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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon -

Some people want to watch the world burn, others want to watch it choke on toxic gas. Near the end of World War 2, a string of apparent gas attacks took place in Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported strange smells in their homes, followed by nausea, vomiting, and paralysis of the lungs and legs.

Police, as they so often seem to be, were entirely useless. They dismissed reports of the Mad Gasser as nothing more than war jitters and mass hysteria. It didn't help that many of the victims were women, a subsection of the population that has long been accused of being less credible.

Fierce debate rages around the mysterious case of the Mad Gasser. Some firmly believe that it was a case of mass hysteria. Others believe witness reports of a shadowy figure fleeing the scene of the attacks. Whatever you believe, the case remains fascinating.



Attack! of the Mad Gasser


Traumatic times make traumatized people. No time has been quite as traumatizing as the early 20th century. The Great War left a deep psychic scar on Europe and Asia. That trauma manifested in an even more destructive war, which engrained itself even deeper into the minds of the world.

Hot, humid weather settled over the town of Mattoon on the night of August 31. Urban Raef, yes, that's a name, woke up from a strange smell permeating his home. Through his nausea, he assumed that his wife had left the stove gas on, and the pilot light had gone out. He woke up his wife with a plea for her to go deal with the gas. She tried and failed to move. Her paralysis was complete and as soon as she reported it to Urban, he started vomiting uncontrollably.

Another attack was reported in the early hours of the next morning. An unnamed young mother woke from her daughter coughing in another room. She tried to go to the child, but found her body unresponsive.

The third attack is also the most detailed in most reports. Mrs. Kearney, living on Marshall Avenue, noted an oddly sweet scent in her room around 11pm. She dismissed the smell as her prized flowers planted beneath her open window. Soon the smell grew unbearable. Her flowers would never betray her like this, so Kearney tried to get out of bed. Her legs had gone numb. She cried out for her sister's help and was rescued from the gas.

The besieged sisters called the police, who found no evidence of a prowler near Kearney's window. They concluded that the sisters were just being hysterical. The officers likely patted each other on the back and went back to their vehicles with a sense of pride.

Mrs. Kearney's husband returned home from his late-night taxi driving job some time after the attack. He caught a stranger lurking around his bedroom window. Mr. Kearney gave chase, but his legs weren't used to running, and he soon found himself out of gas.

According to the press, who reported on the attack at the Kearney residence, Mr. Kearney described the Gasser as a tall man dressed in dark clothes and wearing a tight-fitting cap. Perhaps it was a rival taxi man. Mrs. Kearney suffered from a burning sensation in her throat for a while following the attack.


Mass Media Monster



The press reported that a madman was on the loose. They dubbed the attacker the Mad Gasser, Anesthetic Prowler, or Phantom Anesthetist. Without any evidence, the local newspaper predicted that more attacks were to come.

Mattoon, Illinois, was a key production town for the war effort. The media surmised that the town was the target of either Nazi or Japanese saboteurs. Gas was a favorite weapon of the Nazis, after all.

Panic swept through the town. The police received calls almost every night of people smelling a sweet gas and experiencing the usual symptoms. Many of these alleged victims refused medical examination, and those that were examined had nothing wrong with them.

After 12 days of this, the police chief, C. E. Cole, released a statement. He warned citizens that any false report of a gas attack would be met with jail time for whoever made the report. Furthermore, he blamed the attacks on hysteria. Chief Cole theorized that the Mad Gasser was nothing more than the lonely women of Mattoon getting spooked while their husbands were off fighting in World War 2. Problem solved, doughnuts all around.

Reports practically ceased overnight. Case closed. More doughnuts.

The Chief also proposed another idea. Mattoon was a factory town. Factories were always emitting gas into the air. If there actually was a gas in Mattoon, it probably came from the local factories. Both Carbon Tetrachloride and Trichloroethylene had a sweet smell to them, and could possibly induce the reported symptoms.

Local factories struck back by denying those claims. Toxic chemicals built character. True patriots would be huffing the stuff with no consequences. Besides, they barely had any of the chemicals that Chief Cole thought were responsible.


Hysteria or Madman


While the debate can't exactly be described as raging, some disagreement exists. The accepted explanation is that there never was a Gasser. It was the people of Mattoon that had gone mad.

Everyone who likes this explanation compares it to the dancing plague of 1518. They skip the parts where none of the victims in Mattoon were dancing. Pointing instead at the similar ways in which a large population was affected by a set of symptoms.

One man took it upon himself to prove that there was in fact a real Gasser. Scott Maruna, a science teacher, wrote a book about the incident, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria.

Maruna claims that reports stopped out of a sense of embarrassment. He analyzes the mass hysteria theory in his book, and contradicts the 11 most well-known signs of hysteria in this case.

He points to local recluse, Farley Llewellyn, as the culprit. Farley was a belligerent drunk who kept a secret laboratory and liked experimenting with chemicals. His lab once exploded spectacularly. Maruna explains his accusation:


“Farley, the obvious chemical genius behind the gas's synthesis, was the real gasser. In a fit brought on by mental instability and years of pent-up rage against a town that would not and could not accept him, Farley tinkered and toyed with various organic solvents in an attempt to create for a suitable weapon.”

There is of course a small subsection of the population that claims it was all part of an alien plot. Because of course they do.

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