In the 1930s and 1940s, there were accounts of a “Mad Gasser” operating in two locations. The first occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia in 1933-1934. The second in Mattoon, Illinois in 1944. Also known as the “Anesthetic Prowler” and the “Phantom Anesthetist,” these names were given to the person or people believed to be responsible for a series of gas attacks that were perpetrated against area residents. The identity of this shadowy character, who was infecting peoples’ homes with a foul-smelling odor has never been determined.
The first attack occurred on December 22, 1933, near Haymakertown, Virginia in the home of the Cal Huffman family. At about 10:00 p.m. Mrs. Huffman smelled something strange and soon became nauseated. She and the children then went to bed as the smell dissipated. However, the foul odor returned about 30 minutes later and Mr. Huffman went to a neighbor to use the phone and call the police. The police arrived but were unable to determine the source of the smell and by midnight had left. At about 1:00 a.m. the mysterious gas appeared once again and all eight members of the family were affected, suffering from nausea, headache, and constriction of the respiratory system. Most stricken was 20-year-old Alice Huffman and a doctor was summoned, who gave her artificial respiration in order to revive her.
Cal Huffman suspected that the family had been attacked and a neighbor reported seeing a shadowy figure running away from the house. The police once again investigated and with the help of Dr. W.N. Breckinridge, were able to rule out ether, chloroform and tear gas, but were unable to determine the specific type of gas. Following leads that there may have been a prowler, they found the print of a woman’s shoe beneath a window.
Two days later, on December 24th, another family living in Cloverdale suffered from various symptoms including nausea, burning eyes, and weakness caused by gas. Clarence Hall, his wife, and two children came home at about 9:00 p.m., and about five minutes later, smelled a strange odor. Mr. Hall became so weak, he was staggering and swaying and his nauseated wife had to drag him outside. Mrs. Hall experienced eye irritation for the next two days. The police were called and Dr. Breckinridge assisted again in the investigation, noting that the gas “tasted sweet” with a trace of formaldehyde. Looking for a prowler, the police found that a nail had been pulled from one of the windows and a neighbor reported having seen a figure with a flashlight near the Hall residence. Afterward, Clarence Hall sent his family to stay with friends and rounded up a group of neighborhood men who spent the remainder of the night searching for the gasser, without success.
On December 27th, the Roanoke Times reported: “Gas Attacks on Homes Continue.”
Little did they know that another attack would happen that very night at the home of A.L. Kelly and his mother in Troutville, Virginia. Kelly reported having seen a man and a woman driving back and forth in front of the Kelly home in a 1933 Chevrolet at about the time of the attack A neighbor managed to get a partial license plate number but the police were unable to locate it.
The local media published a number of wild speculations regarding the attacks and panic soon spread through the community. Men, with guns in hand, began to keep night vigils on their properties and the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors offered a $500 reward for the capture of the nefarious anesthetist.
More attacks would occur throughout 1934 including:
The home of Homer Hylton, in Fincastle, was attacked on January 10, 1934. One of the residents reported having heard mumbling voices and someone attempting to open a window. Hylton’s neighbor, G.E. Poage, confirmed that he had also heard voices outside at approximately the same time.
On the same date, a Troutville man named G.D. Kinzie was also attacked.
On January 16, the home of F.B. Duval, near Bonsack was attacked. As Duval ran from the house to use a phone, he saw a man run up to a parked car and speed away. The next day the police once again found prints of a woman’s shoes where the car had been parked.
On January 19, the gasser sprayed into a window of the Campbell home near Cloverdale. Mrs. Campbell, who was sitting near the window saw the shade move and immediately became nauseous.
On January 21, the Howard Crawford house between Cloverdale and Troutville was attacked when Mr. and Mrs. Crawford entered their home. They were immediately overwhelmed by a cloud of gas.
On January 22, three separate attacks occurred in Carvin’s Cove at the homes of Ed Reedy, Raymond Etter, and George C. Riley and. One of Mr. Etter’s sons claimed to see a figure disappearing from the direction of the house. George Riley immediately called his brother who was an officer with the Roanoke Police Department. In no time the police established roadblocks all around the area, but once again the Mad Gasser has escaped.
On January 23, Mrs. R.H. Hartsell and her family returned to their Pleasantdale Church home at 4:30 a.m., discovering the house was filled with gas.
With the gas attacks occurring with regular frequency, the citizens of Botetourt County were in an uproar and local men were sitting on their doorsteps or patrolling the roadways at night, armed with shotguns and rifles. The police expressed concern that “some innocent person passing a house or calling upon a neighbor may be wounded or killed through nervousness” However, though they had believed that the gassings were the pranks of adolescents, were forced to admit that the attacks were something more serious.
At about this time, the New York Times heard about the events and published a story under the headline: “Virginians Are Terrorized by Gas Thrower, Who Flees in Night After Making Victims Ill.”
The next day, members of the Virginia State Assembly voted 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.”