The Unexplained: Terror in the Night


The phantom menace crept through the hamlets and byways of Botetourt County, Virginia, creating his reign of terror.

I do love it when digging around in one mystery leads me to another.  Just such a thing occurred during my last episode.  The name of a place from an old news item popped up out of the page: Botetourt County, Virginia.  This beautiful pastoral county is situated right between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians.

The reason it holds my interest is because two of my long ago ancestors resided there for a spell.  In fact there was an ancestor from both my maternal and paternal sides living there.  Did they know each other?  It’s probable.  The paternal ancestor had cleared out before the 1810 census. They had both moved on for points west long before the dreadfully mysterious events that happened in the county.

The New York Times summed it up with this headline: “Virginians Are Terrorized By Gas Thrower Who Flees In The Night After Making People Ill.”

This phantom menace was active about ten years before The Mad Gasser of Mattoon.  He crept through the hamlets and byways of Botetourt County creating his reign of terror.

Sara Marie Hogg

The Mattoon events happened toward the end of WWII.  The Botetourt County events happened during the Great Depression.

Were the two mad gassers the same person, just relocated?  It would be hard not to let your mind wander in that direction.

Both cold cases were very similar, except in the first heinous spree, the legs of the victims did not become temporarily paralyzed.  The Botetourt Bee described the gas used there as hallucinogenic. Odd!

Mass hysteria was given as a reason for all the commotion.  Was it?  It does not seem possible for it to be all imagined.

It all started like this:  in1933, December 22, in a family home, the wife and mother smelled a strange aroma that nauseated her.  The ten p.m. event was worrisome, but after a bit everything seemed normal again, so the woman put her children to bed.  When the odor returned, she called police, using a neighbor’s phone.

The police came to The home and did investigations until midnight and found nothing.  After they left, the odor came back and eight family members were struck down.  They had respiratory distress, nausea, and headaches.  A doctor was called and he had to give one of the daughters artificial respiration.

The husband, Cal, became suspicious of a possible attacker.  He actually saw a dark figure running off in the distance.  A Dr. Breckenridge came and tried to figure out what gas could have been used.  He was able to eliminate ether, chloroform, and tear gas.  No other gas could be determined.

On December 24, in Cloverdale, the same thing happened to another family.  Mr. Hall and his family smelled a gaseous odor and all became ill.  Some victims had eye irritation.  Mr. Hall was so out of it that his wife had to drag him out of the house to revive him.

This time, Dr. Breckenridge had some better guesses.  He said the gas seemed sweet, and he was suspicious of formaldehyde.  One of the Hall’s windows had been tampered with and someone had seen a stranger outside with a flashlight.  Hall took his family to another location and formed a group to search for the mad gasser.  There was no success, there.

The next county event happened in Troutville.  A. L. Kelly noticed a suspicious car driving back and forth with a man and woman inside.  The car was a 1933 Chevrolet.  The family was attacked in conjunction with the suspicious car.  The vehicle could not be located even though someone had jotted down a partial plate number.

These were enough bizarre and creepy attacks to cause a panic through the county.  The panic was accompanied by gun toting.  The county offered a $500 reward for the capture of the gasser.

The Roanoke Times headlined each horrendous gassing event the following day, with dramatic details

The attacks continued over into the year 1934.  Starting on January 10, residents of Fincastle heard mumbling voices outside their homes at night.  Over in Troutville, G. D. Kinsey was attacked with a gas cloud.

On January 16, in Bonsack, the home of F. B. Duval was attacked.  A man was seen speeding away.

On January 19, Mrs. Campbell, of Cloverdale, was sprayed through an open window and she got ill.

On January 21, the Crawford’s of Cloverdale were overcome by a cloud of gas as they entered their home.

On January 22, there were three attacks in Carvins Cove.  Suspicious characters were seen and the police set up roadblocks, to no avail.  He was gone again.

On January 23, the Hartsell family returned to their home to find some kind of gas inside.

Citizens of the county had worked themselves up into a greater panic.  The gas attacks were more and more frequent.  More and more anxious citizens were toting about guns.  Some had itchy trigger fingers and somebody was bound to get hurt.  What many thought to be teenage pranks, at first, had turned out to be serious crimes.

The Virginia State Assembly made it an automatic ten year prison term for releasing noxious fumes in public or private areas.  If someone got injured, it was an automatic twenty year sentence.

On January 25, the gasser was thwarted by a barking dog.  Chester Snyder fired his shotgun at a fleeing man.  Footprints were found behind a tree.

On January 28, a Cloverdale family home was hit.  The hired man had witnessed four men fleeing the scene.  They returned two nights later and were almost caught in the middle if a gas attack, but fled when Ed Stanley came outside.

On January 30, authorities made a statement that it was all people’s imaginations running wild.  There was no gasser.  Any fumes in the area had explainable causes, most probably relating to coal or other fuel.

Two area sheriffs had very differing views.  J. T. Munday  declared himself a Doubting Thomas, unless he was gassed, himself.

Another sheriff was looking more carefully at some of the obvious evidence.  Sheriff Williams said:  “No amount of imagination in the world would make people as ill as the Skaggs and others are.”

The gassey mist caused nausea, convulsions and sometimes hysteria.

The gassing incidents stopped–interestingly about the time the assembly announced the stiff prison sentences if caught.

New, but minor, gassing incidents started up in nearby Roanoke County.  They faded fast, probably were copycats.

On a mysterious side note,  women’s shoe prints were found at some of the gassing scenes.

Please click HERE to find Sara’s historical mystery, It Rises from the Pee Dee, on Amazon.

, , , , , , , ,

Related Posts