A British couple wearing gas masks in their living room in 1941. Fears of gas attacks ran high during World War II both in Great Britain and the US.
In 1944, the small city of Mattoon, Illinois was plagued by a series of bizarre incidents. Locals claimed that an “anesthetic prowler” was on the loose, using a pump apparatus to pump a poisonous gas into their homes. The incident brought state police down on the normally sleepy town and had its citizens patrolling the streets armed with shotguns and hunting rifles. The attacks tapered off until they ended completely, leaving behind a mystery. What really happened in September of 1944? Was it hysteria, or was it really the work of a madman?
Mattoon and the war years
The city of Mattoon was a typical Midwestern city. Home to a little over 15,000 people, the town was made up of hard working folks: factory workers, farmers, and shop owners. The town saw a modest boom during the tumultuous years of World War II, when the government issued contracts for war materiel to local factories.
It is essential to note that the incidents for which Mattoon became famous occurred against the backdrop of the Second World War. Newspapers were splashed with headlines about the war, and every day news came home from the fronts of sons, husbands, uncles, and brothers who would never return home.
In addition, there was the very real threat of attack by the Axis powers on the American homeland. The Japanese had already launched the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and had invaded some of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Not long after Pearl Harbor, the Nazis conducted a devastating series of U-Boat attacks off the East Coast. By 1944, the odds of a full scale invasion by either Japan or Hitler’s Germany were nil, but that didn’t mean that either power couldn’t deploy what we now know euphemistically as “weapons of mass destruction.” The devastation of the First World War was still fresh in people’s minds even as the second ravaged the world. Particularly terrifying was the prospect of a return to the poison gas attacks that added to the horror of World War I. While no gas attacks had been reported up to that point, as the Axis powers grew increasingly desperate, it seemed more and more likely that they might turn to the unthinkable in order to turn the tide of the war.
It was in this climate of fear that the Mad Gasser of Mattoon reared his head.
The First Victims
The evening of September 1, 1944 was hot and muggy, but otherwise unremarkable. The Kearney household was settling in for the night. Mr. Kearney was working his job as a taxi driver. Mrs. Kearney was home with her two daughters, her sister, and her nephew. Shortly after 11pm that night, Mrs. Kearney and one of her daughters went to bed together. The others were elsewhere in the house.
Shortly after climbing into bed, Mrs. Kearney smelled a sickly sweet odor wafting in from the open bedroom window. At first, she thought that the smell was coming from the flower bed outside. Soon, however, the scent became overwhelming, and the terrified Mrs. Kearney found she couldn’t move her legs.
She screamed for her sister, who rushed into the room. The sister later reported that she too noticed the sickly sweet smell. She went to the neighbor’s house and had him call the police. When the police officer arrived, the neighbor helped them search the property, but neither turned up any physical evidence of an assailant.
Mr. Kearney heard about his wife’s plight, and returned home around 12:30am. Upon pulling into the driveway, he later reported to police that he saw a prowler lurking by the bedroom window. He chased the man, who he later described as a tall man dressed in dark clothig with a tight fitting cap, but the assailant escaped. Police returned to the scene but were unable to locate the prowler.
As for Mrs. Kearney and her daughter recovered from their symptoms within about half an hour of the alleged attack. No one else in the house, including Mrs. Kearney’s sister, suffered any ill effects. Nothing was stolen from the house, and no physical evidence could be located.
The next morning, the local daily paper, The Daily Journal Gazette, reported the story under the headline “Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose!” with the byline “Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims.”
Surely enough, in the coming days more attacks would follow.
The first physical evidence in the case
The next case to be reported in the papers was the attack on Mrs. Cordes. She and her husband arrived home on Tuesday night. They entered the home through the back door. When they had been sitting in the living room for a few minutes, Mrs. Cordes noticed a white cloth jammed against the screen door. She picked up the cloth and, on impulse, sniffed it.
Something like electricity coursed through her. Like Mrs. Kearney before her, she experienced paralysis in her legs. She screamed, and her husband helped her to a chair. Soon, her lips began to swell and her throat burned. When she began to spit up blood, her husband called a doctor. Her symptoms lasted for two hours, and when she spoke to a reporter with The Daily Journal Gazette the next day, her lips were still swollen.
According to reports from the paper, Mrs. Cordes found a skeleton key and a mostly empty tube of lipstick on the sidewalk near the porch. The key showed signs of having been used quite often. As for the mysterious white cloth, the police tested it for any potential chemicals. Nothing was found.
Curiously, a man was detained for questioning that night. He was picked up a block away from the Cordes home, only a short while after the alleged attack. The man told police he was lost. He was soon released and wasn’t considered a suspect.
A lipstick tube, a skeleton key, and a white cloth. They mark the first physical evidence in this strange case. Could they have anything to do with the alleged Mad Gasser? Or were they merely random objects?
In the wake of these two well publicized attacks, gasser-mania swept over Mattoon. The same night that Mrs. Cordes sniffed the white rag, another woman reportedly smelled gas and was partially paralyzed.
On the sixth, police responded to reports of three more attacks. The next night, the mysterious assailant evidently decided to take the night off. No attacks were reported. He must have been resting himself for the next three nights. They marked the most active nights of the whole strange affair. There were four attacks on the 8th, five on the 9th, and seven on the 10th.
After this spurt of activity, reports of attacks dropped to nil on the 11th. The last reported attack occurred on the 12th of September. After the 12th, the strange affair ended as suddenly as it began.
The attacks and the inevitable headlines in The Daily Journal Gazette put Mattoon into a panic. Police were stretched to their limit. The entire department only numbered ten officers. The overwhelmed department called in the Illinois State Police to assist. A new piece of technology was also brought to bear against the menace; two way radios. These dramatically increased response time, allowing both the state and local officials to descend on a stricken home and thoroughly search the area for any gas-wielding madmen.
In spite of this, no culprits were ever apprehended. After calling in the state police, officials began sending gas victims to local hospitals. No physical causes for the symptoms were found, and in four cases doctors diagnosed the victims, all women, with hysteria.
While it was becoming more and more clear to police and other town officials that the panic in Mattoon did not have a physical cause, many citizens continued to believe they harbored a mad man in their midst. Armed patrols armed with shotguns and hunting rifles took to the streets. Men sat on their porch with shotguns in hand, eyes peeled for any prowlers. It got to the point where the police chief wrote a request, which was printed in the paper, for all of the vigilantes to stand down before anyone got hurt.
In the end, no one suffered lasting harm. All of the gas attack victims recovered, and after that strange September, Mattoon was never again tormented by a strange, gas-wielding prowler.
The Human Attacker Hypothesis
Poison gas attack during WW1. This was fresh on the minds of the military and civilians alike during WW2. Similar agents were suspected in the Mad Gasser case, but none fit the symptoms experienced by victims.
While many of the victims continued to insist that they had fallen victim to crazed man with an odd choice of weapon, the facts of the case tend to rule out the human prowler hypothesis.
To begin with, the action of the supposed anesthetic fits no known chemical. A gas would have to be strong enough to cause the observed effects, but it would have to dissipate fast enough to have no effect on anyone else in the house. In the first case, Mrs. Kearney and her daughter were the only ones in the house who were effected by the supposed gas. No one in the house showed any ill-effects, and when Mrs. Kearney’s sister entered the bedroom, she smelled the same strong scent but did not suffer paralysis or any other symptoms. If the scent had been caused by an actual agent lingering in the room, her sister would have suffered the same effects as well.
In addition, victims reported variable scents which they attributed to the Mad Gasser’s attacks. Some reported a musty scent, others smelled flowers, and still others reported smelling perfume. Other victims never reported a smell at all. Despite this, all of the victims (with the exception of Mrs. Cordes) reported the same symptoms: palpitations, paralysis in their legs, nausea, and vomiting. If a gas was employed, likely the scent would have been uniform. Different formulations of gas would have had different effects, potentially wildly different in different people.
While there was physical evidence reported in the case, their presence near the scene of an attack could easily have been incidental. The skeleton key has no bearing on the attacks whatsoever, because no one reported the alleged prowler having entered their home. All of the victims were near a window or door when the onset of symptoms began. It is just as likely that someone happened to drop their skeleton key on the sidewalk earlier in the day, and Mrs. Cordes associated this unusual item with her unusual experience. The same process likely occurred with the nearly empty lipstick tube.
As for the white rag, it is admittedly odd that it was jammed against the screen door. However, no chemical was found on it that could explain Mrs. Cordes’ symptoms. So, while its presence isn’t easily explained, it is not positive evidence in favor of an “anesthetic prowler.”
In addition to the lack of physical evidence, there seems to be no plausible motive for anyone to commit these attacks. If the attacker were some foreign agent, it does not seem likely that they would strike in some minor town in the middle of America. Also, if such a strike were to take place, it would not have been random or haphazard, but targeted and deadly. An argument could be made that the attacker might have been a German sympathizer, but then no attempt was made to claim credit for the attacks. Also, as has been shown, the alleged “gas” was of no known type. Such a gas would have been too complex for a lone wolf to have synthesized on his own, if it could be made at all.
Political motivations aside, if the supposed assailant was motivated by greed, they made a poor job of it. Nothing was ever reported stolen, and no one reported the prowler attempting to make their way into the house. If no real attempt at theft was made, greed can be ruled out.
The only possible remaining motivation that could be pegged to the Mad Gasser would be deriving some sick sort of thrill out of tormenting his victims. Since no one came forward to claim credit for the attacks, or sent cryptic messages to the police and newspapers warning of future attacks and stoking the flames of panic, like the Zodiac Killer in the 1970s, it seems sensible to rule out even the sadistic madman. Also, if the motivation was sadistic thrills, a madman could find much simpler and more effective methods than a gas that resulted in at best half an hour of inconvenience.
Mass Hysteria in Mattoon
While the evidence in the Mad Gasser case does not fit a human assailant, it fits the parameters of an outbreak of mass hysteria. Point of fact, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon has become quite literally a textbook case of mass hysteria.
For starters, the symptoms victims suffered are commonly reported in mass hysteria outbreak. Palpitations, temporary paralysis, nausea, and vomiting. The only outliers symptom wise were dry mouth and burned lips. These symptoms lasted between one half hour and two hours before fading away. Victims showed no lasting health effects from their ordeal. As was discussed, there were no plausible environmental causes for the symptoms. Rather, the symptoms resulted from victims unconsciously converting their anxieties into physical symptoms.
To further bolster the case for a mass hysteria outbreak, it is essential to look at the victims. The majority of victims in Mattoon were women. The majority of these women were not well educated – most had attained a high school diploma or less. They were also of low economic status. It is telling that no gas attacks were reported in the two highest income areas of Mattoon. Rather, the supposed prowler limited his activities to the poorer districts.
With these factors in mind, it is not difficult to see how mass hysteria could take root in Mattoon. All of these events took place against the backdrop of World War II. Everyone in town either had someone on one of the fronts or knew someone who had gone to war. Everyone read news from the fronts in the Daily Journal Gazette, the most widely circulated paper in town. Fears of actions by foreign agents were wide spread, and memories of poison gas use from the First World War were still fresh. Added to these stressors were the additional hardships imposed by rationing, on top of the normal economic stresses of small town life. These factors, in addition to the social and economic status of the victims, made gas attack victims more susceptible to the onset of hysteria.
But what vector spread the hysteria so quickly? Mass hysteria can be spread by sight and sound, by people seeing or hearing victims and then being overcome with symptoms themselves. However, the hysteria in Mattoon spread unevenly. Many of the victims were not in regular contact with one another, and the distribution of “attacks,” while clustered in the poorer parts of town, was irregular.
These victims did, however, have one thing in common. All of them were, most likely, regular readers of The Daily Journal Gazette. The local newspaper was a trusted source for news, so when they published lurid headlines about a mad prowler and his strange gas attacks, many took it as fact without question. Susceptible people with these headlines in their mind, and a whole heap of unspoken and unacknowledged anxieties, were only one sniff away from an attack from the mysterious prowler, if only in their minds.
Johnson, Donald M. (1945) “The ‘phantom anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (40): 175-186
Millard, Reed. “The Madman of Mattoon.” Coronet Magazine. June 1953. Pg. 63-66
“Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose: Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 2, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%202.htm
“Anesthetic Prowler Adds Victim: Mrs. C. Cordes Burned; Ill Two Hours.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 6, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%206.htm
“Many Prowler Reports; Few Real: City Calmer After Wild Weekend.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 11, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2011.htm
“To All Citizens of Mattoon.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 11, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2011.htm
“’Gas Calls’ at Vanishing Point: Police Get Two False Alarms During Night.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 13, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2013.htm