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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

I have done, seen, and heard of some ridiculous things in my time, but nothing compares to the story that I’m about to relate to you. The story of the Phantom Anesthetist or, more popularly, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon. It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of, and it’s a prime example of how the ‘paranormal’ can be a goldmine for psychologists.

Bear in mind as you read this that the crazy-ass story you’re about to hear is widely considered smoking-gun evidence that aliens are visiting the earth and experimenting on its people by UFOlogists.

The night was August 31, 1944. A man living in the town of Mattoon, Illinois, woke late at night feeling ill. He woke his wife to have her check if the gas had been left on because he was feeling ‘similar to overexposure to oven or stove gas.’ When his wife tried to move, she realized she was paralyzed. Eventually the effects wore off, though it became known that their next-door neighbor had a similar paralysis attack at around the same time.

You’ll note, of course, that nowhere, in no report or book that I can find, do the names of these citizens appear. As far as I can tell, the first victims have always been ‘a friend of a friend of friend’ or some such. Far be it from me to suggest they never existed, but what certainly did exist was the effect that this tale had on the other townspeople.

The next night, Mrs Bert Kearny was sleeping at home when her nose was offended by a sickly-sweet smell. As the smell grew stronger, her arms and legs became paralyzed. Her screams drew the attention of her neighbors, and the next day she complained of vague illness and burned lips.

That next night her husband, upon returning home from work, saw a strange man lurking outside the house. He was stranding near the window, wearing a dark cloak and a tight-fitting black cap. Kearny chased the man, who promptly outran him and escaped.

To use my Aunt Helen’s terminology, this is when the poopie hit the fan and thoroughly splattered the town of Mattoon. The local newspaper reported the incidents, but did so in a manner more suited to the supermarket tabloids. “Mattoon gets jitters from gas attacks!” is one of the most widely quoted headlines, though my personal favorite is “Gas attacker adds six victims!”

If there really was a Mad Gasser, he was one hell of a busy man. After the newspaper begin carrying their insane, exaggerated accounts of what happened, two or three attacks a night were reported. People caught only fleeting glimpses of the man, and the presence of well-armed vigilante mobs impeded his attacks not at all. Two FBI agents from Springfield arrived, but attacks continued.

The attacks are described in a number of ways, but the general trend involves a sweet-smelling gas, a tall, thin man in a dark outfit and tight fitting cap who outran everyone that came across him, and either paralysis or allergic reactions such as swelling and bleeding. They occurred at random locations across the town, to random people, at random times of day. The only thing they had in common was that people felt ill and they had absolutely no proof that any external force was to blame.

But wait! I’ve saved the best for last! The absolute, true, conclusive proof that this all happened. Beulah Cordes arrived at her home one night in early September to find a foul-smelling kerchief, an empty tube of lipstick, and a skeleton key on her porch. In the minds of the townsfolk, the case was closed: aliens had tried to break into her house to spray gas. Apparently, mind you, aliens have no better lock pick ing technology than lipstick and a skeleton key. You would think that a people who could conquer the non-trivial challenge of travel between stars would bring a locksmith with them. Even if it wasn’t aliens but rather nefarious government agents (the second favorite explanation) you’d think they’d go to the local Home Depot and swipe a key duplicator. When Mrs. Cordes held the cloth against her face, it caused a number of symptoms, but they were different from those of the other ‘attacks.’

Whatever was going on, the local lawmen were getting tired of it. When the citizens of your town roam the streets armed to the teeth looking for tall men in dark clothes to shoot, you’ve got to do something. So they told the people that the local Atlas Diesel Engine Plant had accidentally let loose a cloud of Carbon Tetrachloride gas, which was causing the problems.

I don’t think that’s what the cause of the panic was. It doesn’t make enough sense, but the effect the announcement had is clear: the people believed the case had been solved, and no more attacks occurred. As soon as an explanation was set in the minds of the people, the problem was solved. If that doesn’t point a giant red arrow towards “crowd madness” as the cause of this panic, I’ll eat my shoes. Psychology grad students, hear me: there is a great thesis project buried in this story.

First Published in The Triangle, 22 October 2004

Reader Comments:

After this article was originally published, a gentleman contacted me and mentioned that he had done a great deal of first hand investigating into this case and published a book, the cover of which is show below. His conclusion, if I recall, was that a local madman was responsible for the attacks. Apparently, two sisters kept an insane brother locked in their basement. He would go out at night and gas people, apparently, and when the sisters got fed up with him and sent him to an asylum, the attacks coincidentally stopped. They seem to have never put two and two together. The book is available on Amazon.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria by Scott Maruna