Friday, May 21, 2010

Lingering in the Air: Mattoon's Mad Gasser

Drawing of the Mattoon gasser at left from the Myth or Real card to Jerry D. Coleman.

            Midwest summers loiter into September, past the start of school.  The air retains the stickiness of humidity while insects hum and buzz in the warmth. 
            In 1944, on the last day of a hot and humid Illinois August, C. Eugene Cole went home from work.  He was Chief of Police for the town of Mattoon.  The greatest altercation he saw in the previous year, driving through the shady, tree-lined avenues was a cat chasing a flock of starlings into the setting sun.  Airborne, the birds squawked out in defiance to the feline.  It was a calm, small-town police beat, but the job was not without its aggravations.  Paperwork had to be completed and filed.  Complaints had to be heard about noisy neighbors, stray dogs, and the unfortunate occasional occurrence of an abusive husband.  The fan in his office was broken.
            Across town on Marshall Avenue, Mrs. Bert Kearney put her three year-old daughter, Dorothy down for the night.  Her husband worked a late shift and would not be home until later.  The night was warm, so she kept her bedroom windows open.  That was how the smell hit her.  She later described it as a “sickeningly sweet odor,” like a harvested cornfield composting in October. Kearney’s first thought as to the source widened her eyes.  I left the gas on.
            Then the nerve endings in her lips felt as lit matchsticks.  Dorothy awoke and cried, complaining of the smell.  “The odor grew stronger and I began to feel paralysis in my legs,” Mrs. Kearney said.  “I got frightened and screamed.”
            Neighbors arrived.  Mrs. Kearney’s throat was so parched she could barely speak.  The bitterest taste lingered in her mouth.  The house was looked over, but the source of the smell could not be found.
            Bert Kearney arrived home at 12:30AM.  As he approached his house, he saw someone standing by the front window, a “tall man, dressed all in black with a tight-fitting cap.”  Hearing the car, the man turned his head, affording a full look at his gaunt features and sunken eyes.  The man fled and the police were called.  A search of the neighborhood was conducted.  No one was found.
            It was a bizarre incident.  Even more bizarre was that two identical, unreported attacks had occurred the day before.  The “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” had arrived.
            On a map, Mattoon sits down and right of center in Illinois, surrounded by farms and fields. An ancient glacier acted as a trowel and flattened the land for agriculture.  The mass of ice also caused fissures to develop in the bedrock, allowing for a modest “oil boom” during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It’s a two-story town for which the adjective “sleepy” could be aptly applied.  Drive down the main drag and you’ll see signs for GoodYear, John Deere, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. You might not guess that you were in two world capitols. 
Proud citizens declared Mattoon as the ad hoc “baseball capitol of the world” and in 2000 hosted the Cal Ripken World Series for 11 to 12 year-olds.  Yet being just one capitol was not enough. When Lender’s Bagels moved their production facilities to Mattoon, the town was named “the bagel capitol of the world” and celebrates “Bagelfest” every summer.  Mattoon is also home to The Soybean Museum, boasting the world’s largest collection of soybean hybrids under one roof.  Plus, the town has the original Burger King. 
Despite these features, what happened in Mattoon during August-September, 1944, is not widely known.  Amongst paranormal investigators, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon is as old news, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Books have been written on the subject, but they somehow don’t find their way into the “local history” section of Borders or onto Oprah’s Book Club. 
            Instead, the matter seems relegated to the sort of milieu found at the check-out racks of grocery stores, black and white tabloids printed on pulpy paper that you glance and laugh at in an attempt to keep your focus off the candy bars.  Indeed, I first learned of the case from a book on the paranormal that my brother and I had as kids.  Despite “Mad Gasser” bringing endless giggles to us prepubescent boys, the creepy nature of the case and the relative proximity of Mattoon to our home in Northwest Indiana unnerved me.  My brother delighted in this, sitting up at night with urgency, drawing in deep breaths before saying “man, do you smell something?”  We laughed, but for the people of Mattoon who experienced those days, it was no joke.
"It scared the life out of a lot of people," said Dorothy Dunn in a 2003 interview for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette.  Dunn was a resident at the time of the attacks. "It was bad enough to have the war going on without adding that to it. No one will ever convince me it was a hoax." 
In order to be seen as real, it kind of helps to offer something tangible.  That’s where the cloth comes in. Carl and Beulah Cordes arrived home at 10:30PM on September 5th, 1944.  Beulah found a white, handkerchief-sized cloth on the concrete slab that was their front porch.  The linen was crumpled and dropped haphazardly, as if in haste or carelessness.  Touching it, she found it to be damp and tingly, like it had been dipped in an ether or alcohol.  There was a definite odor.  She brought it to her face and drew a deep breath.
            “When I inhaled the fumes, I had a sensation similar to coming into contact with electrical current,” Beulah said.  “The feeling raced down my body to my feet and seemed to settle in my knees.  It was the feeling of paralysis.”
            Then she threw up.  Her mouth bled.  Her lips swelled.
            Chief Cole was informed and his officers responded.  Detectives found two more clues: a skeleton key and an empty lipstick tube.  Then a call came in.  Another street over.  Another paralysis.  And another witness who saw “a dark, mysterious figure at her window.”  Cole then ordered his men to conduct 24-hour patrols.  The cloth was sent for analysis at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana.
The following morning, The Journal-Gazette broke the story.  The newspaper (erroneously) labeled Mrs. Kearney as “the first victim” of the “mad anesthetist on the loose.”  A sensational description of the newly christened “Mad Gasser” was thrown in for good measure.  In nearby Decatur, The Herald detailed the symptoms suffered by the Gasser’s victims and implied more to come.  That evening, three more attacks occurred.  The story hit the AP wire and appeared in papers such as The Chicago Tribune, mostly as an amusement.
Mattoon residents were not amused.  Local business owners organized a mass protest against what they saw as an ineffectual police department.  Eugene Cole watched them outside his unadorned window as the merchants all tried to look imposing, lined shoulder to shoulder in their suits and ties.  It was a demonstration Cole probably didn’t appreciate, but he had other worries.  Mayor E. E. Richardson was applying pressure.  If the Gasser wasn’t caught, the Mayor would offer a reward to whoever brought the fiend in.  To Cole, that meant people taking to the streets.  People with guns.  Vigilante nuts.  Crank phone calls.  He rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose.  Somehow, he and his department would have to put the thing to rest.
Cole and other staff from both Mattoon P.D. and the Illinois State Police, met to scrutinize each report and every fact gleaned from the case.  Everything from the mundane “I thought I saw someone” to the outlandish “the Gasser wore a tight, silver suit and a metallic helmet.”  Theories were formulated.  One stated that it was “an eccentric inventor, a lunatic.”  Another postulated that they were dealing with an ape-man (the source and rationale behind that theory is lost to history.  That’s probably a good thing.)  Others, including Cole, slowly cultivated another suspicion: there was no Mad Gasser.  After all, what solid evidence did they have to go on but a wet cloth?  As if on cue, the results of the cloth analysis arrived.  No clues were found to the gas’ composition.  Chief Cole slumped his shoulders and tossed the report down. 
That night, six more attacks occurred.  Cole’s worst fears took shape.  Citizens, some of them in farm equipment, began night patrols of the streets.  The fires of irrationality were stoked even further when a Mattoon official was quoted as saying, “there is no doubt but [sic] that a gas maniac exists and has committed a number of attacks.”  Events were building to critical mass.  A lot of people worried out there in the heartland town.  It was time for the embattled Chief Cole to make a statement. He attempted to quell the brewing panic with the facts as he saw them.
“Local police, in cooperation with state officers have checked and re-checked all reported cases and we find absolutely no solid evidence to support the stories that were told,” Cole announced.  “Hysteria must be blamed for such seemingly accurate accounts of the victims.”
Then Cole did what almost any other public official does in a tight spot.  He hypothesized that the gas was carbon tetrachloride from the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine plant.  Indeed there was a war on at the time and plant production was in overdrive.  Thus, it kicked out more fumes. 
Atlas was quick to respond to this assertion.  Carbon tetrachloride is an odorless gas and was used only for cleaning.  Plus, if it were the plant, wouldn’t cases of this nature have arisen sooner?  Chief Cole’s job wasn’t getting any easier.
Then, deliverance came for Cole and his cops.  September 13th would see the final Mad Gasser attack.  Though the incident followed the standard “Gasser paradigm” of weird smell, paralysis, and prowler, there was a twist.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing not a man, but a “woman dressed in men’s clothing” outside the house.  Prints of a woman’s high heeled shoe were found in the dirt beneath a window sill.  When coupled with the empty lipstick tube, one must ask...was The Mad Gasser a woman?  Or failing that, maybe a cross-dresser? 
That is where the “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon” ends.  The attacks stopped, not with a bang but a whimper and certainly without any resolution to the mystery.  In the year that followed, Donald M. Johnson wrote a serious and scholarly paper for The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.  In it, he offered the occurrences in Mattoon as a case study of mass hysteria, brought on in part by lurid and overwrought newspaper coverage.  The Chicago Tribune picked this up and the findings became canon.  It was an assessment that Eugene Cole no doubt blissfully approved. Loren Coleman, investigator and author of Mysterious America, disagrees.
“A witness who chased the stranger several blocks still sticks to his story to this day.  So do the gas victims I was able to interview.  And there still is the evidence of the cloth.” Though where exactly the cloth ended up is uncertain.
The town has been long insulted by the accusation of “mass hysteria,” as well as the ridicule suffered through portrayals in the press as uneducated bumpkins lacking the sophistication of city dwellers (there is that attitude in certain climes of Illinois that says, “pity the poor woe-begotten soul born outside the city limits of Chicago.”)  Scott Maruna, a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois, took it upon himself to reclaim the town’s honor.  “Mattoon was not hysterical in 1944,” Maruna shakes his head.  “The overwhelming, war-concurrent idea was that Mattoon, Illinois was somehow so backwards and uneducated as to have generated this artificial panic, symptoms and sightings.  Not so.”
In fact, Scott Maruna is quick to point out that Johnson was a mere sophomore undergraduate when he wrote the “conclusive” mass hysteria paper.  So with Johnson disregarded, Maruna set out to conduct his own interviews and a thorough investigation. After connecting enough dots, he believes he’s found the true identity of The Gasser.  In his book, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon—Dispelling the Hysteria, Maruna names the Gasser as Farley Llewellyn. 
Llewellyn was a young chemistry student at the U. of I.  He was experienced with insecticides and the sprayers used to administer them.  Investigators found that when breathed in, certain insecticides can cause sensations of nausea and paralysis identical to those described by the Gasser victims.  Tall, thin, and sallow, Llewellyn had few friends and kept to himself.  In time, rumors flew from high school hallways to beauty parlors and to old men in drinking coffee at the diner that Llewellyn was a homosexual.  True or not, the accusation isolated him.
So in Llewellyn, Maruna uncovered not only someone with ability, but with motive.  In fact, the first few victims were former high school classmates of Llewellyn.  Maruna also points out that Farley Llewellyn was committed to a mental institution not long after the incident.  And the prints of high heels? 
“Clumsy gassings done by his sister to exonerate him,” Maruna says.
An industrious researcher named Michael Shoemaker thinks otherwise.  Shoemaker turned up accounts of identical incidents in the Botetourt County area of Virginia during 1934...complete with prints of a woman’s high heeled boots beneath a window.  Was The Mad Gasser, whether female or cross-dresser, active ten years earlier, knocking around the green hills of Virginia?  The similarities are odd to say the least, but Maruna sees no concrete connection.
  “Gas is a wonderful weapon in the hands of an individual who wants to spread terror,” he points out, saying there have undoubtedly been copycats and predecessors.  “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more.”
An ominous, post-9/11 thought.  Illinois’ Gasser case could have serious lessons.  Did Chief Cole and his men face one of the first cases of domestic terrorism by chemical means?  I often wonder on summer nights as I sit in my Illinois home, just three hours from Mattoon.  The temperature is balmy.  My windows are open. you smell something?
Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets


  1. Good overview.

    With all due respect, please credit the drawing of the Mattoon gasser from the Myth or Real card to Jerry D. Coleman.

    Thank you.

  2. @Loren Thank you. And I will be happy to.

    @Bernard Thanks buddy!

  3. mr coleman who was mad gasser virginia, where hidden in blue ridge mts? is that gas clorin, woman most been with them , they drive chervolet , they attacked 7 towns ,how can police do nothing? maybe is someone knew all about bottetourt , chemistry students or someone in army who want do exsperiment on people? i dont now but mattoon and this is not connected can someone tell me adress of house attacks in bottetourt.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Zvonko.
    You really should contact Loren Coleman about this. He is the real expert. This piece I wrote was for my Masters program and was intended for the many who are unfamiliar with the Mad Gasser. Coleman has researched this matter thoroughly and you can contact him at his site
    Scott Maruna is another good resource.


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