In the same way that the enigma of Jack the Ripper haunts Great Briton to this day it can be argued that one of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in the history of the United States is the identity of a shadowy character who stalked the residents of the rural town of Mattoon, Illinois, Infecting their homes with a putrid vapor before disappearing with nary a trace. This nefarious figure came to be dubbed the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” but while this villain is far and away the most famous, “he” was not the only — or, for that matter, first — so-called Mad Gasser to invade American homes!
The oft told tale of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon — also known as the “Mad Anesthetic” — began (aptly enough) in the small town of Mattoon, Illinois in 1944. Between the dates of August 31st and September 13th, a thin, black clad assailant would spread a reign of terror with a series of unprovoked and invasive “gas attacks.” Although police and FBI agents attempted to dismiss the whole thing as a classic case of mass hysteria, the evidence supports the reality that during those weeks in 1944, an unidentified person (or persons) managed to infiltrate the homes of local citizenry with an unknown gaseous substance, which rendered — through means as yet unidentified — the occupants incapacitated or violently ill.
Since 1944 debates have raged as to the true identity of this mysterious marauder. Some have speculated that the Mad Gasser was a crazed scientist, while others suggest it was a government agent testing a new aerosol based weapon.
Still others have theorized that he might be a deranged WWI veteran, scarred by the horrifically vicious gas attacks that claimed so many in the trenches. A few believe it was the work of crafty juvenile delinquents with a chemistry set and too much time on their hands and fewer still insist that he was nothing less than an extraterrestrial performing some sort of strange experiment on its human subjects.
Whatever the origin of this enigmatic entity might be, the facts surrounding the bizarre and terrifying series of events in Mattoon have been chronicled ad infinitum, but as infamous as this incident has become, less well known is the fact that two additional — equally insidious — gassers were seen lurking around Florida and Virginia over 10 years before the harrowing events that sent Mattoon into a tizzy.
THE PHANTOM ANESTHETIST OF BOTETOURT COUNTY, VIRGINIA
December 22, 1933 – Haymakertown:
The first sequence of events began in a rural area of Botetourt County, Virginia. A man by the name of Cal Huffman along with his wife, six children and a family friend claimed to have been besieged by a strange attacker the likes of which had never been encountered, at least not in the United States.
According to the testimony of the Huffmans’, at approximately 10 pm. an unidentified vapor filled their home, rendering Mrs. Huffman ill. She retired, along with the children, hoping that sleep might keep the nausea at bay. Meanwhile her husband remained awake to see if the skulking figure they had spied earlier might return. He was not disappointed.
Just half an hour later, Cal noticed that his house was once again filled with the noxious fumes. While he apparently did not encounter the “Phantom Anesthetist,” Cal wasted no time in hightailing it over to his landlord’s house — one K.W. Henderson — whereupon he used the telephone to call the local police.
Cal and Henderson’s son, Ashby, returned to the Huffman home where they met Officer Lemon who had been sent to the scene. Lemon, Ashby and Cal maintained a vigilant watch until about midnight, when Officer Lemon was called away. As if on cue the gasser returned, this time filling both levels of the home with his putrescent spray.
Cal’s 19 year-old daughter, Alice Huffman, was rendered unconscious after breathing in the evidently toxic haze and required artificial respiration to restore her breathing. The teenager allegedly suffered a series of severe convulsions for weeks following the incident.
The other members of the Huffman family — as well as Ashby Henderson — suffered nausea, headaches and a constriction of the throat muscles following this third gas attack. Following the assault, both Cal and Ashby swore they saw a “shadowy” masculine figure scurrying away into the night, but were unable (or, possibly, unwilling) to take pursuit.
Dr. W.N. Breckinridge was brought in by the police to help discover what kind of gas had been used to incapacitate the Huffman family. During the course of his investigation, Dr. Breckinridge managed to rule out both tear gas and chloroform, but could not identify the true origin of the vapor. In fact, the only clue as to the culprit was a woman’s shoe print that was discovered by Officer Lemon below the window where the gas purportedly emanated. It’s worth noting that similar footprints were found at some of the scenes of the Mattoon attacks of 1944.
December24, 1933 – Cloverdale:
The nearby town of Cloverdale — which is also located Botetourt County — was the site of the next attack. The episode began at approximately 9 pm. on Christmas Eve as Clarence Hall, his wife and two children returned home following a church service. Moments after they entered their home, the Hall family noticed an odd odor lingering in the air.
Clarence dutifully inspected the house, returning minutes later in a stupor. Mrs. Hall, who, by this point, was also beginning to feel the effects of the fog, wasted no time in pulling her nearly unconscious husband (and, presumably, their children) from the infected house. The side effects of the gas were apparently not long lasting and Clarence quickly regained his bearings, but Mrs. Hall complained of a severe eye irritation for days following.
The police and Dr. Breckinridge again descended on the scene of this bizarre — and seemingly unmotivated — “gas attack,” but this time they arrived before the mist had a chance to completely dissipate. Dr. Breckinridge stated that the gas “tasted sweet” and seemed to have an aftertaste of formaldehyde. Again, the illustrious doctor was unable to definitively identify the substance. While no feminine footprints were discovered at the scene, one of the officers noted that a nail had been pulled from the window, presumably to allow a small tube to enter through the wooden orifice in order to release the vaporous toxin.
Hall quickly sent his family to stay with some friends and recruited a gang of neighborhood men who spent the remainder of the night searching the wooded area near his property for the offending anesthetist. This search ultimately proved to be little more than a waste of time.
While most of the local men were tromping through the woods, Hall’s neighbor, Emmett Lee, was convinced that he heard strange voices outside his window. Lee retrieved his shotgun and blasted it skyward to frighten off the would-be trespassers. Nevertheless he and his wife Lura wrangled all ten of their children and kept them upstairs for the rest of the night, lest the gassers should assail their home.
December 27th, 1933 – Troutville:
Just three days later, the Mad Gasser apparently struck again when he sprayed his poisonous mist at A.L. Kelly and his mother in their Troutville home. This time, however, the eyewitnesses were able to report what may have been the first tangible proof of the gasser… or gassers, as the evidence seemed to indicate.
Kelly later told police officers that he had noticed a brand new 1933 Chevrolet cruising suspiciously in front of the isolated house that he shared with his mother. He further reported that the vehicle appeared to be occupied by both a man and a woman. One of the Kelly’s neighbors managed to jot down a partial license plate number, but the police were unable to identify the vehicle or its owners.
Following these events panic spread through the community like wildfire and the local media went into a frenzy; publishing all manner of wild speculations regarding the origins and nefarious purpose of the fiend they dubbed the “Anesthetic Prowler.” Fathers kept night long vigils on their front porches with their rifles close at hand, while mothers stuffed keyholes and every crack they could find with rags.
The Botetourt County Board of Supervisors even took the extreme measure of offering $500 reward — a substantial sum considering that the Great Depression was still in effect — for the capture of this inscrutable monster. The reward has yet to be claimed.
January 10th, 1934 – Fincastle:
The Mad Gasser laid low for almost two weeks before he reared his head again. Homer Hylton was asleep with his wife in an upstairs bedroom, while his daughter, Mrs. Moore — whose husband was away on business — slept on a downstairs couch near her infant child. Moore claimed that she had awoken to tend to the baby at about 10 pm. when she heard the sounds of “mumbling voices” as someone attempted to open a nearby window, which had a tiny chip in it.
Before she could react, the room suddenly began filling with rancid smog. Moore swiftly snagged her baby and exited the room, feeling what she described as a “marked feeling of numbness.” While Moore and her child managed to escape unharmed, authorities later speculated that the chip in the window was the conduit through which the fiendish gasser had infiltrated the home.
The Hylton’s neighbor, G.E. Poage, confirmed that he had also heard voices outside at approximately the same time. Later that same evening, a Troutville resident named G.D. Kinzie was allegedly the victim of yet another respiratory mauling by the Phantom Anesthetist.
January 16, 1934 – Bonsack:
Less than a week later the gasser harassed one F.B. Duval in his home near Bonsack. Duval wasted no time in exiting his home in order to wrangle up some officers of the law.
Duval and, the now seasoned Mad Gasser pursuer, Officer Lemon, cruised the area for hours searching for the vehicle to no avail.
Lemon did, however, find the prints of a woman’s shoe uncannily similar to those he discovered outside of the Huffman home near where the mysterious car had been parked.
January 19, 1934 – Cloverdale:
Just three days later, the gasser allegedly sprung into action again near Cloverdale. This time he was accused of spraying into the window of a former judge’s wife named Mrs. Campbell. Campbell claimed that she was sitting near an open window when her shade inexplicably moved. Seconds later she succumbed to an intense feeling on nausea.The attacks began to increase in frequency at this point; with no less than five reported encounters taking place over three nights.
January 21, 1934 – Troutville-Cloverdale:
The first transpired on January 21st, when Howard Crawford and his wife entered their home, which was located between Troutville and Cloverdale. Mr. Crawford entered first, but before he could turn on the light he stumbled backwards, beleaguered by the cloud of gas that filled their home.
The police were quick to arrive at the scene, but — much like in the other attacks — there were few clues of note. Perhaps the most befuddling, if ultimately futile, piece of evidence found at the locale was a hand crank from an old automobile. The officers and the Crawford’s were perplexed by this discovery, but were unable to glean any additional information from the instrument.
By this point the police and press had logged more than a dozen reports of gas attacks and it was then that the illustrious New York Times finally got wind of this terrifying nocturnal raider. In a story they published under the headline: “Virginians Are Terrorized by Gas Thrower, Who Flees in Night After Making Victims Ill,” the Times took what was once a local anomaly and transformed it into an international curiosity.
The day after the story broke, the Virginia General Assembly approved a bill offered by Roanoke Delegates Blair Fishburn and W.H. Scott, as well As M.R. Morgan of Botetourt, which made “gassing” a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This odd law is still on the books in Virginia.
January 22, 1934 – Carvin’s Cove:
Apparently the new law did little to deter the enthusiasm of the spectral gasser as this evening would prove to be the most prolific night for the vicious chemist. During the course of just one hour no less than three sets of victims claimed to have been assaulted by appalling fumes in Carvin’s Cove, which is located just a few miles northeast of Cloverdale.
The first casualty of the gasser’s infamous one hour onslaught was Ed Reedy, who claimed to suffer symptoms that included nausea and numbness. This was followed by Raymond Etter, whose son claimed to have pursued and fired shots at a “man” hastily making his escape from the Etter home. Unfortunately the speedy quarry managed to elude his tracker.
The final victim of the evening was George C. Riley. Following his airborne assault, Riley managed to get a hold of his brother who was an officer with the Roanoke Police Department. In no time the police had roadblocks stationed all around the area, in an unprecedented effort to finally capture this crazed corrupter of the atmosphere. Despite the officers’ best efforts, the gasser (not surprisingly) managed to once again evade the authorities.
January 23rd, 1934 – Pleasantdale Church:
The next encounter began Mrs. R.H. Hartsell and her family returned to their Pleasantdale Church home at 4:30 in the morning after spending the night with neighbors. The Hartsell’s were dismayed to discover that the doors of their house had been blocked with mounds of wood and debris. When they cleared the obstacles away they were even more distressed to determine that the house was filled with a foul mist.
This was the final straw for the good citizens of Botetourt County. Families who were isolated from their neighbors began to band together in single homes and armed posses of vigilantes took it upon themselves to patrol the roads after dusk.
The police grew concerned that an innocent stroller might become the victim of these armed locals and delved into the case with even more intensity and the Roanoke Times beseeched the amateur night-patrolmen to refrain from firing upon their fellow citizens.
The authorities –who had initially dismissed the gas attacks as mere mischief stirred up by juvenile delinquents — were now forced to concede that the Mad Gasser was a force to be reckoned with. Speculation grew that the perpetrator might well be a deranged WWI veteran who may have had all too close encounters with lethal gasses during the Great War.
January 28, 1934 – Cloverdale:
A farmer from Cloverdale named Ed Stanley, his wife, a hired hand and two others were all inside the Stanley’s home when it began to fill with an inexplicable haze. The hired hand, a fellow by the name of Frank Guy, sprinted outside and swore that he saw four men running toward the densely forested area at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Knowing full well that he likely just bore witness to the notorious Mad Gasser and his gang of miscreants, Guy darted back into the Stanley’s house, retrieved his rifle and dashed back outside. The men we no longer visible, but Guy claimed that he could hear them rustling in the nearby forest. He fired a spray of bullets toward the noises, but was never sure if any of them found their mark.
January 29, 1934 – Cloverdale:
The following eve the gasser, for the first time, returned to the same residence on a consecutive night. Stanley claimed that he heard a noise outside the window before the room filled with gas. Inexplicably, his account ends abruptly with that fact.
February 3, 1934 – Nace:
A.P. Skagges along with his wife and five other friends were all intensely sickened by the gas, which they believed had come in two separate doses. In response to those who doubted the veracity of the Skagges’ story, one Sheriff Williamson stated: “No amount of imagination in the world would make people as ill as the Skagges are.”
Officer Lemon was again dispatched to the scene. This time, he noted, the mist did more than cause nausea and convulsions. In fact, the symptoms displayed by some of the Skagges family seem more akin to what one would endure when exposed to an extraordinarily large dose of hallucinogenic drugs. One of Skagges’ nephews was recorded as hysterically shrieking that he was “trapped” inside the house.
The family’s pet dog also seemed to be suffering the deleterious effects of gas exposure as Lemon noticed when he returned the following day. The Skagges children were all weeping as their dog frantically rolled and convulsed in the snow, as if attempting to dislodge the malodorous spray of a skunk. The dog apparently remained ill for days, but eventually recovered.
During the week that followed there were a score of gasser reports with a 30 mile radius of Botetourt County. Most accounts smacked of hysteria or outright hoaxes, including teens throwing a bottle on insecticide through a woman’s window. Although that incident clearly lacked the subtlety employed by the Mad Gasser, it was enough for local police to dismiss the whole thing — in much the same way the authorities of Mattoon would a decade later — as nothing more than hysteria fueled by the occasional hoax.
February 9, 1934– Lithia:
The final attack by the Mad Gasser of Botetourt County took place that very same week. J.G. Shafer claimed that the gasser had infiltrated his home, but managed to escape through the snowdrifts into his barn. Shafer managed to secure a sample of snow outside his window that seemed to have the residue of the mist embedded in it. The sweet-smelling material was analyzed and was determined to contain arsenic and sulfur, two ingredients often found in insecticides of the era.
The police officers followed the culprit’s tracks back to the barn behind Shafer’s home, but were disturbed to discover that there was no one in the barn… and, even more disturbingly, no tracks leading away from it. This has led some to speculate that the Mad Gasser might be a paranormal (or even inter-dimensional) being after all. It should also be noted that a set of tracks clearly showing a pair of “woman’s shoes” were found emerging from the property into the street.
In a futile effort to calm the panic-struck public, police and other local authorities released a statement saying that the Mad Gassers were nothing more than a flight of fancy spread by out of control rumors and defective chimney flues, which had adversely affected the victims’ respiratory systems. It goes without saying that those closest to the investigation — like the dozens of victims or Officer Lemon — did not support the official explanation of this puzzling case.
It’s also worth noting that these attacks seemed to stop in tandem with these, frankly ludicrous, official denials of the gasser’s existence. Does this indicate that the government agency that may have been responsible for these experiments informed the local authorities that they were to dismiss the whole series of events to prevent further panic, or is it merely a coincidence?
THE MAD GASSER OF LAKE COUNTY
November 8th, 1935 – Lake County:
The next pre-Mattoon account of a Mad Gasser in America hails from Florida’s Lake County Citizen. Respected cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman, dug up the story of this lunatic anesthetist who was apparently doing a lot more than merely nauseating his victims. This story was so important it made the coveted page one on the newspaper. Here’s the article:
This offender seems to have a distinctly more materialistic modus operandi than the Mad Gassers of Botetourt County or even that of Mattoon. This has led many to believe that the villainous character with the “knock-out” gun was more likely than not an simple thief with a not so simple mind. He (or she) might have been a doctor, a nurse, a chemist, a veterinary assistant or involved in any number of careers that gave him access to chemicals that could render human beings unconscious.
Whatever their occupation (or species, for that matter,) we nestled comfortably here in the 21st Century would be remiss to discount the genuine terror that gripped Botetourt County in 1933 and 1934. Robert Bartholomew, who has written on the subject had this to say: “If you want to know what it was like to live in Roanoke and Botetourt back then, it was just like after September, 11th.”
So what should we make of the Mad Gassers of Botetourt and Lake Counties? The culprits were never apprehended, that much is clear, but what became of them? Did they, as many believe, lay low for the better part of a decade before returning to their wicked ways in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1944?
Were they actually war crazed veterans or insidious government agents looking to test the deleterious effects of a new vaporized weapon by experimenting on unsuspecting American citizens? Most intriguingly, does the fact that no one ever discovered the tracks leading away from the Shafer barn confirm that these were actually extraterrestrial — or possibly supernatural — entities that may have been whisked away aboard a UFO or some other mystical transport?
As far as the discovery of multiple feminine footprints at the scenes of the crimes, does this mean that the gasser was a female or, perhaps, part of a couple? Possibly a peculiar, pharmacologically knowledgeable “Bonnie and Clyde,” who for reasons beyond our grasp took it upon themselves to fill the homes of strangers with noxious fumes. Hell, there have even been unconfirmed reports of “ape men” in the area of the gassings, which throws an entirely different light onto the proceedings.
In the end, it’s the “why” the remains so baffling for most researchers. There is simply no clear cut motive for these sinister home invasions, but the commonality of the attacks in Virginia and Illinois — and, to a lesser degree, Florida — seem to indicate a distinct pattern of seemingly random assaults on victims of little or no wealth or political influence by a person or persons whose agenda remains as perplexing today as it was almost 80 years ago.
Perhaps the best description of the Mad Gasser that can be proffered was written by Donald M. Johnson in the 1954 issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. In his article “The Phantom Anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria,” Johnson called the gasser a “shadowy manifestation of some unimaginable unknown.”
That seems to nail it pretty well.