In September of 1944 the front pages of the Daily Illini were covered with updates about the ongoing war. The newspaper readily chronicled major developments in the war as well as the deaths of young men who, just a few short years before, had once walked the university’s halls. Given the amount of bloodshed that was unfolding around the world, it is easy to miss the newspapers’ coverage of one particularly strange event, one that would come to be called the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.
Mattoon, Illinois is a small town that lies around 49 miles south of Champaign and has a population for around 18,000. In addition to being the alleged bagel capital of the country, Mattoon was also the site of a suspected case of mass hysteria. In September of 1944 people around town began reporting that they would awake in the middle of the night to smell a strangely sweet smell blanketing their homes. They would then become overcome with nausea with some reportedly becoming paralyzed for an hour after. After some of the victims claimed to see the figure of a man fleeing their yards at the time that the gas appeared, rumors began to spread around town that a mysterious man was sneaking up to homes and pumping gas in through open windows.
On September 12, 1944 the Daily Illini reported that 33 people had smelled the mysterious gas in the span of 12 days. Later that day, the Mattoon Police Chief, a man named C. E. Cole, released a shocking statement. According to the police’s investigation, there was no man sneaking about town, pumping homes full of gas. Instead, wind shifts at night had caused gas from a local war plant to pass through open windows. Additionally, police believed that at least a few of the supposed attacks were likely the result of hysteria, with people around town being constantly terrified that their homes would be hit by the Mad Gasser. As for the man that some victims reported seeing fleeing from their yards, police theorized that it was likely a bystander who had decided to investigate the homes upon hearing the chaos that was erupting inside.
Today, it is widely believed that the Mad Gasser of Mattoon was indeed a case of mass hysteria. There is plenty of precedence for this as cases of mass hysteria have been recorded throughout human history. Especially notable were dancing plagues where people throughout towns would find themselves dancing against their will. Once they had started, they found it impossible to stop. One of the most notorious occurred in France in July of 1518. Within a week of the first reported case, a woman named Mrs. Troffea, thirty people were in the streets dancing uncontrollably. Their numbers quickly ballooned to 400 after city leaders brought in musicians to play for the dancers. By the time the mania came to an end in September, several of the dancers had died as a result of the continuous dancing.
Alaspa, Bryan. Forgotten tales of Illinois. Charleston: History Press, 2010.
Bauer, Patricia. “Dancing Plague of 1518.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/event/dancing-plague-of-1518
“Mattoon Marauder Causes Broken Hip.” The Daily Illini. (Urbana, IL). September 9, 1944.
“Mattoon Prowler Claimed Fake: Plant Fumes Cause Rumors, Says Chief.” The Daily Illini. (Urbana, IL). September 13, 1944.
Maruna, Scott. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria. Jacksonville: Swamp Gas Book Co., 2003.
“Nocturnal Prowler Lists 33 Victims in Mattoon Scare.” The Daily Illini. (Urbana, IL). September 12, 1944.
“State Investigators Seek Gas-Spraying Prowler in Mattoon.” The Daily Illini. (Urbana, IL). September 8, 1944.