The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois

Who Was The Mad Hatter of Mattoon?

The answer is still a mystery.  The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was a series of alleged gas attacks targeting the residents of Mattoon, IL.  The incidents began on August 31, 1944, and lasted two weeks.  In total, up to 34 individuals were attacked.

The mad gasser. Photograph of Mattoon, IL circa 1940.

A photograph of Mattoon, IL circa 1940.

The Start of the Gas Attacks

mad gasser newspaper article

A September 2, 1944 newspaper article from Mattoon, IL.

On the last night of August of 1944, Urban Raef awoke to a strange smell in his bedroom that soon became so overpowering that he became physically ill. He woke his wife, who wondered if there might be a problem with the pilot light in the kitchen. She decided to get up and check but found that she couldn’t move her legs.

Thankfully, these symptoms went away in a short time. The pilot light, she found, was working perfectly.

Nearby, that same night, a woman wanted to check on her daughter but found that she, too, was paralyzed from the waist down.

The following day there was a similar episode involving a woman who lived nearby.

These three events were brought to the attention of the police and the local newspaper. The police found nothing. The newspaper found a great story.

Police made incident reports of the alleged gassings but found no clues. There was nothing suspicious on the grounds of the houses and all traces of any alleged gas was gone.

The newspapers carried detailed articles about the three incidents, citing such specifics as the smell of the gas and the explicit symptoms experienced by the victims. The newspaper postulated that there was some kind of madman out in the dark, creeping around and pumping poison gas into people’s homes. This phantom would be known as ‘The Mad Gasser.”

Over the next few days, more and more people reported to the police (and to the newspaper) that they had been the victim of a similar attack: a sickly-sweet smell and then burning sensations, nausea, and partial paralysis.

The Police Investigation

The police continued to investigate all these incidents and continued to come up empty-handed.

On September 5, the police seemed to have caught a lucky break. A couple arrived at their home late at night and found on their front porch a square of white cloth. The woman reached down and put the cloth to her nose and, after smelling it, experienced an immediate burning in her mouth and throat. Police investigated and found a skeleton key and tube of lipstick nearby. The woman recovered and the police wondered if the couple may have interrupted the Gasser in the middle of an attack.

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The white cloth was analyzed (and found to be benign and free of any odor), and the skeleton key and lipstick tube were inspected, but no solid leads were produced.

The map locations of the Mad Gasser attacks in Mattoon, IL.

The map locations of the Mad Gasser attacks in Mattoon, IL. Image Credit: Eastern Illinois University

Throughout early September, residents of Mattoon were frequently calling the police to report similar gas attacks. Police would answer each call but would come no closer to a conclusion for the situation. Frustrating clues that led nowhere included cut window screens, opened windows, and unfamiliar female footprints outside some of the houses.

The panic escalated. Mattoon residents, feeling that the law enforcement officials were not acting quickly enough, set up armed patrol groups, which the police strongly urged to disband. By this time the FBI was brought in, but even they could not come to a concrete decision about what was happening in Mattoon.

The police were stumped. There was no motive. No house had been robbed, nobody had been physically assaulted, and nobody had been kidnapped after being immobilized.

What the Police Believed

On September 12, the police announced their investigation findings: they believed there had been no actual attacks and that the entire series of “crimes” was due to mass hysteria fueled by the initial reports in the local newspaper. They suggested that any form of gas going into a citizen’s home was due to accidental chemical emissions from a nearby industrial facility.

This explanation seemed to satisfy some, although it would not explain the white cloth, skeleton key and lipstick tube of that one incident. Although it could be argued that these three items were not necessarily linked to a gas attack and may have had nothing to do with the Gasser hysteria. The police “solution” also dodges the logic that workers at the said facility should have been afflicted with similar symptoms had there been escaping gas from the facility. No such reports on the facility workers were reported. Additionally, this police explanation does not explain the initial three episodes that occurred *before* the newspaper first reported the story.

But the police announcement seemed to have done the trick. On the 13th the last supposed Gasser attack was reported. A woman stated she saw the Mad Gasser outside her house and described a woman dressed in men’s clothing.

Not Everyone Is Convinced

Sociologists and the like have pored over newspaper accounts and police records since 1944 and are still skeptical. Was there a woman out there in the dark with some kind of paralyzing gas? Or did the power of suggestion cause residents to experience symptoms they had read about in the newspaper? Could a nearby chemical plant have leaked some kind of toxic substance?

The answer will probably never be known, but it could be any of these suppositions, or a combination thereof.

What is known is that by mid-September all events related to the Mad Gasser stopped and Mattoon went back to its normal small-town existence.

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries