Did Mattoon have a mad scientist or a mad population?

Illustration for article titled Did Mattoon have a mad scientist or a mad population?

Towards the end of World War II, the sleepy town of Mattoon came under attack by a madman. Or perhaps it came under attack by many madmen and women, who believed that they were under attack by a madman. Who was the "mad gasser" of Mattoon?

By the end of August the town of Mattoon, Illinois was baking in the heat and people kept their windows open at night to let in the cool night air. In 1944 they kept those windows open only a crack, because many of the men were away, fighting in World War II, and even civilians were instructed to be on the alert. People were told to keep their eyes open for suspicious activity. The entire country was on edge.

And so, on August 31st, when a couple woke up smelling something sweet and feeling strange, they were understandably freaked out. The two people had wildly different symptoms. The husband was up on his feet, vomiting. The wife thought perhaps she'd left the gas on, but when she tried to get up to check, found she couldn't move. Later the same night, in a nearby house, a child got sick in bed while its mother was too incapacitated to get up and comfort it. A few nights later, another woman smelled a sweet substance and felt herself being slowly paralyzed from the legs upward. She screamed enough that her neighbors heard her and came running.


There is some question as to how much the local papers were involved in the making of the "mad gasser." To be fair to them, they didn't print word of the attacks until a few days into September. At that point, multiple people had come to the police with complaints of gas attacks, and it would have been irresponsible not to print something about it. If the entire incident was just the product of over-heated imaginations, those imaginations were inflamed by the town gossip before they saw anything in newsprint.

The gassings made the paper, and the paper made hay. Ten years ago, in Virginia, there had been a spate of gassing incidents, although no fatalities or arrests. The papers revived the story and speculated that the "mad gasser" had come to Mattoon. After that, more and more people began coming forward. Two women claimed that a similar incident - waking up to a sweet smell and an inability to move - had happened to them a few months ago, but they had not thought to report it until they saw the headlines. One man came home to see a man in black lurking by a window, and chased the strange man away.

The incidents multiplied. Sometimes three or four houses would report gas attacks on a single night. People shut their windows, and slept in shifts. The most elaborate "attack" came when a couple came home and found a white cloth on the porch. The woman, who smelled the cloth, immediately threw up. Searching the house, they also found a skeleton key and a tube of lipstick. This was reported and the next day, September 6th, eight different attacks were reported.

At this point, police switched tack. They stopped looking for a maniacal gasser who managed to attack multiple homes, but was never clearly seen by the citizens who had taken to patrolling the town. They started trying to quell the rumors and verify the attacks. Hospital examinations of some of the victims found nothing wrong with them. The incidents began to decrease, but when a further three came in on one night, police announced that they would arrest anyone who reported an attack but wouldn't submit to a full medical examination. The attacks stopped.

Illustration for article titled Did Mattoon have a mad scientist or a mad population?

Or, at least, the reports did. Mattoon has long been held up as an example of a shared delusion brought on by stress and rumor. The legend of the "Mattoon Maniac," even makes a cameo in the novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One character describes it, briefly convincing the heroes that they've become delusional. It's true that some reports, particularly the more elaborate ones, were almost certainly false. Still, there's some question over whether the citizens of Mattoon were totally to blame. Some people blame the nearby diesel engine manufacturing plant for emitting gasses that made the more sensitive people sick. There's even one book, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, that argues that there really was a gasser. A bookish chemistry student who was generally disliked, he had motive and knowledge to gas people. The book claims that the police threatening to arrest people who reported a crime had stifled legitimate claims, and that the instant jump to the diagnosis of "mass hysteria" was made because so many of the people who reported the gas attacks were women. This despite the fact that the gasser might have targeted women and despite the fact that, with the men away fighting, most of the population of the town was female. Then again, why would it take this long for anyone to come to the conclusion that the "mad gasser" was the disliked loner chemistry student? It seems the police would have rounded him up pretty quickly.


The mad gasser of Mattoon in still a debated legend. What do you think? Was there really such a person? And if so, did they commit all the crimes, or just some of them?

[Via Skeptic, Illinois Times, Prairie Ghosts, Location of Gas Attacks.]


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Michael Munro

Q.V. the recent case of a Tourettes-like ailment afflicting a small population in the town of Le Roy, New York - http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_no…