The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mystery of the ‘Mad Gasser of Mattoon’ who terrorized an Illinois town

The water tower and Railway Express Agency Building in Mattoon, Ill., shown in 2013. (Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons)
5 min

For the town of Mattoon, Ill., panic set in quickly.

On the first night of September 1944, a young mother of two went to bed alongside her 3-year-old daughter. Aline Kearney’s husband was out on his taxi route, but her sister and nephew kept her and the kids company that evening.

As in much of the United States, anxiety was high in this town of around 15,800 as World War II raged overseas. Many of Mattoon’s able-bodied men had joined the fight, and it was up to a woefully understaffed police force to maintain order. It could not.

“I first noticed a sickening, sweet odor in the bedroom, but at the time thought that it might be from the flowers outside the window,” Kearney later told police and reporters. “However, the odor grew stronger and I began to feel a paralysis of my legs and lower body.”

Kearney screamed for her sister, who raced to the open bedroom window. A neighbor called the police, but there were no signs of a prowler. Kearney’s husband returned home later and spotted a suspicious figure standing at their window. He was unsuccessful in apprehending the suspect but described the man as tall and dressed in dark clothing with a tightfitting cap.

The next day, Aline Kearney’s story ran on the front page of Mattoon’s Journal Gazette under the headline “ ‘Anesthetic Prowler’ on Loose.” Kearney and her daughter were labeled as the prowler’s “first victims,” but other cases would soon arise.

Urban Raef, a sheet-metal worker whose brother had died in Normandy that July, reported that he and his wife had been attacked the night before the Kearneys. Awaking around 3 a.m., Raef recalled feeling ill yet unable to move as fumes poured in through his open bedroom window. Raef’s was one of four such accounts that appeared in the Sept. 5, 1944, edition of the Journal Gazette, with two cases involving children who became violently ill.

While various sightings of men matching the prowler’s description were reported to police that Labor Day weekend, no physical evidence of his existence had been discovered. That was, until the night of Sept. 5.

Returning home around 10 p.m., Carl and Beulah Cordes noticed a white cloth pressed against their screen door. Beulah grabbed the fabric, brought it to her face without thinking, and inhaled. She was struck with a sudden feeling of paralysis, and her throat was so badly burned that blood poured from her mouth.

On the sidewalk near the Cordes couple’s front porch, a well-worn skeleton key and a tube of lipstick were discovered. Local officials called for assistance from the Illinois Department of Public Safety.

As dozens of reports of the “Mad Gasser” continued to come in, panic set in across Mattoon. Roving bands of townspeople armed with shotguns and pistols stalked the community at night. Women carried bats and clubs whenever leaving the house. Residents began staying with friends rather than sleeping alone, and state investigators arrived to aid in the search.

One week after news of the alleged gassings began to spread, the editorial staff of the Journal Gazette strongly criticized city officials’ handling of the case. In addition to writing that the community’s police force was understaffed by half, the newspaper’s editorial board claimed that political infighting had hampered this and other investigations.

“We suppose it is natural for the pride of policemen to be stung a bit when a crime is committed,” read a Sept. 8 editorial. “For this reason, there has been a tendency in Mattoon police circles recently to conceal from the public the fact that certain crimes have occurred.”

After days of bedlam, five squads of Illinois state police were ordered to Mattoon to assist in patrols. With public opinion of the investigation dwindling and fears on the rise, Mattoon Chief of Police C.E. Cole declared the case a “mistake from beginning to end” and looked to place the blame elsewhere.

“We have found that large quantities of carbon tetrachloride are used in the war work done at the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co. plant, and that has an odor which could be carried to all parts of the city as the wind shifts,” Cole told the public.

The police chief quickly walked back his comments. Atlas officials announced that police had not inspected the plant and that no factory workers had suffered any sort of sickness due to fumes.

As an entire community sought a culprit, staff at the Journal Gazette wrote, “There are two principal reasons why he was not caught. One is that our police failed to take the case seriously enough at first. The other is that when the police finally decided there was ‘something to it,’ mass hysteria and outside interference combined to make their efforts unsuccessful.”

With no arrests made and reports of attacks drying up, authorities were divided on whether the gasser ever existed. Although convinced of the credibility of some of the accounts at the time, State’s Attorney William Kidwell later declared the Mad Gasser to be a wave of mass hysteria fueled by a Journal Gazette reporter with a vivid imagination.

Even though a serial gasser was never identified, the story of the “Mad Anesthetist of Mattoon” spread across the world. Locals soon began receiving messages from their loved ones in the Pacific theater and India inquiring about the Mad Gasser.

Pfc. James Arend, stationed in England, wrote to his mother in Mattoon to say that a British newspaper had picked up the story from his Midwestern hometown that seemed like “something out of a dime novel.” From across the world in the midst of a global conflict, Arend was met with the news that his hometown had fallen into chaos, all due to what he described as “a nut who went about in Mattoon with a spray gun knocking out his victims with a strange gas.”