Sixty Years since the Mad Gasser

By Jon Downes

Mattoon, Illinois, is a town in America’s heartland for which the word “sleepy” could have been coined. Today the sun is shining and the most exciting incident I witnessed was a small and energetic tom cat charging into a flock of starlings. Probably because of his inexperience, none of the bards was hurt and the tom cat sat in a puddle of sunlight, with a disgruntled look on his face, washing himself as the starlings looked on mockingly from the safety of a nearby washing line.

However, sixty years ago it was a different matter altogether. The town was under seige from a mysterious person (or – if you believe some commentators – a mysterious entity), who attacked residents of Mattoon with an anaesthetising gas. Thus was born the legend of the `Mad Gasser of Mattoon`. The mad gasser has ben described as an alien, a bigfoot-type creature, a transvestite, and as one of the most classic incidences of a community hit by mass hysteria. Now author Scott Maruna – a chemistry teacher from mid-Illinois – has written a book which claims to unmask the perpetrator.

2100 Moultrie Avenue, Mattoon IL: This house was attacked three times in the late summer of 1944 by the 'Mad Gasser of Mattoon'
© cfz/jon downes

The day before I went to Mattoon, I spoke to Scott and was impressed with his quiet good sense. His main reason for writing the book, one gathers, was to redress the balance. For decades the people of Mattoon have been ridiculed by all and sundry for being victims of the aforementioned bout of mass hysteria, and Scott wanted to put the record straight.

The ultimate irony is that most of the people in Mattoon who are over the age of 80 knew perfectly well who the `Mad Gasser` was, but kept silent – even at the risk of appearing foolish in the eyes of the world at large – out of respect for his family. The whole affair of the `Mad Gasser` has had reverberations throughout the world.

For example, did you know that this was only one in a whole series of Mad Gassers? Or that noted musical ensemble 'Jon Downes and the Amphibians from OuterSpace' included a track called “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon” on their 1995 CD 'The Case'?

The fact that I sang and wrote the song, and that nobody actually bought the record is probably the reason that you didn’t know the answer to the second question… So who was the `Mad Gasser`. Well, you will either have to buy Scott’s book, `The Mad Gasser of Mattoon – Dispelling the Hysteria` or wait until later in the year and read the full story for yourself… Now, I feel another song coming on…………….