Stinky Illinois: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

It turns out that iIn the mid-1940s, there was a rash of very strange calls to police in the small city of Mattoon, IL. More than a dozen people believed they were being gassed by a mystery assailant. In this episode, we talk about the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” and then chat with Comedian and Screenwriter, Jay Black!

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The Cobra Effect

Mattoon, Illinois is not a large city. It’s only about 16,000 residents and there’s not a whole lot to see there. Just a typical small midwestern town. I’ve been there. There’s a college – Lakeland College – where I’ve performed and I remember being there. But in 1944, it was the site of some strange attacks. They’ve been described as several names – “The Anesthetic Prowler,” the “Phantom Anesthetist,” and most famously, “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon.”

There’s a headline from the front page of Mattoon’s Newspaper, the Journal Gazette. It describes a strange attack from the “Anesthetic Prowler.” The story described what was the very first of these strange attacks to be reported. Aline Kearney woke up smelling something strong in her bedroom. Her husband was away on work and her sister and nephew were in her home, staying with her and her two young children. This odor was so strong that she could smell it inside the house, but assumed it was coming from outside. She described it as a sweet smell, almost like flowers. The smell kept getting stronger and stronger, and soon, she found herself unable to move, temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. She screamed for her sister and despite opening the bedroom window and looking out, they couldn’t find the source of the smell. When Aline’s husband finally returned home later that night, he found a man looking into the windows. He was described as a tall man wearing dark clothes and a “tight fitting cap.” 

Once the story was reported, others started coming forward. One of them was a husband and wife who reported the same experience – Urban Raef and his wife had been the victims of a similar experience the night before Aline Kearney. It was 3 in the morning and they reported strong fumes and temporary paralysis. In the beginning of that September, there were 4 of these cases reported in the paper. Some of the victims had even been children, who became extremely ill after smelling the fumes.

Immediately, stories started circulating as to what was causing this smell throughout town. Many people blamed one of the several industrial plants in town, the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Company. The police chief had mentioned that the smell they were smelling was most likely carbon tetrachloride, but Atlas issued a statement denying that the smell was coming from them, as they didn’t have enough of the chemical on site to produce the smell. They did mention that they had a large amount of trichlorethylene on hand, but doubted that was the cause of the smell, as every plant producing war materials at the time was using the same chemicals, and other communities would be reporting the same smell. The mystery continued. 

For at least two weeks, victims in Mattoon were reporting a strange smell followed by dizziness, coughing, nausea, and temporary paralysis of the legs. No one died, but citizens were scared. At least 26 people had been affected.

So what was going on? Was it just mass hysteria? Or was there really a “mad gasser” terrorizing the citizens of Mattoon?

As citizens were panicking about the possibility of being poisoned by something in the Mattoon, Illinois air, the FBI came to the small town and began investigating. There were very few clues. One clue was a small white cloth that had been left outside of the Carl and Beulah Cordes’s house. She had been a victim of the foul smell and had become violently ill. She said it felt like an electric shock. There was also a small, worn skeleton key and an empty tube of lipstick. It’s unknown whether or not these clues had anything to do with the attack.

When Aline Kearney had smelled the smell, she thought maybe it was the first step to a robbery. They had a large amount of money in the home. Similarly, Carl and Beulah Cordes thought it was an attempted robbery and hypothesized that the white cloth held some sort of chemical that was meant to knock out their dog. 

After these attacks, the Mattoon police were inundated with reports of attempted attacks. Everything from prowlers, to cut window screens, to suspicious footprints around homes to just unknown figures walking around in neighborhoods. The description even changed from a man to a woman, to a buzzing machine and blue vapor. At this point, the police strongly believed that they were looking at mass hysteria. Maybe something happened. Maybe there were some initial attacks, but now the community was on alert. Remember – this was 1944 – the middle of the war when everyone was already on edge. They thought maybe it was the Nazis testing chemical weapons. Yes. In Mattoon, Illinois. 

The community formed a vigilante task force to find the gasser. The police had reached a dead end – partly because of all the false alarm calls and unrelated cases being reported.

To this day, no one is exactly sure who the Mad Gasser actually was, but the most likely suspect was a local man named Farley Llewellyn. Llewellyn, had studied chemistry and was sort of a loner. He lived in a trailer behind his parents’ general store and even had a chemistry lab inside the trailer. Now a trailer with a chem lab in 2023 would point to a completely different thing than it did in 1944. In 1944, he was just seen as eccentric and strange. And it didn’t help that he was a homosexual – something that got him shunned by society. Now the Mattoon Police knew about Farley Llewellyn, and after the first few attacks, they started watching him. But the attacks continued while he was reported as being home. So those were either copycat attacks, mass hysteria, he was working with someone else or he had nothing to do with it at all. One theory is that Farley’s two sisters, Katherine and Florence, helped him conduct the attacks. 

Some historians have claimed the entire thing was mass hysteria. Only 4 of the 26 victims saw a doctor. There was very little physical evidence, and all of the symptoms reported also coincide with symptoms of mass hysteria and anxiety.

Sadly, this wasn’t enough for the citizens of Mattoon. His parents placed him in a lunatic asylum later that year. 

So sadly, we’ll never know whether the Mad Gasser was Farley Llewellyn, his sisters, mass hysteria or a combination of all of that. What we do know is that the story is still talked about to this day in Illinois. The Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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