The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: The chilling story of ‘phantom anesthetist’

During the mid-1940s, there was panic all over in Mattoon, Illinois. Many residents stayed inside their homes for the fear of an intruder that could not be seen, but carried a terrible weapon. They became helpless, paralyzed and unable to request for assistance. The person or people believed to be responsible for the attacks are notoriously known as the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” or the “Phantom Anesthetist.”

The Mad Gasser Of Mattoon

The Mad Gasser Of Mattoon

In the autumn of 1944, some residents of the Mattoon town reported walking in the dead of night to the smell of a strange and sickly odour. They all experienced different symptoms such as paralysis of the legs, coughing, nausea and vomiting, while others claimed to see the intruder pumping gas inside their homes over an open window.

The mysterious intruder known as the “Mad Gasser” was never caught in Mattoon, his victims were never clearly diagnosed, and no one died or had serious medical consequences. Furthermore, the Mad Gasser’s intentions were never revealed.

Mattoon, however, is a small manufacturing town found at the two railroads junction in the middle of the endless Midwestern agriculture plains. The town’s encounter with the Mad Gasser started on August 31, 1944. More than two dozen separate cases of gassings were reported to police over the span of two weeks, in addition to many more reported sightings of the suspected assailant.

The First Attack Of The Mad Gasser Of 1944

The first of the 1944 Mad Gasser incidents occurred at a house on Grant Avenue, Mattoon, on August 31, 1944. Mr. Urban Raef was awakened during the early hours of the morning by a strange odour. He felt nauseated and weak, and suffered from a fit of vomiting.

Suspecting that he was suffering from domestic gas poisoning, Raef’s wife tried to check the kitchen stove to see if there was a problem with the pilot light, but found that she was partially paralyzed and unable to leave her bed.

Later that night or the morning of the following day, a similar incident was also reported by a young mother living close by. She was awakened by the sound of her daughter coughing but found herself unable to leave her bed.

The Mad Gasser And The Kearney Family

The next day, on September 1, there was a third reported incident at Marshall Avenue of Mattoon. The encounter involved Mrs. Aline Kearney, a young mother who woke up late in the night to a strange, sweet odour. Her daughter who was also with her in bed woke up complaining about something similar.

At first, Mrs. Kearney dismissed the smell, believing it to be from flowers outside of the window, but the odour soon became stronger and she began to lose feeling in her legs. Soon she discovered that her legs were absolutely paralyzed.

It was around 11:00 PM, Bert, Mrs. Kearney’s husband, had been out late that night, working his midnight taxi shift. So Mrs. Kearney called her sister, Mrs. Ready, who was just visiting and her sister also smelled the same odour coming from an open window.

Immediately, they called the assistance of the police, who discovered nothing, but found that Mrs. Kearney had recovered from the paralysis. At around 12:30 AM, Mr. Bert Kearney, returned home to find an unidentified man hiding close to one of the house’s windows. The man fled and Mr. Kearney was unable to catch him. Again the police were called, but found nothing.

After the attack, Mrs. Kearney reported suffering from a burning sensation on her lips and throat for a few days, sometimes she even felt a sharp pain in her chest, which were all attributed to the effects of the gas.

Initially, it was suspected that robbery was the primary motive for the attack. At the time of the incidents, the Kearneys had a large sum of money in the house, and it was surmised that the prowler could have seen Mrs. Kearney and her sister counting it earlier that evening.

But in the days following the Kearney attack, there were half a dozen similar attacks, though none of the purported victims were able to provide a clear description of the attacker(s), and no clues were found at the scene of the attacks.

Appearance Of The Mad Gasser

Most contemporary descriptions of the Mad Gasser are based on the testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Kearney of 1408 Marshall Avenue, the victims of the first Mattoon case to be reported by the media. They described the gasser as being a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap.

Another report, made some weeks later, described the gasser as being a female dressed as a man. The Gasser had also been described as carrying a flit gun, an agricultural tool for spraying pesticides, which he purportedly used to expel the gas.

Here’s How Did The Official Investigations Conclude The Incident

To this day, it’s not clear who plotted the attacks. Though, police remained skeptical of the accounts throughout the entire incident. They never found any physical evidence, and many reported gassings had simple explanations, such as spilled nail polish or odours emanating from animals or local factories. Victims made quick recoveries from their symptoms and suffered no long-term effects.

Therefore, the official investigations have been finally rejected, as the attacks are widely considered to be a case of mass hysteria that was fed by the local newspapers. However, others maintain that the Mad Gasser actually existed, or that the perceived attacks have another explanation, such as poisonous pollution from the industrial plants and factories that were nearby the area of the attacks in Mattoon.