It’s a Gas

1963 was a memorable year for many reasons. Beatlemania was just beginning. Thousands marched on Washington DC for the cause of civil rights. John F. Kennedy was cut down by an assassin (or more than one assassin; take your pick of theories as to what “really” happened) in Dallas.
And on the very first morning of that exciting year, a mystery unfolded in the land Down Under, one that fascinated Australians for years to come and which would not be resolved for over forty years.
On that New Year’s morning, some kids were walking along Sydney’s Lane Cove River searching for lost golf balls. When they spied a man lying on the riverbank, they assumed he was sleeping off his New Year’s Eve and moved on without disturbing him. But when they came back the same way an hour later, the man had not moved, and now his face was discolored. He was clearly not just passed out, so the golf-ball hunters summoned the police, who quickly determined the man was very dead, and also found a second body not far away.
The dead were identified as Dr. Gilbert Bogle, 38, a physicist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, and Margaret Chandler, 28, the wife of one of Bogle’s coworkers. They had last been seen leaving a party in the wee hours of that day.
Both victims were partly undressed, but somebody had covered them up: Bogle’s pants were laid over him along with a piece of old carpet, and Chandler was covered with a broken-up cardboard beer carton. There were no signs of trauma to the bodies, but there were minor scratches on them, and these together with footprints and kneeprints showed the two had wandered around in an apparent state of confusion before they collapsed. Vomit and excreta were also present, pointing to the possibility of their having been poisoned.
The story was widely covered in the Australian press. Aside from the mysterious nature of the deaths, there was also the titillating fact that both victims were already married to others, and that they had evidently been trysting at the riverside when they died. Sexy scandal sold as well back then as it does today.
Many theories were advanced as to what killed Bogle and Chandler, but the toxicology tests of the day showed no trace of poison in their blood. The case seemed doomed to remain unsolved forever.
But in 2006, an Australian filmmaker humorously named Peter Butt began researching the case, and he presented his findings in a documentary titled “Who Killed Dr. Bogle and Mrs. Chandler?”
The solution he proposed was simple and plausible. Butt had come to believe that the couple was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas emanating from the polluted riverbed. For years before their deaths, residents nearby had complained of a rotten-egg smell that periodically hung about the area. A local factory that dumped its waste in the river was blamed.
H2S, as it’s known, smells strongly of rotten eggs at thirty parts per million in air; at fifty to one hundred ppm, it is sickly-sweet in smell. At one hundred ppm, it instantly paralyzes the olfactory nerves and is thus undetectable even though it soon causes breathing difficulty and upset stomach. At two hundred ppm, the gas quickly causes severe respiratory distress, and at a thousand ppm, one breath is immediately fatal.
Their were high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the bottom sediment of the Lane Cove River near where Bogle and Chandler died. Occasionally underwater turbulence would bring the gas to the surface and into the air. Since H2S is heavier than air, it tended to collect in low places, like the little hollow where the lovers had been. That was a still, calm night, and without a breeze to disappate it, the deadly gas would have settled over them like a blanket. They wouldn’t have smelled it at the high concentration, and by the time they began to feel sick time was already running out for them. They would have been confused due to the displacement of oxygen in their blood, making it difficult to find their way to higher ground and safety in the dark night. And so they succumbed to the noxious gas, and were found a few hours later.
And what of the fact that they had been covered up after death? Hindsight being 20/20, the credit, or maybe the blame, goes to a greyhound trainer who lived nearby and who exercised his dogs on the path very near where the bodies were found. This man denied using that path on the morning in question, but had told a track steward that he had in fact discovered the bodies and had covered them. He was known to be a prude, but his prudishness does not explain why he did not report what he had found, or come forward once he heard that somebody else had done so.
Another mystery is why and how Margaret Chandler’s purse was found by a young girl near the home of a relative of the dog-trainer many miles away.
Myself, I suspect the “prudish” dog-trainer was a bit too morbidly interested in the two half-naked people he’d found dead, and he may have taken the purse as some kind of grim souvenir. If so, it’s not surprising that he didn’t want to go to the police with what he’d found.


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