Was The ‘Mad Gasser Of Mattoon’ A Poison-Wielding Maniac — Or A Mass Delusion?

Published November 23, 2022

The "Mad Gasser of Mattoon" allegedly attacked more than two dozen Illinois townspeople in 1944, but many now believe this disturbing episode was actually a case of mass hysteria.

Mad Gasser Of Mattoon

Public domainThe supposed gas attacks in Mattoon, Illinois, in the 1940s inspired hysteria in the media and townsfolk.

In the 1940s, a small town in Illinois experienced a strange wave of ailments. Victims smelled a foul odor and then fell to the ground, paralyzed.

Convinced that a criminal was behind the attacks, the city dubbed him the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

Police found little evidence of gas attacks – instead, the Mad Gasser has been dubbed a case of mass hysteria. But was there really a Mad Gasser — and did he escape right under the noses of police?

Gas Attacks Rattle The Town Of Mattoon

War raged across Europe and the Pacific on Sept. 1, 1944. But the quiet town of Mattoon, Illinois, seemed worlds away from the conflict.

That night, Aline Kearney put her two children to bed while her husband drove his taxi route. Since her husband was away, Kearney’s sister and nephew stayed over. But everything changed after Kearney climbed into bed.

“I first noticed a sickening, sweet odor in the bedroom,” Kearney said, according to the Washington Post, “but at the time thought that it might be from the flowers outside the window.”

But the odor became overpowering. “I began to feel a paralysis of my legs and lower body,” Kearney said. The mother managed to call out for her sister, who rushed in and opened the window, clearing out the mysterious fumes.

Victims Of Gas Attack

Moline DispatchA family affected by the gas attacks, from the Moline Dispatch.

After the attack, police patrolled Mattoon looking for anything unusual, but they found nothing. When Kearney’s husband arrived home, he spotted something suspicious: a tall man lurking in the night, wearing dark clothing.

The next morning, Mattoon’s local newspaper, the Journal Gazette, ran a headline about the “Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose.” And soon, more reports of gas attacks sprung up.

An ‘Anesthetic Prowler’ On The Loose?

Police and reporters rushed to learn more about the mysterious Mad Gasser of Mattoon. Soon, more victims came forward.

The Raef family claimed they had been attacked the night before Aline Kearney. Urban Raef had left his bedroom window open, and around 3 a.m., a strange fume came through the window, making him ill.

By September 5, the Mattoon paper counted multiple victims, including two children. And the case took a turn that night, when Carl and Beulah Cordes noticed something strange on their door.

The couple had been out that evening. When they returned at 10 p.m., Beulah spotted a pink cloth stuck into their screen door. She snatched up the fabric and gave it a sniff. Would it have the same “sweet cheap perfume odor” that other victims of the Mad Gasser noticed?

Inhaling was a mistake. Beulah said that she “felt as though a charge of electricity had gone through me.” A burning sensation began in her throat, then she reportedly began to bleed from the mouth.

The attack had all the signs of poison gas – and the mysterious culprit remained at large.

The Mad Gasser Sparks A Panic

Couple Examines Handkerchief

Moline DispatchBeulah Cordes reenacts finding a handkerchief on her door for the press.

On Sept. 18, 1944, Time Magazine ran a story about the “Mad Anesthetist of Mattoon.”

The Mad Gasser “is a tall, thin man who wears a black skullcap,” the article declared. “He moves through the night as nimbly as secretly as a cat, squirting a sweetish gas through bedroom windows.”

Yet no one knew who was behind the attacks.

Hysteria swept through Mattoon. Armed mobs took to the streets at night, looking for any sign of the gasser. The situation grew so dangerous that the Police Chief issued an alert, saying “Roving bands of men and boys should disband. They are in grave danger of being shot by some frightened property owner.”

Many in Mattoon blamed the police for not protecting public safety.

On September 8, the local paper ran an editorial that declared, “We suppose it is natural for the pride of policemen to be stung a bit when a crime is committed. For this reason, there has been a tendency in Mattoon police circles recently to conceal from the public the fact that certain crimes have occurred.”

The police chief tried to pin the mystery on a local diesel engine plan. “We have found that large quantities of carbon tetrachloride are used in the war work at the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co. plant,” the Chief said, “and that has an order which could be carried to all parts of the city as the wind shifts.”

But Atlas struck back, claiming that no one in the factory had reported any illnesses because of fumes.

“There are two principal reasons why he was not caught,” the Journal Gazette declared. “One is that our police failed to take the case seriously enough at first. The other is that when the police finally decided there was ‘something to it,’ mass hysteria and outside interference combined to make their efforts unsuccessful.”

Mass Hysteria Or Mad Gasser?

Was the Mad Gasser a myth? Did the citizens of Mattoon, shaken by the war, dream up gas attacks in their quiet Midwestern town?

Time declared the Mad Gasser an “archcriminal.” Chicago newspapers called him “The Gas Fiend” and “The Mad Phantom.” And the story even made it to the battlefront. Soldiers wrote home to family in Mattoon asking if they were safe.

Mattoon Il

Wikimedia CommonsMattoon, Illinois was a quiet town of less than 20,000 residents when the attacks started.

James Arend read about the Mad Gasser from an army base in England. Arend wrote to his mother, baffled about his hometown making international news for attacks that seemed like “something out of a dime novel.”

Arend wanted to know – was there really “a nut who went about in Mattoon with a spray gun knocking out his victims with a strange gas”?

While chemists in Chicago claimed that there was no evidence of an actual Mad Anesthetist, 17 Mattoon families claimed that they were gassed in a single night.

The victims reported remarkably similar symptoms: nausea, temporary paralysis, and vomiting.

“Authorities were poring over records of patients released from Illinois insane asylums, seeking a clue to the Mad Anesthetist’s identity,” Time reported. “Private automobiles full of vigilantes armed with shotguns rolled slowly along the streets at night. Other citizens were taking pistols and shotguns to bed, and sleeping behind closed windows.”

The conditions grew so frantic that Mattoon’s police commissioner said, “I wouldn’t walk through anybody’s backyard at night now for $10,000.”

The End of the Gas Attacks

Then, as quickly as the gas attacks began, they ended. No new reports came in about strange odors or fumes.

What made the attacks stop? The chief of police, fed up with the situation, said he would arrest anyone who claimed to be a victim unless they first underwent a medical examination. And suddenly, the reported attacks ended.

Mattoon Gets Jitters

Illinois TimesA newspaper headline about the gas attacks.

With the threat gone, people began to doubt whether there had been a Mad Gasser in the first place. Was Mattoon struck by mass hysteria? Did the newspaper reports invent an archcriminal?

But according to chemistry teacher Scott Maruna, the Mad Gasser was real.

Maruna points to Mattoon resident Farley Llewellyn. When he wasn’t lurking around his family’s grocery store, Llewellyn was working in his secret chemistry laboratory. His experiments once caused an explosion in his quiet neighborhood.

Was Llewellyn the Mad Gasser? It’s almost unimaginable that the police didn’t rule out the loner with a secret lab. And even if Llewellyn did test a chemical concoction on his neighbors, he almost certainly did not visit dozens of houses in a matter of days.

Whether a Mad Gasser truly did stalk the streets of Mattoon, the mystery continues even decades later.

The Mad Gasser might have been a mass delusion – and there are many other examples in history. Next, read about the causes of the Salem Witch Trials, and then learn about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "Was The ‘Mad Gasser Of Mattoon’ A Poison-Wielding Maniac — Or A Mass Delusion?." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 23, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/mad-gasser-of-mattoon. Accessed May 25, 2024.