(…continued from yesterday)
The “Anesthetic Prowler” or “The Phantom Anesthetist,” he was supposedly a dark, mysterious figure responsible for dozens of Virginia victims falling ill from mysterious gasses flooding their homes. Whole families reported sudden attacks of choking, dizziness, headaches and various respiratory ailments.
However, lacking tangible evidence of a culprit or culprits, the press began to express suspicion. The first case to generate skepticism occurred in Fincastle on the night of February 24, 1934, when Ms. Mamie Brown dashed from her residence screaming that she had been gassed. A crowd quickly formed and was led to her house by C.E. Williamson, constable of the local jail, who determined that someone had “tossed a common fly killing fluid into the kitchen–apparently as a joke.”
At about 9 PM on the 25th, a watchdog at the Chester Snyder farm near Cloverdale began barking. Prepared for the gasser, Snyder immediately leaped out of bed, grabbed a shotgun and fired at what he perceived to be the outline of a man walking in a nearby field. The incident may have been unrelated to the gasser, and although it was reported as a possible attack, on January 28th, a journalist jokingly interviewed Mr. Snyder’s dog. “He the dog was friendly and apparently willing to ‘make copy,’ but when he was asked whether a man he detected prowling…was the ‘gas’ man, the pup merely pointed his ears….and barked a single bark.”
By January 30, some citizens expressed the view that “the whole gassing case is a mere hoax, or figment of imagination of reported victims.” A day later, a Dr. Driver, while believing in the reality of the gasser, told a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors that not all cases appeared to be genuine gassings. He also disclosed that at one of the allegedly gassed homes the offending fumes were traced to a coal stove. Sheriff L.T. Mundy typified the mood by declaring himself a Doubting Thomas unless he got gassed himself.
On February 3, 1934, the last gasser case reported in Botetourt County took place at the Troutville home of Mr. A.P. Scaggs; seven persons, along with the family dog, became ill. As usual, the attack occurred between 8 and 9 PM. A doctor was summoned to treat the victims, all of whom, dog included, recovered fully. While there were subsequent claims of gassings in Botetourt County, none involved symptoms or the detection of gas. Instead the gasser appeared to move to nearby Roanoke County that same day, when three persons were sickened by fumes at the Hamilton residence.
The gasser next struck in a residential section of Roanoke at about 8 PM on Wednesday, February 7, as Mrs. A.H. Milan of Rorer Avenue was in her living room with her 12-year-old daughter when a “funny” smell was noticed issuing from the door. Several minutes later, the daughter experienced dizziness.
However, Mrs. Milan had felt ill for several days before the attack. Although her daughter felt no aftereffects, as a precaution Mrs. Milan spent the night in the hospital. The following night during a two-hour period the Roanoke police received reports of five additional attacks, only to be frustrated by a complete lack of clues. The first call was received at 8:55 PM, when an employee of the city health department and three family members detected a strange smell in their house and briefly felt faint. Most of the remainder of the calls consisted of reports of residents smelling fumes but not becoming sick.
Roanoke County gassings peaked on the night of February 9th with seven separate reports. This marked a major turning point in the case when the investigating police noted that “In no instance did the officers detect any nauseating fumes, and no occupants of any of the homes were affected.” In most instances, a mundane source of the odors was readily detected by the police. In one case, three detectives rushed to a home, only to implicate coal fumes from a stove as the cause. At another residence, gasser fumes were believed to have emanated from a passing car.
A further revelation eroded public confidence in the gasser’s existence. On the night of February 11th, five more gassings were reported, but police announced a possible break in the case: A bottle had been used to scoop up a sweet-smelling, oily liquid found in the snow near the scene of a suspected attack at a home in Botetourt county, the first incident reported there in over a week.
On February 12th, a local chemist told police that the mystery liquid was a mixture of substances that were harmless to humans and most likely an insecticide “similar to that of fly exterminators used in practically every household.” Reported gassings ceased entirely in both counties after the night of February 11, 1934.
In all, Roanoke police had received 19 calls, the last of which occurred when several officers responded to a gassing that was traced to burning rubber, prompting them to suggest that the “gas man” was a “product of overwrought imaginations.” This conclusion was supported by an editorial in the Roanoke Times proclaiming: “Roanoke Has No Gasser.”
The editorial stated: “This newspaper has so believed in the gasser’s nonexistence from the first, but it seemed best to permit the police to go ahead and investigate without whatever handicap they might be under were cold water to be thrown on their search in advance.”
The mad gasser episode of Botetourt County had finally played itself out.
Sure, lots of people had gotten sick, and dozens more had reported seeing dark, mysterious figures up to hideous no good stalking the night. The authorities had been run ragged with reports, but there had been no leads, nothing solid; nothing but suggestion, victims suffering from anxiety and fear, and the bizarre power of mass hysteria.
Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-hunting Panics, by Robert E. Bartholomew, McFarland, 2001