LATE summer 1944 saw the beginning of a roughly two-week span that would have the residents of Mattoon, Illinois, (pop. ~16,000) up in arms over the perceived threat of a strange man who was poisoning people in their homes. The “anesthetic prowler,” as he was first dubbed by local media, attacked his victims with gas, which was described by witnesses as sickly sweet and could reportedly cause paralysis. Mattoon’s Journal Gazette initially reported on the prowler on Saturday, September 2nd, when the first person to come forward regarding the attacks, Mrs. Kearney, related her story to the newspaper.
“It was shortly after 11 o’clock Friday night when I went to bed...My sister, Mrs. [Martha] Reedy was in the living room of the home,” Mrs. Kearney told the Journal Gazette.
Also home were Mrs. Kearney’s infant daughter Dorothy, whom she had brought to bed with her, and her other daughter, Carol, 2, along with Mrs. Reedy’s son, Roger, who was Carol’s age. Carol and Roger were reportedly in another part of the house during the attack.
“I first noticed a sickening, sweet odor in the bedroom, but at the time thought that it might be from flowers outside the window,” she said. “However, the odor grew stronger and I began to feel a paralysis of my legs and lower body.”
Mrs. Kearney grew frightened and screamed for her sister. Mrs. Reedy burst through the bedroom’s closed door to see what was the matter, and immediately asked what was wrong.
“I told her of the sensation I had,” Mrs. Kearney said. “But I was unable then to move from bed.”
Mrs. Reedy noticed the odor right away, suspecting it had come through the open window. She summoned the next door neighbor, Mrs. Robertson, for help, who called the police. Her husband, Mr. Robertson, along with the police, searched the yard and neighborhood for signs of a prowler, but found nothing.
Later that night, Mr. Kearney, a taxi cab driver, returned home from work around 12:30 a.m., after word of the incident had reached him. Mr. Kearney said that as he arrived in the front of the house, he saw a tall man, dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap, standing outside of a window. He gave chase, but the mystery man eluded him. Again the police were called, but found nothing.
Mrs. Kearney regained full control of her body within 30 minutes of the incident, and initial speculation was that chloroform or ether had been sprayed through the window as a fine mist to anesthetize her. The women had been counting a large sum of money at the house prior to Mrs. Kearney going to bed, and they thought it possible that perhaps someone might have seen them from the street.
Over the next several days, more and more reported cases of the mysterious anesthetist came to light -- like that of Mr. and Mrs. Urban Raef, who claimed they had been similarly attacked in the early hours of Thursday, August 31st, the day prior to Mrs. Kearney’s experience. The couple said that they had been sickened by fumes administered through their bedroom window, which made them feel as though they were paralyzed.
“There was a peculiar heavy odor in the bedroom and I at first thought it was gas,” Mr. Raef said. “I asked my wife if she had left the gas stove turned on, but she hadn’t. We both had the same feeling of paralysis and were ill for approximately one and a half hours. Persons visiting us, who slept in another part of the house, got none of the fumes and were not affected in any way.”
On the same night as Mrs. Kearney’s assault, a Mrs. Rider said she noticed a peculiar odor in her bedroom that made her children extremely restless and made her feel “lightheaded.” A short distance away, an unnamed woman and her children were reportedly made ill by fumes forced through their window by the “anesthetic prowler.” The woman was apparently awakened by the sickly sweet odor and found her children ill and vomiting.
On Tuesday, September 5th, a Mrs. Cordes became violently ill for two hours after smelling a strange white cloth she found on her porch. She said she had found the cloth after her and her husband arrived home at about 10 o’clock that night. Mrs. Cordes described the cloth as having a “large wet spot” in the center, and said that when she inhaled the fumes from it, she “had a sensation similar to coming in contact with a strong electric current.” The feeling raced down her body, she said, leaving her with “a feeling of paralysis.” Soon afterward her lips had swollen, the roof of her mouth and throat burned, and she had begun to spit blood from her wounds. Mrs. Cordes’ husband helped her inside and called a physician. A well-used skeleton key and half-used lipstick tube were also found on the porch, fueling suspicion that perhaps the phantom prowler had meant to knock out the couple’s dog to gain entrance to their home through the front door, but had been frightened away when Mr. and Mrs. Cordes suddenly
appeared, having entered through the rear.
By mid-September dozens of people had reported encounters with Mattoon’s mad gasser.
Thomas V. Wright, Commissioner of Public Health and Safety, petitioned T.P. Sullivan, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Safety in Springfield, for help in solving the case of the “anesthetic prowler.” The Department of Public Safety was to aid in trying to identify the chemical used in the attacks; although mayor and physician E.E. Richardson had already expressed doubts that either ether or chloroform were the culprits, since they both required being in close proximity to one’s victim.
Towards the end of the flap, near bedlam had befallen Mattoon, as hundreds lived in terror of the “phantom chemist,” and the police were forced to discourage concerned citizens from following them on calls, as well as roving bands of armed vigilantes. The local police force were bolstered by the addition of state troopers, and an FBI agent arrived to investigate the supposed chemical compound used in the attacks. Ultimately, though, the investigation did not result in any arrests.
By the end of the attacks, Wright had gone on record as saying that, while he believed there had been some gas attacks, many of the reports were due to mass hysteria.
“There is no doubt that a gas maniac exists and has made a number of attacks,” Wright said. “But many of the reported attacks are nothing more than hysteria. Fear of the gas man is entirely out of proportion to the menace of the relatively harmless gas he is spraying. The whole town is sick with hysteria.”
Meanwhile, Chief of Police C. E. Cole maintained that there had been no attacks at all, and that the reports were triggered by industrial chemicals, likely carbon tetrachloride or trichloroethylene, released by the nearby Atlas-Imperial plant -- an accusation the company vehemently denied, stating that they did not keep enough of the chemicals on hand to sicken the townsfolk, nor had any of their factory workers reported symptoms.
And thus was born the legend of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon; arguably a product of misidentification, mass hysteria, or malicious attack -- although it may have been some maddening combination of all three.