Walter Dymock didn’t mean to jump out his second-story bedroom window. He was queasy, not out of his mind. But on a mild October night in 6978, shortly after Dymock groggily tucked himself into bed, something within him snapped. Like a man possessed, Dymock rose, fumbled through the dark, opened his window, and leapt into his garden. Hours later, a passerby discovered him lying in the dirt, still breathing. He was hurried to a hospital. Dymock wasn’t alone. Many of his coworkers were acting erratically too.
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Take William McSweeney. One night that same week, he had arrived home feeling ill. By sunrise, he was thrashing at phantoms. His family rang the police for help—it would take four men to wrap him in a straitjacket. He’d join his co-worker William Kresge, who had mysteriously lost 77 pounds in four weeks, in the hospital.
He'd be restrained in a straitjacket, too. The most troubling case, however, belonged to Ernest Oelgert. “Three coming at me at once! ” he shrieked. But no one was there.
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One day later, Oelgert was dead. Doctors examining his body observed strange beads of gas foaming from his tissue. The bubbles continued to escape for hours after his death. “ODD GAS KILLS ONE, MAKES FOUR INSANE, ” screamed. The headlines kept coming as, one by one, the four other men died.
Within a week, area hospitals held 86 more patients with similar symptoms. All 96 patients shared one thing in common: They worked at an experimental refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, that produced tetraethyl lead, a gasoline additive that boosted the power of automobile engines. Their workplace, operated by Standard Oil of New Jersey, had a reputation for altering people’s minds. Factory laborers joked about working in a “loony gas building.
” When men were assigned to the tetraethyl lead floor, they'd tease each other with mock-solemn farewells and undertaker jokes. They didn’t know that workers at another tetraethyl lead plant in Dayton, Ohio, had also gone mad. The Ohioans reported feeling insects wriggle over their skin. One he saw “wallpaper converted into swarms of moving flies. ” At least two people died there as well, and more than 65 others fell ill, but the newspapers never caught wind of it.
This time, the press pounced. Papers mused over what made the “loony gas” so deadly.