Whether or not gas will be employed in future wars is a matter of conjecture, but the effect is so deadly to the unprepared that we can never afford to neglect the question.
General John Pershing, 1919
At 10 PM on December 22, 1933, Mrs. Cal Huffman detected a gassy odor in her Fincastle, VA home, and became nauseated. Despite the incident, she retired to bed while her husband remained awake in hopes of catching the perpetrator, having assumed that their house had been broken into. About 30 minutes later the smell of gas permeated the house; Mr. Huffman telephoned the police. Officer O.D. Lemon arrived about midnight, but found nothing out of the ordinary.
Immediately following Officer Lemon’s departure at one in the morning, a third attack reportedly took place. This time, all of the seven or eight family members experienced choking fumes that made them temporarily ill. The Huffman’s 20-year-old daughter Alice fainted. When nearby Troutville physician S.F. Driver arrived on the scene, he judged Alice so gravely ill that he administered artificial respiration to resuscitate her.
In a few hours, she appeared to be completely recovered, but later she relapsed and was described as “seriously ill.” After this third attack, Mr. Huffman and another person inside the house thought they might have seen a man running away. The only clues found at the scene were a woman’s high heeled shoe imprint near the window where the gas was believed to have entered the house, and a second print under a porch where it was thought the gasser may have hidden.
The Roanoke Times reported GAS ATTACKS ON HOMES CONTINUE on December 27, adding a new case involving Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Hall of Cloverdale. The couple returned home from church about 9 PM; within five minutes they detected sickening fumes that left a sweet taste in their mouths. Symptoms included nausea, smarting eyes, and weakness. The next evening, a relative thought he saw a figure with a flashlight near a side window of the Hall residence.
The gasser struck again on Wednesday the 27th at Troutville as welder A.L. Kelly reported that he was attacked in his residence about 10 PM while in an upstairs room. Curiously, no one else in the house was affected. This was followed by a temporary cessation of reported incidents and their press coverage. A few days after the most recent episode, the press expressed the view that the gasser “has concluded to call a halt to the series of mysterious attacks.”
The gas attacks resumed on January 11. At about 10 PM, one Mrs. Moore, of Howell’s Mill, reported hearing muffled voices in the yard following a rustling shade at a window that had been broken for some time. Because the room immediately smelled of gas, “Mrs. Moore grabbed her baby and ran out to give the alarm, but not until experiencing a marked feeling of numbness.”
The couple who owned the house and lived upstairs were unaffected by the gas; in fact, they were unaware of the incident until they heard Mrs. Moore’s cries. The owner of the house, Homer Hylton, stood guard the remainder of the night, fearing another attack. Later, it was revealed that on or about the same night the home of G.D. Kinzie of Troutville was gassed by what a physician concluded was a potentially lethal chlorine gas. “Nocturnal dispensers of a nauseating and benumbing gas went abroad in Botetourt County again last night,” bleated The Roanoke Times the following day.
On Tuesday night, January 16, a Mr. F.B. Duval reported to the police that, upon arriving at his home near Bonsack at about 11:30, he learned that his family had been gassed. On his way to meet the police, he caught a fleeting glimpse of a man he assumed to be the perpetrator, running toward a nearby car. On Friday evening, January 19th, at 7:30 PM, a Mrs. Campbell was sitting near a window at her Carvin’s Cove house when she noticed the curtains flutter, immediately followed by a strange odor, whereupon she felt ill.
Two nights later, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Crawford returned to their house in Colon at about 9 PM after visiting with friends, when Mrs. Crawford, while lighting a lamp, was overcome by fumes.
By Tuesday, January 23rd, the fear of being the gasser’s next victim had reached such proportions that families living in remote areas of the county were sleeping with neighbors and vigilante farmers were “reported patrolling roads at late hours of the night or sitting on their doorsteps guns in their hands.” One police officer expressed concern that “some innocent person passing a house or calling upon a neighbor may be wounded or killed through nervousness” by persons fearing that they were next on the gasser’s list.
On the morning of the 24th, Mrs. R.H. Harteel of Pleasantdale returned home at about 4:30 after sleeping with a neighbor to find that the house had been gassed. During the day of the 24th, police inadvertently heightened tension after a misunderstanding resulted in reporting three separate attacks on homes in the vicinity of Carvin’s Cove two nights earlier.
In actuality, there had been only a single report at the home of a man named Reedy. Immediately upon detecting the odor, one of his sons grabbed a shotgun, ran outside, and fired at what appeared to be a man running across a field. The escalating number of reports prompted members of the Virginia State Assembly to pass a bill calling for a maximum prison term of 10 years for anyone convicted of releasing noxious gasses in public or private places. In the event that the incident caused injury, the gasser would be “deemed guilty of malicious wounding and punished with from between one and 20 years in the penitentiary in the discretion of the court.”
On the evening of Sunday, January 28th, five people at the Ed Stanley residence near Colon Siding were overcome by noxious fumes. While none of the victims lost consciousness, a Mrs. Weddle had to be carried from the house suffering from extreme nausea. When one of the victims, Frank Guy, managed to reach fresh air, he saw what appeared to be four men running near the woods, grabbed a shotgun and fired. The next day the county Board of Supervisors voted to offer a $500 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the culprit or culprits.
(stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow…)
Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-hunting Panics, by Robert E. Bartholomew, McFarland, 2001