The Mad Gasser. The Anesthetic Prowler. The Phantom Anesthetist.
In the first two weeks of September, 1944, as the Allied forces were realizing their quick, easy march from the beaches to Berlin would be anything but, the Mad Gasser hunted and haunted the people of Mattoon in West-Central Illinois.
The incident began with Urban Raef and his wife on August 31st, although many newspapers incorrectly reported Mrs. Kearney the first victim. Two other Mattoon residents made similar claims that same night. On September 5th, days after the story had been spread like warm butter, two other victims reported attacks. On September 6th, SEVEN citizens said the Mad Gasser came for them.
September 5th: 8 victims
Police gathered accounts from victims and found them to be very similar, and many considered it evidence that these were committed by one attacker. One very active criminal, who flitted between homes like a butterfly and melted into the shadows. Although victims claimed to have seen the “Anesthetic Prowler,” none could give a description beyond Bert Kearney’s generic one. Dark cap. Dark clothes. Tall.
Town officials gathered in hushed, serious emergency sessions. They posted a reward for information leading to the Mad Gasser’s arrest. Police asked the FBI for help and help arrived in the form of chemists, essential to analyzing the Mad Gasser’s weapon-of-choice.
September 6th: 17 victims
The mayor considered requesting a small army of Illinois state troopers. All 15,000 Mattoon citizens slept with their lights on and thousands of rifles, shotguns, and pistols were oiled, checked, and loaded nightly. Soon small vigilante groups began patrolling the streets of Mattoon, a terrifying sight to law enforcement, but also to the Mad Gasser, who would be blown away in seconds if he put a toe outside the shadows. It was a town under siege.
September 10th: 35 victims
35 attacks, all in a radius smaller than a horse track, and only two pieces of evidence. A white square of cloth that showed no trace of gas or even chemicals and a single well-used skeleton key. No footprints or fingerprints. No traces of gas. Victims added small details to Bert Kearney’s description, claiming they saw him holding a flit gun (a pump-action pesticide gun used in gardens). Some claimed “two demon-like eyes shining out.” Footprints suddenly began appearing, although always of inconsistent size. Window screens were reported torn, as though a torn window screen was rare.
On September 11th, 1944, Police Commissioner Thomas V. Wright announced the findings of local and federal law enforcement after a tireless search lasting nearly two weeks. The long nights and endless reports, mixed with the fruitless searches, had taken a toll on the middle-aged man. The eyes beneath his round glasses were bleary with sleeplessness.
“I’m tired of being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night every night,” he said, surprising his listeners. “There’s more than one mad man in Mattoon. There’s 15,000 of them. What we’ve got here is mass hysteria.” The commissioner put up his hand, silencing the angry murmur boiling in the audience of reporters and citizenry.
“Some woman feels faint,” he said. “She tells her neighbor about it. Embroidering it. That neighbor tells another neighbor. Then another. Then you’ve got people thinking they’re being gassed all over the place. Today was the final straw.”
Earlier that day, while watching a movie at the Mattoon Theater, an unnamed woman suddenly shot up, screaming she could smell gas. “It’s him. He sprayed me,” the woman shouted and then collapsed in a fit of shivering and coughs. Not a single other patron saw or, more importantly, smelled anything. She was examined at the hospital and doctors found no sign of gassing. Just a very tired, very frightened woman. The doctor called it nerves.
Commissioner Wright narrowed his eyes at the audience, his voice sharp and final. “But I call it mass hysteria. And I have to question each and every one of them, at all hours of the night.” His anger deflated like a balloon. “Folks,” he said, “I need some sleep.”
September 12th: No victims.
There was no Mad Gasser. A few people claimed the nearby factories may have released toxic chemicals that could produce a similar effect…but not a single illness had occurred at these plants, which had been miles away from the Gasser sightings. If Bert Kearney had seen a prowler on September 1st, then it was just a coincidence. No ghosts. Nothing paranormal. Nothing extraterrestrial.
What Mattoon did have were 15,000 citizens wound tight with war worries, as they had been since late 1941. Father, sons, brothers, and uncles were fighting for their lives in places on the other side of the globe. Places with names the residents couldn’t pronounce. Scared, helpless, and sick with anxiety, broken hearted that the European front had stalled and the Pacific war had morphed into island slaughterhouses.
A case study in mass hysteria.
Academics and medical professionals consider the Mad Gasser of Mattoon a benchmark example of mass hysteria, a phenomena occurring in cohesive social groups. Shared delusions. Psycho-somatic symptoms. And no organic cause or origin. Mass hysteria is an informal term. In the 4th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the condition is known as conversion disorder.
Mass hysteria is hardly unique. Humans have thrived on this planet for two reasons. The first, we are very clever problem solvers. Second to this is our biological need for socialization. We need each other, although a small minority would claim they don’t. Herd mentality is a symptom of this. Our need for socializations means we readily mimic and adopt the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of others. Immediately after the incident, abnormal psychologists studied, analyzed, and published their paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology: “The ‘phantom anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria.” This study is, even today, is used by psychologists as a clinical benchmark for other incidents of mass hysteria.
Here’s a few you may know…”War of the Worlds” Broadcast. Most vitamins. The Salem Witch Trials. The Dancing Plague of 1518. Day-care Satanic ritual abuse. All cleansing diets. All essential oils. Dungeons & Dragons hysteria of the 1980s. The Momo Challenge. Denialism of COVID-19. Anti-vaccine hysteria. Mass shooting contagion. Magnet therapy. Et cetera.
And about 78% of what you find on social media.
Instead of individually linking news clippings of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, I created a pdf of them, which can be downloaded HERE.