"Hysteria" being a derivative of the Greek work for "womb" is common knowledge, and to make a big deal of it these days usually indicates that you've been taking Women's Studies classes at the community college or have been watching too many of those silly documentaries on Discovery Health. Still, when considering the coverage of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon the protestation is worth keeping in mind.

The first of the attacks in Mattoon, IL occurred in the early morning hours of September 1, 1944. A Mattoon man awoke feeling nauseous and awoke his wife to ask if she had left the gas on. She meant to check the pilot light on the stove, but found she could not move her legs. Elsewhere in the town, a woman heard her little daughter coughing, but could not check on her because her legs seemed to be paralyzed.

The next evening, another woman detected a "sickening sweet odor in the bedroom" and as the smell grew stronger, she, like the other women, realized she could not move her lower body. Police and neighbors responded to her calls for help, but found nothing unusual. About an hour and a half later though, her husband returned from work and saw a tall man who wore a tight fitting black cap standing outside their bedroom window. He gave chase, but the man got away. This was the first incident reported in the local newspaper, which dubbed the intruder the "Phantom Anesthetist."

In the days that followed, more attacks were reported, including some where the "Phantom" left footprints and ripped window screens. One of the most notable involved a couple who came home late and discovered a piece of white cloth on the porch. The woman picked it up, and noticing a strange smell, put it close to her face. Almost immediately, she suffered an allergic reaction which included swelling in her face and lips, and bleeding from her mouth. The police took the cloth into evidence, and noticed a tube of lipstick and a skeleton key were also left on the porch. The last attack in Mattoon took place on the thirteenth of September, when a woman and her son described a woman dressed in man's clothing who sprayed gas though a bedroom window. The next morning, footprints made by high-heeled shoes were discovered outside the house.

By 1945, the attacks were dismissed in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology as a study of mass hysteria, perpetrated by undereducated women whose men folk had gone to war. To this day, it is a popular theory, but several factors its (male) author did not take into account were, a) most of the married women's husbands were at home and in not in the service, b) while a good number of men (husbands and visiting newsmen) reported symptoms they believed were related to the gasser, he did not include them in his statistics due to their gender, c) he ignored or discounted all physical evidence, such as the damaged screens, footprints, etc., and d) he portrayed the events as unprecedented, even though the same basic scenario described above had occurred eleven years earlier to men and women in the town of Botetourt, VA.

Written by Sharon C. McGovern

From Vol. 33
Back to The Cobra's Ghost

Gasser Links:
From History & Hauntings of Illinois
Good Article from Tenth Muse
The 1945 Article Mentioned Above
A Later Article, also Referenced Above