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Strange Unsolved 'Gas' Attacks in Virginia & Illinois - 1930's

The select few cases of Mad Gassers present excellent examples for the study of mass hysteria. In most instances, the actual attackers are imaginative once an initial attack takes place and public fear takes over. The two most infamous cases are the Botetourt Gasser and Mattoon Gasser.

Mad Gasser The Botetourt Gasser frenzy began in December 1933 and terrorized the small Virginian town for about two months. Late on December 22 eight different members of a family and a friend became sick after gas was placed into their home on three different occasions. Some of the victims thought they saw a man dash away from outside their windows. Each of the victims suffered nausea, headaches, facial swelling, and the constriction of the mouth and throat muscles. One nineteen year old suffered convulsions for weeks after the gas attack. Police investigations found high-heeled shoe prints outside the home.

After the initial attack, many more claims began to surface. At one time, a 1933 Chevrolet with a man and woman was seen repeatedly passing a house that was suspected of an attack. Local residents began prowling the streets at night with loaded weapons to protect the town. Eventually the gas scare slowly dissipated.

The Mattoon Gasser case begins on August 31, 1944 when a man awoke in the middle of the night and found he felt extremely nauseated. Upon reaching his bathroom the man vomited. After asking his wife if she had left the gas on she realized she could not move. In another section of town, another woman heard her young daughter coughing but could not get up to check on her.

On September 1 Bert Kearney smelled a "sickening sweet odor in the bedroom." As the smell grew stronger Kearney found that she could not move her lower body. An hour and a half later her husband returned home from work and saw a tall man standing at their bedroom window. Later Mr. Kearney described the man as "dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight fitting cap." Unfortunately the intruder got away when Mr. Kearney gave chase.

After these initial reports, the Mattoon Journal-Gazette heard of the tales and published a story on it. Kearney was wrongly described as the first victim and at this point researchers believe mass hysteria took over the people of Mattoon. Soon others began to report the sickening sweet odor and nauseating effects.

On September 5 a couple returning home found a white cloth by their front door. Happening to sniff it, the woman felt "an electric current" surge through her body. The woman soon found her lips and face swollen and the intense need to vomit. By the time the police arrived, though, the symptoms had settled. Investigation did find a skeleton key and an empty lipstick tube.

Another woman heard a prowler and smelled a gas that rendered her immobile. At midnight of the same night a woman heard a man trying to break into her house. Her screams quickly scared the intruder away. This encounter may have nothing to do with the gasser, but it is interesting to note due to its timeframe.

With the inactivity of the police residents began to prowl the streets in vigilante gangs to protect the town. Rumors began to surface of the origins of the gasser. Everything from lunatics to eccentric inventors had been suggested. Police felt the gasser did not exist and was simply a creation of fear.

One final attack took place that warrants attention. A witness claimed a woman dressed as a man sprayed gas into a nearby home. The next morning, footprints of high-heeled shoes were found.

Although each Mad Gasser may have been sparked by an initial attack, in both cases public hysteria appears to have taken over.

Submitted by Henry T.
 






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