Every place has its very own urban legend, many of which are inspired by the most gruesome real-life murders. The origin stories you are about to read are definitely not for the faint of heart. They are terrifying, baffling, and just violent in nature. What makes them even more unsettling is that they are backed by pieces of evidence that prove their authenticity.
If you happen to be in the mood for a little scare, here are five real-life murders that inspired five spooky urban legends.
5 Terrifying Real-Life Murders Behind Popular Urban Legends
1) Zona Heaster Shue, “The Greenbrier Ghost”
The Greenbrier Ghost is one of the most intriguing urban legends in all of America. The history can be traced back to a woman named Zona Heaster Shue. Little was known about Shue’s early life as it was her death that attracted national attention.
In a highway marker in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, there lies a sign that directs to a nearby cemetery. This was the final resting place of murder victim Zona Shue, the only known case in the American Judicial System in which a ghost’s testimony helped convict a murderer.
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It all began when 23-year-old Zona fell for an older man by the name of Edward Shue. A look into this man’s background would be enough to raise eyebrows. Shue had been married twice before, and his second wife had died under mysterious circumstances. But this was not enough to lure Zona away from him. Despite her mother’s, Mary Jane Heaster, warnings, the smitten young woman proceeded to marry Shue.
Only three months into the marriage, Zona was found dead at the foot of her own staircase. She was discovered by a young neighbor returning home from an errand instructed by none other than Edward Shue himself. The boy found Zona’s body all stretched out with her feet stuck together. One hand lay on her abdomen and the other lay limp next to her. Zona’s head was in a grisly distorted position as well, turned slightly on one side while her eyes remained wide open.
The young neighbor quickly informed his mother who then contacted authorities. Dr. George W. Knapp, the local coroner, arrived at the scene after an hour. By this time, Shue had his wife’s body laid in a bed and proceeded to dress the corpse all by himself. This was unusual as town custom had the local women wash and dress the body before a funeral. But what was even more strange was Shue’s entire demeanor. Although Shue did not hide his grief, he still prevented Dr. Knapp from examining the body even closer, despite the coroner noticing some obvious bruising on Zona’s neck.
For a time, Zona’s death was listed as “childbirth,” though it was never confirmed if the young woman truly had been pregnant at the time of her death. Shue made orders to have her buried as quickly as possible. Zona wore a high-necked dress and a scarf and, at Shue’s request, a rolled-up sheet was used to cover her head.
It all seemed like everything was working toward Shue’s favors, but if there was one person who would continue to seek justice for Zona to the very end, it had to be Mary Jane Heaster. As a true believer of spiritualism, she prayed each night to gain insight into her daughter’s untimely death.
Mary Jane got exactly what she wanted. For four night in a row, Zona’s spirit returned to tell her mother how Shue had murdered her.
On the day of her death, the two had a heated argument. Shue had attacked her in a fit of rage. He broke her neck and pushed her down the stairs to make it seem like an accident.
With that information, Mary Jane went straight to the judge who ordered Zona’s body to be exhumed. An autopsy revealed that the poor woman had died of a broken neck. This information was enough to convict Shue, he was found guilty of murder.
Though the “ghost witness” was not enough to call for a death penalty, Shue was still sent to prison where he died not long after. (Perhaps he was scared to death after a visit by the vengeful ghost of his young wife, who knows.)
2) Nell Cropsey, “The Ghost of Nell Cropsy”
On the night of November 20, 1901, a young woman by the name of Ella “Nell” Cropsey disappeared from her home in the coastal North Carolina town called Elizabeth City. Thirty-seven days after she was reported missing, her body was found floating along Pasquotank River. Despite a primary suspect being convicted of her murder, Nell’s uneasy spirit is said to still be haunting her old home.
This turn of the century legend is centered around the mysterious death of the beautiful Nell Cropsey. Nell was last seen alive with her longtime sweetheart Jim Wilcox. There was a rumor going around that Nell and her boyfriend were on the verge of a breakup and that the pair spent the night of her disappearance having a heated argument.
When the young woman was reported missing, it was only natural for the blame to be put on Jim. He was soon arrested for “kidnapping and suspicion of murder.” The allegations were made even stronger after the discovery of Nell’s lifeless body. Autopsy reports showed that the girl had suffered severe head trauma. Although it seemed like Jim was going to jail straight off, Nell’s family still granted him a fair trial.
According to reports, Jim’s first court session ended with a mistrial. On the second trial, he was finally convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. For both occasions, Jim chose not to take the stand in his own defense.
Jim kept his mouth shut for several years until he was pardoned by Gov. Thomas Bickett in 1920. He spoke to the editor-in-chief of an Elizabeth City newspaper W. O. Saunders in 1932 to reveal everything he knew about the night of Nell’s disappearance. Strangely enough, Saunders died in a car accident before he could publish Jim’s confession. As for Jim, the man committed suicide by putting a bullet straight through his own head.
3) Grace Brown
Grace Brown‘s story is yet another tragic tale rooted from abuse. Her story was adapted into a novel, Theodore Dreiser‘s An American Tragedy, and a 1951 film, A Place in the Sun starring Shelley Tripp.
On the evening of July 11, 1906, Grace Brown died at the hands of her own boyfriend, Chester Gillette. Gilette happened to be the nephew of a dress factory owner, the same factory where Grace was employed. Their romantic and sexual rendezvous eventually led to Grace falling pregnant. Upon informing her boyfriend of this, he formulated sinister plans of his own.
As the New York Times wrote on the crime’s 100-year anniversary:
On July 11, 1906, Miss Brown, 20, climbed into a boat with her boyfriend, Chester Gillette. They rowed onto Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, where Mr. Gillette bludgeoned Miss Brown with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard, knowing she could not swim.
After her bruised body was plucked from the water the next day, an autopsy showed she was several months pregnant. The police also found her desperate letters to Mr. Gillette, 23, saying she knew he was dating other women, and was terrified he would run off.
Mr. Gillette’s trial in the village of Herkimer, the county seat, was the biggest this region had ever known, drawing reporters from around the country and making front-page news.
He was found guilty and executed in 1908, but the crime continues to fascinate murder-mystery buffs, and its facts remain the subject of much discussion. And over the years since the tragedy, there have been reports of Grace’s ghost haunting the shores of Big Moose Lake.
4) The Love-Triangle Ghost of Cherry Hill
The historic house of Cherry Hill sits on South Pearl Street in Albany, New York. It dates back to the late eighteenth century, following orders from Col. Philip Kiliaen van Rensselaer to build a home for his bride. During the nineteenth century, the home was passed to different owners. But perhaps, what makes the structure such an infamous part of history was because it was the site of one of the notorious crime scenes in American history.
Cherry Hill is a New York landmark. Since the day it was reopened as a museum in 1964, visitors have been allowed to take a tour around the home’s architecture as a brief look into the “Murder at Cherry Hill.”
The legend begins with Jesse Strang, a drifter who had abandoned his real wife and children in favor of a new life. Jesse went by the name of Joseph Orton in Cherry Hill, and none of the details of his past were ever brought up—until he became involved with the wealthy Elsie Whipple.
At the time of their illicit affair, Elsie Whipple was married to John Whipple, a man whose ancestors constructed Cherry Hill. The two were married when Elsie was just 14, along with the promise of a growing fortune onhand.
Despite the lure of unimaginable wealth, Elsie continued to reciprocate Jesse’s feelings while completely disregarding her own marriage. It did not take too long for the two to start exchanging steamy love letters, which were kept and preserved at the museum.
The two eventually decided that the only way to be together was to remove John from the picture. Jesse was particularly keen on carrying out the crime as this only meant that he would be on the receiving end of Elsie’s inheritance as well.
On May 7, Jesse shot John through one of Cherry Hill’s windows. To this day, a bullet hole can be seen as a gruesome reminder of this crime of passion. The pair told authorities that it could have been done by strange men seen lurking around the property, but circumstantial evidence put Jesse at the scene of the crime.
When the murder weapon was discovered to be the same rifle that Jesse had bought not too long ago, authorities arrested him for murder. The next month, Jesse Strang admitted to the crime before the judge, and he made sure to include Elsie in the picture, believing that with her powerful family’s help, he would be acquitted of a crime.
Alas, Jesse’s plan backfired. Elsie was set free, and in no way did the judge lighten his punishment. Jesse tried to desperately withdraw his confession, but it was too late. The ill-fated lover was sentenced to a horrendous death.
The murder of John Whipple as well as Jesse and Elsie’s affair drew national attention. Jesse’s execution was the last recorded public hanging in the city’s history. So what about Elsie? Well, the young woman had it easy. Not only was she acquitted of her involvement with the crime, but she fled town with her money and eventually remarried to change her name and cover her tracks for good.
To this day, sources claim that ghost of murder victim John Whipple haunts the hallways of Cherry Hill, forever angered by his untimely death.
5) The “Black-Eyed Child”
The best has certainly been saved for last. This series of gruesome murders were carried out in the scenic town of Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, England. One particular ghost is said to be that of a restless young spirit whose life ended far too soon.
During the late 1960s, a perverted psychopath by the name of Raymond Morris had been carrying out a series of heinous crimes. The victims, all young girls, were found brutally raped and murdered. One of them was seven-year-old Christine Darby, whose body was found lying beneath brushwood.
Here was the full report by BBC:
Christine Darby’s abduction two years earlier in 1967 followed the disappearance of two other girls: Margaret Reynolds, six, from Birmingham, and Diane Tift, five, from Bloxwich, West Midlands.
All three had been abducted, raped, and murdered before being buried on the Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Morris was eventually arrested after a nationwide manhunt. He died at the age of 84 years old in the HM Prison, where he spent 45 years behind bars. Curiously enough, the most recent sightings of the Black-Eyed Child happened in 2014, the same year Morris died.