Anesthetic Prowler Of Mattoon


Renee Pi, Journalist

In September 1944, many people in Mattoon, Illinois reported a man releasing gas into the air, paralyzing and causing people to experience nausea. However, in reality, no one was really attacked.

The Phantom Gasser Epidemic was a hysteria epidemic that happened in the year 1944, in the town of Mattoon, Illinois. The townspeople were under a lot of stress, with World War II raging overseas. America had just joined the war three years ago, and resources in Mattoon were stretched thin. Many of the able-bodied men joined the U.S. Armed Forces to fight in the war, and the responsibility to maintain order was placed on the heavily understaffed police. 

The first widely reported “attack” happened on the first night of September, at around 11.m.  Aline Kearny was preparing to go to bed alongside her 3-year-old daughter. Mrs. Kearny was uneasy, as her husband was working a late-night shift, and the newspaper had said that police were looking for a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp escapee. She soon noticed a sickly sweet scent coming from the garden, which she thought was the smell of her flowers. It wasn’t long before paralysis struck her legs, and she screamed for her sister Martha Reedy, who was staying overnight. Reedy noticed the odor immediately and called a next-door neighbor, Mrs. Earl P. Robertson, who then contacted the police. When Mr. Kearny returned home at around 12:30 p.m., he saw a prowler outside the window, or so he believed and tried to chase them. He described them as a tall man dressed in black clothing wearing a tight-fitting cap. Their story was published on the front page of a newspaper, a day after the case. The actual first confirmed case happened to Urban Raef and his wife a day earlier than the Kearnys’ case. Raef was one of four accounts that were reported in the newspaper on September 5th, 1944. By now, multiple accounts of sightings of the tall man were reported on Labor Day Weekend, but no physical evidence was found. That is, until the night of September 5th. Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home one night around 10 p.m., noticing a white cloth pressed against the screen door. Beulah grabbed the fabric, and without thinking, brought it up to her face and inhaled. She was immediately paralyzed, and her throat burned so badly that blood poured from her mouth. On the sidewalk near their porch, a tube of lipstick and a skeleton key was found.

Dozens of reports continued to come in, all about the “Mad Gasser ”, and panic soon ravaged Mattoon. People carried weapons when leaving the house, the public tried to assemble patrols to hunt the prowler, residents began sleeping together with friends instead of staying alone, and even state investigators and even the FBI aided in the search. A week after the alleged gassings started to spread, an editor for a newspaper strongly criticized the police on how they handled the investigations. In the end, former police chief C.E. Cole claimed the mistake was because of a power plant letting out carbon tetrachloride, a chemical that is a colorless liquid with a sweet smell. They also declared that “the entire incident was likely the cause of explainable occurrences exacerbated by public fears, and a sign of the anxiety felt by women while local men were on war service” (Mattoon Police Department, 1944). A state attorney later declared the Mad Gasser to be a “wave of mass hysteria fueled by a Journal Gazette reporter with a vivid imagination” (The Washington Post, 1944). After that, sightings of the gasser slowly died down, no suspects were named, and no charges were filed. The last report was made on the 13th of September.

So, what really happened? Some say that the Mad Gasser of Mattoon was linked to paranormal activity, but it is considered to be very unlikely. The most likely theory is mass hysteria, followed by industrial pollution, but some others believe that there was an actual assailant. 

The lack of evidence will make this case impossible to solve, as it is now considered a case of a hysteria epidemic. However, news of this “Mad Gasser” has gained its popularity throughout the world and will continue to go down in history as one of the most confusing mysteries.