Using Ancestry: “Ghost Story,” by Juliana Smith

The wild goose (or should I say “ghost”) chase began innocently. I was working on this newsletter. I dove into “The Year Was 1897” since I had found several Halloween-ish events associated with that year. One of these was a reference to “The Greenbrier Ghost,” 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. Elva’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 “everlasting faint” and later, “childbirth,” as he had been treating her for “female trouble.”

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 Elva’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 ghost’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 “Red Book,” 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. (I’m assuming that’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 Elva’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. (

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 it’s possible I missed them, but it’s also possible they moved away for a time, or simply were missed. Going back to the article, it stated, “All of the public roads were unpaved in those days and the county being given to rolling hills.” In the census, most of those in the area were farmers, so houses were probably spread out, and it wasn’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 “Learning the Landscape,” 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 Tree with several paragraphs of notes for Elva herself. 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 child’s father as George Woldridge and lists the child as “Infant boy Heaster,” but the notes that “All efforts to discover anything at all about him have been unfruitful.” 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 I’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 Elva’s long-lost child. Any takers?

Send your finds to [email protected]

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been the editor of 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 [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

20 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: “Ghost Story,” by Juliana Smith

  1. Great article….and the search for Elva is on….
    Please make this the 1st of the Ancestry Challenges….
    As there are many lost souls….waiting to be found.
    Enjoy your work, because we sure do.

  2. Count me in on this search for ELVA…….Great article and a terrific idea. In my own genealogy searching I have come to many “brick walls” with no where to turn. The challenge to find ELVA is very inspiring and hopefully will help me in finding some of my own lost relatives of many years ago.
    I am printing your article to use as a reference quide.

  3. I, too, have been chasing an ancestor who had an illegitimate child in 1877 — found them in 1880 census and cannot find a death, marriage record or anything (Ohio)on the child and cannot find her or her mother in 1900 census. I have checked other relatives — nothing. I guess they were non-persons in that era. I think there is something funky about the 1900 census because we have been unable to locate several people in the 1900 census.

  4. Yes, knowing you, you would have obsessed over them in 1900! But, seriously, very interesting bit of detective work, I must admit. You have me interested in doing a little research as well!
    I loved the article, and I never would have thought to check out neighbors, as well as family members. Thanks to you, I keep finding out how easy and enjoyable it is to go back in time and see who I can find. It’s no wonder you do what you do; it’s not really the destination that you come to enjoy, so much as the journey.
    Once again, great job.

  5. I agree with Mark–the journey is the joy. I really enjoy a good detective search and am glad I joined

    I must admit also that there seems to be something screwy with the 1900 census.

    Thanks so much for these newsletters. It’s a great way to start the week.

  6. Great story of which I am familiar since I am a West Virginian. Count me in in the search for Elva’s child.

  7. I found an Overton Woollard in the 1900 and 1910 census that is of the approximate age for Elva’s child. He was living with his father, George Woollard, in Pocahontas County, WV in 1910 and with his aunt and uncle (Thomas McCallister), in Falling Spring, Greenbrier County in 1900.

    While searching the Social Security Death Index, Overton T. Woollard was located as having died 11/1/1991. His birth date was 10/1/1895. He lived to be 96!

    Unfortunately, the on-line WV Archives only has death records up to 1955 on their website. A search of the Pocahontas courthouse death records would be needed to see if he listed Elva as his mother. He listed “Mary” as his mother on his WWI draft card. In the 1910 census, “Mary” was his father’s wife of 6 years. Overton was 15 at the time. It is possible that his father married two women named Mary so a search of the marriage records may be in order.

    When I first started my search, I looked at the WV on-line death records for all Heasters in WV to see if I could locate Elva’s son. No person of the appropriate age that went by the name of Heaster was found. However, three brother’s to Elva were located! I then searched the Heaster households in the 1900 and 1910 census. No luck. I branched out to search just for the child’s birth year in the census. Overton Woollard was the only child found that came close to the known facts.

    An email with census copies and death records for the Heaster family has been sent to your email address.

  8. It would appear that more questions remain unanswered. Some materials suggest Zona’s body was found by an 11 year old boy named Anderson Jones who frequently performed chores. In fact, Anderson was born in 1877 and was nearly 20 years old at the time of Zona’s death. I find it strange that there was no specutation directed towards Anderson Jones.

    It seems clear that the alleged illegitimate child of Zona’s could not have been at her house at the time of her death. Otherwise, the headlines would have shouted the double tragedy of a young woman’s murder and the sad fact that a child was orphaned as a result of that murder. It would have been more likely that Zona was sent away to give birth to her fatherless child. I would think alleged child was put up for adoption.

  9. Another possibility has been discovered. Henry Woollard, age five, was in the 1900 Falling Spring census living with his uncle. I’ll continue to research person. A genealogy posted on Rootsweb states that Overton and Henry were the sons of Jannette and Rev. George Washington Woollard.

  10. George Washington Woolard/Woollard b. 1865 married first Jeanette B. Anderson on 13 Apr 1893. Jeanette died 15 Jun 1899. They had three children:
    Henry L. born Jun 1894

    Overton T born according to SS Death index 1 Oct 1895/ WWI Draft Reg 7 Oct 1896. List Father and two brothers.

    Oakley Washington born 19 Feb 1899 per WWI Draft Reg. List father G.W. Woolard.

  11. Please note on my last post per 1900 census Greenbrier, Falling Springs, Oakley Washington “Woolard” is listed as an adopted son of George Woolard. However, he was born in 1898-1899.

    I searched the West Virginia census for George Wooldridge and found one in McDowell, WV. George Washington Wooldridge was born Apr 8, 1875 in Tazewell, VA. George had ties through family in Greenbrier county, Meadow Bluff, with Simon Jack Woolridge and family.
    In 1880 McDowell county, he is listed with his parents William and Mary.
    In 1900 McDowell county, he is listed as George Woldridge born Apr 1875, as a boarder. Occupation was day labor. He was shown as a 25 year old widower.
    I cannot find him in 1910.
    In 1920 McDowell county, he and his wife, Peggy (McClure) who was born in McDowell, WV; were married Oct 4, 1906 in McDowell WV. Also listed were several children.
    In 1930 McDowell county, he and Peggy were living in the same place. They had issue of at least 11 children up until 1930.
    I searched for a possible grandson or ward living with George’s family but found nothing.

    I searched on Rootsweb and found the Wooldridge family which was researched with a book written by William C. Wooldridge.
    There was mention of George’s first wife Jennie McClure, married Mar 24, 1897 in McDowell. They possibly had issue of two children, William, born Jan 2, 1898 and Nannie Geneva, born Jan 1, 1900.

    It is purely speculation as to whether this is the George who was the father of the alleged Baby Heaster. Given his family ties in Meadow Bluff, Greenbrier, WV, and his age prior to his first marriage, it could be argued that if the child existed, he might be considered a potential father.

    Lacking a birth record or other documentation substantiating the actual existence of the child, all we have is an interesting exercise in research. As with the finding that Anderson Jones was about 20 years old as opposed to the age of 11 as reported in the story, other inaccuracies my cloud the findings.

  12. juliana..I have found my grandparents and family on the 1930
    censes..a family, for years couldn’t locate and i means years.
    but by searching for the son of Elva I have found strange that even other familys have some of thier families too.
    I feel Elva’s son will be located soon..there are a lot of people searching and hoping to get the reward with ancestry.
    I’ll keep searching. Thanks for you eye opener.
    Elizabeth Mueller

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  14. I am a distant relative of Erastus Stribbing Trout Shue that was found guilty in the death of Heaster. I am looking for any information on Charley Shue, Ranie Shue, Paige shue, Charles Shue, and Allie Ashby Shue.

  15. Zona Heaster was my fathers aunt.. I have been trying to find the names of her brothers but can’t find what I’m looking for.. My grandfather (Zona’s brother) was buried under the name H.C. Heaster.. My fathers birth certificate shows H.C. but I can’t find his real name.. I believe the C. stands for Cole, and the H. could be Harold, just not sure.. Does anyone have any thing on her brothers?

  16. I was researching the Greenbrier Ghost for a presentation I am giving at a local Middle School and ran on to this site.

    This link is for Roger Heaster – this is the death certificate for your grandfather. Still have no idea what his real name might have been.

    I found birth records for Mary Jane’s and Jacob’s children: John M. 4-24-1974; Joseph E. 10-17-1883; James L. 6-4-1886 and unnamed male 7-5-1888.

    I also found the birth record for Elva Zona’s illegitimate son born in Greenbrier County in November 1895. No name on record, but says “father supposed to be George Woldridge”.

  17. Thanks Robin, but how do you know that HC stands for Harold Cole? I have been trying to find a document that states that.. Thanks again…
    Roger Heaster…

  18. If you would contact a Mr. Robert (Bob) Adams in Linside, WV, he’s a retired attorney, I’m sure he has information on Zona’s illegitimate son.

  19. I have the Shue geneology and Charlie Shue was an Uncle of mine, and Trout Shue was my great Uncle.

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