Let’s face it folks: this world is a bizarre place. Like it or not, there are many things that go on for which there are no real explanation. I’m not only referring to things that lie in the realm of the supernatural or paranormal (although those sort of things are certainly included). Sometimes, perhaps most times, the unexplained lies in realms more mundane. Take, for instance, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.
A series of strange attacks, separated by hundreds of miles and eleven years, happened in Botetort Country Virginia and Mattoon, Illinois between December 1933 and February 1934, and August and September of 1944 respectively.
In each instance, victims reported smelling a sweet odor and then subsequently exhibiting symptoms of nausea, light-headedness, vomiting, partial paralysis of the legs, and swelling in the mouth and throat. The symptoms persisted for varying lengths of time but usually there were no long lasting effects.
Several witnesses in both times and places reported one or more people fleeing the scenes of the gassings. The Mad Gasser was reported to be a tall man in black with a tight black cap. Alternatively “he” was said to be a woman dressed as a man. Some physical evidence was uncovered by the police, namely women’s footprints on a couple of different scenes, a skeleton key, a tube of lipstick, and an automobile crank. Further, in more than one victim’s home they found where the assailant had slit screen doors, pulled out nails, or otherwise forced an opening through which to pump in the gas.
Only one suspect was ever investigated, but he was released later when more attacks occurred while he was in custody (usually a good indication you have the wrong guy). The police were baffled in both cases, and in both cases the gassings spread to the countryside as hoaxers and hysteria propagated the mischief along surrounding highways and byways. Police eventually declared that while there probably was really a Mad Gasser, most of the cases were simply hysteria. Later they just said that the whole incident was nothing but hysteria.
The police eventually stopped all investigation and called the whole deal a hoax, claiming that in Mattoon at least the symptoms were caused by fumes from a nearby plant (it might be good to note the fact that at this time the gassings in Virginia were not widely known.) Social scientists labeled the business as mass hysteria – in fact Mattoon is literally a case study in mass hysteria – and considered the matter closed.
As for the attacks? After 1944 they ceased, and the Mad Gasser never resurfaced again.
To this day nobody can really say what happened during those incidents way back when. So naturally all sorts of bizarre explanations have cropped up. Some claim the Mad Gasser is some sort of paranormal entity. Some claim he is even an alien. I think it’s pretty safe to discount those right off hand: paranormal entities by their very definition are unexplained, and using something unexplained to explain something explains nothing. As for aliens? Yeah, they probably exist but they probably aren’t visiting us here.
So with the more crackpot theories out of the way we’re left to muddle a more mundane explanation out of the bizarre events. Social scientists claim mass hysteria is responsible for the whole ordeal. I don’t think that’s entirely the explanation, although it can probably explain a large part of the attacks, especially the attacks later in each episode. However, early in the attacks there were credible eyewitnesses who reported seeing figures fleeing from sites of attacks, without having any knowledge at that time that an attack took place. That and mass hysteria doesn’t slit window screens or pull nails out of window frames. Nor does it leave footprints or lipstick canisters behind.
I think it’s reasonable to assert that one or more persons were involved in the mischief that occurred on both occasions. And it is reasonable to say that from a core of genuine attacks a wave of copycats and hysteria rippled outward until the phenomena petered to nothing.
That being said, this case makes no sense. Nothing was stolen from any victim’s house. Nobody was killed, and nobody even was injured in the long term. You would think if someone went through the effort to sneak around and gas a place they would want something tangible from it. The attacks have no motive. Folks at the time guessed the person or persons must be insane, maybe a WWI vet who was gassed in the trenches, but you would think they’d use Chlorine gas or something deadly poisonous, not something that merely caused discomfort.
Unless the aim of the attacks was to cause panic, in which case it did a good job of that. The pattern does remind me of the pattern you see from serial killers. Often serial killers will have a spate of killings, but then go dormant for awhile. This could be because they’re sick, in jail, in a mental hospital, or any number of reasons. Then they will go back on the prowl. The Mad Gasser has a similar profile, and an 11 year dormancy isn’t unheard of for a serial killer, but if the intent was to kill the Gasser was pretty bad at it.
All in all the Mad Gasser of Mattoon is one of the more bizarre criminal cases I’ve ever come across. It’s kind of creepy to think of someone sneaking up to your house in the night and pumping some unknown gas in through your window. But this really doesn’t have much of a creep factor as a strangeness factor. It makes pretty much no sense.
Hysteria, aliens, or a deranged individual: I really don’t think we’ll ever know exactly who the Mad Gasser is.