Freaky Friday – American Mad Gassers

In abnormal psychology in college I heard about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon mass hysteria case. It was one where people claimed they were gassed in their homes by something that made them ill. I thought this an odd thing to become mass hysteria but creepy clowns just happened so who am I to just reasonable hysteria? Then I started looking into the Mad Gasser and found there was more than the 1944 case in Mattoon, Illinois. There were cases 11 years earlier in Boutert County, Virginia. some in Lake County, Florida 9 years before Mattoon. These weren’t mentioned in the case study I read so was there something going on? Was it all group madness? Was it a combination of both?

So far historians have found three  cases of Mad Gassers in US communities.  In Dec 1933 through Feb 194 in Botetourt County, Virginia.  May 1935 – Nov 1935 in Lake County Florida. Finally the most famous in Mattoon, Illinois Aug 1944 – Sept 1944. All were gassing attempts in private homes. I’ll do a summary of each group.  No connection has been made between the three other than the similarities of gassing people in their homes.

In Virginia there were 13 reported attacks. The first one was the Cal Huffman family in Haymakertown.  All 8 members of the family and their guest were affected around 1 am after some odd smells around 10pm. Symptoms were headaches, nausea, vomiting, face swelling and constriction of throat.  The young daughter’s breathing ways constricted so much she passed out and had to be revived.  She suffered seizures for weeks after but Dr. S. F. Driver dismissed these as anxiety attacks.  The next attack the Clarence Hall family smelled the sickly sweet odor and felt weak with nausea they left the house to get fresh air it was 9am. Police arrived quickly and found scent coming from a window where a nail had been removed making a hole to the outside and assumed this is were the gas was introduced.  The next 9 reported attacks collected the following clues: voices man and woman heard before gas introduced, suspect car held man and woman. One family wasn’t home but came back to find their doors barricaded from the outside and when they finally got in the house smelt sickly sweet. At one attack when victims exited for fresh air saw 4 people running from their house. On Feb 3 there 7 in the family and all were strongly affected with the same symptoms.  After the final attack police did find discolored snow and it was tested.  The snow contained sulfur, arsenic, and mineral oil.

Lake County Florida had 4 attacks in 1935.  They occurred in Umtilla, Mt Dora, Leesburg, and Eustis.  Not much information was released by police except a strong gas would be smelt then the victims would quickly become unconscious in their beds.  A robbery would follow. The last victim was Frank Smith of Eustis.  The robberies total netted approximately $300.

Now to the big one Mattoon, IL in 1944.  There were 20 total attacks.  The press didn’t start reporting them until after the third had occurred. So the first three are more important to me than the others as I don’t think they were part of the mass hysteria issue. The first attack was 31 Aug  on the Urban Raef family.  He awakened to a bad sweet odor and then was hit with a bout of vomiting.  His wife was going to go check the gas stove but round she was partially paralyzed.   The second attack was the same night close by a mother was sleepin with her baby and was awakened by the infant’s severe coughing attack. She smelled an odor and found that she was partially paralysed.  Both this woman’s and Mrs. Raef’s paralyzation cleared as the smell waned but tingling and numbness lingered in the affected extremities for a few weeks. The third attack was the next night at 11pm on a family the woman smelled a strong sweet odor coming in and thought at first it was her flowers’s scents wafting in. She then began to get a burning on her lips and throat as she was losing feeling in her legs calling for her sister for help.  The sister assisted and determined the scent was coming from an opened bedroom window.  She slammed it closed.  The husband returned from work as a cab driver at that moment to see a tall think man dressed in dark clothes and tight knit cap running from the bushes near his house. This was the first attack in Mattoon that was reported.  What followed was 17 more reports of attacks.  The FBI came to assist. Civilian patrol groups were organized to search the night for prowlers that might be the gasser.  One attack found a well used skeleton key, cloth rag, and empty lipstick tube at the scene a woman became ill after sniffing the rag.  However chemical analysis found no reason for this to have occurred. All the descriptions were variants of the third attack’s. Footprints, broken windows, and cut screens were found at scenes of reported incidents.  Two spinsters who lived together reported three different attacks.  The last one described the gasser as a woman dressed as a man.

So what the heck was going on? Are these related?  Were there attacks or hysteria?  There are three prominent theories about the Mad Gassers. The first is there was or were real gassing attackers.  The second is before the EPA unregulated release of toxic waste. The third was how I met the case Mass Hysteria.


Real Attacker – I have not found how Botetourt reacted to the reports or when it began being reported in the media.   It does seem that something happened to this family.  They were ill.  The second family seemed wise to go get fresh air.  What contaminated their house who knows but the final find of cynanide might explain the sweet smell.  It’s noted to be like almonds but if you can’t put your finger on it it’s kind of sweet.  So if there was a real attacker here what was the purpose.  There were no robberies.  There were no attacks on people even those who fled their home for fresh air.  The whole one here is strange.

Lake County Florida attacks make more sense.  The purpose was to knock people out and rob them.  Sadly there is little information on this as the police smartly kept information close to the vest.  How these people were gassed in their beds isn’t clear.  Did the attacker come in their home to gas them up close over the bed?  However the motivation was clear – money $300 in 1935 is about $5,400 in today’s money.

Mattoon attacker – the first three possibly but it seems once the press reported at least two spinsters were hysterical in fear.  The community reactions to the report are classic mass hysteria reactions. But the first three, the smell and the reactions were the same but the purpose of such is muddy.  Again no robbery attempt, no  attacks just the gasing. Which makes me wonder what would be the purpose of the attack?

Toxic Gas Release – Carbon tetrachloride and trimethylene would have a sweet odor and cause the symptoms of the Botetourt and Mattoon attacks.  I have not heard of a plant near the Botetourt scenes that could release such chemicals.  There as Atlas Imperial in Mattoon that could have released such things.  Yet I have problems with why effect just some homes but not others?  No workers at the site had ill effects of a release.  Now given if it were out of say a smokestack they wouldn’t until they got into the drop zone of that.  Which brings me back to how did it effect just these three homes on two nights but not others?  I dismiss this one.

Mass Hysteria – Okay this I buy for the attacks after the third in Mattoon.  Before that how would the second case in the same night have known?  Would the third family have heard of it in enough detail in less than 24 hours to have hysterical attack?  I don’t think so.  I think the mass hysteria came with the citizen groups, the reporting, and all that.

Considering Lake County, Florida didn’t report until after the fifth attack and money was taken.  I discount mass hysteria here and put it to a robber.

Botetourt again I take the first one where 8 people were struck ill as something happened.  Was it an attacker or something else went wrong in the house I don’t know but again no cause for hysteria.  The others, since I possibly don’t know how the press there handled it I’ll allow could have been mass hysteria.

Where the attacks connected?  There is direct evidence they were but the symptoms of the first case in Botetourt and the first three in Mattoon do bear striking similarities of a sickly sweet smell, nausea, tingling in limbs, burning in mouth.  Why or how events 11 years appart are connected I don’t know.  Could one have inspired the other?  Possibly if news of the Botetourt ones reached Mattoon.  I think the Lake County ones are the outlyers as the symptoms and results were different.  Maybe inspired by Botetourt thinking yeah I’m a prowler I could get in gass ’em then take my time robbing them. But who knows.

My final thoughts are this it’s a mixture of answers.  Botetourt cases could be an attacker in some given the tainted snow and others were hysteria after reading about the cases.  Lake County I tend to believe was a true uncaught gasser.  Mattoon I think something happened in the first three given the evidence it’s ambiguous if there was an attacker or something else happened in homes close together but something made the people ill, something sickly sweet smelling.  I do think after that one hit the news classic mass hysteria took hold especially with those two spinsters.  In the end we left wondering just what was the Mad Gassers of the era?  Oh when in doubt blame aliens…. it was aliens.



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