A map of the gas attacks.
Or the Anaesthetic Prowler/Mad Gasser of Roanoke as just a few names for example was given the title when the person/people performed a series of apparent gas attacks in Botetourt County, Virginia during the 1930’s. It was also a re occurrence for Mattoon in Illinois during the mid-40’s. Whether the cases are just mass hysteria or not an explanation for the events remain under debate. The reports ran between December 22, 1933 to February 1934.
The first people to report the gas attacks were Mr and Mrs Bert Kearney, 1408 Marshall Avenue and they said he was a tall, thin man with dark clothes and a tight fitting cap. Another report some weeks later described the gasser as being female dressed up as male. The gasser was said to carry a flit gun (pesticide tool).
The first report was in Haymakertown, Boutourt County, she reported an unusual odour at about 10pmn on 22nd Dec 1933 that made her feel sick, it returned again about half an hour later and they contacted the police. A third attack on the house happened around 1am and the whole house was affected with 8 occupants inside from the family and a guest.
The symptoms they had included headaches, nausea, facial swelling, constriction of the mouth and throat. Alice Huffman (daughter of Cal) stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated. She had several fits afterwards which the doctor attributed to be anxiety attacks, not the affects of the gas.
24th Dec, Cloverdale had a report from the Hall family that after they returned from church and detected a small that made them feel sick and weak. The police found a nail had been pulled from the rear window and that this may well have been where the gas had been injected into the property.
Dec 27th mother and son reported a similar event to thee Huffman and Hall cases. Then a fourth happened Jan 10th and then a second attack that night in Troutville. It is worth noting that several more were reported but police dismissed them as either hoaxes or possibly the effects of anxiety/hysteria.
The second spate was in Mattoon, Illinois and began late August 1944. Raef woke up to find that he was weak and sick, he suffered a fit of vomiting and then went to his wife who he found partially paralysed and unable to leave her bed. A similar report was made by a young mother.
September 1st there was a third report, she thought the smell was due to the flowers at first but changed her mind when she found that she was loosing feeling in her legs. There was no evidence of a prowler. Then her husband reported that he found someone snooping around but could not catch him, he gave a similar description to the original attacks of a tall man in dark clothes with a tight fitting cap.
A cloth was found at a victim’s home and was tested but nothing was found during testing. More reports were coming in and it caused an investigation that included the FBI. The local police also had to stop the locals from forming groups that were on patrol and fear was being raised that someone might discharge a firearm incorrectly and cause more problems. During this time there were more reports from footprints to tears in window screens, all of which appeared to be adding to the hype. By September the police had so many reports that they had to act, they made a statement that the incident was likely a result of public fear and women’s anxiety over the local men on war service. Interestingly enough it did decline after this.
Chief of Police C E Cole determined that there had been no gas attacks, the town had been sick with hysteria not gassing. There was, he felt, more likely an explanation in that the gas may well have been something carried over on the wind from the local industrial factory and that public panic had been more of the problem. In fact many of the symptoms such as nausea and choking, or even temporary paralysis are signs of shock/stress and other psychosomatic ailments.
There was another fear that it was due to Toxic Waste or pollution, it was possible that it was a release of something called Carbon Tetrachloride however the primary company involved in this allegation was Atlas-Imperial and they were adamant that they could not have carried enough of that in the factory to cause such widespread symptoms over the two areas. Also before the time of the gassing they had been certified safe by the State Department of Health.
Some researchers conclude that there is evidence there may have been some attacks by an actual assailant. It’s not clear if Botetourt and Mattoon are connected or that one is a copycat but the two ere nearly a decade apart and only affected the local area.
2003 saw a book by Scott Maruna, a former resident of Mattoon who feels that the attacks were due to a mentally disturbed man call Farley Llewellyn who was a chemistry student isolated from the community as he was believed to be homosexual. This was his notice and says that many of the attacks were within his local area. It was also claimed that the female gasser descriptions (more rare) were the work of his sisters to stop suspicion falling on him.