Towards the end of World War II, specifically in 1944, the small town of Mattoon, Illinois came under attack by a lunatic. Or perhaps this was a case of mass hysteria? Who was the 'Mad Gasser' of Mattoon?
For almost two weeks, the town’s police department received dozens of reports from terrified residents that a mysterious prowler, dressed entirely in black, was haunting the streets and squirting an unspecified gas into the faces of victims. One person described the mysterious felon as wearing a strange metal helmet or mask, while another spoke of a Bigfoot-type creature.
On the same night, another woman living nearby reported a similar incident. After being awakened by the sound of her young daughter coughing, she found herself paralyzed and was unable to get out of her bed to check. Another couple also reported being awakened by a nauseating gas smell and feeling paralyzed.
The local newspaper, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, sensationalized the story...describing the Kearney incident with the headline: "Anaesthetic Prowler on the Loose". Along with describing the reported symptoms, the newspaper story speculated on the type of anaesthetic that had been sprayed into the house. Robbery was given as the prowler's likely motive for targeting the house. Over the course of nine days after the story was published, more than twenty-five incidents involving twenty-seven women and two men were reported to the police. All of the complainants described being sprayed with an unknown gas. The symptoms they described included burning mouth sensations, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, and difficulty walking.
A few days later on September 5th, Mrs. Carl Cordes reported finding a small wet cloth on her porch, and when she picked it up she was overcome by an odor:
It was a feeling of paralysis," she reported, "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.
Police soon began to receive reports of several attacks each night. Many victims reported a tall figure dressed in black fleeing from their property, as well as blue vapors and buzzing sounds. The Gazette continued its coverage as people throughout the country read of the events unfolding in Mattoon. Soon, large groups of armed citizens were roaming the town at night, following any police cars that were speeding off to investigate another attack. Police officers were ordered to start arresting the chasers, and tensions mounted.
Various newspapers across the country picked up on the story which only reinforced the hysteria. The Chicago Herald-American published on September 10th that:
Groggy as Londoners under protracted aerial blitzing, this town's bewildered citizens reeled today under the repeated attacks of a mad anesthetist who has sprayed a deadly nerve gas into 13 homes and has knocked out 27 victims. Seventy others dashing to the area in response to the alarm, fell under the influence of the gas last night. All skepticism has vanished and Mattoon grimly concedes it must fight haphazardly against a demented phantom adversary who has been seen only fleetingly and so far has evaded traps laid by city and state police and posses of townsmen.
Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria even goes so far as to identify Farley's chemical as tetrachlorethane, a chemical with all the properties to induce the symptoms reported in the gassings. Farley was eventually detained and spent the rest of his life in the State’s lunatic asylum. Though there was no proof that he was the culprit, most people in the town were convinced that Farley was the 'Mad Gasser.'
On September 13th, eight days and three dozen victims later, the reports of attacks abruptly halted. Investigators were at a complete loss for an explanation. Careful searches found no chemical evidence of harmful gasses, and all of the victims were completely free of any lingering symptoms.
The small town of Mattoon had found unwanted and everlasting fame as the location of one of the world’s best known outbreak of mass hysteria.
Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria
Illinois Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff (Curiosities Series)
Fate Magazine, February 1972: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon (Vol. 25, No. 2)