Jane Robinson Heaster, was not very pleased with the marriage and when Elva was found dead in January of 1897, she immediately suspected foul play. Mr. Shue remained with the body throughout the postmortem examination and became very agitated when the doctor tried to examine her. The doctor hurriedly listed her cause of death as â€œeverlasting faintâ€ and later, â€œchildbirth,â€ as he had been treating her for â€œfemale trouble.â€
After washing a sheet from the coffin, Mary Jane Heaster found a peculiar blood-like stain on it and believed this to be a sign that her daughter had been murdered. A few weeks later, her daughter appeared to her four times and told her how her husband had broken her neck in a fit of rage. She took this information to the local prosecutor and convinced him to reopen the case, which he reluctantly did. After Elva was exhumed, it was ascertained that, indeed, her neck had been broken and her husband was arrested and convicted of her murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and the case remains unique because of role that the Elvaâ€™s ghost played in solving the crime.
It struck me as odd that there was no mention of the illegitimate child in the remainder of the story. What happened to this two-year-old when the mother was killed? I thought it might be fun to poke around the case and see what I could find out. My search for the ghostâ€™s child ended in vain, but along the way some of the techniques I used (and a big misstep I took) could help you in your research.
Searching the Census
To get a better feel for the family dynamics, I started out looking for the family in the census. Doing a search for Elva Heaster, I was able to quickly locate her in the 1880 U.S. Census in Meadow Bluff, Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Her family was indexed as:
Jacob H. Heaster 32
Mary J. Heaster 30
Alfred N. Heaster 8
Elva J. Heaster 7
John M. Heaster 6
Lewis E. Heaster 3M
So far, so good! Since the 1890 census for West Virginia did not survive the 1921 fire, my next stop was 1900, where I hoped to find the child living with one of the family members. This is where things got a little more complicated.
Learning the Landscape
I was unable to locate the family in 1900, although there were several other Heaster families in Greenbrier County. Expanding my search to all of West Virginia, I located her brother Alfred in Fayette County, West Virginia. It was time to find a map, and using â€œRed Book,â€ I was able to quickly determine that Fayette County was right next door to Greenbrier County. It also told me that Virginia was right next door to Greenbrier County, West Virginia, so I also checked there to no avail.
Looking for Neighbors
I tried another tactic. The article mentioned that Mary Jane had died in September 1916, so I skipped ahead to see if I could find her in the 1910 census. A search for Mary Heaster turned her up once again in Meadow Bluff, the same area where she was in 1880, this time with her husband indexed as Hedger. (Iâ€™m assuming thatâ€™s what the middle initial H. in the 1880 census stood for.) Enumerated with them was a grandson named Arnett, but he was only three years old–far too young to be Elvaâ€™s child.
In another attempt to find them in 1900, I searched for a couple of their neighbors. I was able to locate neighbors Floyd Thomas and John Callison, still enumerated next to each other in 1900, but the
Heasters were not listed in the vicinity. (http://www.ancestry.com/s23560/t8800/rd.ashx)
By now I was obsessed with locating them. I paged through all of Meadow Bluff and still could not locate them. There were quite a few pages with really faint handwriting, so itâ€™s possible I missed them, but itâ€™s also possible they moved away for a time, or simply were missed. Going back to the article, it stated, â€œAll of the public roads were unpaved in those days and the county being given to rolling hills.â€ In the census, most of those in the area were farmers, so houses were probably spread out, and it wasnâ€™t like urban areas where the enumerator went up and down the rows of houses. Canvassing hilly, rural areas, I can see where a house may have been missed.
This, and the previous point about â€œLearning the Landscape,â€ are good reminders of how important it is to learn as much as possible about the areas in which our ancestors lived.
Has Anyone Been Down This Road?
Somewhere around 11:00 p.m., what should have been an obvious idea struck me. What if someone else has done research on Elva and submitted her family tree? Sure enough, a quick search for Elva Heaster turned up a pedigree of the Heaster family in the Ancestry World TreeÂ with several paragraphs of notes for Elva herself.Â Had I checked here first, I could have saved myself quite a bit of time. (Although, knowing myself, I would have still probably obsessed over finding them in 1900!)
The tree gives the name of the childâ€™s father as George Woldridge and lists the child as â€œInfant boy Heaster,â€ but the notes that â€œAll efforts to discover anything at all about him have been unfruitful.â€ So it appears that for now, his identity is to remain a mystery.
Up for a Challenge?
Do you think you can solve this case? Megan Smolenyak recently inspired researchers to identify the real Annie Moore of Ellis Island fame, and Iâ€™m hoping maybe we can do the same. Ancestry has agreed to offer a World Deluxe subscription (or upgrade or extension) to the first person who can identify Elvaâ€™s long-lost child. Any takers?
Send your finds to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.