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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

Who Was Mattoon's Mad Gasser?

As the second world war raged the entire world, the residents of a small town in rural Illinois would find themselves fighting their own battle for survival against a mysterious intruder named "Mattoon's mad gasser".

Sighting Of The Mad Gasser

On account of her husband working as a local taxi driver, it wasn't unusual for Aline Kearney to be alone of an evening, with only her two young daughters for company. However, on the night of Friday the 1st of September 1944, she had felt sufficiently vulnerable to have asked her sister to come and stay with her. One of the reasons for Aline's nagging feeling of apprehension was that there was a significant amount of money on the premises, as she had cashed a check at the town's bank earlier that day.

The house was single story and with all the windows needing to be kept open to counter the stifling heat, the possibility that someone in the small town might have known of the transaction had persistently gnawed at her. A quick glance at the local newspaper that morning had done little to alleviate Aline's worries. In addition to an increase in reported prowler incidents in the area of late, the Mattoon Police were also currently engaged in the search for a German prisoner of war, who had escaped from an internment camp in nearby Peoria. But for now, there was little more she could do other than hope that Bert Kearney came home from work a little earlier.

As she laid in bed comforting one of the girls, the nervous housewife thought she noticed a slight movement outside the open bedroom window, but when she took a closer look, there was nothing to be seen. A few minutes later, however, she realized that the air in the room suddenly hung thick with a sickly sweet and overpowering odor.

As she hold herself up off the bed, Aline realized that she had lost all feeling in her legs, sending her crashing to the floor. On the bed above her, three-year-old Dorothy was sobbing, asking her mother why she too was unable to move her arms or legs. Their combined screams eventually drew the attention of Aline's sister, Martha, who immediately ran to their neighbors to summon help. At the same time, as Aline's husband pulled onto the driveway of the Kearney premises, he was horrified to see a dark silhouette unexpectedly illuminated by his headlights, apparently leaning in through their open bedroom window.

The figure was tall and thin, holding a long metal implement of some kind and wearing an odd facial apparatus. With a cry of anger, Bert leapt from his vehicle and ran at the masked intruder, who immediately fled down a nearby alley way. When he returned to the house a few minutes later, the bewildered taxi driver found police officers and ambulance men already in attendance, desperately trying to calm the distressed female occupants of the address. Within hours of the incident, the local press had already coined a nickname for this mysterious attacker: the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

Prior to the horrifying events that were to unfold there in the Autumn of 1944, the town of Mattoon's only other claims to fame were that it had served as a staging post for General Ulysses S Grant during the American Civil War and that President Abraham Lincoln had once rested there en route to a nearby political debate. Nestled in Central Illinois at the point where two major railway lines converged, by the outbreak of World War II, the town was largely inhabited by workers from the local agriculture and petrochemical industries.

"The shadowy attacker"

The shadowy attacker first struck without warning on the evening of Thursday the 31st of August, pumping an unknown substance into the bedroom of the Raef family, at an address in Grant Avenue. Mrs. Raef awoke to find her husband collapsed on the bedroom floor, vomiting uncontrollably. As she clambered out of bed to assist him, she too then fell to the floor, completely paralyzed.

It would be an hour before either of the traumatized couple could call for the authorities, who found nothing out of the ordinary at the house when they finally arrived. Since neither party involved sustained any lasting ill effects, the matter was attributed to a localized gas leak until the police switchboard suddenly burst into life the following evening.

Shortly after Bert Kearney had lost sight of the intruder, there was a further incident reported in nearby Prairie Avenue. Mrs. Ryder awoke to hear her children crying and vomiting in the next room, before becoming overpowered by a sweet-smelling mist that had drifted into her bedroom through an open window. Whilst officers were en route to her address, they were informed a third incident of a similar nature had also now been reported.

A few days later on the evening of the 5th of September, Mrs. Leonard Burrell called the police in a panic, claiming that she had just disturbed a nightmarish figure wearing a mask of some kind, trying to clamber into her house through a bedroom window. But as the attending officers had arrived, they were suddenly faced with an equally bizarre incident that was unfolding at a neighboring premises.

Directly across the road from the Burrell residence, which was also situated on North 21st Street, the Cordes family had been awoken by the family dog barking at the front door. Already on edge with what was apparently now taking place in his town at night, Carl Cordes armed himself and immediately hurried to see what was happening. When he opened the front door, he found that the external screen cover had been jimmied open, and he briefly caught sight of a dark figure fleeing off down the road.

On joining her husband on the porch, Beulah Cordes noticed, discarded on the floor, what appeared to be a metallic lipstick holder and a small white cloth. The cloth was soaking wet, apparently saturated with an unknown chemical of some kind. And when Beulah had knelt to inspect it, she had immediately suffered a violent reaction. Carl began to cry out in terror, as his wife slumped to the ground, her face visibly swollen and she vomited an unyielding mixture of bile and blood.

Once an ambulance had arrived to treat the stricken Mrs. Cordes, the attending police officers spread out to conduct an extensive search of the area around the household. Lying in the grass a short distance from the door, a small metallic item was located, which was later identified as a well-worn skeleton key.

The following night, a further six attacks were reported, mainly focused again on residences located in the North Street area. At approximately 1 am, Robert Daniels was awoken by the sound of metallic scraping coming from somewhere nearby outside his address. When he looked out of his bedroom window, he saw a tall slender figure holding an unidentified metallic implement, leaning in through the window of the house next door.

In the time it took Daniels to make his way outside, the stranger had vanished. And when he looked in through the open window, he cried out in horror. His neighbor, 60 year-old Fred Goble was lying on the floor in the middle of his kitchen, coughing and choking uncontrollably. It would be a further two hours before the effects of this attacks subsided with Goble having no memory of what had transpired. The next evening, the attacker targeted the home address of Miss Francine Smith, the principal of the local grade school. She and her sister Maxine reported having heard a strange buzzing noise on each occasion, before a thin blue vapor suddenly wafted into the room. They laid in their beds paralysed and helpless whilst the attacker returned, staring at them for a protracted period through the window, before finally disappearing into the night.

By now, the town was in the grip of hysteria, with the police unable to locate the offender, and groups of armed citizens having taken to patrolling the streets at night. Their actions did little to deter the perpetrator, who would go on to carry out a total of 25 separate attacks over a two-week period.

As FBI agents from the nearby Springfield office finally arrived in the town on the night of September the 13th, the last recorded incident took place. A frantic phone call for assistance was received that evening from a housewife named Bertha Burch. When officers arrived, she described how she had heard movement in her son's bedroom and had subsequently gone to investigate. When she entered, she discovered him lying unconscious on the floor and a mysterious figure in the act of clambering out of his bedroom window.

Was the gasser a female?

One intriguing feature about this incident is that the witness involved described the attacker as distinctly feminine in appearance, but dressed as a man. The subsequent police report would ultimately validate this somewhat unexpected development, when the investigating officers found what appeared to be high heeled footprints in the wet mud of the flower beds below the window.

But a more troubling facet of Mrs. Burch's description provides vital evidence that the attacks in Illinois were far from the first time that the Mad Gasser had plied his or her terrifying trade.

One of the most distinctive features about the Mattoon case, which has continued to invite speculation over the decades is the apparent lack of motive for the offender's actions. The gas that was used never affected the victims for longer than a two-hour period and left no noticeable side effects. The attacker also made no effort to harm or interfere with their victims in anyway once they had been incapacitated, seeming to rule out any violent intent. Nothing was stolen or destroyed and the gasser rarely even entered the building he or she targeted, choosing instead to lean inside, if circumstances dictated, via insecure doors and windows.

Whatever the desired goal may have been for these attacks, they were markedly different to others which had taken place in Florida's Lake County during the latter half of 1935, where an unknown offender had used a flit gun filled with medical anesthesia to assist in the execution of a series of domestic burglaries. The Mattoon attacks do, however, bear more than a passing resemblance to a series of bizarre incidents which occurred across rural Virginia during the festive period of 1933.

In total, 13 separate households reported to the authorities that they have been subjected to attacks from mysterious assailants, apparently in possession of gas producing equipment. The bulk of these occurrences took place in Botetourt County, and unlike the Mattoon attacks, the intruders were often disturbed or chased away before incapacitating anybody in the households they targeted. It is clear from the police reports that there were multiple offenders involved, with between two and four shadowy figures seem running away from each premises.

There are clear and obvious differences in these incidents compared to those which took place in Illinois, with the offenders using a motor vehicle to flee the scene and on occasion, trying to barricade their victims inside their homes, using uprooted trees and piles of rocks. But the fact that mask-wearing females were reported amongst their number and high-heeled footprints were again recovered from the scenes, bears a striking similarity to the Mattoon attacks.

It still remains to be seen whether these two sets of incidents can ever be successfully linked. It is entirely possible that the gas attacks in Virginia could have been the first experimental efforts of one or more serial offenders, some of whom would eventually find their way to Illinois over a decade later. It is also possible that someone in Mattoon researched the incidents in Botetourt County, before carrying out copycat attacks of their own.

This was certainly the hypothesis of author Scott Maruna who published a book about the Mad Gasser attacks in 2003. After extensive research, Maruna hypothesized that the attacker was an anti-social local misfit by the name of Farley Llewellyn. His reasoning for this was that Llewellyn was believed to have an unnatural fascination with harmful and noxious substances and that many of the households that were targeted, contained either his classmates or teachers.

This is not a conclusion that the Mattoon Police Department ever came to, citing vastly different reasons for what they believed was taking place in their town. In the aftermath of the attacks, Chief of Police C.E. Cole released a statement in which he declared that he believed the incidents were a result of accidents in chemical leakage at the nearby Atlas- imperial manufacturing plant. The company were quick to deny this accusation, citing a strong safety record and pointing to the fact that none of their employees had ever reported suffering any similar harmful effects.

Chief Cole then went one step further, declaring that he was fully of the opinion that no such "Mad Gasser" had ever actually existed and the what had taken place in the town was a classic case of mass hysteria.

There have been many famous cases of the mass hysteria phenomenon, where members of some communities have gone on to suffer undiagnosable illnesses with mysterious symptoms and side effects in the aftermath of a key trigger event. Recent examples include multiple employees of the US Embassy in Havana claiming to be the victims of inexplicable sonic attacks of some kind, and viral outbreaks of fainting at a girl's school in Malaysia.

Cole believed that the idea of phantom gas attacks within the community had been planted by the initial incident reported by Aline Kearney, and in the aftermath of that report, suddenly every odd symptom or illness in the town was attributed to this so-called mad Gasser. Rather than rationally analyzing their own individual elements of sickness, the people of Mattoon were helplessly drawn into a cycle of fear and suspicion, nervously mistaking every shadow and movement for a sinister attacker.

Was the attacker a Japanese agent?

It is important to look at the social landscape in America at the time of the Mattoon gassings. The country had been at War for three years, during which time the government and media had repeatedly told the population to be on the alert for enemy agents and invaders. Any suspicious activity was to be feared and reported. This raises another hypothetical possibility that the gasser was indeed some form of Japanese agent or sympathizer. In 1994, a biplane launched from a Japanese submarine had already successfully bombed targets in the state of Oregon. And at the time of the attacks in Mattoon, the Japanese Army were in the process of launching 10,000 firebomb balloons in the hope of causing damage to the US mainland.

And even more eccentric suggestion favored by conspiracy theorists, is that the incidents were perpetrated by the US Army itself, who were testing the effects of a new weapon on their own domestic population. Ultimately, however, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this was the case.


So what exactly did transpire in the alleyways and back streets of this rural settlement for two terrifying weeks in late 1944? Alien visitors from another planet? Japanese wonder Weapons? Or simply a little understood phenomenon where people became ill out of fear and suspicion of what may have happened to others around them? Given the physical evidence that was recovered by the authorities from the crime scenes and the very real sickness and symptoms of the victims experienced, Police Chief Cole's declaration that the matter was a case of mass hysteria seems a little disingenuous.

It is highly likely that at least one malicious attacker was stalking the streets of Mattoon, intent on causing as much chaos and confusion as was humanly possible. As scientific understanding and technological advances continue to steadily progress, it seems like mysterious happenings such as the Mad Gasser of Mattoon have become less and less prevalent. That does not mean, however, that you should not think twice about closing your bedroom windows before you go to sleep at night.


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