(Blog post from Memories of the Prairie)
“He moves through the night as nimbly and secretly as a cat, squirting a sweetish gas through bedroom windows.” – Time Magazine describing the Mad Gasser.
In 1944, an avalanche of strange occurrences spread throughout Mattoon, IL. Media coverage fueled the town’s paranoia. 97 percent of Mattoon families read about it in the newspaper, making this what multiple academics claim to be a clear cut example of mass hysteria.
Mattoon, Illinois pronounced Mat-toon, is a town with 18,555 people in south-central Illinois. The town, isolated by miles of cornfields, was put on the map by the railroads in the 19th century.
It’s also famous for the “first Burger King.” (Not related to the Burger King chain.)
The legend of Mattoon’s mad gasser began on the night of August 31st. A Mattoon man woke up in the night with a strong sense of nausea, while a putrid smell of gas emanated through the air. He awoke his wife to ask if she left the stove on. Curious, she tried to get out of bed, but her legs were paralyzed. The next morning their neighbors chatted about encountering similar incidents.
The following night, resident, Mrs. Bert Kearney, woke up to a peculiar smell. She pushed her legs to investigate. Her legs wouldn’t budge.
She shrieked. The neighbors called the police, but no suspicious evidence was found.
Bert Kearney, returning from work, pulled into the driveway. Bert had no knowledge of his wife’s encounter. Outside the house, he noticed a man dressed in black clothes with a black cap peeking into the windows. The mysterious figure locked eyes with Kearney and fled into the September night.
The following days, other residents in the neighborhood reported a strange man lurking in the neighborhood, pumping gas into houses.
The local Journal Gazette caught on to the story. The headlines read “Mad Anesthetist Strikes Again!” The headlines consumed the pages of the local newspapers. Eventually, Mattoon residents could read new Mad Gasser stories three or four times every day.
The reports were bizarre enough to spread outside of small-town Mattoon. Chicago papers picked up the stories. Eventually, the peculiar stories were plastered on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the hysteria grew. Bands of armed civilians patrolled the streets, and Mattoon residents still reported attacks, while finding footprints dotted across their yards. Distraught residents accused their eccentric neighbors of the crimes. Small town gossip exaggerated the stories. Eventually, the US Government sent FBI investigators.
As the days passed, major newspapers interviewed psychologists and other academics about the occurrences. Public opinion began to veer towards skepticism. Weeks later, there were zero reports of the Mad Gasser.
Years after the occurrences, Donald Johnson, an undergrad at the University of Illinois, wrote a scholarly article about the Mad Gasser phenomenon. Johnson discovered when morning newspapers had published long stories on the reports, more residents reported experiences with the Mad Gasser. He also found, during Labor Day weekend, the shortage of published reports led to a noticeable decrease in new reports.
Whether the attacks were real or a result of neighborhood paranoia, who knows? But the 25 reported attacks over a 13 day timeframe, leave behind baffling questions.
(Here are some interesting alternative theories)
What stories have you heard about Mattoon’s Mad Gasser? Leave a comment below.