Lone Gun Experiments, Paranormal Events, Or Mass Hysteria: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
February 28, 2021
Last Updated
September 28, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
26 min read
Posted in
Conspiracy Theory Analysis, Unsolved & Unexplained

There have been periods in history where seemingly bizarre events have unfolded and then simply ceased again just as quickly. And that is very much the case with a spate of apparent “gas attacks” that presented themselves to the residents of Mattoon in Illinois during the fall of 1944.

Over a period of two weeks, the small town found itself under siege from apparent random attacks involving the unleashing of a powerful and seemingly unknown gas. This would not only cause instant illness and vomiting but leave those exposed to it being at least partially paralyzed.

What’s more, and perhaps even stranger, these effects would wear off relatively quickly leaving the victim otherwise unharmed. Perhaps stranger still, there appeared to be no reason for the attacks other than to carry them out. No one was ever assaulted or harmed (permanently) and no one was relieved of their possessions, valuables, or money.

Newspaper clipping with a gas masked man superimposed over the top

The gas attacks of Mattoon remain unsolved

Was this a case of mass hysteria as the local law enforcement ultimately claimed? Or was there a mysterious culprit who was carrying out lone-gun-type experiments on unsuspecting members of the population? Might the answer even lie in conspiracy quarters, or even in the realms of the paranormal?

Many researchers have even likened the incidents to those of Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrorized Victorian England in a similar fashion, and who despite instilling fear and the odd scratch, didn’t cause any physical harm to those who witnessed him. And like Spring-Heeled Jack, the identity of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon remains unknown and shrouded in mystery. So much so that it still holds the interests of those who wish to research the unsolved and the unexplained events today over half a century later.

Newspapers covered the sightings and incidents as they happened at the time, and there have been numerous accounts written in books over the years, with one of the best and most thorough to be found in Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation’s Weirdest Wonders, Strangest Spots, and Creepiest Creatures by Loren Coleman. As we are sure you will agree, the events of the fall of 1944 in this small Illinois town are indeed some of the most mysterious and intriguing anywhere on record.

People All Over Town Waking Feeling Strangely Ill

The first recorded incident unfolded on the morning of 31st August 1944 [1] when a local man, Urban Raef, felt strangely unwell upon waking. In fact, according to newspaper reports, Raef claimed a strange odor was responsible for bringing him out of sleep, as well as the unwell feeling he had upon waking.

He was soon experiencing vomiting alongside the general nauseous unwell feeling and ultimately woke his wife for assistance. Not knowing what the problem was, she initially wondered if he might be suffering from gas poisoning from their gas oven. However, when she went to check if the appliance was working as it should she discovered that she herself was having difficulty moving – as if she was somehow paralyzed somewhat.

A depiction of gas

A depiction of gas

Although the couple would ultimately recover with no apparent long-term ill effects it was a complete mystery as to what had caused the unnerving if temporary illness. It was, though, just the first of such bizarre incidents that would unfold throughout the small Illinois town.

Later that morning, from a completely different location, a mother awoke when she heard her daughter coughing badly in the other room. However, she too discovered that she had great difficulty moving when she went to go and see to her. Once more, both the mother and the daughter would feel better a short time later but there was again no explanation as to why they had been so unwell in the first place.

There were further strange incidents that took place later that day. However, on the evening of the 1st of September, the first case that was widely reported in the media took place. And following the reporting of it, the eyes of the nation began to turn to focus on Mattoon.

The Case Of Mrs. Kearney

At around 11 pm on the evening of 1st September, Mrs. Kearney was sleeping in her bedroom. Her young daughter, Dorothy, was asleep in the same room. However, she suddenly awoke due to what she recalled as a “sickening sweet odor” that filled the room.

To begin with, she believed all she was smelling was the flowers that were outside the window and she attempted to go back to sleep. However, when the smell continued to increase in intensity, as well as the fact that she was beginning to lose feeling in her legs, she realized something strange was underway. It was at this point that panic set in, causing the young housewife to scream out for help.

Her cries were heard by her sister, Mrs. Ready, as well as several of her neighbors who rushed to her home to see what the matter was. After checking she wasn’t hurt, several of the neighbors searched outside the home for any sign of an intruder but discovered nothing out of the ordinary. The police, who arrived to investigate the incident a short later, similarly made no discoveries.

A newspaper clipping from the local area

A newspaper clipping from the local area

However, when Mrs. Kearney’s husband, Burt, who had been at work as a taxi driver, returned home, he claimed to have seen a man who was crouching near one of the house’s windows. Although he wasn’t able to apprehend him, he did obtain an accurate description – a description that would be given multiple times over the coming weeks.

He would state that the person at the window was seemingly particularly tall and “dressed in dark clothing” with a “tight-fitting cap”.

Despite the bizarre nature of the incident, which left the terrified housewife with a strange burning sensation to her mouth, lips, and throat, the police, and the Kearneys themselves, believed that someone had attempted to rob them. This was, in part they felt, due to them having a large amount of money in the house at the time.

However, the events in Mattoon would continue. And they would also become even stranger.

The Discovery Of Beulah Cordes

There were several more similar accounts from various parts of the town reported to police over the coming days. All with extremely similar details. However, it was the encounter of another local woman, Beulah Cordes on the evening of the 5th of September that aroused the interest of the public once more. Not least as it resulted in a piece of physical evidence of the apparent attacker.

On the night in question, at around 10 pm, Beulah arrived at her home with her husband, Carl. That evening, they entered the property through the back door, and after spending several minutes moving about their home, Beulah went to the front door to unlock it. As she did so, however, she noticed what appeared to be a white cloth that had been left on the porch.

She went outside and reached down for the cloth. As soon as she touched it she could tell that it had been soaked in a liquid of some kind. She brought the cloth to her face to inhale it and see if she could tell what the liquid might have been. However, as soon as she did this, she had a “sensation similar to coming into contact with a very strong electric current”. What’s more, this feeling “raced down” her entire body, seeming to “settle” in her knees and bringing on a “feeling of paralysis”.

A newspaper clipping from the local area

A newspaper clipping from the local area

Before she realized what was happening, she had vomited violently before experiencing the same burning feeling to her lips, mouth, and throat that had been reported by Mrs. Kearney. On this occasion, she would even experience her mouth bleeding. However, much like others who had reported the strange and sudden illness that was now gripping Beulah Cordes, she appeared to make a full recovery within 90 minutes.

Upon investigating the incident, police would also discover a skeleton key that appeared to have seen significant use, as well as an empty lipstick tube. It is not known if these items were connected to the incident.

Beulah Cordes would speculate that whatever was on the soaked cloth, the perpetrator might have wished to use it to “knock out” the family’s pet dog, which she claimed would have usually been asleep on the porch. Of course, this would suggest someone had familiarized themselves with the family’s movements and habits.

Despite an attempt to find a rational explanation for the incident, it would appear that simple robbery was not the motivating factor. And the incidents would continue to be reported to the local police who by now were realizing that something strange and potentially monstrous was taking place in their otherwise sleepy, peaceful town.

In fact, one of the next incidents occurred that same evening when Mrs. Burrell claimed she heard someone outside her window before the sweet sickly odor of gas hit her nostrils. She too found she was partially paralyzed before making a full recovery.

It was clear to local law enforcement that something had to be done before the town descended into panic and possibly vigilantism.

An Increase In Collective Anxiety

Around half a dozen almost identical reports surfaced the next day alone, with one of the witnesses claiming they saw a “tall man” running from his home shortly after he noticed the strange sickly smell. In another incident, the witness claiming to have seen a blue vapor-type substance appear along with a machine-like buzzing sound from outside the house.

As the days went on, reports kept on coming into the police. And more and more of them claimed that footprints had been left outside their properties or that some physical damage had been done to windows or screens.

A map showing the locations of the attacks

A map showing the locations of the attacks

According to local newspapers – who some have, in retrospect, accused of over-sensationalizing the incidents – many of the victims claimed they felt something akin to an “electric shock which passes completely through the body”. They would soon suffer from intense nausea before eventually becoming fully or partially paralyzed for an hour to an hour and a half. Once recovered, however, they would then experience an intense burning sensation to the mouth and throat.

Police had several theories initially. The main one being that the attacks were being carried out by a lone individual with a basic knowledge of chemistry. There was even talk of pulling together a financial reward for the capture of this individual.

Although the attacks appeared to quieten down on the 7th of September, there were still multiple reports from increasingly anxious citizens of strange men appearing to loiter around their properties. And, ultimately, as that anxiety continued to bubble away, local residents began to organize themselves into makeshift patrol groups around the town, many of them armed. And what’s more, these bordering on vigilante groups were increasingly frustrated with the police and their apparent inability to capture the perpetrator.

When the attacks began again on the 8th, the local police, as well as government officials, realized the situation had the potential to really get out of hand.

“The Whole Town Is Sick With Hysteria!”

The daytime hours of 8th September in Mattoon were without incident. However, later that evening with many of the residents asleep or secure in their homes, the “Mad Gasser” struck again. That evening, at home with her mother, Romona Driskell woke up to the sounds of someone outside the window. Her mother, Violet, heard it too. By the time they had jumped out of bed and made their way to the front door, Romona had vomited and was unable to move. Violet, however, did later claim that saw a tall man running from the property.

Several hours later, in the early hours of the 9th September, multiple other attacks would unfold. At shortly before 2 am, for example, several residents who were asleep in the same house awoke to find gas entering the room through an open window.

A short time after that incident, according to local newspaper reports the following day, the principal of a local school, Miss Frances Smith, awoke to the same sickly odor and realized she was unable to move properly and felt increasingly ill. They would even claim to have seen a “thin, blue, smoke-like vapor” making its way through the room as they lay helpless on their beds. They would further report a strange “buzzing” sound which made them believe that whoever was outside and was responsible for unleashing the gas, had done so with some kind of machinery or device.

A picture of Mattoon in the 1940s

A picture of Mattoon in the 1940s

By the time the 10th of September was unfolding multiple other similar attacks were reported to the police. It was also around this time that the FBI had seemingly taken an interest in the reports coming out of Mattoon and ultimately dispatched two agents to the town, although they seemingly did so discreetly.

Whether coincidence or not, it was also at this time when the Commissioner of Public Health for the region, Thomas Wright announced that while there “is no doubt a gas maniac exists and has made a number of attacks” many of the actual reports were “nothing more than hysteria”, elaborating that this hysteric fear was “out of proportion to the menace of the relatively harmless gas” being used. Ultimately, the “whole town is sick with hysteria”.

Was Wright making these statements of his own accord in order to calm the local residents? Or might the FBI’s presence in Mattoon be connected to this apparent distancing of the police and officials from the incidents? This might be easy to dismiss if the local chief of police hadn’t then gone on to claim only two days later that there had likely been “no attacks” and that the odor being noticed by residents was likely from industrial facilities nearby.

Essentially, it appeared that the police were preparing to abandon taking or investigating any further reports of the apparent mad gas man. However, further incidents would still take place.

The Final Wave And Sudden Stop To The Attacks

Before we examine some of the possible explanations, it is worth our time looking at some of the last reported incidents of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon before they stopped as quickly as they began.

For example, on the evening of the 10th of September, while she was in her kitchen, Mrs. Fitzpatrick suddenly noticed a strange gas coming in through the window. She almost immediately felt ill and ultimately fell to the ground unable to move. Her husband suffered similar symptoms when he came to her assistance. There were several other similar reports of gas attacks that evening.

Then, after a respite of two days, the attacks appeared to begin again.

The last reported incident took place on 13th September, after the chief of police had claimed that, in his opinion, no attacks had actually taken place, when local resident, Bertha Burch noticed gas entering her bedroom. However, on this occasion, the witness claimed they managed to get a relatively clear look at the attacker and claimed to have seen a “woman dressed in man’s clothing”.

A depiction of the Mad Gasser

A depiction of the Mad Gasser

Furthermore, upon examining the outside of the property the following day, she and her son discovered evidence of high-heeled, stiletto-styled imprints under the bedroom window where they claimed the gas had entered the property.

This is perhaps a particularly interesting detail in that almost all assumptions to this point had been that the assailant was likely a (relatively) young male. However, it is perhaps interesting to note that many of the male residents were stationed around the United States and even abroad fighting on the battlefields of the Second World War in Europe or on the islands near Japan. It perhaps, then, makes a certain amount of sense to suspect that the mad gasser might have been a woman attempting to pass herself off as a man.

Ultimately, though, the attacks suddenly ceased and the identity of whoever carried them out remained a complete mystery. There were, and still is, though, many suggestions and theories as to just what was behind the bizarre incidents of September 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois.

Who Might Have Been The Mad Gasser?

As we might imagine, there have been multiple different suggestions as to who or what was behind the apparent gas attacks of 1944.  Might it have been accurate to suggest that these events, for the most part, were nothing more than a case of mass hysteria? While some of the reports could very well have been mistaken sightings, it certainly doesn’t explain the physical evidence such as footprints and even the soaked cloth.

However, this still remains the most likely explanation, at least in the eyes of many academics and mainstream psychologists. And they could very well be correct. However, to some, the explanation can’t be that “simple”.

A picture of a person in a gas mask

The gas attacks of Mattoon remain unsolved to this day

Another explanation was that the “attacks” were, in fact, the result of chemicals from the industrial areas of the town, including toxic waste. In fact, some of the potential chemicals that could have escaped such facilities would have had a “sweet” odor to them.

However, these assertions were dismissed by the companies involved. Not only had they operated in the area for some time with no such incidents, but the chemicals that did escape their facilities were not in large enough amounts to induce such reactions in people. And the safety certification of the plant awarded by the State Department of Health essentially backed up this response.

Besides, the attacks appeared much more concentrated and targeted as opposed to a “toxic cloud” that would pass over, and through, each and every house in the area.

There are, though, other suggestions for us to examine.

The Experiments Of A Lone Gun Inventor

If the incidents of the fall of 1944 in Mattoon were not a case of mass hysteria, then might the attacks have been carried out by a lone individual? One of the most popular theories is that they could have been the work of a lone inventor looking to test his product.

This was certainly the view of the local police at the time, if only temporarily. However, rather than risk capture and likely jail from such actions merely for fun, it is surely much more likely that an individual would have some kind of end goal in mind, quite possibly a financial one.

After all, the fact that the Second World War was still raging during the time of the attacks perhaps leaves open the notion that such an individual may have wished to approach the military or the government with such a weapon and have them use it for the war effort.

Newspaper clipping from the local area

Newspaper clipping from the local area

And perceived patriotism aside, the speculative individual could potentially have made a lot of money from such a successful arrangement. Perhaps the said individual might have been looking further afield to offload this potentially, and speculative, unknown technology. And maybe this explains why they disappeared so suddenly and decisively.

In fact, taking this speculation a stage further, might there have been a more direct military involvement? A clandestine involvement that they coordinated, supervised, and executed? That is where we will turn our attention next.

A Possible Military Test?

Although this is purely speculation on our part, might the mystery behind the gas attacks in Mattoon lie in some kind of covert military experiment?

We should remind ourselves, for example, that the incidents unfolded during the tail end of the war. Might the gas attacks have been an experiment with a mysterious gas that might have been used to incapacitate but not kill?

Admittedly, such a notion would surely be unlikely, and the charge that a covert military program taking part on members of one’s own population is a serious one, it is not completely beyond the realm of possibility.

A depiction of a poisonous gas

Just who or what was behind the mysterious gas attacks?

Might this also explain the discreet arrival of the FBI and the sudden change in the outlook of the local police? After all, no one was actually harmed during the attacks, with any effects, unpleasant though they were, wearing off in a matter of hours. As we have already examined, the greater danger, certainly toward the end of the incidents with local frustration building, was from the townsfolk themselves should they decide to take justice into their own hands.

Once more, there is no evidence to support this speculative notion. However, given that there remains a genuine mystery surrounding the incidents, it is perhaps speculation that we should consider from time to time. Was there an attempt to test a chemical mixture that seemingly produced instant incapacitation of the target but that would leave no lasting effects or cause any harm? If so, what were the plans for such a gas? And might this explain why the attacks stopped so suddenly with the apparent perpetrator able to just melt back into society completely undetected?

An Otherworldly Paranormal Explanation?

We mentioned in our opening that the events of September 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois are remarkably similar to those that surrounded the accounts of Spring-Heeled Jack who seemingly terrorized residents of Victorian England in the late-1830s, with tentative sightings of the mystery attacker seen right into the early twentieth century (although there is debate as to the authenticity and accuracy of some of the later sightings).

One of the ideas put forward to explain these mysterious sightings was that Spring-Heeled Jack may have been an otherworldly entity, perhaps even an extraterrestrial that had crashed and become trapped on Earth. And while there certainly isn’t anything concrete to make an extraterrestrial connection to the Mad Gasser incidents, the similarities of the two mysterious cases should at least alert us to the possibility, however unlikely.

If not an alien connection, then, could there be a more ghostly or interdimensional connection? Might the apparent gas have been some kind of consequence of such an interdimensional journey? And if this was the case, were these purposeful dimension jumps, or were they merely incidental?

When all other avenues of exploration have yielded few in any results, then we must consider other possibilities, however speculative they might be. Generally speaking, though, and based on what we know of the gasser case, it has to be said the possibility of a paranormal connection is remotely unlikely.

The short video below goes over once more these truly mysterious events.

A Truly Mysterious Mystery!

Like many such mysteries, the identity of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and their reasons for carrying out such random attacks will likely remain unsolved and unexplained forever. Even if an individual should come forward with claims that they were the person involved or that they knew more details behind the attacks, they would perhaps have a difficult time in persuading people they were being truthful.

Was this nothing more than mass hysteria? It is certainly possible that such a feeling of collective anxiety about a deranged individual spraying peoples’ homes with an unknown and quick-working gas would result in sightings that were mistaken. However, the claimed physical consequences of intense illness and partial paralysis are surely something that mass hysteria can’t explain in a fully satisfactory way.

Was there a military involvement, either directly through the coordination of the attacks or indirectly with the suppression of the reports? Or might they have been the work of one, lone individual for reasons known only to them?

Whatever might have been behind the attacks and why they happened is truly one of the most perplexing mysteries of all time. Of that, there is surely no doubt. Especially if similar events ever begin unfolding in our contemporary era.

The video below examines this extremely intriguing case a little further.

An Intriguingly Similar Wave Of Attacks A Decade Earlier In Virginia?

Whether or not there is a potential connection to a very similar surge of gas attacks in Virginia that began just over a decade earlier [2] in December 1933 and continuing into the opening weeks of 1934, the incidents can not at all be dismissed when being examined alongside each other.

Not only were they similar in terms of how they unfolded, but details such as the “sickly sweet” odor and the discovery of lady’s high-heeled shoes discovered at the scene of many of the apparent victims make the events in Virginia a decade previously impossible to ignore.

Outside of the surely remote possibility of a delayed copycat case, the two waves of almost identical wave of attacks stand out like the sorest of sore thumbs. And as such, need to be addressed. Was this a case of a top-secret government experiment? Might it have been the work of a lone person who simply packed up their bizarre experiments and then reignited them a decade later in another sleepy and quiet part of the United States?

A depiction of someone wearing a gas mask with gas over the top

Ten years before the Mattoon attacks, similar events took place in Virginia

While the motive and speculative end goal in the Virginia attacks is seemingly as unclear as it is in the Mattoon attacks, the similarities can not be ignored. And between them, being so relatively close together with regards to the timeline of history as they are, all the suggestions appear to be that there is an important secret to be unveiled in relation to the two mysterious periods in American history.

What follows is largely based on recovered newspaper reports and contemporary Internet accounts of some of the strangest and most disturbing events to have reared its head. What these events might mean, for both American and world history, is something that remains very much open to debate today, almost a century after the events took place.

A Sudden And Sustained Attack

The first recorded incident unfolded at around 10 pm on the 22nd December 1933 in the town of Haymarkertown. That evening, Cal Huffman was at home with family when his wife suddenly began to feel intensely unwell while also claiming she could smell a strange odor.

The bizarre odor began to decrease in intensity and with their children already in bed, Mrs. Huffman decided to turn in for the night in the hope of feeling better in the morning. Cal, on the other hand, decided to remain downstairs, suspecting that someone had unleashed the unpleasant substance into their home as a prank, hoping they would return so he could apprehend them.

For 30 minutes, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. That was until a wave of the strange-smelling gas seemingly overtook the room once more. Cal immediately made his way outside and straight to the home of his landlord, Mr. Henderson so that he could use his telephone to report the incidents to the police.

Officer Lemon would respond to the report, eventually arriving at the Huffmans’ home shortly before midnight. He would take further details but was unable to find anything suspicious anywhere outside their house.

A picture of a person with a gas mask on

Police were baffled as to who was behind the Virginia gas attacks

Thinking that the attacker – whoever it was – would certainly have left following the police presence at the property, the family returned to their beds. However, the evening’s strange events were not over yet.

At around 1 am, the strange and seemingly toxic gas swept through the Huffman house once more. This time, though, the effect was much worse. So much so, that one of the Huffmans’ children, Alice, began to have trouble breathing. When a doctor was called to attend to the property, Dr. Driver, who would even have to use artificial respiration in order to bring her back around. Despite this, however, she would make a full recovery within a matter of hours.

At this stage, Cal and one of his neighbors began to search around the property and even believed they may have seen “a man” fleeing from the area. Even stranger, and especially if we recall the last gas attack in Mattoon on the 13th September 1944, they discovered what appeared to be the marking of ladies high-heeled or stiletto shoes. These were discovered directly under the window it is believed the gas entered the home through. They also found another indention near the porch of the property.

That something truly strange had taken place was without doubt.

Further Attacks Over Christmas

It was two days later on Christmas Eve when another bizarre and disturbing gas attack unfolded. The Hall family (Clarence, his wife, and their two small children) had been at a church service and returned home at around 9 pm. However, they noticed a strange smell upon entering the property which within five minutes was so strong that Clarence attempted to locate the source of the odor.

He went from room to room but returned to the rest of the family a short time later, clearly unwell and struggling to maintain his balance. His wife promptly assisted her husband in leaving the house – and the apparent toxic odor – so that he could the breathe the fresh air of the outside environment. In a relatively short time, the effects of the gas had appeared to wear off. The Halls would report the incident to the police who would send officers to the property a short time later.

A doctor who also attended the property would note that there was a “sweet” taste to the still lingering aroma – something that was reported widely in the Mattoon gas attacks a decade later. When officers inspected the property, they discovered a lone nail had been removed from one of the windows leading them to suspect that this had been done by whoever was behind the attacks in order to fill the property with the mystery gas. Perhaps even more significant, a neighbor of the Halls would offer that he had witnessed a strange, dark figure, seemingly with a flashlight near the Halls’ property shortly before they arrived home.

Following the incident, while his family left the neighborhood in order to stay with friends, Clarence and several neighbors patrolled the streets looking for anyone who might have been behind the attacks. Their search, though, would yield no results.

A depiction of one of the Virginia gas attacks

The Virginia attacks began out of nowhere

Three days later, on the 27th of December, another incident occurred. This time in the Troutville region. Mr. Kelly, who was at home with his mother, noticed a car seemingly driving back and forth outside their home as if looking for somewhere. Shortly after their home was seemingly sprayed with the mystery noxious gas.

Although one of Kelly’s neighbors managed to recall and note down part of the license plate, it wasn’t enough to track down a suspect.

Just as events would play out a decade later in 1934, the media’s reports on the incident were, at times, sensationalized, which combined with a lack of police leads, would begin to lead to a collective anxiety spreading through the region. This would ultimately lead to local residents patrolling the streets on the lookout for the assailant. And they would do so armed.

Eventually, a reward for the capture of the culprit was put up and the attacks even appeared to have ceased as 1933 morphed into 1934. However, a little over a week into the new year, the would begin again.

The Attacks Resume!

On the evening of 10th January 1934 back in the Haymarketown region, Homer Hylton would become the latest victim of the mystery gas man of Virginia. On the night in question, at a little after 10 pm, the Hylton’s daughter – who was staying with them while her husband was working out of town – awoke to see to her baby. As she did so, however, she heard the sound of people talking outside of the property followed by what appeared to be someone tampering with the window.

She remained where she was, listening for any sounds that might indicate what was happening. However, before she knew what was happening, the room filled with a sickly odor which caused a “feeling of numbness” to run through her. In spite of this, she grabbed her baby and attempted to flee the apparent toxic gas. Like the other victims, despite the terror she undoubtedly felt, she and her child were ultimately unharmed. However, another incident would unfold on the same night shortly after when a local resident named Mr. Kinzie suffered a similar attack with almost identical temporary consequences.

Once more, the attacks appeared to die down again for several days but they would begin again on the evening of 16th January. This time, Mr. Duval noticed the strange substance – which had now been widely publicized through the local media – at his home later one evening.

This time, as Duval gave chase to a dark figure he noticed near his home, he witnessed the person step into a parked car which then sped away from the neighborhood. Even more intriguing, when police examined the area near the Duvals’ home, they once more discovered an imprint which was suggestive of a lady’s high-heeled stiletto shoe close to where Duval claimed the car had been parked waiting for the mystery figure.

A depiction of a dark figure

Was there a connection between the Virginia attacks and those in Mattoon

Three nights later on the 19th of January, another attack took place when Mrs. Campbell was sitting near one of her windows when she noticed a strange gas entering the property. Within moments she would begin feeling extremely unwell.

Two nights later on the 21st January, another incident occurred. On this occasion, at a little after 9 pm, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Crawford returned home following an evening spent with friends. As they were settling down for the evening, Howard suddenly noticed the presence of fumes and would become intensely ill within moments. Once more, the police were unable to find anything of consequence at the scene aside from the crank of a car. Given that getaway cars had been reported in previous incidents, this find could have been of importance.

The following day, the attacks would seemingly pick up pace.

A Rise In Anxiety

On the evening of 22nd January, over a distance of approximately two miles and within the time frame of 60 minutes, three separate houses were attacked. All three of the occupants reported almost identical symptoms. One of them, however, did manage to quickly alert the police which led to the chase of a dark, shadowy figure that disappeared into the woodlands near the respective property.

The following evening another attack unfolded. This time, Mrs. Hartsell – who, along with her family, had spent a good deal of the night and early hours of the morning with their neighbors – returned to their home at approximately 4:30 am. When they entered the property, however, they discovered that was seemingly full of a strange gas.

What was particularly strange about this apparent attack was that a pile of wood was discovered against the inside of the front door. According to some researchers, this was likely to prevent the family from escaping the fumes. And if that was the mindset of the attacker, then they must have believed that they were at home when they dispersed the fumes. Not to mention the fact that they must also have been physically inside the Hartsell home at some stage to stack the wood in the first place.

A depiction of one of the Virginia gas attacks

A depiction of one of the Virginia gas attacks

By now, the collective anxiety of the townsfolk was running into overdrive. It appeared – much like it would in Mattoon a decade later – as if no one was safe from this unknown perpetrator. The armed patrols of the local residents picked up intensity. Some families even decided to stay with friends of relatives in an attempt to shield themselves from becoming the next victim.

The local police were also now becoming more concerned if only privately and behind closed doors. It is the belief of many researchers that, to begin with, they believed that the attacks were nothing more than the (relatively) harmless pranks of bored youngsters. However, with the attacks picking up intensity and the distinct lack of clues or leads, they were now beginning to think that there really was a dangerous menace lurking around the state of Virginia.

A Near Miss!

Following a day of apparent inactivity on the gasser’s part, the next potential incident unfolded on the evening of 25th January. However, on this particular occasion, it would appear that their attempts failed. Chester Snyder was at home on the night in question when, at around 9 pm, their dog suddenly became extremely agitated and began barking.

Snyder, who had been in bed, jumped to attention, grabbed his loaded gun, and proceeded to make his way to his front door. Upon going outside, he saw a figure that appeared to be crossing a ditch that was a matter of yards from his property.

Already hyper-alert to the bizarre goings-on of recent weeks in the town, he didn’t hesitate to raise his weapon and fire. The shot, though, appeared to have been wide of the mark. Needing to return inside for more ammunition, by the time he had returned to his yard, the dark figure had vanished.

He would still make a report to the police, though. When officers arrived to take an official statement and to examine the surrounding area of the property, they would make some telling discoveries.

A depiction of one of the Virginia gas attacks

A depiction of one of the Virginia gas attacks

For example, there were distinct footprints that led from the road to the ditch where Snyder had shot at the witness. Perhaps even more alarming were the tracks that led from the ditch to the house but then stopped again, as if the person who made them had abandoned an approach to the house. What’s more, judging from the state of the ground, whoever had been there had used beneath one of the trees to maintain a vigil of sorts on the Snyder property before the family’s dog had become alert to their presence.

Of even more interest, when those who had spent the evening at the Snyder home earlier that evening were interviewed, they all recalled seeing a strange man down the road from the house as they left. Whether or not this was the person who Snyder shot at, and if they were indeed the gas attacker remains open to debate.

Following another few days respite, the attacks would continue.

Suggestions Of More Than One Attacker?

On the evening of the 28th of January, another attack commenced. And this time, it was seemingly successful. And not only that, but the incident would suggest more than one attacker. On the night in question, Ed Stanley, his wife, and three other adult friends were in the property when they suddenly noticed the presence of a strange gas-like odor.

While each of them began to feel unwell, they managed to make their way outside of the property. When they did so, they claimed to have seen four dark figures running away from the home. They were, according to the witnesses, heading toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Stanley immediately rushed back inside to retrieve his shotgun. However, by the time he had done so, none of the figures were in sight. He would, though, claim he could clearly hear them speaking in the surrounding woodland.

According to reports, two nights later on the 30th January, Ed Stanley’s home was approached again with an apparent attack planned. This time, however, alert to the possibility of such events, Stanley made his way outside as soon as he heard activity outside his home. It is unclear what he witnessed or what action was taken as newspaper reports seemingly omit these details. It must be presumed that he interrupted the attacker, or attackers.

Following two more days of no activity, what is regarded as the last – at least officially – gas attacks of Virginia took place.

The Last Attack?

On the evening of 3rd February, what is largely regarded as the last gas attack of Virginia unfolded. That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Skagges, along with five adult friends, all became decisively ill following the apparent unleashing of the sickly-sweet substance in the Skagges’ home. In fact, upon investigating the incident, Sheriff Williamson would state to the local press that “no amount of imagination in the world would make people as ill as the Skagges (and their guests) were”.

In short, unlike the police force of Mattoon, who very much appeared to distance themselves from the gas attacks in their town a decade later, Williamson was very much stating that something disturbing and out of the ordinary had taken place that evening. And had been so across the region for almost six weeks.

A picture of a blurry figure walking away

No one was ever caught for the Virginia gas attacks

What’s more, on this occasion, there appeared to be hallucinogenic effects on at least one of the people present in the Skagges’ home that evening. The Skagges’ nephew apparently began to believe he was “trapped” in the house shortly after the gas was noticed. Was this a case of panic? Or had something a lot more reactive have been introduced into the unknown mixture? Perhaps also of interest was the reaction of the family’s pet dog, who was still seemingly agitated from the exposure to the strange substance the following day,

Although reports of similar attacks would persist for another week, the interest in the events seemed to suddenly decline. Between them, the police and the local media – interestingly or not – appeared to suddenly distance themselves from the strange goings-on of the last two months.

Other Unofficial Accounts

Although the 3rd February attack on the Skagges’ home is considered the last official gas attack of the Virginia wave, other incidents occurred afterward that are very likely the work of the same person, or group. Perhaps the very last case would be that of Mr. Shafer, who claimed his property came under attack of the mystery gasser on the evening of 9th February.

After hearing suspicious activity outside his house late in the evening, Mr. Shafer went outside to investigate. Upon seeing signs of disturbed snow outside of his property, Mr. Shafer would pick up some of the snow that was outside and found that it had a sickly-sweet aroma to it – much like the aroma that had been reported in many of the previous encounters. When the substance was analyzed, several of the chemicals were common in insecticide sprays.

A picture of a mysterious person walking into the mist

Just what was behind the mystery gas attacks of Virginia

When local police investigated the report, they would discover footprints in the snow that led from the porch (where the sample was taken from) that led to a barn on the property. However, the footprints would mysteriously vanish upon reaching the barn. This is perhaps the only paranormal connection to the Virginia gas attacks. There was another discovery made by police, however. Lime in many of the other encounters, shoe prints suggestive of a woman’s high-heeled shoe were discovered leading from the yard to the road that ran alongside the property.

There were several more sporadic attacks reported, but for all intents and purposes, the gas attacks in Virginia suddenly stopped. However, there were still many unanswered questions.

Too Many Coincidences!

The details of the gas attacks in Virginia between late 1933 and early 1934 surely contain too many similar details [3] to not be potentially connected. But what might those connections be? And what might they mean?

Might the same person – or persons – that were responsible for the bizarre and unnerving gas attacks in Virginia have suddenly revived their morose experiment a decade later in the American Midwest? And if so, what were the reasons behind a decade of delays, not to mention the reason for the attacks in the first place?

It is perhaps also interesting to note that following the attacks there was a notion put forward – and to varying degrees, accepted – that the attacks were nothing more than “faulty chimney flues” and essentially, mass hysteria.

As we might imagine, though, many people – especially those who had experienced them directly or been involved in the investigations of them – found this explanation hard to swallow, if not preposterous.

There were simply too many factors that defied such explanations as mass hysteria or even faulty chimney flues. For example, the attacks all took place at approximately the same time – usually between 9 and 10 pm, but sometimes as late as midnight. Never before this time, though, and never after. And, of course, we can not dismiss the sightings of the fleeing figure – or, at least on one occasion – multiple figures from many of the respective properties.

There are surely, then, too many coincidences to not at least contemplate a connection between the cases. Perhaps one individual in 1944 read about the exploits of someone in Virginia a decade earlier and simply emulated them. It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. However, that explanation perhaps feels a little too simplistic.

In short, the attacks in Virginia in 1933 and early 1934, only make both themselves, and the attacks in Mattoon in 1944 all the more intriguing, and perplexing.

The two videos below look at these strange encounters a little further.



1 Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation’s Weirdest Wonders, Strangest Spots, and Creepiest Creatures, Loren Coleman, ISBN 9781416 539445  (page 332-353)
2 The Mad Gasser of Virginia and Mattoon, Illinois, Prairie Ghosts https://web.archive.org/web/20060827214454/http:/www.prairieghosts.com/gasser.html
3 Epidemic Hysteria in Virginia: The Case of the Phantom Gasser of 1933-1934, Robert Bartholomew and Simon Wessely, 1999 https://www.kcl.ac.uk/kcmhr/publications/assetfiles/cbrn/Bartholomew1999-hysteriavirginia.pdf

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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1 Comment

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  • William Granger says:

    Very interesting story. The Mattoon event happened almost in my back yard (figuratively speaking) but I did not learn about it until I was in college studying mass hysteria. I wrote an academic paper on this topic to mark the 75th anniversary of the event.
    The Mad Gasser was a real person. There were some copycat gassings by the perpetrator’s sister, and some hysteria was involved as well.

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