Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mystery asphyxiations in Coatesville (1944)

From the Huntingdon Daily News (February 1, 1944):
Coatesville, Pa., Feb. 1 - Police were joined by chemists today in an effort to determine what type of gas killed three members of a Coatesville family and made two neighbors seriously ill.

The bodies of John Refford, 55, his wife, Myrtle, 51, and her brother, Charles Johns, 54, were found by police last night in the Refford home, in various rooms of the house. In adjoining houses police found Mrs. Elmer Dripps and Mrs. William Cohen, who were ill.

Officials said the Refford house was filled with a sweetish-smelling gas, which they thought was explosive. The two ill persons and others in the neighborhood told of smelling the gas.
A few months later, mysterious gas attacks befell the citizenry of Mattoon, Illinois. Known as the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, it was in connection with this affair that the Coatesville incident was recounted by Loren Coleman in Mysterious America.

On the same day, an account appeared of the incident appeared in the Reading Eagle. This account was largely identical, although it clarified that the sweet gas was smelled within the home by Deputy Coroner Fred Manship. It also notes that Mrs. Dripps and Mrs. Cohen lived in the houses on either side of the Reffords and that the sweet gas was also smelled in both of those homes.

The mystery was dispelled the very next day, though this wasn't mentioned until February 5 and then in a brief paragraph buried on page 8 of the Reading Eagle:
Coatesville, Feb. 3 (AP) - Illuminating gas which escaped from a leaking street main caused the death of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Refford and the woman's brother, Charles H. John, Monday night, a coroner's jury ruled last night.

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