The Mad Gasser of West Bainbridge |Richard_Femail@example.com|10/26/06 at 12:19:20|richard_f|xx|0|22.214.171.124|
The Mad Gasser of West Bainbridge
Again, my apologies in that this is not a short post.
After my first book, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria, was published, I heard from several individuals throughout the country about similar suspected gas attacks in their family's or town's history. Most, I believed, could be easily explained through natural phenomena or industrial error, but one story stood out. I have been "sitting on" this story for more than three years, not certain as to what to do with it. The Fortean world is by now well familiar with the "Mad Gassers" of:
Mattoon IL, 1944
Botetourt County, VA, 1933-34
Coatesville, PA, Feb. 1, 1944
Canastota, SD, early 1950s
Houston, TX, 1961
Strongsville, OH, 1962,
but a new and significant addition to that list needs to be made. This was sent to me by Lee Holliway, now of Florida. It is a telling from his family history. I live nowhere near Georgia and have minimal resources to travel to or research this case incident, but my hopes are that by publishing this, someone in that area will be able to do so:
The West Bainbridge, GA "Gas Man"
There was a full moon Nov. 30, 1944, and there was record cold toward the end of November, so the first gas attacks probably began Dec. 4-5 and lasted through Dec. 14-15.
Following are the names of the principals:
W. D. “Will” Dean, late 40s and in poor health. He died in 1948 of kidney problems. At the time of the incident, he worked on the local military training base (Bainbridge Army Air Field) where he checked employees & visitors in and out of some facility on the base.
Edna Dean - his wife, age 44 at the time. She was working on the assembly line at a local factory that produced packing crates for the military.
James A. Dean, son of Will & Edna, born Oct. 27, 1927 (died June 21, 1998). He had just turned 17 at the time of the “gas man” incident. He was attending West Bainbridge High School and working part-time in the packing and shipping department of the factory where his mother worked.
Elefair Poitevint, Edna’s mother, age 67. Her husband had died in 1937 and she took turns living with her three children. She was suffering from pellagra (a niacin deficiency caused by a diet high in corn products and common in the South at that time), but looked after two or three children of women who were working at the military base and/or the factory. One of the children, was a member of the Allen family who were victims of the mad gasser.
Myrtie Dean, 14-year-old daughter of Will & Edna, but, at the time of the attacks, she was living with female relatives in another part of the county where she helped with housework, etc. while the man of the house was overseas.
Addie Poitevint and Claudia Poitevint, nieces of Edna “Poitevint” Dean, around 13 & 11 at time of incident. Their parents lived in a neighboring county, way out in the country, and the girls were visiting in order to go Christmas shopping. They arrived by train and James met them at the depot to help carry their bags the several blocks to the house. (People didn’t mind walking a few blocks back then and even if they owned automobiles, gasoline was rationed.)
Norman Dollar (early 40s) was working on the military base and living with the Deans. (It was common for people to share houses during the war.) I ‘m not sure how long Dollar and his family (which included his mother and daughter) had lived with the Deans but believe they lived there until the war ended.
Vedah Dollar (early 60s). Mother of Norman. Vedah cooked and kept house. Everyone else in the house either worked or attended school.Hazel Dollar (6- or 7-years-old), daughter of Norman.Incident:Norman, Vedah and Hazel Dollar traveled by train to visit relatives for Thanksgiving.
There was a record cold that November, but after a few days, it was fairly warm again and everyone was sitting on the front porch after supper when they heard screams coming from down the street. Naturally, everyone went out into the street to try to see what was happening. Other people had also come out of their houses and Dean, Dollar, James and an elderly man who lived next door, walked down the street. There, they learned two women and some children (I don’t know how many) had smelled something sweet that made them sick while they were sitting at the kitchen table having supper. No one thought much about it.
The following day, the family learned a woman and her elderly father had also gotten sick from smelling something sweet. In this instance, the woman was in bed asleep and was awakened by the sweet smell which made her ill. Concerned about her father, she opened the adjoining bedroom door and his room was filled with the same odor. She got him out of bed and out into the backyard where they were both sick.
Of course, the entire neighborhood was talking about what happened and I remember my grandmother saying “somebody had sprayed gas in through the window screens,” so I don’t think there was any doubt the kitchen window of the first house and the two bedroom windows of the second house were at least partially open.
I think the first incident must have been in the earlier part of the week because by the weekend of Dec. 8-10, when Addie and Claudia Poitevint arrived, the entire neighborhood was in a panic. I’m sure there were some false reports because everyone was alarmed and some people may have imagined smelling a sweet substance, but as with the Mattoon incident, I think most reports were genuine.
In addition to the two attacks the first night, other incidents—before Addie and Claudia arrived—included, among others, a woman and her granddaughter and an elderly couple and their middle-aged, mentally-handicapped son. All those attacked were either female, elderly, a child, or disabled. Of course, most able-bodied men were away fighting but not a single incident occurred in a house that included an able-bodied man or teenaged boy, i.e., someone who could come out and chase the attacker.
By the time Addie and Claudia arrived, Mrs. Dean was keeping all the doors inside the house open at all times and had candles burning throughout the night. (The candles probably weren’t such a good idea if, indeed, someone was spraying gas into houses.) People were also apparently closing their windows at night because there were reports of gas being sprayed under doors (houses in warm, humid climates aren’t always well-constructed), through broken windows, and through small openings around water and gas pipes, etc.
I’m not sure how many attacks occurred prior to the weekend, but I gather there had been at least six or seven. On Friday night after Addie and Claudia arrived, following supper, the entire family walked several blocks, or farther, to what was either a small carnival or some type traveling show. I remember this particularly because there was a gypsy fortuneteller there who told Addie she would marry twice and have seven children–she did. The fortuneteller must have been quite good because everything she said apparently came true and everyone talked about it for the remainder of their lives. However, while they were at the carnival, or whatever, Mrs. Dean developed a headache and realized she didn’t have any aspirin in her purse and she, Mrs. Poitevint and Vedah Dollar decided to leave.
There weren’t any streetlights (this was during a time people had blackout shades in their houses and lights were discouraged because people feared being bombed by the Japanese and/or Germans). As the three women passed what my grandmother always referred to as “the woods” on the way home, Vedah said she heard someone walking behind them. (I always imagined the situation something like one sees in the movies where a person hears footsteps behind him and when he stops, the footsteps also stop.) Whether anyone was actually following them or not, I don’t know—perhaps they just scared themselves—but they started running. I remember my grandmother saying, “Ma couldn’t keep up and we kept having to stop and wait for her.”I think they ran at least two or three blocks because according to what I was told, they were all out of breath by the time they got home and collapsed on the front steps. While they were sitting on the steps, all three heard footsteps and the screen door to the back porch opening and closing. Naturally, they were afraid to go into the house and instead ran next door to the elderly neighbor’s house where they remained until the others arrived home from the carnival.
After everyone went to bed and was, apparently, asleep, Addie, who was sleeping on the livingroom sofa, was awakened by the front porch swing creaking. Assuming a cat had jumped up onto the swing, she thought nothing of it and was just about asleep when she was startled awake again, this time by a noise outside the window. Then, she saw what she always described as a “shadow” move across the window and she screamed. Dollar and James, who were sleeping in the “front bedroom” right next to the living room, jumped out of bed and ran outside in their pajamas but did not find anything.
On that same night, a woman awakened by her barking dog went out onto the porch and saw what appeared to be a man wearing dark clothing running between her house and that of her next-door neighbor. Concerned, she grabbed a rifle, went next door and awakened her neighbors who were convinced there was gas in the house even though they did not become ill. Perhaps the attacker was scared off before he had a chance to spray more than a very little gas through the window.
It was the following afternoon that people of the neighborhood got together and decided to patrol the streets at night. I think, but am not absolutely sure, they met at a nearby church. Some of the men had guns, some had baseball bats, and some carried “loaded sticks” (a wooden walking cane in which a hole is bored and filled with lead to make it exceptionally heavy at one end). Norman Dollar had such a stick.Even though men were walking the streets, the Moore family returned home from the carnival and smelled something sweet inside the house. They all left and went to a house where there was a telephone—I don’t think many people in the neighborhood had phones—and called the sheriff. However, by the time a deputy arrived, if there was any gas in the house, it had dissipated and nothing was found. To my knowledge, this was the only time the sheriff was called to investigate any of the gas attacks.
It doesn’t seem the street patrols were much of a deterrent because there were several attacks afterward, including the attack on the Allen house where one of the children Mrs. Poitevint looked after lived. The incidents leading up to the attack on the Allen house are interesting. Shortly before the attack, while Mrs. Dean and Vedah Dollar were cooking supper early one evening, Mrs. Poitevint and little Hazel Dollar walked to the Allen house to trade sugar for coffee (sugar and coffee were rationed and people often bought one and then traded it for the other). I believe my grandmother, a coffee drinker, traded almost all the family sugar allotment for coffee and used sugar cane syrup for sweetening.As they were leaving the Allen house, Hazel thought she saw someone watching them from the bushes and—afraid to get close to whatever was hiding and return to the Allen house—they ran home screaming. Mr. Dean was sleeping on the sofa before starting patrol duty which began at 8 p.m., so the incident probably happened around 7 p.m. Mr. Dollar and James hurried to the Allen house and thoroughly checked the house and yard. Nevertheless, later that night, the gasser attacked the Allens.
There were no menfolk in the Allen household and the night following the attack on the family, Mrs. Poitevint and James began spending the night with Mrs. Allen and the children. I always had the impression Mrs. Allen was a young woman, probably no more than in her 20s, which would explain why Mrs. Poitevint felt compelled the stay there at night.The gas, or whatever it was, didn’t have any permanent effects but made people ill. One person who suffered an attack told my grandmother the gas smelled sort of like the sickly sweetness of the banana shrub (michelia figo), a plant with exceptionally fragrant creamy yellow flowers, which I have seen growing only in the South. Its scent gives a lot of people a headache. One woman, I don’t know which, who was attacked by the gasser, told people that after smelling the gas, she vomited and had a headache that wouldn’t go away for the next two days.
According to my uncle, while the men were taking turns patrolling the streets, he, another boy about his age, and Norman Dollar, caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a man in the yard of a house where a woman and child lived. The other boy entered the yard from the street while Mr. Dollar and James ran around the other side of the house. I had not thought of it before, but this particular house must have been close to the “woods” because my uncle said whoever it was must have run into the woods. Although Mr. Dollar and James only saw “movement” in the yard, the other teenager claimed he shined the light onto the attacker who turned toward him before running away. Unfortunately, he couldn’t identify the man except to say he had “strange-looking eyes.” Norman Dollar always claimed the boy told him it was “like looking into the eyes of the devil.” (Although I think Mr. Dollar had a tendency to exaggerate, the boy may have very well said this.)
The last attack—or at least the last reported attack— took place a few days after Addie and Claudia left. They stayed only for the weekend, so it must have been the following Wednesday or Thursday. I’m not certain of which was the final attack, but one of the last attacks involved an elderly woman and her two adult daughters. One of the daughters was in a wheelchair from polio and the other (whose husband was away in the Army) had two or three young children. I recall this incident particularly because they had difficulty getting the wheelchair-bound lady out of the house quickly and my uncle said she had vomited all down the front of her clothes. While James and others were helping the three ladies and children, Dollar and a neighbor went into the house. When they came out, they said it was “full of gas” and the following day, Dollar had a headache which he attributed to whatever was in the house.The foregoing attack would have likely occurred between midnight and 2 a.m. because I recall my uncle always saying he and Dollar went on duty at midnight. I believe Mr. Dean, who wasn’t in good health, was always on the 8 to10 p.m. watch.
As I mentioned before, there was a lot of speculation as to who or what was responsible for these attacks. I believe most people thought it was either the Germans or some new gas the military was testing. However, there were those, including Mrs. Poitevint and Norman Dollar, who apparently believed the attacker might be supernatural in origin. Remember, Dollar was present when the boy identified the gasser as having “strange-looking eyes” and instead of running into the woods, Dollar always claimed whatever it was “disappeared into thin air.”
The fact that this story seems to have been ignored by the major media outlets of the area is not all that suprising in that it follows so closely on the coattails of Mattoon "Gasser" incident being labeled as a case of "hysteria" (a shameful term at the time). The town of Mattoon was ridiculed nationally (even world-wide) for their claims of a "gasser" and the West Bainbridge area may have feared similar retribution.
Comments always welcome.