Mad Gasser of Mattoon

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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon (also known as the "Anesthetic Prowler," the "Phantom Anesthetist," or simply the "Mad Gasser") was the name given to the person or people believed to be responsible for a series of apparent gas attacks that occurred in Mattoon, Illinois, during the mid-1940s. More than two dozen separate cases of gassings were reported to police over the span of two weeks, in addition to many more reported sightings of the suspected assailant. The gasser's supposed victims reported smelling strange odors in their homes which were soon followed by symptoms such as paralysis of the legs, coughing, nausea and vomiting.

Police remained skeptical of the accounts throughout the entire incident.[1]:235 No physical evidence was ever found,[2]:175 and many reported gassings had simple explanations, such as spilled nail polish or odors emanating from animals or local factories.[1]:237 Victims made quick recoveries from their symptoms and suffered no long-term effects.[2]:175 Nevertheless, local newspapers ran alarmist articles about the reported attacks and treated the accounts as fact.[1]:234

The attacks are widely considered to be simply a case of mass hysteria.[1][2] However, others maintain that the Mad Gasser actually existed, or that the perceived attacks have another explanation, such as industrial pollution or paranormal activity.

Appearance[edit]

Most contemporary descriptions of the Mad Gasser are based on the testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Kearney of 1408 Marshall Avenue, the victims of the first Mattoon case to be reported by the media. They described the gasser as being a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap.[3][4] Another report, made some weeks later, described the gasser as being a female dressed as a man.[5] The Gasser had also been described as carrying a flit gun, an agricultural tool for spraying pesticide, which he purportedly used to expel the gas.[6]

Reported attacks[edit]

The first of the 1944 gasser incidents occurred at a house on Grant Ave., Mattoon, on August 31, 1944. Urban Raef was awakened during the early hours of the morning by a strange odor. He felt nauseated and weak, and suffered from a fit of vomiting. Suspecting that he was suffering from domestic gas poisoning, Raef's wife tried to check the kitchen stove to see if there was a problem with the pilot light, but found that she was partially paralyzed and unable to leave her bed.[5][3][7][8][8]

Later that night (some contemporary accounts refer to the time as the morning of the following day), a similar incident was also reported by a young mother living close by. She was awakened by the sound of her daughter coughing but found herself unable to leave her bed.[5]

The next day, September 1, there was a third reported incident. A Mrs. Kearney, of Marshall Avenue, Mattoon, reported smelling a strong, sweet odor around 11:00 pm. At first she dismissed the smell, believing it to be from flowers outside of the window, but the odor soon became stronger and she began to lose feeling in her legs. Mrs. Kearney panicked and her calls attracted her sister, Mrs. Ready, who was in the house at the time. Mrs. Ready also noticed the odor, and determined that it was coming from the direction of the bedroom window, which was open at the time. The police were contacted, but no evidence of a prowler was found. At around 12:30 am, Bert Kearney, Mrs. Kearney's husband (a local taxi driver who had been absent during the time of the attack), returned home to find an unidentified man hiding close to one of the house's windows. The man fled and Kearney was unable to catch him. Kearney's description of the prowler was of a tall man dressed in dark clothing, wearing a tight fitting cap. This description was reported in the local media, and became the common description of the gasser throughout the Mattoon incident.[3][7][8] After the attack, Mrs. Kearney reported suffering from a burning sensation on her lips and throat, which were attributed to the effects of the gas.[5][8]

Initially, it was suspected that robbery was the primary motive for the attack. At the time of the incidents, the Kearneys had a large sum of money in the house, and it was surmised that the prowler could have seen Mrs. Kearney and her sister counting it earlier that evening.[3][7] Local newspapers incorrectly reported this incident as being the first gasser attack.[3]

In the days following the Kearney attack, there were half a dozen similar attacks (See table), though none of the purported victims were able to provide a clear description of the prowler, and no clues were found at the scene of the attacks. The first specimen of physical evidence was found on the night of September 5, when Carl and Beulah Cordes of North 21st Street returned home around 10:00 pm. After spending a few minutes in the house they noticed a piece of white cloth, slightly larger than a man's handkerchief, sitting on their porch next to the screen door. Beulah Cordes picked up the cloth and smelled it. As soon as she inhaled, she became violently ill. She described the effect as being similar to an electric shock. Her face quickly began to swell, she experienced a burning sensation in her mouth and throat, and began to vomit. As with other victims, she also reported feeling weak and experiencing partial paralysis of her legs. Beulah Cordes later hypothesized that the cloth had been left on the porch in order to knock out the family dog, which usually slept there, so that the prowler could gain access to the house unnoticed.[9]

In addition to the cloth, a skeleton key, described as looking "well used," was reportedly found on the sidewalk adjacent to the porch, along with a large, almost empty, tube of lipstick. The cloth was analyzed by the authorities, but they found no chemicals on it that could explain Beulah Cordes' reaction.[5][6]

The same night a second incident was reported, this time in North 13th Street, at the home of Mrs. Leonard Burrell. She reported seeing a stranger break in through her bedroom window and then attempt to gas her.

Public concern over the alleged gassings quickly rose, the FBI became involved, and the local police issued a statement calling on residents to avoid lingering in residential areas, and warning that groups set up to patrol for the gasser should be disbanded for reasons of public safety. Chief of Police C.E. Cole also warned concerned citizens to exercise due restraint when carrying or discharging firearms.[10]

During this period, there was also an increase in physical evidence of attacks being reported, ranging from footprints allegedly being discovered underneath windows to tears being found in window screens.[7][8]

By September 12, local police had received so many false alarms (mostly from citizens believing that they smelled gas, or that they had seen a prowler) that they reduced the priority afforded to gasser reports and announced that the entire incident was likely the result of explainable occurrences exacerbated by public fears, and a sign of the anxiety felt by women while local men were on war service.[7][10][11]

After the police announcement, gasser reports declined. The only incident of arguable note after that date was the case of Bertha Burch, who claimed she saw a gasser who was a woman dressed as a man.[5]

Date Victim(s) Location Notes
Aug 31, 1944 Mr. and Mrs. Urban Raef Grant Avenue N/A
Sept 1 Unnamed N/A Name not reported in the media
Sept 1 Mrs. Charles Rider Prairie Avenue N/A
Sept 1 Mrs. Bert Kearney Marshall Avenue First case reported in the media;[5] most Gasser descriptions derive from this case
Sept 5 Mrs. Beulah Cordes North 21st Street Became ill after smelling cloth found on porch
Sept 5 Mrs. Leonard Burrell North 13th Street N/A
Sept 6 Mrs. Laura Junken Richmond Avenue N/A
Sept 6 Ardell Spangle North 15th Street N/A
Sept 6 Mr. Fred Goble N/A Saw prowler believed to be Gasser
Sept 6 Mrs. Glenda Hendershott South 14th Street N/A
Sept 6 Mr. Daniel Spohn North 19th street N/A
Sept 6 Mrs. Cordie Taylor Charleston Avenue N/A
Sept 6 Miss Frances Smith
Miss Maxine Smith
Moultrie Ave N/A
Sept 7 As Above As Above Saw blue vapor and heard a motorized buzzing sound believed to be from gassing machinery
Sept 8 Mr C.W. Driskell DeWitt Avenue N/A
Sept 9 Mrs. Genevieve Haskell
Grayson Wayne Haskell
Mrs. Russell Bailey
Miss Katherine Tuzzo
Westwood N/A
Sept 9 Mrs. Lucy Stephens North 32nd Street N/A
Sept 10 Unnamed Champaign Avenue Name not reported in the media
Sept 10 Unnamed 2112 Moultrie Avenue Name not reported in the media
Sept 10 Miss Frances Smith
Miss Maxine Smith
Moultrie Ave Third reported attack
Sept 13 Bertha Burch N/A Described gasser as being a woman dressed as a man; woman's footprints found at scene

(List incomplete) [5][3][4][7][8][12][13]

Explanations[edit]

There are three primary theories about the Mattoon Mad Gasser incident: mass hysteria, industrial pollution, or an actual physical assailant. The events have also been written about by authors on the paranormal.

Mass hysteria[edit]

Almost two weeks after the Mattoon attacks began, the local Commissioner of Public Health, Thomas V. Wright, announced that there had undoubtedly been a number of gassing incidents, but that many instances were likely due to hysteria: residents hearing of alarming events, and then panicking when confronted by an out-of-place odor or a shadow at the window; Wright stated:[7]

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.

On September 12, local Chief of Police C. E. Cole took Wright's hypothesis a step further, announcing that there had likely been no gas attacks at all, and that the reported incidents had probably been triggered by chemicals carried on the wind from nearby industrial facilities and then exacerbated by public panic.[5]

Wright and Cole's diagnosis was given further validity in 1945 when the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published "The 'phantom anesthetist' of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria" by Donald M. Johnson, which documented the Mattoon incident as a case study in mass hysteria.[2] In 1959, his opinion was seconded by psychologist James P. Chaplin,[14] and went on to form the basis for several subsequent studies of the phenomena of mass hysteria.[15]

Most of the physical symptoms recorded during the Botetourt and Mattoon incidents (including choking, swelling of mucus membranes, and weakness/temporary paralysis) have all been suggested symptoms of hysteria.[16] Some experts believe that the mass hysteria was fueled by the headline in the Mattoon Journal-Gazette, "Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims," which assumed there would be more attacks.

Toxic waste or pollution[edit]

On September 12, Chief of Police Cole told a press conference that odors and symptoms reported may have been the result of pollutants or toxic waste released by nearby industrial plants, and speculated that carbon tetrachloride or trichloroethylene, both of which have a sweet odor and can induce symptoms similar to those reported by purported gasser victims, may have been the substance released.[5][11]

In response to Cole's statement, Atlas-Imperial, the primary company implicated in this affair, released a statement of its own saying that their facility had only five gallons of carbon tetrachloride in stock, which was contained in firefighting equipment. Atlas-Imperial officials also denied that any quantities of trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent used by Atlas) could be responsible for sickness in the town, reasoning that it would have taken significant quantities of the chemical to sicken the townspeople, and that factory workers would have experienced similar symptoms long before anybody outside of the factory was affected.[11]

At the time of the gassing, the Atlas plant had been certified as safe by the State Department of Health.[11]

Actual assailant[edit]

After analyzing events, some researchers have concluded that at least some of the gasser incidents were the work of an actual attacker who carried out a series of gassings as reported by witnesses.[12]

Other suggestions[edit]

Some writers on the paranormal have covered the events. Clark (1993) describes an illustration of the Gasser from Loren Coleman's Mysterious America: "[the artist] depicts him as a not-quite-human, possibly extraterrestrial, being".[17]

Popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Bartholomew, Robert E.; Victor, Jeffrey S. (Spring 2004). "A Social-Psychological Theory of Collective Anxiety Attacks: The "Mad Gasser" Reexamined". The Sociological Quarterly. 45 (2): 229–248. 
  2. ^ a b c d Johnson, Donald M (1945). "The 'phantom anesthetist' of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (40): 175–186. doi:10.1037/h0062339. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Aesthetic Prowler" on the loose Mrs. Kearney and daughter first victims". Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon). 1944-09-02. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  4. ^ a b "Victims of gas prowler now 25". Charleston Daily Courier. 1944-09-09. Archived from the original on 2006-06-20. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. ISBN 0-8103-9436-7. 
  6. ^ a b "At Night in Mattoon". Time Magazine. 1944-09-18. 0040-781X. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Taylor, Troy (2002). "The mad gasser of Virginia and & Mattoon, Illinois". Ghosts of the Prairie. Retrieved 2006-10-01. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Taylor, Troy (2002). Into the shadows. Whitechapel Productions. ISBN 1-892523-21-3. 
  9. ^ "Anesthetic prowler adds victim: Mrs. C. Cordes burned, Ill two hours". Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon). 1944-09-06. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-11-10. 
  10. ^ a b "Many Prowler Reports; few Real - To all citizens of Mattoon". Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon). 1944-09-11. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Police get two false alarms during night". Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon). 1944-09-13. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  12. ^ a b Clark, Jerome; Coleman Loren (1972-02-01). "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon". Fate. 25 (2). 
  13. ^ Mio, Leslie (2001). "Location of "Gasser Attacks"". Eastern Illinois University. Archived from the original on 2006-09-25. Retrieved 2006-11-10. 
  14. ^ Chaplin, J. P. (1959). Rumor, Fear and The Madness of Crowds. Ballantine Books. ASIN B000AMUL5M. 
  15. ^ Dash, Mike (2000). Borderlands: The ultimate exploration of the unknown. Overlook. ISBN 0-87951-724-7. 
  16. ^ Janet, Pierre (1965). "Major Symptoms of Hysteria (2nd edition)". Macmillan Pub Co. 
  17. ^ Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. p. 239. ISBN 0-8103-9436-7. 
  18. ^ Do Go On. "146 - The Mad Gasser of Mattoon". Retrieved 24 August 2018. 
  19. ^ "Futility Closet 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon". 
  20. ^ "Episode 120:Dollop:The Mad Gasser". 
  21. ^ "A Gas Gas Gas". The Memory Palace. 

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