In late 1944, the unlikely small town of Mattoon, Illinois was the setting for one of the most interesting unexplained crimes that the United States had ever seen.
During the two weeks between August 31 and September 13 of that year, there were over 20 reports of citizens being temporarily paralyzed by a mysterious odor. The odor, or “gas”, was often accompanied by sightings of a tall, dark man believed to be the assailant. The press later identified this person as “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon”.
Founded less than 100 years previous to the attacks, Mattoon has a rich railroad history and has seen many famous civil war icons passing through on their way to shape modern America. Here is a map of Mattoon during this time period.
The reports told of a sweet smelling odor that was almost instantly followed by weakness of the knees or total paralysis. Even to this day, it is still not known what gas (if any) was being described.
The first Mad Gasser attack occurred on August 31, 1944 at the home of Urban Raef on Grant Ave. Mr Raef said that he was awakened in the early morning by a strange odor. The odor reportedly made him “nauseous and weak” and forced him into a fit of vomiting. Raef’s wife, thinking that her husband was suffering from domestic gas poisoning, attempted to see if there was a problem with the pilot light, but much to her horror, found that she was unable to leave her bed, temporarily paralyzed.
Interestingly enough, the very same night, a similar incident was reported by a neighbor unable to check on her coughing daughter in another room, also paralyzed and unable to leave her bed.
The next day, on September 1, a third incident occurred, from which we get our description of the Mad Gasser. A Marshall Avenue inhabitant, Mrs. Kearney, reported smelling a strong, sweet odor around 11:00 p.m. Believing the smell to be from her flowers just outside the window, she wasn’t alarmed. Soon, the odor became much stronger and, according to her most trusted advisors, Mrs. Kearney reported losing feeling in her legs. Mrs. Kearney’s sister, also present, noticed the odor and determined it was coming from the nearby open bedroom window. The pair contacted the police, but no evidence of a prowler or the smell was found.
Soon after the police left, Mrs. Kearney’s husband, Bert Kearney, returned home from his job as a taxi driver to find a strange man close to the bedroom window where the odor had reportedly come from. Mr. Kearney gave chase and the man escaped, but not before Mr. Kearney caught a good glimpse of him. Kearney’s description painted the gasser as a tall man dressed in dark clothing, wearing a tight fitting cap. After being reported in the local newspapers, this became the common description of The Mad Gasser.
The first of the physical evidence was found on September 5 at around 10:00 p.m. on North 21st street by homeowners Carl and Beulah Cordes. The pair noticed a small piece of white cloth, barely larger than a handkerchief, sitting on their porch by the door. Mrs. Cordes picked up the cloth and as soon as she smelled it, she became violently ill. Her face began to swell, her mouth and throat were overcome with an intense burning sensation and she began to vomit. Similar to the other victims, Mrs. Cordes reported partial paralysis of her legs. Strangely enough, authorities analyzed the cloth but had no explanation of the effects suffered by Mrs. Cordes.
After recovering from her temporary illness, Beulah Cordes is reported to have thought the cloth had been left on the porch to knock out the family dog, so the assailant could enter the home, unnoticed. No definitive motive for burglary was reported.
Here is a link with several other newspaper accounts worthy of a glance.
Many believe that mass hysteria was to blame for these rather paranormal events. Others say that the local industrial company Atlas-Imperial was to blame for it’s use of chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride or trichloroethylene, which were said to have been able to produce the same effect as those purportedly used by the Mad Gasser.
During World War II, many newspapers had been reporting that it was likely the Nazi’s were planning a poison gas attack against the United States civilians. Because of this, some still believe that the attacks carried out in Mattoon were Nazis testing their chemical weapons, but due to the town’s quiet history, we find this unlikely.
Another theory suspects an actual assailant as having committed some if not all of the attacks. This could have been a copycat opportunist taking advantage of recent reports or sheer coincidence.
In 2003, Scott Maruna, a former resident of the area affected by the 1944 Mattoon incident, published a book detailing his belief that the attacks were the work of a mentally disturbed local man named Farley Llewellyn.
Maruna writes that Llewellyn was an accomplished chemistry student studying at the University of Illinois, during the time of the attacks. He claims that Llewellyn, suspected by the townsfolk as being a homosexual, had both the knowledge and the motive to commit the attacks.
According to Wikipedia, Maruna goes on to state that many of the attacks were clustered around Llewellyn’s home and that the first victims had attended high school with him.
Llewellyn was indeed a suspect and was placed under surveillance, but was never charged with the gassing. Strangely, shortly after the gassing, his family had him committed to a mental institution.
Facts: 1) Sweet smelling paralyzing odor. 2) Local industrial company used chemicals that provided similar effects to claims. 3) Chemistry student suspect committed to mental hospital.