In 1944, residents in the town of Mattoon in Illinois came under a prolonged series of attacks by a man the papers named as “The Mad Gasser” and “The Phantom Anesthetist”. Despite the witness accounts that claimed to see a man stalking around the victims houses on multiple occasions, the authorities and subsequent psychological studies chalked the whole saga up to nothing more than a case of “Mass Hysteria”, but did that diagnosis really answer every question posed by the evidence of events that ran for over two weeks, as summer faded over the small farming community, or was it just a convenient outcome for a police force with no answers to give the troubled population?
Maruna, Scott. Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria (2003), Swamp Gas Book Co.
Evans, Hillary & Bartholomew, Robert E. Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior (2009) Anomolist Books, TX, USA
Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (2001) McFarland Publishing, USA
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The Phantom Anesthetist of Mattoon
In 1944, residents in the town of Mattoon in Illinois came under a prolonged series of attacks by a man the papers named as “The Mad Gasser” and “The Phantom Anesthetist”. Despite the witness accounts that claimed to see a man stalking around the victims houses on multiple occasions, the authorities and subsequent psychological studies chalked the whole saga up to nothing more than a case of “Mass Hysteria”, but did that diagnosis really answer every question posed by the evidence of events that ran for over two weeks, as summer faded over the small farming community, or was it just a convenient outcome for a police force with no answers to give the troubled population? This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Situated 100 miles to the South-East of Central Illinois, Mattoon was a small, rural, blue-collar town in 1944, dominated by farmland and a small handful of factories, the largest of which being the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co., which had relocated to the area 9 years earlier in 1935. Whilst the war saw many small towns boom with the influx of labour drafted in to work in the industrial sectors of the US war machine, Mattoons relatively small industry only saw moderate growth and the population remained stable at just below 16,000, even after the secondary boost from the discovery of petroleum reserves in the ground outside of the town.
1944 had been a tumultuous year for much of the US. Abroad, the war in Europe and Asia were headed towards a positive conclusion and popular sentiment was generally upbeat. The landings at Normandy had seen an offensive in France that had concluded with the liberation of Paris from the Germans and the momentum was firmly in the Allied powers favour. At home, Americans were recovering from one of the largest flu epidemics in history, followed by a particularly rough storm season throughout the spring in many areas and severe drought in others, which had caused huge losses in the farming sector. Politically, the public were gearing up to elect a President Roosevelt whose health was rapidly deteriorating for a record fourth term. The labour market was suffering from shortages of manpower and industrial strike actions, although still outpacing the German, British, Russian and Japanese output combined. The year, too, had seen the largest sedition trial in US history, with 29 American citizens, mostly right-wing oddballs, standing trial for having Nazi sympathies and charged with “conspiring to undermine the morale of the armed forces”. Despite the fact that the trial is seen as somewhat farcical now, and though the trial itself never concluded, having been brought to an abrupt end when the presiding judge passed away, the trial nevertheless worked to sow the seeds of fear and paranoia into the average population.concerning one’s neighbours, especially those seen as outside the political or social norms. This fear had been exacerbated late that summer, as press reports claimed that the Nazi’s may have been planning Gas attacks on American soil in retaliation for the D-Day landings.
In Mattoon itself, around 5% of the population still lived in homes with no electric, whilst around 50% had telephones connected to the communications grid and owned a new fandangled invention known as a refrigerator. Radio and Newspapers were still the main source of news both local and on the war and the local newspaper in Mattoon boasted a 97% readership coverage of the town for Monday to Saturday.
As the first week of September dawned, seeing the closing of what had been a mild summer in Illinois, a new, somewhat unique threat burst onto the scene in Mattoon, one that would remain as a staple in psychological studies on Mass Psychogenic Illness for decades to come.
The Mad Gasser
It was 3am, the early morning of September 1st in Mattoon, Illinois. Midnight had long passed and the streets were deserted, even the din of the local factories had fallen quiet for a few, short hours. 47 year old Urban Raef, was in bed with his wife, Pauline when he woke suddenly, feeling nauseous. Instantly, he felt something in the room was not quite right,
“There was a peculiar heavy odor in the bedroom and I at first thought it was gas,”
He rolled over in bed and woke Pauline, asking her if she might have left the gas stove turned on earlier that evening, though after waking slowly and assuring him she certainly had not, she too began feeling queasy and both herself and Raef realised that a feeling of paralysis was creeping up through their legs. The couple spent the next hour and a half being ill, until as quickly as it had developed, their feeling of sickness faded. The next morning they checked on their guests who had been sleeping in another room to see if they had smelt anything or had any sickness in the night, but when they confirmed they had not, both Raef and Pauline put it to the back of their minds. That was, at least until they read the newspaper two days later, on Saturday September 2nd. Below the large block letters on the front page that read “Yanks in Germany by Nightfall, was a second headline, not any smaller, this one hit a little closer to home, however.
“Anesthetic Prowler on Loose – Mrs Kearney and Daughter First Victims”
“A prowler who used some kind of anesthetic or gas to knock out his intended victims was on the loose in Mattoon Friday night. Mrs Kearney and her three-year-old daughter, Dorothy Ellen, were victims of the anesthetic Friday night as they slept in bed at their home, 1408 Marshall Avenue. Both had recovered today, although Mrs Kearney said that her mouth and throat remained parched and her lips burned from effects of whatever was used by the prowler who was unsuccessful in getting into the house.”
Aline Kearney went on to describe the attack and importantly for Urban Raef, she described the sensations she felt throughout, which he recognised immediately as exactly the same as the sickness and paralysis that he and his wife Pauline had felt on the Thursday night previous.
“I first noticed a sickening, sweet odor in the bedroom, but at the time, I thought that it might be from flowers outside the window. However, the odor grew stronger and I began to feel a paralysis of my legs and lower body. I grew frightened and screamed for Martha. She came into the bedroom, to which the door had been closed, and asked me what was the matter. I told her of the sensation I had, but I was unable then to move from bed.”
Martha Reedy, who had come to Mrs Kearney’s aid when she heard her scream, noticed the peculiar smell in the room as soon as she entered and rushed over to the Robertsons next door, asking them to call the police. The police showed up and joined Mr Robertson, who had been busy scouring the area around the house, but came up with no signs that anyone was lurking around and no evidence of any attempted break in. With little else that they could do, the police and Mr Robertson reassured Mrs Kearney that they didn’t see any threat of an attacker in the vicinity and left her to rest and recover from the atack. Around thirty minutes had passed and Mrs Kearney was already feeling significantly better.
Bert Kearney was a Taxi driver in the town and had been working late that night, he returned home after word got round to him from police that his wife had been attacked earlier that night. He left work early and parked up by the kerb at around half past midnight, only to see, to his horror, a tall man, wearing a fitted cap and dark clothing, standing outside his house, staring in through the window. He jumped out of his car and chased after the intruder, who had already taken off as soon as he saw Bert, but as he turned the corner of his house, the man had gone, disappeared into the night. Bert called the police for a second time, but once again, their search was in vain. No evidence could be found of an intruder and the man that Bert had chased had seemingly made a clean break. As Mrs Kearney and her daughter were now recovered from the earlier attack. The police once again left them to sleep, which, after driving over to their friends house on the other side of town to spend the night, thankfully, came quickly and lasted the couple and their children through to morning.
Urban Raef continued to read the report in the paper of the Kearney attack, which speculated the attacker had used either Chloroform, or Ether, or possibly a combination of the two and sprayed it into the sleeping victims room. It was an uneasy feeling to think that he too had suffered at the hands of the “Anesthetic Prowler”. He picked up the phone and called the police to give them his own report from the morning of the 1st. If he was worried that the police might think him a crackpot, or of creating stories out of thin air, he needn’t have been concerned. He wasn’t the only one to have called police on the morning of the second after the paper had printed their headline. Shortly after the Kearney assault, two other households had suffered similar attacks, Mr and Mrs George and Beatrice Rider had phoned the police to confirm that she too had smelt a pungent odor that had made her lightheaded and had made her children restless, whilst a further, unnamed victim living a few blocks West from the Riders had called police to report that she had awoken to the smell of a sickly, sweet odor and found her children suffering from sickness and vomiting.
Within a few hours on Saturday Morning, the “Anesthetic Prowler” had gone from a case of a strange and unique attack, to a thoroughly frightening series of attacks throughout Mattoon. Police, who originally thought the attack on Mrs Kearney had been a failed burglary when she told them she had been counting money in her home that evening and she believed that it would have been possible to have seen her in the process from the street outside, were left to scrap their early theories when none of the other attacks seemed to fit with the theory at all. Talk had already begun to spread throughout the town and as darkness crept over the horizon that Saturday night, it was an uneasy population that slept on beneath the inky, black sky.
Fortunately, the next few days peace and quiet returned to the town of Mattoon. With Labour Day falling on Monday 4th, Newspapers had an extra day out of print and as such, news of the “Anesthetic Prowler” had faded away, as talk returned to more normal daily affairs. Upon the resumption of circulation on Tuesday, however, the uneasy peace was quickly broken. The prowler had been at it again over the weekend and had made front page news, once again.
“Anesthetic Prowler Adds Victim – Mrs C. Cordes Burned; Ill Two Hours.”
Mrs Beulah Cordes and her husband Carl had returned home the previous night at around 10pm from an evening out and having parked up, they entered their home, as was their custom, through the rear entrance. Settling down in the lounge, Beulah noticed a white scrap of cloth, fluttering on the front porch through the screen door. In an act of curiosity, she walked over to it, bent down to pick it up and unfolded the cloth, which was a relatively large square. As she did so, she noticed that in the center of the rag was a damp patch and instinctively, she put the cloth to her face to sniff the unknown substance.
“When I inhaled the fumes from the cloth, I had a sensation similar to coming in contact with a strong electric current. The feeling raced down my body to my feet and then seemed to settle in my knees. It was a feeling of paralysis. My husband had to help me into the house and soon my lips were swollen and the roof of my mouth and my throat burned. I began to spit blood and my husband called a physician. It was more than two hours before I began to feel normal again.”
Meanwhile, whilst Belulah Cordes had been resting and recovering from her ordeal, Mrs Burrell was suffering under the hands of the anesthetist. At 11:15pm, just over an hour after the Cordes had returned home, Mrs Burrell had woken coughing and choking on fumes in her bedroom. She struggled from bed, collected her young infant son in her arms and ran over to her neighbours house, where she called her husband George and then the Mattoon Police to report the attack.
After Belulah Cordes’ symptoms began to subside, she decided to scout out on the porch and the area outside her house for clues as to what the intruder may have been upto. She had a suspicion that the chemical on the cloth was possibly chloroform intended to put the families dog to sleep, allowing for a robbery that was fortunately scuppered by her and her husband returning home, frightening the would be intruder away. As she combed the area out front of the house, she picked up two items which she thought might have been dropped by the intruder, a worn skeleton key and a tube of lipstick which had been almost entirely used up.
Back at the police station, Police Chief Cole sent the cloth to the Illinois State Police Laboratory to be analyzed, however, the large gap in time between recovering the cloth, sending it off to be analyzed and the actual analysis happening, which was delayed for over 60 hours, left the police feeling entirely lacking in confidence that any eventual test would yield much of a conclusion as to the chemical that may have been used. The only lead the police had had on the case was reported in the paper and it made dismal reading for any of the towns population that may have been looking for a boost in confidence with the local law enforcement. A man had been picked up shortly after the events at the Cordes house, however, he had been released after a short bout of questioning in which the man explained that he was not loitering, he was simply lost. A hideout was also vaguely mentioned that the police had decided to check out with suspicions that it may have been frequented by the anesthetist, but they found nothing to confirm or deny his presence there and quickly dismissed it as a possibility.
With little else to go on, Thomas Wright, the Mattoon Police Commissioner contacted the Illinois Department of Public Safety on the morning of Wednesday September 6th to ask for their help in solving the case. In response, the IDPS sent Superintendent Richard Piper of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, along with his assistant Francis Berry to Mattoon to help them get to the bottom of things. Piper and Berry arrived in town the very next day, along with two FBI agents from the local Springfield branch of the bureau who had showed up in order to identify the chemical that was being used in the so-called attacks.
That night saw the police force bolstered by the first wave of vigilante volunteers, patrolling the streets with the small, official force of eight patrolmen, as women who were home alone, either through husbands away fighting in Europe or out working late shifts, began moving in to stay with friends and relatives through fear of their safety. All remained quiet on the streets and none of the police, nor vigilante citizens discovered any prowlers. Back at the police station, however, there were numerous calls coming in reporting sightings, though none were confirmed and Chief Cole later chalked many of the calls up to bouts of “nerves”. Cole wasn’t the only official to suggest that at least some of the reports may have been a result of nervous disposition. Richard Piper of the Bureau ofCriminal Identification and Investigation had also suggested that he thought that only some of the reports had any veracity, whilst many others were due to hysteria. If he felt that the hysteria needed to be controlled, however, then he had a funny way of showing it, as he then went on to tell the press that the case was the strangest in his career and that the anesthetist was a “crazed madman”.
Although the night had been quiet on the streets of Mattoon with the vigilante forces discovering little in the way of interest related to the Anesthetist, the papers next day told a different story. Whilst men had walked their beats alongside police, the Anesethist had struck several times throughout the night.
“Mad Anesthetist Strikes Again! – Visits 2 More Homes in City During Night”
“The “Anesthetic Prowler” who for a week has struck terror in the hearts of Mattoon residents, visited at least two more homes in this city Wednesday night and added two more victims, both women, to his growing list.”
“At least two more homes” was actually something of an understatement, the prowler had been awfully busy that Wednesday night. At 10PM, Laura Junken, manager at “The Big 4” restaurant was closing up and retiring to her small apartment situated at the rear of the restaurant premises. As she entered her bedroom, she noticed a smell reminiscent of what she described as “a cheap perfume” in the air and realised she had left her window cracked about four inches open, all day. She soon felt the familiar effects of the Anesthetic prowlers attacks, as her legs fell numb and paralysis crept up towards her kneecaps whilst waves of nausea washed over her in the darkness of the room. Within an hour, Glenda Henderschott, the 11 year old daughter of Mr and Mrs R. E. Henderschott had woken suddenly due to sickness. When her parents called police, they noted that just a short time prior to their daughters waking, they had spotted a suspicious prowler near their daughters window. At midnight, Mrs Ardell Spangler was next to fall victim to the gasser. She had woken to “sickly sweet” fumes in her bedroom that had bought about nausea, whilst her lips and throat burned from the gas. At 1am Fred Goble was the next to wake, feeling violently ill. He took to throwing up for the following two hours before his run in with the mad anesthetist began to fade. More interestingly, however, Freds neighbour, Robert Daniels, had actually spotted a “Tall thin man” running through his yard, from the direction of Gobles house, shortly after the attack had taken place. It didn’t end there either, before the night was over the police took further reports from Mr Danial Spohn, Mrs Codie Taylor and Miss Maxine and Frances Smith, all who had felt the effects of gas in one way or another whilst they had slept. Frances Smith was the principal in the nearby Mattoon Grade School and this was to be her first of several run ins with the mad gasser, the next of which took place the very next night, after a troubled day of gossip and panic spreading throughout the town. As she lay in her bed, along with her sister, Maxine, the anesthetist struck the Smith sisters for a second time. In their report they spoke of a “blue, smoke like vapour” came in through their window and paralysis crept up through their legs, as they lay waiting for a burglary that never came.
That Friday saw a scathing editorial in the local Mattoon daily paper, the Mattoon Journal Gazette.
“Mattoon’s Mad Anesthetist – The story of Matoons “Anesthetic Prowler” is known to one and all. It has even spread from one end of the country to the other, bringing the city a certain questionable distinction. Probably the only comfort we can get out of the whole situation is that our Police Department is now on the alert, apparently doing everything in its powers to solve the case and take into custody the guilty person. All of us join in hoping for an early success. One of the principal difficulties throughout has been that the whole matter was taken too lightly. It was easy to say, “Oh, it’s just imagination!” and shrug the whole thing off with a disdainful air. But Mrs Cordes, who suffered severe burns, couldn’t laugh about it. Neither could Mrs Kearney, who suffered complications which could have cost her very life!”
“For the past few days, most of our officers have had a serious view of the case. They now admit that it presents a real problem and are working hard to find a solution. For their present attitude, most members of the Police Force deserve commendation. As a matter of fact, their hesitancy in taking a genuine interest in the case at the start should not be considered a new reflection upon them. This is an attitude which has grown in the Police Department for several months. We suppose it is natural for the pride of policemen to be stung a bit when a crime is committed. For this reason, there has been a tendency in Mattoon Police circles recently to conceal from the public the fact that certain crimes have occured.”
“Commissioner Thomas V Wright, under the law, is supposed to be the top man of the Police Department, and we doubt if Mattoon ever had a more conscientious servant than he has been in this capacity. He is a square shooter and would like nothing better than to give the city an excellent police force. Yet we strongly suspect that his efforts have been hampered by another city official. The latter should leave the direction of the Police Department to Commissioner Wright. Policemen who continue to take direction from the other official should be discharged at once, and the entire city Commision should support commissioner Wright if he ever finds such action necessary.”
Whilst the papers editorial weighed in with its own political bent on the affair, they also received letters from readers who summed up the general feeling in the town for ordinary residents,
“We used to think things only happened to those who were out on the streets or somewhere else outside of their homes, but now there is no safety even in one’s own home with all the doors locked. There are hundreds of women here that are left at home at night, alone, while their husbands are at work and in the service. I know one service man’s wife who has a lovely home which she wanted to keep so her husband could come home to it, but since so many terrible things have happened, she is afraid to stay there with her little son. She is fortunate enough to have parents with whom to stay, but those who have nowhere else to go just live in fear each night, waiting for daylight to come.”
That evening, Richard Piper, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, from the IDPS told the press in a conference,
“The perpetrator of the attacks must be mentally unbalanced but he his intelligent, possibly brilliant. The man is a nut.”
After that bombastic speech, he perhaps sought to assuage fears by reassuring the public that he probably wasn’t a peeping tom.
The attacks on Mattoon started early that Friday evening, the first being perhaps the most unusual of all and for once, appeared to lead to no victims suffering any adverse effects. Police were called to a home on DeWitt Avenue, just West from the very centre of town, when Leroy Cook, a taxicab driver had reported pulling onto the street only to smell the gas so strongly that he was forced to pull over. The odor appeared to center around the home of C. W. Driskell, but when police entered his home, they smelt no gas inside any of the rooms., though witnesses assured police they could smell it on the street outside the bedroom windows.
Two hours later, on the far reaches of Western Mattoon, a small cul-de-sac known as Westwood perched away from the lights of the main town centre. Now swallowed up by the town, in 1944 it stood at the far perimeter boundary of the town and was far out of the way from any usual foot-traffic. Genevieve Haskell, her son, Mrs Russell Bailey and her sister, Katherine Tuzzo were all staying together in the large house in the out-of-the-way neighbourhood when the gasser struck through their open window. All members of the household woke simultaneously, suffering from violent vomiting, stomach disorders and a parched mouth and throat. Later that night, the Smith residence was hit for the third time in as many nights. Frances Smith once again gave her report to the press, saying that just prior to smelling the “flower-like” gas, she heard a “strange buzzing” noise outside her window which she attributed to “the madman’s gassing apparatus.”
Things in Mattoon were nearing a frenzy level of panic, when the next day, newspaper headlines went all in, calling the attacker the “Mad Gasser”. Police were still none the wiser as to what was going on and appeared to have no suspects, whilst in a further blow to the ongoing investigations, results of the cloth analysis found by Beulah Cordes on her porch were returned from the laboratory with negative results, as evaporation of the chemical had caused nothing but an inert “reddish” coloured stain to remain by he time tests were carried out.
That Saturday and Sunday saw a flurry of attacks, despite once again, the police patrols being bolstered by a host of local farmers armed with shotguns. First came a statement from Louis Hardin who called the police to report an attack on his sister-in-law, whilst she babysat for his son. The gas had come through an open window and led to the familiar nausea and burned throats. The second attack of the night was the furthest the gasser had travelled from the centre of Mattoon by some distance, when County Sheriff Leroy Boggs was called out to a rural farmhouse house four miles South of Mattoon, owned by Stewart Scott. Scott had called the sheriff after escaping the gas with his family and houseguest to his nearest neighbours, half a mile away. When police checked the house out, they found a window screen slashed open and left in tatters. Mary and Kenneth Fitzpatrick were next. The gasser had apparently returned to central Mattoon and attacked the couple whilst they played cards into the late evening, in their North-West Mattoon home. Finally, the Gasser struck for a fourth and final time at the house of Frances and Maxine Smith, who by now, were surely becoming accustomed to the effects of the gas.
By now there were a constant group of upwards of a hundred people hanging around outside the City Hall building demanding answers from authorities and at times, chasing police cars as they left the building in order to find out what was going on for themselves. With reports in the paper suggesting upwards of 29 victims having been attacked, people were getting desperate for real, solid information concerning just what exactly it was that the police were doing, yet the police still continued to give nothing to the public for reassurance. The brightest leads seemed to be reports that a chemistry set had gone missing from Mattoon High School, which had held enough ingredients to make a quantity of Mustard Gas. As far as suspects went, police told newspapers that they were observing four Mattoon High School graduates who had recently returned from the Army, though they were not forthcoming with any more details. In order to quell fears and stop matters getting out of hand, a force of five radio fitted squad cars, each with two officers, were called in from Illinois State Police to swell the Mattoon Police ranks and patrol the downtown area of Mattoon, freeing up the home officers to patrol the residential areas of the city.
The newspapers on Monday morning, however, took a rather sharp turn-about face, when the Mattoon Journal-Gazette printed the headline, “Many Prowler Reports, Few Real.”
“Two women, one residing in the 2300 block of Champaign Avenue, the other in the 800 block of Moultrie Avenue, were taken to Memorial Hospital for treatment and examination after they told police they had been attacked by the gas. The former woman claimed the attack had occurred at her home, the other said she smelled the gas as she sat in a theater. A physician who examined both women said that he could find no evidence of a poison gas or other chemical and that in his opinion both suffered from extreme nervous tension. Both women were given sedatives and taken to their homes.”
This report prompted police Commissioner Thomas Wright to make an unprecedented move. He ordered in a public statement that from Monday onwards, anyone calling the police concerning a gas attack must submit themselves to the scrutiny of a doctors examination immediately following any official report. Furthermore, the “chasers” who were milling around the City Hall building were told that if they did not desist in their following of police squad cars, they would find themselves promptly arrested. Unsurprisingly, the headline the next day in the Journal-Gazette was, depending on how it was viewed, somewhat more positive.
“Mad Gasser Case Limited to FOur Suspects – No More Genuine Attacks of “Anesthetist Reported”
Was it the case that no more attacks had taken place, or were the victims held back from making official reports by the stigma of having to surrender to a physical examination with the very real possibility of being outed as a fraud or a hysterical fool with a nervous disposition by the following days paper? The report in the papers followed instead the four suspects that police had under observation. The police begrudgingly furnished the public with a single further detail, due to a leak that had been published in a Chicago based newspaper the day before. Keeping things as tight lipped as they could, the public statement mentioned only that two of the four suspects were amateur chemists, a hobby that was remarkably popular in the 1940s. The only attack that had happened on Monday night was apparently on a woman who had been taken to the doctor’s office after her report had been given and diagnosed with “extreme mental anguish.”
The following day, Tuesday 12th September, the papers carried a story in which the Chief of Police, Cole, called the entire Mattoon Gas attack case “a mistake from beginning to end.”
“”Local police in cooperation with the state officers, have checked and rechecked all reported cases” said Chief Cole, “and we find absolutely no evidence to support the stories that have been told. Hysteria must be blamed for such seemingly accurate statements of supposed victims. However we have foudn that large quantities of Carbon Tetrachloride are used in the war work done at the Atlas Imperial Diesel Co. plant, and that it has an odor which could be carried in all parts of the city as the wind shifts. It also leaves stains on cloth such as those found on a rag at the Cordes home.””
In contradicting statements, Chief of Police Cole seemed to be publicly stating that the entire affair was a nonsense, but even so, that the gas did exist. Further, he also seemed, rather alarmingly, to be suggesting that gas carried on the wind to all extremities of the city from a factory on 14th Street and Broadway in the center of the town and somehow concentrate itself onto a square of cloth slightly larger than an average handkerchief. To any sane reader, it was clear that the mistake was not the case of the phantom gasser, but Coles bizarre press release. Unamused by the insinuation that his factory was to blame for the Mad Gasser of Mattoon attacks, Mr Webster, the manager of the Atlas Imperial Diesel Co. factory struck back at Cole, assuring him that the very idea was a complete fabrication and utterly ridiculous. He then drafted in a State Department of Health official to file a report saying conclusively that the plant was in no way related to the gfas attacks. The only place Carbon Tetrachloride was used at all in the factory, was in fact, securely contained inside fire extinguishers. In a statement taken over the telephone from the State Departments Doctor Kronenburg, Coles theory was shot down with little fuss,
“There was no possibility of Trichlorethylene vapors getting into the outside atmosphere in any amount of concentration that would even closely approximate a toxic condition.”
In what was quickly falling into a farce, the front page of the Wednesday Journal Gazette carried a photograph of a gang of farmers carrying shotguns through the night streets of Mattoon, with the caption “Mattoon Will-o’-the-wisp”. The farmers were stated to be on the trail of the “Phantom Anesthetist” who sprayed his victims with “Gardenia Gas”. The headline stated “Police get two false alarms during night – One to quiet black cat, other for “attempted break in.”” The break in, it transpired as the papers story unfolded, was actually a case of a local doctor who had forgotten his door keys who had been caught breaking into his own home. Backtracking once again, Cole stated that the fumes may not have originated at the Atlas factory and now stated that it could have come from any one of the local factories.
Still, if Coles intent had been to make a mockery of the entire affair and divert attention away from the case, or shame those who did believe in the presence of an attacker into submission, he was having results. By midweek, the crowds surrounding City Hall had evaporated away and all the stories in the papers were suggesting the whole thing as an elaborate fraud or hoax. The Chicago Daily Chronicle spoke of normalcy returning to the city, as the local police sought to “bury the phantom gasser in a mythical cemetery.” As the week rolled on towards its conclusion, so too did the “mad Anesthetist” case reach it’s end. The squad cars drafted in to patrol downtown Mattoon were sent back, one by one, and extra patrolmen too were stood down. Eventually, the case, at least in the public eye, fell to silence and the case quietly closed, with little to no resolution.
So just what did happen in Mattoon over the two weeks in early September? Was there a Gasser, or was it all just hysteria? Despite being called one of the most bizarre cases that the authorities could recall, they in fact, would not have had to go too far back to have discovered that cases of “Mad Gassers” were not quite as uncommon as one might have imagined.
Earlier Cases of Phantom Gassers
Given the fairly extreme words of the authorities during the height of the Mad Gasser affair in Mattoon, one would be forgiven for thinking that phantom gas attacks were a rarity. In truth, you only needed to look back a matter of months before you find another case with certain similarities. In February of 1944, the small town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, not dissimilar in size and social makeup to Mattoon saw a case whereby a family escaped their house in the middle of the night after waking and smelling a “sweet smelling gas”. Their neighbours were not so fortunate, however, and the “mystery Gas” led to John and Myrtle Refford, along with their brother Charles being found dead from asphyxiation by police later that evening. Neighbours on either side of the Refford home escaped without injury and whilst there were no more attacks, the presence of “sweet smelling”, “Mystery gas” pricks ears after hearing of the Mattoon affair.
If we were to go back a further ten years, to the end of 1933, a second case is discovered to have taken part in Botetourt County, Virginia. Attacks using “sweet smelling gas” began on the evening of December 22nd 1933 in Fincastle and continued up until February of 1934, throughout various towns and villages including Troutville, Cloverdale, Howell’s Mill, Pleasantdale, Bonsack and Carvins Cove. In much the same fashion as Mattoon, the official and press approach to the goings on initially zeroed in on a crazed attacker, only to make a dramatic U-turn and claim that the whole thing had been nothing more than an elaborate series of hoaxes and hysteria. In an almost direct prelude to Mattoon, headlines read from the familiar “Mysterious Gas Attacks” whilst “Authorities Continue Efforts to FInd Party Guilty of Weird Actions.” to “”Phantom Gassers” and even included a skeptical Police Force who “doubts the genuineness of many cases, and ascribes them to hysteria.”
So were these cases all just figments of the imagination? Clearly real damage and harm was being done, but was it all simply the power of the mind and the overwhelming ability of fear and anxiety to cause physical effects on the body? Just months after the Mattoon attacks, ended, Dr Donald Johnson, at the time, a student at the University of Illinois showed up in Mattoon with an eye to carry out a study of the attacks, the results of which were published in a paper titled “The Phantom Anesthetist of Mattoon: A field study of Mass Hysteria” included within “The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology” in January of 1945. In short, the paper suggested that the vast coverage of local paper within Mattoon went some way into stirring up a level of anxiety and fear that led the population of Mattoon to suffer from a “Mental epidemic.” Johnson argued that there never was any gas from the start and that it’s existence in any capacity, was highly improbable.
“In order to produce effects of the kind reported when sprayed through a window, the gas would have to be a very potent, stable anesthetic with rapid action, and at the same time, so unstable that it would not affect others in the same room. It would have to be strong enough to produce vomiting and paralysis, and yet leave no observable after-effects. Study of a standard source on anesthetics and war gases and consultation with medical and chemical colleagues at the University of Illinois indicates that the existence of such a gas is highly improbable.“
“Chemists are Extremely skeptical of the possibility that such an extraordinary gasd could be produced by some “mad genius” working in a basement.”
After the publication of the paper, Mass Hysteria became the accepted answer to Mattoons troubles, at least for those outside of the town. With symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea occurring in 40-45% of victims, right down to paralysis, which occured in 10%, it all appeared to fit well enough for the academics of the day to call Mattoon case closed. With contemporary academics, press and even officials publicly stating it was all just a figment of a town with an overactive imagination, that seemed to be that. Police Commissioner Thomas Wright believed that a gasser had existed, but ultimately, his final words on the case were that the whole thing had been a hysteria,
“There is no doubt that a gas maniac exists and has made a number of attacks, but many of the reported attacks are nothing more than hysteria. Fear of the gas man is entirely out of proportion to the menace of the relatively harmless gas he is spraying. The whole town is sick with hysteria.”
Proponents of the Mass Hysteria theory have over the years pointed out that until the Journal-Gazette printed it’s headline of an “Anesthetic Prowler”, there was in fact no mention, nor evidence of a person related to the attacks at all, just a sweet smell in the air. The paper simply put two and two together and came up with a story that struck a chord of fear into a population already softened to the idea of gas attacks through science fiction and further heightened by the ongoing war with Germany. If it seems absurd that Americans should be afraid of a country half way across the world, consider the bombardment of propaganda and advertisements in the papers for the not-so-subtle named “Invasion” or “Liberty Bonds” that warned readers of a “Hun Invasion” of the homeland.
Another key fact that is often pointed to was the tagline to the very first headline that read “First Victims’ ‘, suggesting that there must of course, be more to follow. Mattoon became something of a self fulfilling prophecy, cooked up by a copywriter with an overly dramatic newspaper headline. The paper built the story up and took the town into a tailspin of fear, only to tear it back down weeks later, putting an end to the entire affair just as quickly as it had started it.
And with that, the case of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon was wrapped up, only to be trotted out in psychology textbooks as a staple case for Mass Hysteria, or known more commonly today as Mass Psychogenic (or sociogenic) illness. But what of the numerous other, less accepted theories?
Other Theories of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon range from the somewhat understandable, in the case of there actually being a gasser on the loose, to the downright absurd, including multi-dimensional ape-like beings attacking residents with spray guns.
In the case for a Mad Gasser being an actual, physical attacker, there is some amount of evidence. Beulah Cordes found the rag on the porch, though the skeleton key and lipstick tube both seem like items potentially dropped or cast away by anyone. However, in at least two of the cases, window screens were slashed and torn by the supposed attacker in the process of the gassing. For those that put forward such a case, the abrupt about face turn in the media is generally considered to be a move involving a police cover-up of sorts, whereby the police, cracking under the pressure of a public needing answers, a town on the edge of rioting and a case with nothing but dead ends led officials in Mattoon to push a narrative criticising the population for stirring up a series of hoaxes or suffering from hysteria in order to cause stigma and embarrassment for anyone making police reports. The direct correlation of the fall in official reports of attacks and Chief Coles statement that any victims must submit themselves to a physical examination is something that many point to as an example of police bullying a victimised population into keeping quiet. One of the most enduring questions is just how abruptly did the attacks end in Mattoon? Was it, as the papers suggested, almost overnight, or was it simply that reports disappeared underground, discussed amongst friends and in local gossip, but no longer officially reported? The Psychology paper written by Dr Donald Johnson actually infers that victims “became critical of their imagination” leading to fewer reports to police, but this too could be flipped on its head and used against the case of hysteria. If the stigma was enough to suppress a victims imagination, then surely it was also enough to suppress a victim’s official statement to police? Furthermore, when Dr Johnson came to Mattoon, he was not shy about his reasons to undertake the study, as such, no residents were forthcoming with information for a doctor who wanted to paint the town as a collection of nervous wrecks, this lead him to being unable to interview any of the victims themselves and only able to speak to the police department.
And what of the four suspects police were monitoring? No names were ever given to the public, but in his book “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria”, author Scott Maruna suggests a local man by the name of Farley Llewellyn as the primary suspect, though frankly his theory is so abysmal and full of conjecture and cliche profiling that to waste my breath on it anymore than this would be a disservice to you listening at home.
One of the more questionable theories suggests that Mattoon was part of a wider conspiracy involving the Coatesville attacks from earlier in the year, orbiting around the central idea of a government attempting to test chemical weapons on its own population, though naturally evidence for this is non-existent. Equally as out there as Maruna’s Farley theory, or the idea of a conspiracy, is the suggestion that the gasser was an inter-dimensional ape-like humanoid creature with a spray gun, which bizarrely enough, does have its roots in a true report.placed by one Edna James, a long term resident of Mattoon who worked both as a local Innkeeper and town fortune teller. Her story follows that she woke on the night of 7th September to noises coming from her kitchen which when she went to see what was going on, led her to discover an “ape-like man, with stooped shoulders, exceedingly long arms and facial warts”, when the strange creature spotted her in the room alongside him, he let out an “unrecognizable series of grunts” and then doused her with his spray gun which caused paralysis. Several days later, she claimed to see him again casually walking across her inn lobby, though naturally, she was the only person in the room able to see the creature. When he noticed Edna looking at him, he disappeared into thin air.
Hairy ape-men aside, one of the last, often repeated and certainly more grounded theories suggests that toxic waste or pollution from the nearby factories could have been the culprit, though it was fairly well documented that at least the Atlas Diesel Engine Co. plant could be safely ruled out of that one and this theory doesn’t explain any of the witness accounts of intruders, condensed plumes of gas, nor torn window screens.
In the end, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon likely falls to just two theories, there either was an attacker, patrolling the town, gassing victims with a somewhat harmless gas for no apparent motive other than to strike fear into the population, or there was not and the entire event was cooked up by the press and ran thoroughly out of hand. The answer could also, of course, lay somewhere in the gray area between the two. Now simply a legend, the answers are frustratingly buried alongside any living memories of the attacks in Mattoon of September 1944..