Toxic Hysteria: The Strange but True Tale of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon
Even before the newspaper story, even before anyone reported it, a man named Urban Raef awoke in the middle of the night with a foul odor in his nostrils. It was so awful it made him sick. He stumbled into the bathroom and vomited until he was weak. His wife, thinking the pilot light must have gone out on the stove, tried to get up but was shocked to discover she was paralyzed.
They weren’t alone. On the same night in another part of town a different woman experienced the same thing. She awoke to a strange odor, and then, hearing the sound of her daughter coughing in the next room, tried to get up, but couldn’t. By degrees, over the next few minutes, the paralysis abated, but the odor hung around. What was going on? It seemed the town of Mattoon was in the grip of some bizarre terror. Someone or something was attacking people with poisonous gas.
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
What happened the following morning goes unrecorded. Did the Raef’s and their neighbor report their experience to the police? Did they discuss it with their neighbors? Did they put it down to a bad dream, perhaps an overreaction to the all too common smell emanating from the Atlas-Imperial plant down the road? The chronology is important because it says a lot about what motivated them to tell their stories. If they spoke up first, before the incidents that followed, then their credibility is on firm ground. But if they came forward only after the local newspaper published its first story on the Gasser, then their accounts must be viewed with skepticism.
What followed was this. The very next night, on September 1st, 1944, as allied forces were battling their way across Europe and rumors of secret German weapons were making the rounds, a Mrs. Kearney of Mattoon noticed a strange odor coming in through her open window. It soon overwhelmed her and she lost the feeling in her legs. She called out to her sister, who was also in the house, and her sister also smelled the gas. Down the hall, two children were sleeping, and one of them, Mrs. Kearney’s three-year-old daughter, awoke, complaining of feeling ill.
Some time later, Mr. Kearney, a taxi driver, was returning from work and noticed someone lurking outside his house. He gave chase and the figure ran away. The next day Mr. Kearney described what he saw to the Mattoon Journal Gazette. He described a tall, thin man in dark clothing, wearing a tight fitting cap and carrying a flit gun, an agricultural tool for spraying pesticide. The newspaper story that ran the next morning was more than sensational. It was provocative.
The story suggested that there were more attacks to come. The headline read “Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims,” as if more victims were to expected. Investigators analyzing what actually happened in Mattoon over the course of two weeks in September of 1944 point to this as the stepping off point to explain how a small central Illinois town fell victim to a case of mass hysteria, believing they were under attack by a mysterious figure called The Mad Gasser.
Mass Hysteria or Collective Obsessional Behavior is a disorder in which a group of people experience physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of any physical causes. Examples of mass hysteria include the Dancing Plague of 1518 during which people broke into fits of uncontrollable dancing at several places throughout Europe; the Laughter Epidemic of Tanzania in 1962, in which an entire community fell into bouts of uncontrollable laughter; and the Penis Panic of Singapore in 1967, in which hundreds of men became convinced their penises were going to fall off. Cases of Mass Hysteria often include symptoms like hyperventilation, nausea and partial paralysis, precisely the symptoms reported by the victims of the Mad Gasser.
A Cascade of Alarms
Four days after the newspaper story ran, implying more attacks were yet to come, two did. On September 5th a Mrs. Beulah Cordes found a white rag lying on her front porch. When she picked it up, she became violently ill. That night a Mrs. Leonard Burrell reported that someone broke into her house and attempted to gas her. The next day seven more people reported encounters with The Mad Gasser. Eight more encounters were reported in the week that followed.
The accounts varied in their details. Some saw nothing, just smelled a weird odor. Others reported a man carrying a flit gun. At least one insisted it wasn’t a man at all, but a woman dressed up as a man.
Local police were overwhelmed with frantic calls reporting encounters with the Mad Gasser, every one of them a false alarm. After two weeks, finding no evidence of any prowler and seeing no lasting effects from the alleged attacks, police announced they were de-prioritizing calls about the Mad Gasser. The attacks immediately ceased.
Bizarre and Vexing
An obvious suspect in all the hysteria was the Atlas-Imperial factory located down the road. Atlas-Imperial manufactured diesel engines and used chemicals in its processes. Chemical odors were often reported coming from the plant. Police suspected carbon tetrachloride, a commonly used fire repellant, as the sweet smelling odor associated with the attacks, but Atlas-Imperial had only five gallons on hand, not enough to be carried on the wind and create the kind of widespread panic being reported.
The whole episode was so bizarre and vexing it quickly drew the attention of psychological researchers. Just a year later in 1945 a field study was conducted by Donald M. Johnson and published in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology entitled “The ‘phantom anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria”. Fourteen years later in 1959 Johnson’s findings were reviewed and confirmed. The whole crazy episode was just a case of mass hysteria. But there were still some unanswered questions.
What about the encounters that occurred before the newspaper ran its story? Were those encounters reported to police at the time or only after the newspaper ran its provocative headline? Given the skepticism displayed by police later, it’s hard to believe they were in possession of reports that existed prior to the story and didn’t follow up on them. And what about the victims, Urban Raef and his wife, and the other woman? Wouldn’t they have made it clear that they couldn’t have been reacting to a news story if their encounters had occurred before the story was written? As it turned out, they fell silent.
In fact, most of the people who reported encounters with the Mad Gasser became taciturn on the subject later, almost as if embarrassed. But the story of a sinister prowler randomly gassing people for no apparent reason was too juicy to be filed away forever.
An Alternative Theory
In 2003 a self-published book by a high school chemistry teacher named Scott Maruna offered an alternative explanation. Maruna contended that that Mad Gasser was a real person named Farley Llewellyn, a chemistry student with a laboratory in his trailer. Llewellyn, who was allegedly a homosexual, was a bit of an odd duck and was consequently shunned by the townspeople. In Maruna’s telling, this was enough to give Llewellyn a motive for the attacks. Even more compelling, shortly after the attacks ended, Llewellyn was committed to an insane asylum by his parents.
The only problem with Maruna’s theory is the assumption that Mattoon police were too incompetent to take note of an insane chemist in their midst. In fact, police began watching Llewelyn after the first attacks and confirmed he was at home when the later attacks occurred. It remains possible that Llewelyn was responsible for the first attacks and that later attacks were the result of mass hysteria, but there is no real evidence to support this.
Fertile Soil for a Panic
Assuming that mass hysteria occurred as a result of the newspaper story, what were the circumstances that could have caused such a bizarre panic to take hold as a result of such a minor provocation? What fertile soil did it grow from?
Remember, the United States was in the most crucial stages of World War II at the time, most men under the age of forty were away at the war. The wives and mothers who were left behind in small town America were anxious and uncertain. What’s more, new and more deadly weapons were being introduced on a regular basis. Poisonous gas, although outlawed by the Geneva Convention, remained a threat. In Mattoon the anxiety attendant upon the use of such weapons may have been exacerbated by the chemical odors emanating from the Atlas-Imperial plant. But a Mad Gasser? It seems so random and far-fetched. But was it really?
Ten years earlier in Botetourt County, Virginia a different mad gasser had attacked the residents of Roanoke. As with the Mattoon attacks, victims were sickened and paralyzed by a mysterious prowler. Leaving aside the question of what happened in Botetourt County, it is entirely possible that the Mattoon victims had heard the story and brought it forth from their subconscious, triggering their own hysteria a decade later.
The Poison of Fear
At this late date it’s unlikely we will ever have an irrefutable explanation for what happened in Mattoon in September of 1944. But the idea that a population of rural Americans could seize upon an outlandish fiction to cope with their overwhelming anxieties is no longer so fantastic. People do a lot of strange things to cope with their fears, and some of those things leave behind enduring mysteries. What’s required to quell the hysteria is to do as the Mattoon police did and refuse to play along. If you are scared, you can have your bogeymen. But please don’t try to impose them on the rest of us. It requires too much of our energy.
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Cohut, Maria. “Mass Hysteria: An Epidemic of the Mind,” Medical News Today, 27th July 2018, Website
Klickna, Cinda. “The Case of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” Illinois Times, 1 May 2003, Website
Maruna, Scott. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria, 27 February 2003, Website
Reid, T.R. “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Ill.” The Washington Post, 2 September 1979, Website
Taylor, Rupert. “Possible Explanations for the Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” Exemplore, 26 June 2021, Website
“Your Turn… News & Opinions,” Illinois Times, 22 May 2003, Website
Mad Gasser in blue, Bianca Berg
Sketch of Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Legends of America
Broadway looking west, Mattoon 1940, A Grave Interest
First Victims headline, Belt Magazine
Menace at the window, alex mihu
Man with a flit gun, Asberth News Network
Atlas-Imperial advertisement, Public domain
An insane chemist in their midst, Bee Naturalles
Downtown Mattoon today, CBClassic.net
Man in a gas mask, Wallpaperflare