For almost a century, the Franklin House, also known as the Franklin Hotel, was a structural staple in Richmond, Virginia. The 100-room building was given such accolades as Richmond’s “largest boarding house” and “best furnished boarding house.”
The establishment housed many guests during its history, but life wasn’t always successful. The Franklin faced bankruptcy in 1902. Weeks of bizarre issues forced the clientele to locate other lodgings. In December of 1902, the dire mystery gained nationwide attention.
Mrs. Fetnah D. Gay stayed the night at the Franklin House on December 3, 1902. Her daughter, Mrs. E.J. Bethel, was owner and proprietor of the establishment. The night started as any other, but Gay was found unconscious the next morning. Her room was filled with the smell of illuminating gas, also known as coal gas.
A Mystery Emerges
The Franklin House was in trouble. Two young men were nearly asphyxiated by the same gas, on the same floor, just weeks earlier. In both cases, the smell of gas was so strong the authorities were unable to examine the rooms until it cleared. Several first responders left within moments of entering floor.
The noxious air seemed to have a life of its own. It only affected a couple of rooms at a time and was so random that no point of origin was ever found. It seemed to be a simple gas leak when it started, but investigators soon found nothing about this case was simple.
At that time, the Franklin House hadn’t used coal gas in over a year. The establishment switched to coal oil, a safer product derived from shale oil. The old illuminating gas lines leading into the building were shut off at the time of the transition. Authorities investigated the lines anyway, but knew it was wasted effort. Empty pipes couldn’t leak.
City employees excavated lines throughout the town to find the source. Most theories were rendered useless as soon as they were formed. First, the gas was said to come from the sewers, then it was electrolysis from the trolley line. By December 4th, the gas had affected many other people. A young woman working at bookbinders Smythe & Meister was overcome with the fumes. Then, J.G. Wynne, a printer at the Richmond Printing Company, had to be treated for gas inhalation.
A few days later, city officials admitted they didn’t even know what kind of gas invaded the buildings, and therefore couldn’t possibly locate a source. Gas workers blamed the sewer workers, and vice versa.
Bethel’s hotel suffered the consequences for months. Patrons steadily vacated the premises due to the fear of inhalation. It was impossible to get new boarders because the episodes had gotten such publicity. Her mother appeared to recover from the gas the next day, but lapsed into a coma and died.
Bethel sued the city for $50,000 in damages due to her hardship. Sources from the era anticipated a number of suits against the city for the leak. Her suit was brought against the city of Richmond in December of 1902. The amount was reduced several times, and by October 2, 1903, she won a total of $1,500.
No documentation revealed precisely what gas made city residents so ill.