In 1944, Mattoon, situated in Central Illinois, was a sleepy farm community. With a population of about 16,000, the town thrived on agriculture and wartime industry. Surely, no one expected anything unusual to happen there, but something very unusual did happen there. Starting in September 1944, for 2 weeks, citizens in this sleepy town came under attack by a mysterious phantom in black called The Mad Gasser.
1944 was a tumultuous year. The balance of the war had shifted to the Allies and WWII would soon be coming to an end. D-day had been a resounding loss for the Germans and news outlets were reporting that in retaliation Nazi forces may be planning gas attacks on American soil.
Then in September 1944, as summer faded into fall, there was a series of terrifying attacks in Mattoon where over two dozen ordinary citizens became victims to noxious gas attacks in their own homes. All victims reported strange odors and strange symptoms such as nausea and temporary paralysis. Citizens were gripped in fear. Was it Nazis, was it a crazed lunatic, was it a phantom, or was it as psychologists suggest mass hysteria?
The attacks began early in the morning on August 31. Urban Reaf woke up around 3 am to a strange odor in his home. He was nauseous and the air was heavy. Initially, he was concerned that the pilot light on the stove had gone out. He reported,
“There was a peculiar heavy odor in the bedroom and I at first thought it was gas,”
He woke his wife and she too was quickly overcome with nausea. Both laid in bed partially paralyzed for the next hour and a half until the feelings left as quickly as they started. They had a guest at their home that night and after finding out their guest had not experienced anything unusual the Reaf’s put the incident out of their minds. That is until a day later when Uban picked up the local paper and read about a gas attack on Mrs. Kearney, her sister, and her 3-year-old daughter. The headline of the local paper read,
“Anesthetic Prowler on Loose – Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims”
The story continued.
“A prowler who used some kind of anesthetic or gas to knock out his intended victims was on the loose in Mattoon Friday night. Mrs. Kearney and her three-year-old daughter, Dorothy Ellen, were victims of the anesthetic Friday night as they slept in bed at their home, 1408 Marshall Avenue. Both had recovered today, although Mrs. Kearney said that her mouth and throat remained parched and her lips burned from effects of whatever was used by the prowler who was unsuccessful in getting into the house.”
The Kearney incident which Urban had read about occurred on September 1st. Mrs. Kearny was at her home with her sister and her 3-year-old daughter. The incident occurred about 11 PM in the evening she reported.
“I first noticed a sickening, sweet odor in the bedroom, but at the time, I thought that it might be from flowers outside the window. However, the odor grew stronger and I began to feel a paralysis of my legs and lower body. I grew frightened and screamed for Martha. She came into the bedroom, to which the door had been closed, and asked me what was the matter. I told her of the sensation I had, but I was unable then to move from bed.”
Her sister called the police from a neighbors home as she too had noted a noxious odor. By the time the police arrived, the incident had ended. The smell was gone and Mrs. Kearney had recovered. The Kearney’s brush with death would not be over after the authorities left. Later that evening Mr. Kearney arrived home late from his job as a taxi driver and found what he thought was a peeper outside a window of their home. He chased the lurker but was unable to catch him. The police were called for the second time that night and Mr. Kearney described the prowler as a tall man, dressed in dark clothing, with a tight-fitting cap. He was not aware of the evening’s prior happenings. The Kearney’s left their home for the night and slept at a friend’s house.
The newspaper quickly got a hold of the story of the frightening attack and soon Urban was reading about it. The paper speculated wildly that the attacker had used either Chloroform, or Ether, or possibly a combination of the two and was spraying the gas into the rooms of sleeping victims. Urban, convinced that he and his wife had been gassed, immediately called the police. Local authorities arrived and investigated the Raef household but found no lingering smells of gas or any other evidence.
The police, who originally thought the attack on Mrs. Kearney had been a failed burglary were forced to scrap their theory when none of the other attacks fit the hypothesis. The people of Mattoon were left confused and scared and surely no one was sleeping easy in town after that.
The next couple of days were quiet but then everything erupted again on Tuesday, September 5th when the local paper headline read,
“Anesthetic Prowler Adds Victim – Mrs. C. Cordes Burned; Ill Two Hours.”
Beulah Cordes and her husband Carl had returned home the previous night at around 10 pm. Beulah noticed a white piece of cloth a little larger than a handkerchief on her front porch. She picked it up, smelled it, and immediately became sick.
“When I inhaled the fumes from the cloth, I had a sensation similar to coming in contact with a strong electric current. The feeling raced down my body to my feet and then seemed to settle in my knees. It was a feeling of paralysis. My husband had to help me into the house and soon my lips were swollen and the roof of my mouth and my throat burned. I began to spit blood and my husband called a physician. It was more than two hours before I began to feel normal again.”
The authorities were called and the police searched the property and the surrounding area. Along with the cloth, they found a skeleton key and an empty lipstick container. The first tangible evidence of the case. Beulah concluded that the assailant meant to use the cloth and the chemicals to get rid of the family dog who usually slept on the front porch. Making the Cordes home easier to rob. The police sent the cloth to a state lab but no chemicals were ever found on it.
That same night, At 11:15 PM, just over an hour after the Cordes had returned home, Mrs. Burrell awoke coughing and choking on fumes in her bedroom. She struggled from bed, collected her infant son in her arms, and ran to a neighbor’s house, where she called her husband George and then the Mattoon Police to report the attack.
With little else to go on, Thomas Wright, the Mattoon Police Commissioner contacted the Illinois Department of Public Safety on Wednesday, September 6th to ask for their help in solving the case. In response, the IDPS sent Superintendent Richard Piper of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, along with his assistant Francis Berry to help them get to the bottom of things. Piper and Berry arrived in town the very next day, along with two FBI agents from the local Springfield branch.
That night the citizens of Mattoon, in a panic, started to gather into vigilante groups with the intent to patrol the streets at night. However, back at the police station, despite the group’s presence on the streets, numerous calls were still coming in reporting sightings and attacks. None of these encounters produced any evidence and later Chief Cole chalked many of the calls up to “nerves”.
The paper, however, reported a very different story the next day. The headline read.
“Mad Anesthetist Strikes Again! – Visits 2 More Homes in City During Night”
The story went on to say.
“The “Anesthetic Prowler” who for a week has struck terror in the hearts of Mattoon residents, visited at least two more homes in this city Wednesday night and added two more victims, both women, to his growing list.”
If anything the paper downplayed the anesthetist’s activities on September 6th as there were actually up to seven reports that night. At 10 PM, Laura Junken was retiring to her small apartment situated at the rear of the “Big 4” restaurant. As she entered her bedroom, she noticed a strange smell in the air that she described as “a cheap perfume”, she then realized she had left her window open all day. Soon, she felt the familiar effects of the anesthetic, as nausea washed over her and paralysis started to set it.
Then an hour later Glenda Hendershott who was only 11 and the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Hendershott suddenly became ill. Her worried parents called the police and reported that they had spotted a prowler outside their daughter’s window just before the attack.
Next, at midnight, Mrs. Ardell Spangler woke up to “sickly sweet” fumes which brought on immediate nausea that made her lips and throat burn.
An hour after that, at 1 am, Fred Gable was the next to become ill. He woke up feeling extremely ill and vomited for nearly two hours straight. His neighbor, Robert Daniels, reported seeing a “tall thin man” running through his yard away from Fred Gable’s house.
The evening of attacks didn’t end in Mr. Daniel’s yard. The police responded to a report from Mr. Daniel Spohn, Mrs. Codie Taylor, and Miss Maxine and Francis Smith who all experienced the effects of gas poisoning. This was the first of four attacks on Francis Smith and her sister, who would report attacks four nights in a row. Francis was the principal at the Mattoon Grade School and she and her sister lived together. They were both attacked for a second time the very next night. They reported “a blue smoke vapor” that came through their window. Terrified, all they could do was lay there as the paralysis crept in.
That Friday saw a stinging editorial in the local paper in which they asserted that the local police force was not taking the reports seriously and being too dismissive. The paper read. “One of the principal difficulties throughout has been that the whole matter was taken too lightly. It was easy to say, “Oh, it’s just imagination!” and shrug the whole thing off with a disdainful air.”
The paper also printed some editorials that expressed the general feeling of local town members. One read.
“We used to think things only happened to those who were out on the streets or somewhere else outside of their homes, but now there is no safety even in one’s own home with all the doors locked. There are hundreds of women here that are left at home at night, alone, while their husbands are at work and in the service. I know one service man’s wife who has a lovely home which she wanted to keep so her husband could come home to it, but since so many terrible things have happened, she is afraid to stay there with her little son. She is fortunate enough to have parents with whom to stay, but those who have nowhere else to go just live in fear each night, waiting for daylight to come.”
Richard Piper, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, also held a press conference in which he stated.
“The perpetrator of the attacks must be mentally unbalanced but he is intelligent, possibly brilliant. The man is a nut.”
This certainly did nothing to calm the fears of the local citizens.
The attacks began again early on Friday. Leroy Cook, a taxi driver, called and reported smelling gas so strongly on Dewitt Avenue, that he had to pull his car over. The odor seemed to be coming from the home of C.W. Driskell. The police responded but smelled no gas and found nothing unusual upon entering the premises.
Two hours later, in Western Mattoon, far from the city center, Genevive Haskell, her son, her friend Mrs. Russell Bailey, and her sister Katherine Tuzzo had all gathered together for safety. Later that night all members of the house awoke at the same time with vomiting, stomach ache, and parched mouth and throat.
Later that night Francis Smith and her sister were attacked for the third time. She again reported smelling a “flower-like” gas and heard a “strange buzzing” noise that she believed came from “the madman’s gassing apparatus.”
There was another series of attacks Saturday and Sunday night. The first was reported by Louis Hardin who called police to report an attack on his sister-in-law who was at his house-sitting for his son. Again the gas was reported as coming through a window and caused nausea and throat burning.
The second attack that night was taken by County Sheriff Leroy Boggs. The Sheriff responded to a call out to a rural farm about 4 miles south of town. The farm belonged to Stewart Smith. Smith, his family, and a houseguest reported they had escaped a gas attack and gone to a neighbor’s house. The Sheriff’s Office responded and found that a window screen had been slashed.
The next attack that night was reported by Mary and Kenneth Fitzpatrick. They lived back in Mattoon and reported being overcome by gas as they were playing cards late into the evening.
The final attack that night was the fourth attack on Francis and Maxine Smith. Surely, the gasser must have had some strong feelings towards the Smith sisters to attack them four times in four nights.
Mattoon was becoming a fiasco and the level of panic was nearing frenzy levels. Despite armed police and citizens patrolling the city at night, the attacks seemed to escalate. It is not surprising that faith in the local Police was fading as they didn’t seem to have any clues to whom or what was causing all this commotion. The local paper did not help the situation at all. They stoked the fire by renaming the attacker The Mad Gassers and exaggerating the number of people who had been attacked. The citizens of Mattoon were desperate for answers.
The newspapers on Monday morning printed the headline.
“Many Prowler Reports, Few Real.”
The report read.
“Two women, one residing in the 2300 block of Champaign Avenue, the other in the 800 block of Moultrie Avenue, were taken to Memorial Hospital for treatment and examination after they told police they had been attacked by the gas. The former woman claimed the attack had occurred at her home, the other said she smelled the gas as she sat in a theater. A physician who examined both women said that he could find no evidence of poison gas or other chemical and that in his opinion both suffered from extreme nervous tension. Both women were given sedatives and taken to their homes.”
The doctor’s examination prompted police Commissioner Thomas Wright to make an unprecedented move. From that point forward he ordered that anyone calling the police concerning a gas attack must submit to the scrutiny of a doctor’s examination immediately following any official report.
It’s not surprising that the news headline the next day read.
“No More Genuine Attacks of “Anesthetist Reported”
Were there in fact no more attacks, or were the victims holding back their accounts due to the fact that they were now scared at being examined and labeled lunatics themselves by the police and the paper?
The final reported and last attack of The Mad Gasser occurred on September 13th. This attack was probably the most unusual. Mrs. Bertha Bench and her son Orville were attacked in their home. Reporting that the attacker was a woman who was dressed in a man’s clothing and who sprayed gas into their bedroom window. The next morning, footprints that appeared to have been made by a woman’s high-heeled shoes were found in the dirt below the window.
What is so strange is that after this attack The Mad Gasser of Mattoon simply disappeared and was never seen or heard of again. As quickly as it all started, it ended. Making many people wonder if it even happened, and while the identity of the attacker still remains a mystery there are a few theories that may explain what happened and who the attacker may have been.