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The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County, part 1

Posted by | January 15, 2016

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.

mad gasser of Botetourt CountyThe 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


Dedicating the Arrowhead Monument at Old Fort

Posted by | January 14, 2016

Old Fort: the name says it. It is indeed one of the oldest towns in western North Carolina, and it was originally a fort, built by the colonial militia before the Declaration of Independence. Once called “Gateway to the West,” the settlement served as the westernmost outpost of the early Thirteen Colonies.

Frequent skirmishes between the Scots-Irish settlers and the Cherokee and Catawba tribes took place along the banks of Mill Creek, which runs through the center of town. There is an old law still on the books that requires any traveler between Marion and Old Fort to notify the Constable of their intended trip and expected arrival time.

If a traveler was late, it was assumed that they had run into trouble, and a search party would be dispatched from the fort to rescue them.

The Native Americans, for their part, were so alarmed by the incursion of pioneers into their lands that they allied themselves with their old enemies the British in 1776.

Arrowhead Monument in Old Fort NCReacting to particularly heavy attacks on Old Fort that year, in late July American General Griffith Rutherford led 2,400 men out of Asheville to invade Cherokee country. Rutherford was joined by Colonel Andrew Williamson, supplying South Carolina troops, and Colonel William Christian with Virginia troops. The army slashed and burned all the way to what is now Murphy, destroying 32 Indian towns and villages. This expedition broke the power of the Cherokee and forced them to sue for peace.

Rather than raise a victory monument commemorating these early battles, the early twentieth century town fathers of Old Fort, perhaps in awareness of the lingering pall cast by the Trail of Tears episode, saw fit to instead create a monument to honor the ‘peace’ between the pioneers and the Native Americans.

And so in 1930, on the same date General Rutherford had originally set out on his march, the Arrowhead Monument on Highway 70 near the Southern Railway Depot was presented, with appropriate ceremonies. 
Nine year old Margaret Marie Nesbitt, who unveiled the marker, was the great-great granddaughter of Mrs. Martha Burgin, the only white child born in the fort.

Twenty Indians, representing the Cherokee and Catawba tribes, were seated on the speakers’ platform. The two tribes, at one time bitter enemies, formally smoked the pipe of peace while 6,000 persons looked on.

The arrowhead, which was chiseled out of a slab of pink granite at nearby Salisbury Quarries, stands 14-1/2 feet in height on a river rock and cement base of slightly more than fifteen feet. 
 One face of the arrow is adorned by crossed tomahawks, crossed muzzle-loading rifles, and a powder horn. The other side carries a profile of Chief Sequoia.

A brass tablet attached to the arrowhead bears the inscription: “This marks the site of the Old Indian Fort built A. D. 1756, the western outpost of the United States and North Carolina until 1776.”

Actually the arrowhead is not on the site of the original fort, which was located approximately where the Mountain Gateway Museum stands today.

A Popular History of Western North Carolina, by Rob Neufeld, The History Press, 2007


The ice knocked ‘The Greenland’ off the cradles and down the river she came

Posted by | January 13, 2016

This is an excerpt from a 1949 letter written by Capt. Tom Greene, owner of Greene Line Steamers, to his friend Dan Heekin, a Cincinnati industrialist and river buff. The letter was discovered tucked in a copy of Steamboats & Steamboatmen by Ellis C. Mace.

“I have about decided to put the CHRIS GREENE’S whistle on the DELTA for the following reasons. First of all I like it as it is of low mellow ‘big boat’ quality. I don’t believe it will annoy the passengers sleep and it comes from the HOMER SMITH which boat was partially owned by one Capt. C.C. Bowyer a great friend of my Dad’s and a banker in Point Pleasant, W.Va.

“Capt. Bowyer was a ‘friend in need’ when the going was rough for my Dad and he went all out financially to help Dad after he had bought the WHITE COLLAR LINE from Commodore Laidley in 1903. Besides a good whistle I feel that it would be sort of a tribute to Capt. Bowyer from a sentimental standpoint to use this HOMER-SMITH-CHRIS GREENE whistle.

Capt. Tom Greene, owner of Greene Line Steamers“The TOM GREENE’S whistle is the most historic on the river. It was my Dad’s favorite and some of the oldtimers have said that my Dad bought the WHITE COLLAR LINE to get that whistle. It was then on the Str. COURIER. It had been on the sidewheel EXPRESS which I believe ran before the Civil War. It was later on the Str. ST. LAWRENCE and has always been known as the ST. LAWRENCE whistle.

“My Dad certainly loved this whistle and it was on nearly all the G.L. boats at one time or another. My Dad sorta wore this whistle as he did his hat and had it aboard the boat he generally thought he would be on for a long period.

“Just a little more history on the TOM GREENE-ST. LAWRENCE whistle while I’m about it. During the 1917-’18 ice siege, the GREENLAND had the ST. LAWRENCE whistle and at that time the GREENLAND was on the docks at the old Cincinnati Marine Ways here in East End.

“Of course you probably recall the ice knocked the GREENLAND off the cradles at that point and down the river she came in the gorge sideways. As I had been born on the GREENLAND my Dad called my Mother at home in Hyde Park and said, “…get Tom out of school and bring him down here to the wharfboat to see his birthplace go by,” which my Mother did. I was then eleven years old and in the formative age when things impress you.

“When I got down to the boat the gorge was moving fast, the other GREENE LINE boats had steam up and were ‘comin ahead strong.’ There was a ‘wailing and gnashing’ of timberheads, cavels and lines snapping. Pretty soon someone hollered, “here she comes,” meaning the GREENLAND. As the GREENLAND hove in sight on her side everybody stood in silence. There was an old purser on the wharfboat who had been on the GREENLAND a long time and he too was in love with the ST. LAWRENCE whistle and he said he would give a hundred dollars to anyone who could get that whistle off the boat when the gorge stopped moving.

“The next couple of days the GREENLAND was down about Rising Sun, Ind., and in the meantime some thieves went out on the ice and took off the whistle, got some chairs and the boats silverware. They were apprehended and the whistle returned. My Dad dropped the charges against the thieves feeling that getting the whistle back and the risk they had taken in going over on the boat in the gorge should cancel the charges against them.”

steamboat The Greenland caught in an ice gorge near Cincinnati OHCaption reads: Steamer Greenland 10 minutes after breaking away from Dock. Flood and Ice Gorge, 1918, Cincinnati, O.

The Greenland was Gordon Greene’s finest boat of his Greene Line fleet. He watched helplessly as the ice swept away three of his wharf boats. The Greenland was a total loss. An ice gorge was an ever possible winter danger up & down the Ohio River. It occurs as a result of river ice piling up against an obstruction, such as a wharf, forming a temporary dam. When that ice pack-up finally breaks, the channel formed down the river’s middle is the ice gorge. The river, which flows at the same speed as before, is now forced through a narrower channel, which means the churning waters rolling down an ice gorge are great destroyers of boats and anything else swept into it.

The White Collar Line was one of the early steamboat lines to ply the Ohio River and westward. Its Mississippi River network extended from St. Louis north to St. Paul. Its name comes from the broad painted collars encircling the tops of the ship smoke stacks, which identified the boats at a distance from rival lines.

The White Collar Line competed fiercely with an operator known as the Northern or Red Collar line for passenger and freight traffic. Each strove to profitably carry freight at lower rates than the other, and neither company was above giving passengers free berths and meals, or a money consideration on the side to win their business away from the other steamboat line.



No use going inside because this was going to be the day he asked for Lula’s hand

Posted by | January 12, 2016

They first met at the Point Truth Primitive Baptist Church near Nickelsville, VA. Charles Nickels was the clerk there, and Mary Louvinia ‘Lula’ Burke came up on Sundays from her family’s home in Grassy Creek, just across the Russell County line.

Isaiah ‘Zur’ and Sarah Burke didn’t encourage their daughter’s budding romance. Charles and Lula were not allowed to be alone while they were courting. They had to sit in the room with her parents, but occasionally managed to hold hands when the older folks weren’t looking.

Charles F. Nickels of Scott County VACharles Franklin Nickels (1881-1948)

On a number of occasions, Charles rode to Grassy Creek with the intention of asking for Lula’s hand in marriage. Having figured out the young suitor’s intentions, when Zur saw Charles coming, he would feign a headache or some other ailment so he could go in the house and avoid talking to Charles.

Charles Nickels was not a wealthy man: he was a traveling photographer by trade. He’d begun to operate The Rural Studio in 1903 while still living at his parents’ home. Charles traveled as far as Georgia to take pictures. When he returned home, he developed the negatives and printed the photographs. His cameras used negatives made of glass coated in various chemicals to obtain the image, and so developing the final image was a rather tedious and dangerous procedure. Finally he printed the picture on a penny postcard and mailed it to the customer. All of this for a dollar!

Lula Burke Nickels of Scott County VAMary Louvinia “Lula” Burke (1887-1962)

Could Charles Nickels’ humble profession have been a contributing factor to Zur Burke’s reluctance to encourage the couple?

On the third trip to Grassy Creek, Charles called out after Zur that there was no use going inside, because this was going to be the day he asked for Lula’s hand. Finally the old man relented and gave his permission for them to be married. Charles was so excited he wrecked his buggy on the way home.

Charles and Lula were married on January 12, 1907 in Scott County, VA. They went on to have 9 children together—Pearl, Gilbert, Blanche, Madge, Mary, Henry, Jim, Charles Harold, and Mildred. All reached adulthood except Mildred, who died at just over a year old.



Quit your meaness!

Posted by | January 11, 2016

“Well, I have talked considerably over an hour. I did not intend to. But hear me, let’s think about these things. I tell you I never – I tell you I never want to see a revival in this city, or anywhere else, that isn’t bottomed on bed rock. Let’s go down until you hear your boot heels grating and grinding against the Rock of Ages. None of your corn stalk revivals!

“We want the sort of revival that will make men do the clean thing. If we can have that sort of revival I want to see it – but not corn stalk revivals. Do you know what a corn stalk revival is? Well, if you were to pile up a lot of corn stalks as high as this house, and burn them up, there wouldn’t be a hodful of ashes. We want a revival of righteousness – we want a revival of honesty; we want a revival of cleanness and purity, of debt paying, of prayer meetings, of family prayer, and of paying our brothers a little more salary. That’s the sort of revival we want. The Lord give us this sort!

“One more illustration in conclusion. Some months ago a man was fearfully crippled in his right leg by a railroad accident. It was fearfully mangled and bruised. They wanted to amputate the leg, but he said: “O I don’t want to lose my limb; preserve it if you can.” They watched at his side until at last the surgeon said: “My friend, the crisis has come when we must amputate your leg.” He said: “Doctor, has it reached that point?” “Yes,” said the surgeon. “Well,” said he, submissively, “if there is no chance to save my leg, get your knife and go to work.”

Samuel Porter Jones“When they got all ready and laid the patient on the table to commence the fearful operation, the surgeons desired to administer chloroform, but the mangled man said: “I do not want to take that; if I die I want to die in my full consciousness, but I want you to let me know by some sign when I begin to sink, so that I can breathe my spirit out in prayer.” They told him that he couldn’t stand the operation without chloroform, but he said that he could.

“The doctor picked up the knife and said to the patient, “If you see me lay the knife down on the table you may know that you are sinking.”

“The doctor commenced the operation, and the man did not flinch. When he struck the arteries he laid his knife down to adjust them, and the young man took it for a sign that he was dying, and commenced praying. The surgeon picked up the knife and resumed his work. In a few minutes the operation was over, and he saw he was saved, and he turned to the surgeon and said: “Doctor, when you picked the knife up from the table and began your operation, it was the sweetest sensation I ever felt in my life.”

“What do you mean?” said the doctor. “I mean,” said he, “that those sensations meant life for me.” Now, brother, when God Almighty throws down the pruning knife it is a sign that you are sinking – the sword of the Divine Spirit cutting through the tendrils of sin; but, thank God, He has not laid down the sword. The sword of the Spirit means life. O brother, come to life in the presence of Jesus, and die in his love. God help us to take these things home with us!

–from Quit Your Meaness!

Wherever American evangelist Samuel Porter Jones preached, liquor stores closed, theaters and jails emptied, and cursing was reduced to whispers. The Reverend Jones (1847-1906), or “just plain ‘Sam Jones,'” as he preferred to be called, was born at Oak Bowery, AL, and reared at Cartersville, GA. He studied to be a lawyer, but drinking and gambling soon brought him to the brink of ruin.

At his father’s deathbed, he fell on his knees and repented of his sin. He preached his first sermon one week later and was licensed to preach in the Methodist Church after only three months. He served several pastorates but gained fame as a lecturer and evangelist. Soon he was conducting campaigns in some of America’s largest cities, reaching the peak of his popularity in the early 1880s. Rarely spending time at his home in Cartersville, Jones preached his “quit your meanness” theology in cities across the United States.


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