More Lessons From the “Greenbrier Ghost”

by Juliana Smith

Thanks to everyone who has sent in what they found on the missing son of Elva Zona Heaster, “the Greenbrier Ghost.” For those of you who missed last week’s column, we took a look at an old ghost story about a woman who purportedly visited her mother after her death as a ghost to let her know she’d been murdered by her husband. Based on the ghost’s appearance and the details she gave her mother, the local prosecutor was persuaded to exhume the body and reopen the case. Her husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Prior to her marriage, in November 1895, Elva had given birth to an illegitimate son and because he is not listed with her family in any subsequent censuses, I issued a challenge to anyone who could determine what became of her son. (See last week’s article for more details on the case.

I got a great response with quite a number of leads. As I browsed through the e-mails and did a little more research on the case myself, I found quite a few lessons that we can apply to our own research.

So You Searched It All?
Perhaps my biggest frustration with my initial searches was that I couldn’t locate the Heaster family in the 1900 census. Several readers bested me when they located the family, who had been indexed as “Hastie,” right there in Meadow Bluff. I had tried a number of variations and even browsed the entire Meadow Bluff district and still missed them.

My excuses? The handwriting was very faint. There were markings over the name, completely obliterating the head of household. The name was misspelled and indexed incorrectly. I was rushing to get the article into the newsletter so I could meet my deadline. The dog ate my laptop. . . .

Excuses or not, it’s a reminder that some of our brick walls may be caused by rushing through and being impatient. When I’m in a hurry I find myself starting a comprehensive search and then I’ll get a brilliant idea for a new search and take off down that road, only to find it too a dead end. So it’s back to the drawing board. Now where did I start?

Lesson learned: Take your time. Note what searches you’ve performed, including all of the search criteria you used. If you’re searching one particular census year, you can make a grid (either on paper or in a spreadsheet) of the all of the fields on that census search form. Note what criteria you include as you search. Then you can go back and check the form looking for possibilities you missed.

Another thing I noticed as I was dashing through the images page by page, the writing was faint and really hard to read although it was a respectable size. When I found the image, I enlarged it to an even larger size and it became much easier to read. In most cases I’ve found that once you enlarge an image, as you browse forward, Ancestry will retain the magnification size. Although you won’t see as many people on the page and will have to scroll down more to get to the bottom, you’re much less likely to miss your ancestor.

Are We Relying Too Much on Secondary Sources?
Since I had no firsthand knowledge of the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, almost all of what we had to go on was secondary information, in the form of a website detailing the case, and a listing for Elva Heaster in the Ancestry World Tree.

Other readers found an article on the West Virginia State Archives site on the subject, in which some of the details don’t quite match up with other versions of the story. Since the only sources cited were two books, I thought I’d track down those publications and see if I could locate more information. I have ordered The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories (by Dennis Dietz), and I picked up a copy of The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives (by Katie Letcher Lyle) at my local library.

Since most of the articles online listed these publications as sources for more information but listed no direct sources of information, I thought that any source and bibliographic information in the books would be helpful. In looking at the Lyle book, I was correct. This book is a combination of facts pulled from records, and fiction that the writer inserted to fill out the story. What is helpful is that she notes the sections she created with little ornamental icons and “ragged margins.” Factual information is listed with even margins and no ornamentation. At the end of each chapter, she lists sources by page and explains where she got information, both in fictional background passages and factual sections.

I noted several places online where fictional sections had been picked up in articles and passed on as fact. We may make similar mistakes in our own research. Are we including hearsay that hasn’t been verified and presenting it as a fact? While we will sometimes have family stories that we just can’t verify, we need to remember to clearly distinguish them as such. Otherwise they can be perpetuated and steer us and other researchers down the wrong path.

Look a Bit Closer
Several people noted that on the Ancestry World Tree entry George Woldridge is listed as Elva’s first husband, but upon closer examination, next to “Marriage Beginning Status” you can see that he is listed as “single.” Although, presumably, any marriage would begin with two single people, I’m guessing this was entered into the submitter’s software deliberately to reflect that they were not married. If you have unmarried families in your family tree, look for a way to note their marital status.

In Family Tree Maker, on the family page of the parents, next to he marriage field, there is an edit icon (the pencil). Click on this icon and a pop-up box will appear with a field for “Relationship.” The drop-down box includes several options, including “single.”

Write Out Your Problems
In the preface of The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives, the author reiterates something I have always found to be true when she says, “. . . the best way to learn about something is to write about it.” I’ve run into this truism countless times over the course of my career as an editor of Ancestry newsletters. When you write something out, you find yourself really checking facts and choosing words that correctly convey a situation, and in doing so, find holes in your thinking that need to be filled and additional research that needs to be done.

Try it with one of your brick wall families. Whether it’s a biographical sketch or a family outline, try to incorporate as much as you know and fill in gaps wherever possible with more research. As you work on the sketch, you’ll find pieces falling into place and new avenues of research opening up.

Stay Tuned
As I mentioned, a number of readers have accepted the challenge and sent in leads. While no one has yet been able to prove the identity of the child, there are some interesting possibilities to be followed up on. I’ll be sharing more information as the search progresses on the blog and in the newsletter, and hopefully we’ll have a solution and a winner soon. Best of luck to all of you in the hunt!

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 to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

11 thoughts on “More Lessons From the “Greenbrier Ghost”

  1. Just a comment on making census images easier to read – if they are really faint, I have found that if you switch from enhanced images to original images, the grayer background makes the letters stand out better

  2. When one finds a person in the census records whos records are confused/recorded wrong/in error put in the correction. also you might explain how.

  3. I ordered the book The Man who wanted seven wives by Katie Letcher Lyle. Although, I did not find documentation concerning a birth of a child born to Zona, I did find tidbits of information that was interesting.

    Zona’s first boyfriend was Albert Carr. He married twice, his first marriage is unknown to me. However, his second marriage was to Mary Eagle of which several children were born. Two of his daughters were named, Elva and Zona.

  4. I followed up on the baby boy Heaster with the County Clerk of Greenbrier County, WV. The Heaster family tree listed a Book,
    pg, and line number for this birth record. I was told that it does indeed mention a male born on 29 Nov 1895 to Zona Heaster.
    The father is only listed as George, no surname.

  5. Three Zona’s were identified in the 1900-1930 Greenbrier, WV census. No male of the approximate age was listed in any of the households.

    Zona Carr, b. 1904 – daughter of Albert Carr (may have married a Trout by 1930)

    Zona Hedrick, b. 1900 – daughter of George Hedrick

    Zona Odell, b. 1900 – daughter of Joe Odell

  6. The birth record for Zona Heaster’s son begs to be viewed.
    I have contacted a librarian who sent me conflicting information that differs with the Court record.

    The librarian’s findings are as follows:
    Greenbrier County Records; Volume 8; Birth Records 1853-1898,
    Transcribed by Larry Shuck.

    Woldridge,—[WM] Nov 29 1895; Geo Woldridge (….) & Zona Heaster (22); 1 ch.

    The County clerk found this under male child under Heaster.
    And Larry Shuck has the birth under Woldridge. This would make one believe Geo and Zona were married and the child was born a Woldridge rather than a Heaster.

  7. I have looked up on the actual film (at the FHL in SLC) the birth record for Zona’s son – it is actually recorded in Greenbrier County, West Virgina Births Book 1 and Book 1-A. I am presently out of state on my way back home. When I get back I will be happy to post both versions of the birth. If I remember correctly Woldbridge is given as George’s last name on both records. This morning, before leaving CO, I tried calling the Greenbrier County Clerk’s office to find out why there were two different books covering approximately the same years. I didn’t have my info with me and the lady didn’t seem to either understand or believe me, so I will see what I can find out when I get back. I also have other info to share regarding my research. Sorry, I can’t post it now. Edye

  8. I phoned the Greenbrier County Court house again. I had spoken with a different person who had time to search the birth record.

    Male child born on Dec 26, 1895; Mother was Zona Heaster; Father was listed as “supposed to be George Woldridge”

    Could it be that Zona’s child was born in Nov 1895 and it wasn’t recorded until Dec 26, or perhaps Dec 26, 1895 was the accurate birth date.

  9. Pingback: Deirdre

  10. this story is so awesome, i was fasanated when my teacher told me abought zona. believe it or not i live in the same town as zona did. and i have seen the road sighn and her head stone. and my cousin lives on the same property where she was killed!!
    😀 alysan-

    ps i love goust storys!!! thier fasanating- expiecly this one

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *