I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
It’s August 1944, and the folks in Mattoon, Illinois (population 16,000) are about to have the tranquility of their small town shaken. Mrs. Bert Kearney had just gone to bed when . . . let’s have The Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette report her story: “I first noticed a sickening, sweet odour in the bedroom, but at the time thought that it might be from flowers outside the window. However, the odour grew stronger and I began to feel a paralysis in my legs and lower body.”
A gas was said to have been pumped in through a window. Interestingly, the article was entitled “Mrs. Kearney and her Daughter First Victims,” as though the newspaper knew there were more to come. Curious.
Police were called but found nothing, just as they had at two similar incidents the night before. (There is some discrepancy about the order in which victims reported the gassing).
More Gassing Victims
The Mad Gasser is spotted, but escapes.
Mrs. Kearney’s taxi-driver husband returned home about 12.30 a.m. to find a prowler lurking near a window. He said the man was tall and wearing dark clothing and a tight-fitting cap. He gave chase but the intruder got away.
On September 5, Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home after an evening out when they noticed a cloth lying on their porch. Beulah picked it up and sniffed it. She said she felt like she had been given an electric shock and she started to throw up. As with other victims, she said she started to feel weak and to experience partial paralysis in her legs.
However, an analysis of the cloth uncovered no chemicals that could account for Beulah Cordes’s reaction.
Over the next two weeks, 17 similar attacks were reported. But, nobody could give a clear description of a culprit, and police found no clues other than the cloth, which may not have been a clue at all.
Mass Hysteria Hits Mattoon
The media hyperbole machine slipped into high gear.
No editor could resist a story like this and it soon made headlines in Chicago where the Herald-American breathlessly reported (September 10) that “Groggy as Londoners under protracted aerial blitzing, this town’s bewildered citizens reeled today under the repeated attacks of a mad anesthetist who has sprayed a deadly nerve gas into 13 homes and has knocked out 27 victims.” The local newspaper chimed in with headlines such as “Mad Anesthetist Strikes Again.”
Prose like this was likely to ramp up the anxiety level, and it did. Panic gripped Mattoon. Clearly some sort of mad person was at large and families started to arm themselves with shotguns and mount guard on their porches. Armed gangs began roaming the streets looking for the elusive bad guy. The level of concern was such that Mattoon Police Chief C.E. Cole cautioned citizens to be careful about handling their firearms.
The fact that the FBI was called in did not calm everybody down.
Police Reach a Dead End
Toxicology experts were consulted and officers combed through the records of recently released mental hospital and prison inmates. But, the authorities could not turn up any helpful evidence.
Police were plagued by so many false alarms about people smelling gas that they started to give a low priority to the calls. Soon, they decided to scale back the investigation and put out the word that the people of Mattoon may have suffered from a case of mass hysteria.
This, of course, did not please those who had smelled the gas, vomited, and had their legs go all wobbly. The local newspaper began to lose interest in the affair and soon the number of reported incidents tailed off, before stopping altogether.
Who Was the Gasser?
No “Mad Gasser” was ever found, and theories began to develop about what had happened. Could it have been pollution from a nearby diesel engine factory? Some thought it was the work of a murky government agency testing a poison gas for later use on German and Japanese forces.
Others believed it could be blamed on some sort of ape-man; perhaps, Bigfoot had strayed from its natural habitat and somehow obtained a degree in organic chemistry without any professor or student noticing the hairy creature attending lectures. Another school of thought had aliens from a distant planet behind the outrages.
Suspect: Farley Llewellyn
A more down-to-Earth explanation was that it was the work of a local man called Farley Llewellyn. A very bright young fellow, Llewellyn had studied chemistry at university and had built a laboratory in the trailer in which he lived. In addition, he had been pretty much shunned by the community because he was homosexual and his behaviour was often unbalanced. He had the knowledge and means to create a poison gas and the motive of revenge against the town that spurned him. He became suspect number one.
Illinois historian Scott Maruna believes Farley was the culprit. In his 2003 book, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria, Maruna points the finger squarely at Llewellyn. There’s a bit of a problem with that theory though; police were watching him and he was safely tucked up at home when some of the attacks occurred. That’s countered by the argument that there were copycats.
The imitator theory may have some validity though in a different way. An exactly similar series of gas attacks had occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia ten years earlier; same symptoms, same supposed method of delivery, and the same failure to uncover a culprit.
Was It Mass Hysteria?
The most popular explanation for what happened in Mattoon was that the community had suffered an attack of mass hysteria. This was first put forward by Donald M. Johnson of the University of Illinois. In 1945, he published a paper in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in which he demolished the gas theory, by pointing out that no known gas could produce the effects described by the delivery method of spraying it through a window.
He wrote that the strongest case for the hysteria hypothesis “is the nature of the symptoms and the fact that those cases seen by physicians—though there were only four—were diagnosed as hysteria. All symptoms reported are common in hysteria and can be found in the medical literature for many years back.”
However, a lot of people in Mattoon clung to the belief that Farley Llewellyn was the offender. The poor fellow was placed in a lunatic asylum by his parents shortly after the gas attacks took place.
There have been many other cases of mass hysteria gripping populations:
- In July 1518, the so-called “Dancing Plague” hit Strasbourg, France. Large numbers of people took to dancing in the streets for days on end, and some of them dropped dead from exhaustion;
- In 1692, several young girls in Salem, Massachusetts began having fits, a phenomenon that was blamed on witches practicing their dark arts. Hangings followed; and,
- In November 1938, two women in Halifax, England reported they had been attacked by a mysterious man wielding a mallet and having bright buckles on his shoes. Within days, other similar reports came in to police. Then, one of the first victims confessed she had injured herself to gain attention. She and several others went to prison on convictions of causing public mischief.
More recently, there have been outbreaks of mass laughing and fainting that defy explanation other than that they are the result of contagious hysteria. It’s a strange phenomenon, but it seems the most likely explanation of the goings on in Mattoon in 1944.
- “Mrs. Kearney and her Daughter First Victims.” Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, September 2, 1944.
- “Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior.” Hilary Evans, Robert E. Bartholomew, Anonamlist Books, 2009, page 353.
- “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria.” Scott Maruna, Swamp Gas Book Company, 2003.
- “The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County.” Dave Tabler, Appalachian History, January 2, 2013.
- “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon.” Dr. Romeo Vitelli, James Randi Educational Foundation, undated.
- “The Phantom Anesthetist of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria.” Donald M. Johnson, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1945.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 28, 2019:
Thanks Tom for pointing out the error about the Salem witches. Many sources say the accused were burned, but the most authoritative say death was by hanging. I have made the correction.
Tom on August 27, 2019:
Unfortunately, there's a non-factual "factoid" -- there were no burnings at the stake in Salem. The accused were in fact hanged.
Also, Farley Lewellen's parents were no longer alive when the Mattoon Gasser attacks occurred. He was institutionalized by his sisters.
Hysteria accounts for part of the story; the town was emotionally on edge, and any stimulus could set off a "Gas attack" complaint. In one case, it was the smell of acetone from a vial of spilled nail polish remover.
That said, it's reasonable to assert that the Mattoon Gasser began in the actions of a real person. Farley Lewellen, deceased in 1984, remains the prime suspect.