The Franklin House was also known as the Franklin Hotel, a structural staple in Richmond for around a century. 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 faced bankruptcy by 1902. Weeks of strange issues forced the regular 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 Mrs. Gay was found unconscious the next morning. Her room was filled with the smell of illuminating gas, also known as coal gas.
The Franklin House was in trouble. Weeks earlier, two young men on that floor were nearly asphyxiated by the same toxin. In both cases, the gas smell was so strong that authorities were almost unable to examine the rooms. Several officers choked and had to leave.
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 one could determine a cause or locate a point of origin. It seemed to be just a simple gas leak when it started, but investigators would soon find nothing about this case was simple.
The Franklin House hadn’t used coal gas for over a year, at that point. The establishment switched to coal oil, which was a safer product derived from shale oil. The old illuminating gas lines leading into the building were shut off when the switch was made. Authorities investigated the lines anyway, but it was impossible for lines to leak without something coming into them.
City employees excavated lines across town to find the source. Theories were rendered useless as soon as they were formed. First, the gas came from the sewers. The next theory stated it was electrolysis from the trolley line. By December 4, 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 inhalation.
A few days later, city officials admitted they didn’t know what kind of gas was invading the buildings, therefore couldn’t possibly locate a source. The gas workers blamed the sewer workers, and vice versa.
Mrs. 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.
Mrs. 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 ever revealed precisely what gas made city residents ill.