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In Search of the Mad Gasser

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon is often held up as a classic example of mass hysteria and has led to even more extraordinary claims of Nazi or alien involvement. But is the case really as mysterious as it seems? Jonathan Downes ventures to the American Midwest to investigate. All photographs by the author.

Some 15 years ago, as I was reading Loren Coleman’s classic book Mysterious America, one story in particular caught my imagination, and over the following months and years I became mildly obsessed with it.

In September 1944, a series of peculiar events rocked the town of Mattoon, Illinois. 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 anæsthetising gas into the faces of his victims. The reports got weirder. One described the mysterious felon as wearing a strange metal helmet or mask; another spoke of a Bigfoot-type creature.

Although the attacks petered out in mid-September, the events of that fortnight have since achieved near-mythical status. Like the incidents reported from London and Aldershot over half a century before, the real events that unfolded in Mattoon underwent a fortean sea change to become items of myth and folklore, and a local lunatic, more to be pitied than censured, became a figure of legend: if 19th-century London hatched ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, then 1940s Illinois gave birth to ‘The Mad Gasser of Mattoon’.

One fascinating aspect of these stories is that they provide some clues towards the workings of that peculiar sociocultural mechanism whereby real events become myths, one particularly prevalent in my own field of cryptozoology (most notably, perhaps, in the case of the exotic cats which now roam the wilder parts of the United Kingdom; they too have undergone this process, becoming the ‘Surrey Puma’, the ‘Fen Tiger’ or the ‘Beast of Exmoor’). The other thing we shouldn’t forget is that tales like those of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon are, quite simply, irresistible fun.

The Real Mattoon

In the summer of 2004, I found myself standing in the pouring rain outside a small, square, two-storey house boasting a neat little pocket-handkerchief garden, and the ubiquitous corrugated white ‘sidings’ seemingly found on every house in the Midwest. Clutching my camera, I took photographs of the house and the street. As I did so, I remembered a song about the Mad Gasser case that I’d written a decade before; when performing it onstage I’d often quipped that it was one of my life’s ambitions to perform the song in the very place where it was set.

What could I do? I sang my Mad Gasser song with gusto to an audience consisting of two stray cats and a dead opossum. Truly, life does not get much better than this!

But I, of course, was not the first strange visitor to this little house. On the night of 1 September 1944, at 11 o’clock, Illinois housewife Mrs Kearney was retiring to bed. As she was tucking in her three-year-old daughter, she noticed an overwhelming sweet odour. Her throat had become extremely dry, her lips were burning, and she was losing sensation in her legs. The police were called, and found nothing; but when her taxi-driver husband returned home at half past midnight, he saw a strange dark figure, dressed head to foot in black and wearing a cap, peering into windows. Mr Kearney gave chase, but the prowler was too fast for him, and escaped.

It wasn’t the only attack of the night. Mrs George Rider told her husband that during the night she had smelled a strange, sweet odour, and that their two children, Joe and Anne Marie, had become nauseous and “extremely restless”; later, she too had become light-headed and then vomited. In a statement that would prove immeasurably valuable to researchers over half a century later, she said that the gas – whatever it was – did not smell like chloroform.

Yet another attack took place that night at a house just west of Mrs Rider’s, where an unnamed young mother was woken by a sickly-sweet odour drifting through her house. She found all the children in their bedroom ill and vomiting. She was adamant that they have been perfectly well when she had put them to bed earlier that evening. 2

These weren’t, in fact, the first attacks; in a little-known incident the previous night Mr Urban Raef, feeling ill and nauseated, had woken his wife and accused her of leaving the gas stove switched on. She also felt weak and sick, but when they managed to struggle downstairs they found that while the gas stove wasn’t on, much of the house was filled with a strange, sickly-sweet odour.

It was a strange experience standing in the warm, early summer rain outside the house where, 60 years before, the Kearney family had been attacked. For the first time, I understood why generations of American tourists would fly to London and stand in awe outside a building society in Baker Street, as they searched for the authentic Sherlock Holmes experience. I may have been six decades too late, but I was looking at one of the real ‘Mad Gasser’ locations, and nobody could take that away from me.

I got back into the car and my long-suffering guide (actually, a friend’s mother) looked at me in bemusement. You could just see her thinking: these limeys are all completely crazy.

She drove me to the grocery store a few blocks away and waited while I went in. There was an elderly man behind the till. I introduced myself and, feeling slightly embarrassed about the true nature of my quest, told him I was an English journalist researching what life had been like in the mid-West during the war years.

Something I always find amusing about Americans is their idée fixe that Britain is a tiny island where everybody knows each other. The old man by the cash register was no exception; his eyes lit up, and he asked if I knew Pamela – a Land Girl from the West Midlands with whom he had enjoyed a steamy affair as a teenage soldier back in 1943. That was the third year of America’s involvement in WWII, and a large proportion of the able-bodied men of this Midwestern town was away fighting in Europe, and most of the rest of the population was employed by a large chemical factory – the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company – in the middle of town.

I asked the old man whether the neighbourhood had changed much since 1944. Much to my surprise, he told me that this part of Mattoon hadn’t really changed at all. It was still a relatively affluent middle-class area where the people went about their business and lived in bizarrely homogenous two-storey box-like houses built along neat, suburban roads. Each house – looking oddly like something out of The Simpsons – had a neatly tended front lawn, a mailbox and, more importantly when considering this case, a straight alleyway between it and its next-door neighbour. It was hard to believe that this neighbourhood could ever have been the location for anything more sinister than a church fund-raiser or a coffee morning.

I had somehow imagined the neighbourhood to be far more tumbledown and sinister than this, and had imbued the Mattoon of 1944 with all the characteristics of 19th-century Whitechapel. I couldn’t have been further from the truth – although once I had seen what the real Mattoon was like, the whole affair began to make a hell of a lot more sense.

Back in 1944, there was a lull in the storm. For four days, nothing happened. If the police department realised something extraordinary was going on, they kept it to themselves, releasing a statement that suggested the incidents had been nothing more than unsuccessful burglaries carried out by a petty criminal with an unusual modus operandi. However, as their investigations continued, they began to realise that they could be dealing with a lunatic whom the local newspaper had already dubbed “The Mad Anæsthetist”.

Against this background of slowly mounting unease, the attacks resumed on 5 September, and the small town was soon in the grip of one of the best-documented social panics of the 20th century.

When writing my own Mad Gasser song back in 1995, I had taken Loren Coleman’s account and embroidered it with an entirely fictional story – as opposed to the accepted mass hysteria explanation – of an emotionally retarded recluse who, unable to approach the object of his desires in a conventional manner, stalked her and her friends, gas canister in one hand and a knife in the other. This was pure invention on my part, but as my investigation continued I began to realise that it was nearer the truth than I could possibly have imagined.

I gritted my teeth and asked the old man whether he had heard of the Mad Gasser. Fully expecting ridicule, I was amazed by his answer. “Yeah, sure. It was that young fool Farley. His family used to own this store”.

The Last Attacks

On 5 September at about 10 o’clock in the evening, Beulah and Carl Cordes were returning home when they noticed a white cloth on the front porch. Mrs Cordes retrieved it, and noticed that it was soaked in some strange chemical. Without thinking, she sniffed it.

“When I inhaled fumes from the cloth, I had a sensation similar to coming in contact with an electric current. The feeling raced down my body to my feet, and seemed to settle in my knees. It was a feeling of paralysis,” she told the newspapers some weeks later and with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, as the weeks progressed, and as fear took hold on the streets of Mattoon, the symptoms reported by the victims became more and more extreme, and the reports of the Gasser himself more and more bizarre.

The FBI was called in on 6 September, but on that night no fewer than seven residences were attacked. A tall, thin man was seen running away from one of the houses. By now, in the words of author Scott Maruna, Mattoon was “a town on the edge of panic. Those who’d been sleeping alone in their houses – because most men were off at war – now moved in with friends and neighbours. Children were not allowed out after dark. And many an uncomfortable muggy night was spent slumbering in rooms with closed windows.”

The next night saw a triple attack on a single house, and on Friday, 8 September a scathing editorial in the local newspaper took the local police department – and its political masters – severely to task.

On Saturday, 9 September, there were four more attacks, including a repeat visit to Maxine and Frances Smith, principals of a local school, who had been attacked a few nights before.

On the Sunday, police questioned four suspects, and arrested one of them. Although there was another attack on the 11th, when a short, plump person wearing women’s shoes was seen running away from the scene of the crime, the Mad Gasser attacks were over.

It has always been implied that, like Jack the Ripper or Spring-heeled Jack, the culprit was never identified or caught, but this is simply not true. Everywhere I went in Mattoon I was told the same thing. Yes, of course they knew about the Mad Gasser – and they all knew who he was: a tragically disturbed young man called Farley Llewellyn.

Meet the Mad Gasser

I consulted Scott Maruna, an Illinois historian who is possibly the world’s foremost expert on the Gasser. Maruna had already come to the conclusion that the attacks were real, that there was no mass hysteria involved, and that with one exception there was a single culprit – Farley Llewellyn, This was the argument of Maruna’s 2003 book The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria, in which he set out the following profile of Mattoon’s Mad Gasser:

1. There was more than one Gasser, as conflicting eyewitness reports described dramatically different body shapes.

2. One of the culprits was tall while another was short and obese.

3. At least one of the culprits had an extensive knowledge of organic chemistry.

4. The culprits lived in the same general vicinity as the victims.

5. At least one of the culprits had the ability to move about town inconspicuously.

6. The culprits had reason to be angry about society in general, which was manifested somewhat randomly.

Farley Llewellyn was an exceptionally bright young man who had achieved an exemplary record at Mattoon High School and had excelled as a chemistry major at the University of Illinois, Urbana. However, he was an alcoholic and also homosexual, and when he returned from university it was obvious that he was suffering from severe personality and mental health problems. As he reached his thirties, Farley’s behaviour and mannerisms grew increasingly strange; most of the town concluded that he was “losing his mind.

Although the family had done what it could throughout Farley’s earlier years to hide from others the then-shameful truth that Farley was homosexual, their efforts were futile. The gossip mill had been spreading the news around for years, and it was to this aspect of Farley’s life that most of the town now attributed his diminishing sanity.

Farley’s family owned and operated a neighbourhood grocery store at 920 DeWitt Avenue – the very shop where I had inadvertently asked for information from the old man. Farley’s father was a well-known local philanthropist; however, his two sisters, Florence and Katherine, were known as an unattractive, unkempt and oddly reclusive pair who never married.

Farley lived in a caravan behind the family store, where he built a well-stocked laboratory and continued his chemical studies. Neighbours remember that on one occasion, just prior to the Mad Gasser attacks, there was a massive explosion and the caravan was severely damaged when one of his experiments went wrong. Farley would never reveal what had caused the explosion, but Maruna believes that he had been synthesising 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane (C2H2Cl4), which, as he writes, “is a clear, oily liquid that is extremely volatile, with a sweet, fruity odour. Breathing high levels of this can cause fatigue, vomiting, dizziness, and possibly unconsciousness”.

It seems almost certain that Farley successfully synthesised this substance and then used it to take a childish revenge on a town that had never given him the respect he felt he deserved. The first three victims were all in their mid-thirties and had been Farley’s High School classmates. Although it is now impossible to verify this, it doesn’t take too great a leap of faith to imagine that these schoolfellows of the unloved, homosexual alcoholic had done something, whether real or imagined, which Farley felt deserved revenge. Other victims can also be linked to Farley, including authority figures such as the pair of high school principals.

The most damning evidence against Farley is the fact that the attacks ended on the 11 September. Tetrachloroethane only remains stable for 16 days, and if we hypothesise that Farley managed to synthesise a quantity of it around the time of the explosion in his laboratory, then it would certainly have degraded by 11 September. Farley was arrested on the 10th, and he spent the rest of his life in the State’s lunatic asylum. The final attack, on the 11th, was reportedly carried out by a short, dumpy person wearing woman’s shoes. Could it have been a copycat attack carried out by one of Farley’s equally socially inept sisters in a vain attempt to prove her brother’s innocence?

Laying the Myth to Rest

Emboldened by my success at the grocery store, I prevailed on my guide to drive me into the middle of town, where I visited several shops and spoke to a number of the older members of the community I found there. Everybody knew of the Mad Gasser; everybody knew that it was Farley; and everybody told me that, because Farley’s father had been such a well-loved and popular member of the community, nobody had been prepared to pillory the family in public just because his son was insane. In order to protect the reputation of Farley’s family, the whole town had put up with 50 years of visiting UFO freaks, conspiracy theorists, and assorted nutcases. The town had found unwanted fame as the location of the world’s most famous outbreak of mass hysteria.

Now there were no longer any living relatives, people were prepared to talk; and several told me they were happy to do so because – at long last – the myth of Mattoon’s Mad Gasser could be laid to rest.

But what about the numerous other interpretations of the Mad Gasser story that have circulated for so long, and still find their way into the fortean literature? We’re not just talking about the mass hysteria or poison gas cloud theories– hundreds of thousands of words have been printed over the years suggesting that the Mad Gasser was an alien, a Nazi infiltrator, a rogue FBI agent, or a phantasmal gun-toting ape from another dimension.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for anyone researching strange phenomena. After all, if any of the so-called investigators who hatched the above-mentioned theories had only bothered to go into the convenience store on DeWitt Avenue to buy a pack of cigarettes, and just happened to get chatting with some locals, then it’s just possible that they would have found out the truth about poor, confused, and tragic Farley Llewellyn.

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Mad Gasser
210 Moultir Avenue, scene of consecutive attacks on 6 and 7 September
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Mad Gasser
Many citizens of modern day Mattoon knew of Farley Llewellyn's part in the Mad Gasser story
  Mad Gasser
A contemporary newspaper reports an "Anesthetic Prowler"
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1817 Grant Avenue, site of the first reported Mad Gasser attack on the night of the 31st August
Mad Gasser
The Llewellyn grocery store as it appears today
 
Author Biography
Jon Downes is director the Centre for Fortean Zoology and frequent contributor to FT. He lives in Exeter with an ever-shifting population of reptiles.

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