At the tail end of World War II, almost one year prior to the atomic blasts that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a small town in Illinois was gripped with fear. For two weeks in the summer of 1944 the mysterious mad gasser of Mattoon stalked the small town and terrorized its citizens with a mysterious gas that wafted through bedroom windows while the city slept. Mattoon is one of many towns that may have experienced mass hysteria in the middle of the WWII. This was the first foreign war that had hit America since the Revolution and everyone was on edge.
The Illinois town attacked by the Mad Gasser is just one example of a suburban community that lost its mind under stress and media manipulation...a danger almost more terrifying and self-destructive than a lone criminal could ever be. The facts about the Mad Gasser point towards a phantom that may have never existed, or whose role in the attacks may have been heavily inflated by fear. Judge for yourself while you read about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.
The Mad Gasser Stalked Mattoon
At the end of World War II the town of Mattoon, Illinois came under attack from a “gas maniac,” basically a domestic terrorist who spent their evenings pumping gas through the windows of suburban homes. Throughout August and September of 1944 the town's citizens lived in fear of dying in their sleep amidst one of the Mad Gasser's silent attacks. No one had any idea about who was running around Mattoon gassing people. Reports at that the time claimed that a "man in black" was the perpetrator and as newspaper report at the time said that the "mad anesthetist" had "been only seen fleetingly" while they were busy evading "traps laid by the city."
For one strange summer the town of Mattoon lost its mind, but this wasn't the first time something like this had happened. The gassings in Mattoon were eerily similar to a series of attacks that took place in Botetourt County, Virginia from December 1933 to February 1934. The way that the two sets of attacks mirror each other gives credence to the idea that there was someone going around the country and gassing small towns. While that may seem entirely possible right now, in the early 20th century this kind of city wide crime wave seemed like something completely out of this world.
The First Attacks Came In The Middle Of The Night
The first attack occurred on August 31, 1944, when an elderly couple awoke to the not-so-sweet smell of gas. In between retches from the bed, the husband asked if his wife would check the oven to see if he the gas was left on. When she tried to get out of bed she found that she was paralyzed, but she wasn't the only one. Another woman in the area claims that she too was paralyzed in her bed that night. This was par for the course for many of the gas attacks. One person would wake up with nausea and the next person would be stuck to their bed. The very next night a woman woke up with half her body paralyzed, but was able to scream loud enough for her neighbors to come to her rescue. The next day she woke up with her mouth and throat burning - likely from a combination of gas inhalation and screaming at the top of her lungs.
Mattoon Lost Its Mind
After news of the initial gas attacks made the papers the citizens of Mattoon went into full panic mode, likely because the paper released a story about the attacks with the headline: "Anaesthetic Prowler on the Loose." Keep in mind that this was likely the only source of news that the 16,000 people of Mattoon had. They couldn't check Twitter, or pull up an article on The Atlantic about the media driving mass hysteria. The story was filled with sensational pontifications about what the Mad Gasser wanted and what kind of gas they were using. The paper assumed that the Gasser was attempting to rob the people they gassed, and that they were using ether to put everyone to sleep. It can't be stressed enough that these were just guesses and there was no factual evidence to back up any of these claims.
Over the next two weeks more than 25 incidents involving 27 women and two men were reported to the police. People began roaming the streets in search of the Gasser and the local authorities had to call in help from the state to help keep a semblance of peace in Mattoon.
The White Cloth
On September 5, the citizens of Mattoon were deep in the throws of gasser-fever when a clue to the identity of the Mad Gasser was discovered. That night, when Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home they found a patch of white cloth on their porch. When Mrs. Cordes picked it up she noticed that it smelled like gas. After a few minutes of handling the evidence her nose and mouth became irritated and it was then that she knew that this was a gift from the Gasser. When the police searched the home they found a skeleton key and an empty tube of lipstick on the porch. They weren't sure how these items were related but they surmised that the Gasser had been trying to break when the Cordes arrived and that they scared the Gasser off. The empty tube of lipstick would only become interesting after all the details of the case came to light.