It was September 1, 1944, the fifth anniversary of the opening salvos of World War 2. American GIs had been fighting their way across northern France for three months. Across the nation, the press churned out lurid accounts of Nazi rocket attacks on London, and comic books depicting Nazi thugs battling super heroes with space age weapons were sold at dime store counters. In Peoria, Illinois, the search for a German prisoner of war who had escaped from nearby Camp Ellis ended that afternoon in a local tavern.
At a nondescript home on Marshall Avenue in Mattoon, Elsie Kearney and her three year old daughter Dorothy readied for bed. Her sister, Martha, occupied the living room and two young children were asleep in other parts of the house. As Mrs. Kearney lay with her eyes closed, she began to smell an overpowering, sweet scent she assumed came from the flowers outside her window. It seemed harmless at first, until she felt her lower body go limp and her legs became unresponsive. “Martha!” she screamed. “Martha, help!”
After a few agonizing moments in which the paralysis slowly climbed up Mrs. Kearney’s body, her sister burst into the room. “What’s wrong?” she asked, frantically throwing on the light.
Mrs. Kearney explained that she was unable to move from the bed. Martha noticed the unusual smell, determined it must be coming from outside, and closed the window. She then rushed over to a neighbor’s house and told him to call the police. The neighbor, Mr. Karl Robertson, searched the Kearney’s yard, but failed to find anything out of the ordinary. The police had similar results, and Mrs. Kearney recovered the use of her limbs shortly before midnight. Her daughter was also ill, and remained so until the next morning.
Meanwhile, a friend had gone out to find Mr. Kearney, who was working late as a taxi driver. He was unable to return home until 12:30, when he noticed a man lurking near his wife’s bedroom window. He later described the man as tall, wearing dark clothes and a knit cap. He shouted and rushed toward the intruder, but the intruder disappeared into the darkness. Mattoon police officers were again summoned to the home, but found nothing.
Unbeknownst to the Kearneys and the press, a Mr. and Mrs. Urban Reef had suffered a similar attack the previous evening. The Daily Journal-Gazette proclaimed that an “anesthetic prowler” was on the loose, and that Mrs. Kearney and her daughter were his first victims. Their symptoms were consistent with exposure to either chloroform or diethyl ether, both organic compounds that depress the central nervous system and produce a loss of consciousness. Chloroform is the more hazardous of the two, and has a sweet smell consistent with Elsie and Martha’s description. It can be dispersed into the air using a hand pumped insecticide sprayer that was commonly used at the time.
The phantom anesthetist struck again five nights later, after many believed he fled Mattoon for parts unknown. The next “attack” was much less direct and involved a rag that was left on the front porch of the Cordes residence on N. 21st Street. Mr. and Mrs. Cordes arrived home at 10pm and entered through the back door. As they were winding down for the evening in their living room, possibly listening to radio news reports from Europe, they noticed through the screened door a white cloth basking in the soft glow of the porch light. Curious, Mrs. Cordes picked up the cloth, which she described as being larger than a man’s handkerchief, and smelled it.
A jolt suddenly shot through her body, and her throat burned. She dropped the cloth. Her husband helped her back into the house and called a doctor, then the police. Mrs. Cordes began to spit up blood. The next day, she showed her injuries to a reporter from the Daily Journal-Gazette, who wrote that “her throat and mouth were so badly burned by the fumes she inhaled that blood came from the cracks in her parched and swollen lips and her seared throat and the roof of her mouth.”
As in the previous incident, police found no evidence of the prowler, but they did pick up and later release a man in the neighborhood who claimed to be lost. Mrs. Cordes said that she had found a well-worn skeleton key and a used lipstick container on the sidewalk.
Over the next three days, dozens of people—mostly women—reported strange smells, paralysis, and other unusual occurrences they attributed to the “mad gasser.” Panic seized the town, but as time went on the police department became increasingly skeptical. On Tuesday, September 12, Chief of Police C. E. Cole issued a statement in which he blamed the reports on mass hysteria resulting from odors emitted by local industrial plants. “Chemicals used in coloring leather, bleaching broom straw and cleaning clothing have fumes which may have been carried to any part of the city by changing winds,” he said.
Representatives of Mattoon industry responded by denying that any such gasses had escaped from their factories. Their employees had not reported becoming sickened that month, nor had there been one instance of sickening in the previous four years. Furthermore, the State Department of Health had inspected the factories and said there was no possibility of chemical vapors escaping “in any amount of concentration that would even closely approximate a toxic condition.”
Never-the-less, mass hysteria fueled by the climate of the Second World War has been given as the official explanation for the “phantom anesthetist” ever since. But mass hysteria did not paralyze Mrs. Kearney, sicken her daughter, and make Mrs. Cordes’ throat bleed. Mr. Kearney did not see mass hysteria lurking outside of his wife’s bedroom window. Despite the lack of concrete evidence pointing to any particular suspect, the reality of these events cannot be disputed.
In his book The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria (2003), Scott Maruna theorized that the attacks, at least some of them, were real and were perpetrated by a University of Illinois chemistry student named Farley Llewellyn, who was disgruntled by the treatment he received at the hands of his peers. Llewellyn grew up in Mattoon, and Maruna discovered that several of the victims lived near his home and had attended high school with him.
Were the strange attacks in Mattoon in September 1944 an act of revenge, or were they caused by over active imaginations fed by years of stories of bizarre Nazi plots and chemical weapon attacks? The victim’s testimony, it seems, overwhelmingly points to a human perpetrator, but without more concrete evidence, it is unlikely that a perpetrator will ever be found. One thing is certain: the residents of Mattoon kept their windows closed for a long time.