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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon (also known as "The Anesthetic Prowler", "The Mad Anesthetist", and "The Phantom Anesthetist", "The Mad Gasser of Roanoke", or simply "Mad Gasser") was the name given to the person or persons believed to be behind a series of apparent gas attacks that occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia, during the early 1930s, and in Mattoon, Illinois, during the mid-1940s.

Whether the attacks were anything more than a case of mass hysteria, if the individual reports were connected, and the ultimate explanation for the events all remain debated.

Appearance

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. Another report, made some weeks later, described the gasser as being a female dressed as a man. 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.

Botetourt

The first actually recorded Mad Gasser incident occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia, with attacks occurring between December 22, 1933 and February 1934.

Chronology

The first reported gasser incident occurred at the home of Cal Huffman, in Haymakertown, Botetourt County, where there were three reported attacks over the course of a single night.

At about 10:00 pm on December 22, 1933, Mrs. Huffman reported smelling an unusual odor, and was overcome by a feeling of nausea. The odor and the nausea returned again at about 10:30pm, at which time Cal Huffman contacted the police. A third attack occurred around 1:00 a.m., this time affecting the entire house; in total, eight Members of the Huffman family were affected by the gas, along with Ashby Henderson, a guest staying at the house. Their symptoms included headaches, nausea, facial swelling, and constriction of the mouth and throat. Alice Huffman, the daughter of Cal Huffman, suffered a more severe reaction to the gas than the other residents: her throat became so constricted that she stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated. She also suffered convulsive fits for several weeks after the attack, though local physician S.F. Driver recorded at the time that this was most likely due to anxiety brought on by the attack, rather than the effects of the gas itself.

The next recorded incident occurred in Cloverdale on December 24. Clarence Hall, his wife, and their two children returned from a church service at about 9:00 p.m. They detected a strong, sweet odor and immediately began to feel weak and nauseated. Police investigating the case discovered that a nail had been pulled from a rear window, near where the gas appeared to be the most concentrated, and presumed that the nail hole had been used to inject it into the house.

A third incident occurred on December 27, in which Troutville resident A. Kelly and his mother reported similar signs and symptoms to the Huffman and Hall cases. A fourth and fifth incident occurred on January 10, when Mrs. Moore, a guest in home of Haymakertown resident Homer Hylton, reported hearing voices outside before gas was injected into the room through a damaged window. The second attack that night was reported in Troutville, at the home of G. Kinzie.

Other reported attacks include:

Date Victim/s Location Notes
Jan 16 F.Duval Bonsack Suspect car seen near attack with a man and woman inside
Jan 19 Mrs. Campbell Cloverdale Victim was ex-judge's wife
Jan 21 Mr. And Mrs Howard Crawford Cloverdale Victims were almost overcome by fumes upon their return home
Jan 22 Ed Reedy
George C. Riley
Raymond Etter
Carvin’s Cove The three houses were located within two miles of one another, and attacked in consecutive order moving south
Jan 23 Mrs. R H Hartsell Pleasantdale Church A barricade was constructed outside the door to prevent easy escape, though the Hartsells were not at home when the attack occurred
Jan 25 Chester Snyder Cloverdale Although no gas was released, Snyder is reported to have scared off a prowler. Evidence found at the scene by police confirmed that an unidentified individual had hidden close to the Snyder residence, and had tracked across the property (It was never confirmed if the prowler was related to the gassing incidents).
Jan 28 Mr. and Mrs. Ed Stanley and three House guests Cloverdale Four people seen running from the scene
Feb 3 Mr and Mrs. A Scaggs and five other adults Nace Victims were strongly affected by the gas.
Feb 9 J.G. Schafer Lithia After the attack, sections of discolored snow were discovered near the victim's house. The Snow had a sweet odor, analysis showed it to contain sulfur, arsenic and mineral oil. Authorities speculated that it might be insecticide residue.

Several other incidents were recorded, but authorities determined most to be a combination of hoaxes and worried residents reporting common odors as signs of an attack.

Mattoon

The second spate of "mad gasser" incidents occurred in Mattoon, Illinois. It began in late August 1944, and attacks continued for several weeks.

Chronology

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.

Later that night, 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. (due to differing depictions of the night of the 31st and the morning of the 1st, some contemporary accounts list the second attack as having occurred the following day).

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 p.m. 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 a.m. 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. . 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.

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. Local newspapers incorrectly reported this incident as being the first gasser attack.

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 10pm. 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.

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.

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.

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.

By the 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. (See Mass Hysteria and Toxic waste or pollution)

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 (See Farley Llewellyn).

Date Victim/s Location Notes
Aug 31 Mr. and Mrs. Urban Reef 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 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 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)

Explanations

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

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:

"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.

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. In 1959, his opinion was seconded by psychologist J P Chaplin, and went on to form the basis for several subsequent studies of the phenomena of mass hysteria.

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 .

In 1972, Johnson's and Wright's joint diagnosis was challenged by paranormal authors Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark.

Toxic waste or pollution

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.

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.

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

Actual assailant

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.

Whether the events in Botetourt and Mattoon are connected remains a point of conjecture. Author Mike Dash notes there are striking similarities (female footprints and similar smells/symptoms) but does not argue in favor of a certain connection. . Jerome Clark also notes many similarities between the two cases but stops short of arguing in favor of a connection. Clark also rejects the idea that the Virginia case inspired the Mattoon case, either as a mass hysteria or due to a "copycat effect": Clark notes that the two incidents took place nearly a decade apart in different locations and that the former received little publicity outside of the immediate areas.

Farley Llewellyn

In 2003, Scott Maruna, a former resident of the area affected by the 1944 Mattoon incident, published a book detailing the hypothesis that the attacks were the work of a mentally disturbed man named Farley Llewellyn (Lewellen).

Maruna writes that Llewellyn, who was studying at the University of Illinois at the time of the attacks, was an accomplished chemistry student who was isolated from the local community; which suspected him of being a homosexual. Giving him both the knowledge and the motive to commit the attacks. Maruna argues that many of the attacks were clustered around Llewellyn's home and that the first victims had attended high school with him.

In addition to naming him as the gasser, Maruna also claimed that Llewellyn's two sisters, Florence and Kathryn Llewellyn, were involved, and that they had carried out one or more attacks in order to draw suspicion away from their brother. The case of Bertha Bench (attacked on September 13) might offer partial corroboration of this hypothesis: Bench described the gasser as woman dressed as a man, and following reports that an unidentified woman's shoe print was found outside at the Bench residence after a purported gasser attack.

Maruna believed that the gas used by Llewellyn was either nitromethane, an industrial solvent also used in the manufacture of explosives, or 1,1,2,2-, tetrachloroethane, an ingredient used in the manufacture of insecticide. Both of these chemicals are sweet smelling and produce symptoms found in the victims of these cases.

Although Llewellyn had been a suspect at the time of the incident, and was placed under surveillance for a time, he was never charged with the gassing. It has since been speculated that his involvement might have been covered up by local residents or officials because his father, a local grocer, was a respected member of the local community.

Llewellyn was never charged with the gassings, and shortly after the gassings ended, the Llewellyn family had him committed to a mental institution.

Other suggestions

Some writers on the paranormal have covered the events. Clark (1993) describes an illustration of the Gasser from Loren Coleman's Mysterious America (Faber and Faber 1983): "[the artist] depicts him as a not-quite-human, possibly extraterrestrial being".

In popular culture

In science fiction author Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers, a psychiatrist compares the strange incidents taking place to the mass hysteria in Mattoon.

During early releases of Monster in My Pocket, Mad Gasser of Mattoon was monster number 110, a lithe, lanky, heavily jointed figure wrapped in hoses and wearing a gas mask. When the franchise was re-released in 2006, it was renamed "Mad Gasser", and was a small, cloaked figure with no gas mask holding a vial of chemicals.

See also

References

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External links

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