The next night, Mrs. Bert Kearney was awakened by a strange, sweet smell in her bedroom. When she tried to move, she found herself temporarily paralyzed. Her screams brought neighbors, who called the police, but no sign of a gas leak was found. Around midnight, Bert Kearney returned home from work, unaware of what had happened earlier that evening. As he turned into the driveway, he spotted a man lurking near the house, dressed all in black, close-fitting clothing and a black watch cap. He was standing near a window when Kearney spotted him and turned to run away. Thinking he was a window peeper, Kearney gave chase, but lost the man in the darkness.
Nearby, on September 1st, three separate households reported similar symptoms. In one family, the mother went to check on her daughter but found that she, too, was paralyzed from the waist down. The mothers and children felt the effects of gas in the other two homes as well. One of the families had seen a prowler wearing a tight-fitting cap and dark clothing.
Early reports also came to the attention of the local newspaper. They had found a terrific story and published sensational articles on September 2nd about the incidents, citing such specifics as to the smell of the gas and the explicit symptoms experienced by the victims. Their coverage of the story stated that there was some kind of madman out in the dark who was creeping around and pumping poisonous gas into people’s homes. They called this phantom, “The Anesthetic Prowler” and, subsequently, ‘The Mad Gasser.” The poison, they claimed, could have been chloroform or ether, according to the description of its smell.
Over the next few days, more and more people reported to the police and the newspaper that they had been the victim of a similar attack. They too had experienced a sickly-sweet smell and then burning sensations, nausea, and partial paralysis.
There were two reports on the 5th, and on that night, the police seemed to have caught a lucky break. The first real clues in the “Mad Gasser” case were discovered. They were found at the home of Carl and Beulah Cordes, but what the clues actually reveal still remains a mystery. The Cordes returned home late to find a white cloth lying on their porch. Mrs. Cordes picked it up and noticed a strange smell coming from it. She held it up close to her nose and felt immediately nauseated and light-headed. She nearly fainted and her husband had to help her inside. Moments later, her lips and face began to swell and her mouth began bleeding. The symptoms lasted almost two hours. The police were called and they took the cloth into evidence. As they searched the property, they also found a skeleton key and an empty tube of lipstick that was found on the porch, but it provided nothing substantial. They decided the prowler was probably trying to break into the house, but had failed. Apparently, he had dropped his lipstick and a cloth with gas residue on it, too. The mystery was just getting deeper by the day.
Later on the 5th, the gasser attacked again, this time spraying gas into an open window. The attacks continued and Mattoon residents began reporting fleeting glimpses of the gasser, always describing him as a tall, thin man in dark clothes and wearing a tight black cap. More attacks were reported and the harried police force tried to respond to the mysterious crimes that left no clues behind. Eventually, the authorities even summoned two FBI agents from Springfield to look into the case, but their presence did nothing to discourage the strange reports. Panic was widespread and rumors began to circulate that the attacker was an escapee from an insane asylum or a German spy who was testing out some sort of poisonous gas.
Armed citizens took to the streets, organizing watches and patrols to thwart any further attacks, but several took place anyway. The gas attacks were becoming more frequent and the attacker was leaving behind evidence like footprints and sliced window screens. A local citizens’ “vigilance group” did manage to arrest one suspect as the gasser, but after he passed a polygraph test, he was released. Local businessmen announced that they would be holding a mass protest rally on Saturday, September 10th, to put more pressure on the already-pressured Mattoon police force. Now, the gasser was becoming more than a threat to public safety -- he was becoming a political liability and a blot on the public image of the city.
The gasser, apparently not dissuaded by armed vigilantes and newspaper articles, resumed his attacks. The first new incident took place at the home of Mrs. Violet Driskell and her daughter, Ramona. They awoke late in the evening to hear someone removing the storm sash on their bedroom window. They hurried out of bed and tried to run outside for help, but the fumes overcame Ramona and she began vomiting. Her mother stated that she saw a man running away from the house. A short time later that night, the gasser sprayed fumes into the partially-opened window of a room where Mrs. Russell Bailey, Katherine Tuzzo, Mrs. Genevieve Haskell, and Mrs. Haskell’s young son were sleeping. At another home, Miss Frances Smith, the principal of the Columbian Grade School, and her sister, Maxine, were also overwhelmed with gas and became ill. They began choking as they were awakened and felt partial paralysis in their legs and arms. They also said that as the sweet odor began to fill the room “as a thin, blue vapor,” they heard a buzzing noise from outside and believed that it was the gasser’s “spraying apparatus” in operation.
By September 10th, "Mad Gasser" paranoia had peaked. FBI agents were trying to track down the type of gas being used in the attacks and the police force had to divide its time between looking for the gasser and keeping armed citizens off the streets. Neither law enforcement agency was having much luck. By the following Saturday night, several dozen well-armed farmers from the surrounding area had joined the patrols in Mattoon. In spite of this, six attacks took place anyway, including the three previously mentioned. Another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart B. Scott, returned to their farm on the edge of Mattoon late in the evening to find the house filled with sweet smelling gas.
This seemed to be the last straw for the Mattoon authorities. While several gas attacks were reported on the night of September 11th, they were all dismissed as false alarms. Newspaper accounts of the affair began to take on a more skeptical tone, and despite claims by victims and material evidence left behind, the police began to dismiss new reports of attacks and suggested that local residents were merely imagining things. The gasser could not be caught and it seemed easier to claim that he never existed at all than to admit that no one could find him. New stories began to appear in the papers, where psychology experts opined that the women of Mattoon had dreamed up the "Gasser" as a desperate cry for attention, as many of their husbands were overseas fighting in the war. This theory ignored the fact that many victims and witnesses were men and that this so-called "fantasy" was leaving behind evidence of his existence.
The Mattoon police chief issued what he felt was the final statement on the gas attacks on September 12th. He stated that large quantities of carbon tetrachloride gas were used at the local Atlas Diesel Engine Co. and that this gas must be causing the reported cases of illness and paralysis. It could be carried throughout the town on the wind and could have left the stains that were found on the rag at one of the homes. As for the "Mad Gasser" himself, well, he was simply a figment of their imaginations. The whole case, he said “was a mistake from beginning to end.”
Not surprisingly, a spokesman for the Atlas Diesel Engine plant was quick to deny the allegations that his company had caused the concern in town, maintaining that the only use for that gas in the plant was in their fire extinguishers and any similar gases used there caused no ill effects in the air. Besides that, why hadn’t this gas ever caused problems in the city before? And how exactly was this gas cutting the window screens on Mattoon homes before causing nausea and paralysis?
The official explanation also failed to explain how so many identical descriptions of the "Gasser" had been reported to the police. It also neglected to explain how different witnesses managed to report seeing a man of the gasser’s description fleeing the scene of an attack, even when the witness had no idea that an attack had taken place.
The last "Gasser" attack took place on September 13th, and while it was the last incident connected to the attacker in Mattoon, it was also possibly the strangest. It occurred at the home of Mrs. Bertha Bench and her son, Orville. They described the attacker as being a woman who was dressed in a man’s clothing and who sprayed gas into a bedroom window. The next morning, footprints that appeared to have been made by a woman’s high-heeled shoes were found in the dirt below the window.
After this night, the "Mad Gasser of Mattoon" was never seen or heard from again.
To this day, the identity of the Mad Gasser remains a mystery, as does the reason why he/she chose to wreak havoc in Mattoon. Stories have suggested that Mattoon’s Gasser was anything from a mad scientist to an ape-man (although who knows where that came from?) and researchers today have their own theories, some of which are just as wild.
Could he have been some sort of extraterrestrial visitor using some sort of paralyzing agent to further a hidden agenda?
Could he have been some sort of odd inventor who was testing a new apparatus? In 2002, a woman who explained that her father grew up in Mattoon during the time when the gas attacks were taking place. He told her that there had been two sisters living in town at the time who had a brother who was allegedly insane. A number of people in town believed that he was the Mad Gasser and so his sisters locked him in the basement until they could find a mental institution to put him in. After they locked him away, her father told her, the gas attacks stopped. Is this the answer to the mystery?
Or could the "Gasser" have been an agent of our own government, who came to an obscure Midwestern town to test some military gas that could be used in the war effort? It might be telling that once national attention came to Mattoon, the authorities began a policy of complete denial and the attacks suddenly ceased. Coincidence?
Whoever, or whatever, he was, the "Mad Gasser" has vanished into time and, real or imagined, is only a memory in the world of the unknown. Perhaps he was never here at all. Perhaps he was, as Donald M. Johnson wrote in the 1954 issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, simply a "shadowy manifestation of some unimaginable unknown."
But was he really? How do we explain the sightings of the “Mad Gasser” that were made by people who did not even know the creature was alleged to exist? Or identical sightings from independent witnesses who could not have possibly known that others had just spotted the same figure? Was the “Gasser,” as some have suggested, a visitor from a dimension outside of our own, thus explaining his ability to appear or disappear at will? Was he a creature so outside the realm of our imaginations that we will never be able to comprehend his motives or understand the reason why he came to Mattoon?
Perhaps this is the solution to the mystery – that this is a mystery that we’ll never understand. If you think about that long enough, it can make your head hurt. It’s a solution that simply causes more questions to be asked.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.